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Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet, pionnier de l'amitié franco-éthiopienne / Pioneer of the French-Ethiopian friendship (1847-1910)

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Alain Rouaud

Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet. Pioneer of the French-Ethiopian Friendship

The unofficial agent: second stay

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Organizer of the postal services?

1Mondon-Vidailhet embarked in Marseilles on October 12th 1894 and reached Djibouti on 23rd. After staying there a few weeks he went to Harar on January 9th 1895. There and in unclear circumstances he took part at the end of the month in the establishment of the first post office. There is some evidence on this activity linked to the postal services, but there is a lack of reliable information. Schneider and Vanderlinken even tell us he would have got the concession of the postal services between Harar and Addis Ababa and the title of "Director".

2According to the historian of the Ethiopian postal services, H. Tristan, things happened this way: from May 25th 1892, the French colonial administration of Djibouti organised the "Special French postal services" between Addis Ababa, Harar and Djibouti. In Harar, the Superior of the French mission of the Capuchins, His Lordship Taurin Cahagne accepted to attend to the post office and, in Addis Ababa, this was Mondon's role (therefore before his journey to France?). In 1898, he might have received an assistant, Mr Bucherie. In fact, he was more a substitute, since Mondon left Addis Ababa for good in December 1897 (see below).

3On February 27th he arrived in Addis Ababa where he was long awaited. We have heard from Vanderheym that his caravan included Savouré and his wife and also Chefneux who had already travelled together with him during his first journey.

The first printing press in Choa

4One of the most important things he brought from Europe was the above-mentioned printing press. Printing had been introduced in Eritrea as far back as 1863 by the Italian Lazarists in Massawa, and a few years later in 1879 in Keren by the French Lazarists but was still unknown in Choa. It was therefore an event! The Emperor was undoubtedly eager to see it running because as early as March 2nd the assembly work of the machine started. On the 28th, he christened it in person by printing an edict related to the currencies lost since then.

5This printing press is rarely pointed out by authors because neither of the books printed by it has reached us and it has not run for a long time. Having again eye trouble but irreplaceable in his role of typographer, Mondon had anyway to give up running it as he himself confessed. There is today no doubt left: the introducer of printing to Choa was indeed Mondon-Vidailhet. What happened to this printing press after his final leaving? Nobody knows anything about it and a new printing press would be run in the Empire only in 1908 by the French Capuchins in Harar, and in 1910 there would be one in Addis Ababa again.

Mondon introducer of the eucalyptus?

6Mondon had received from the Negus, to show his gratitude according to Stanislas, a small house with an enclosure in the surroundings of the imperial gebbi. Addis Ababa was still only a newborn town and according to the Emperor the most simple way of encouraging the settlement of the Frenchman was to give him a small house and some ground. He considered it as his even after he went definitively back to France. A long time after the place would be known as የሞንዶን ቤት ("Mondons house"). Vignéras who had visited Addis Ababa during the spring of 1897 gave a photograph of this house, interesting even if it is technically mediocre. The legend is "Mr Mondon, his house and a group of servants".

7As far back as May 1895 he began to plant around the house all kinds of species and in July, on the occasion of the French Bastille Day, he officially moved in. The journalist Brisson also described the house of Mondon based on the declarations of its owner:

Cest là que M. Mondon coule des jours heureux, consacrés aux devoirs de sa charge et à des études générales qui ont trait aux moeurs, à l'archéologie, à la linguistique du pays. [...] Il y a placé des meubles de France qui réjouissent ses regards, en évoquant sous un aspect familier l'image de la patrie absente. Il a planté devant sa fenêtre, les mêmes fleurs qui garnissent son jardin de Saint-Gaudens, la rose, l'oeillet, la verveine; il a mis en terre un pied de vigne, espérant que de ce cep sortira quelque jour un cru renommé, qui portera aux extrémités du monde la gloire de l'Abyssinie. À côté de la hutte principale, s'élèvent des huttes plus petites, l'une lui sert de cabinet de travail ; les autres sont réservées au logement de ses nombreux domestiques.

8In the answer he gave to this journalistic piece of anthology, Mondon disputed particularly the description of Addis Ababa given by Brisson in other respects. He compared the capital of the King of the Kings to a "Merovingian village" made up of huts. Mondon answered back "There are more houses than huts and my home does not cut a sorry figure".

9Underlining Mondon's interest in botany, Vignéras wrote:

Les arbres fruitiers sont très rares, et l'on doit à Monsieur Mondon l'introduction de plusieurs variétés qui promettent déjà. Il a, en outre, planté le premier à Addis-Abeba quantité d'eucalyptus qui poussent avec une rapidité et une vigueur merveilleuses.

10Maybe the horticultural activity of Mondon and some words such as Vignéras' are the source of the legend which presents the French journalist as the introducer of the eucalyptus into Ethiopia. There are some anecdotes on this subject. The most extravagant shows us a Mondon-Vidailhet back from Australia (where he had never been...) arriving in Ethiopia where he turned out his pockets full, by chance, of eucalyptus seeds... Until we have a history of botanical species in Ethiopia, we can point out some elements.

11Vignéras did not say that Mondon had introduced the eucalyptus "into Ethiopia" but "into Addis Ababa". On the photograph of Mondon's house, we can notice some eucalyptus which are too big to have been planted by the Frenchman. When Mondon arrived in Harar during his first journey in March 1892, he reported the presence of eucalyptus around the town... As a result, Mondon might not have been the introducer of the eucalyptus, but, if it is proved, he might keep the credit for having helped it to spread around the country by introducing it to Choa. Anyway this tree would take very quickly, and before Mondon's death, an important place in the Ethiopian urban landscape.

The "unofficial agent"

12Since his assignment to Obock as the commandant of the French colony, Lagarde did his best to follow up Ethiopian matters and was an official relay between Ethiopia and France. He had therefore the political role which was played by the French consular agent of Massawa until the town was occuped by the Italians in 1885. The rivalry between the European powers was an obstacle to the opening of any official representations, but also the refusal of Menelik to receive them.

13So what was the role of Mondon? Yaltasamma said he "had filled (...) secretly a permanent mission to the Ethiopian government". As "representative of France", he transmitted information passing by Djibouti and tried to put forward French policy; as adviser to Menelik, he was "in charge of the external relations", a field in which he needed more information than advice. In other words, we can say he was a "contact" for the French people and he did the Emperor "services". These double functions were neither unreal nor mythical but in any case vague and even unsubstantial. The fact that they had been unofficial on the French side and that they had been carried on in the shadow of the imperial absolutism on the Ethiopian side explains why the traces left by the activity of this man are not many.

14When Lagarde had been welcomed to the court, Mondon was amongst the Ethiopian officials beside the Emperor. He received also His Grace Cyrille Macaire who came to negotiate the release of the Italian prisoners after the battle of Adwa and who took on the French delegations led by Lagarde, Clochette, Bonvalot, Marquis de Bonchamps, Prince d'Orleans, etc. He had also been implicated in the reception of the second Nerazzini delegation (March 1897) and of the English delegation of Rennell Rodd (April 1897). At the end of March 1897 or at the beginning of April, the Emperor who wanted to thank him for his behaviour during the Adwa campaign nominated him State Councillor and Secretary for Education, honorary functions he would nevertheless try - but without success - to make effective.

15On several subjects also, he wrote some reports for the Emperor. He recommended the organisation of a teaching which would not be completely religious, the creation of railways, of telegraph and telephone networks and the opening of public professional schools (as efficient as the ones of the missions) which might teach the Ethiopians the techniques necessary for the carrying out of these programmes. Besides Ilg and Chefneux who played similar roles but did business first, Mondon undoubtedly brought a touch of disinterestedness and idealism.

16His relations with the Negus were still friendly. He had with him rambling political conversations on which he wrote very short notes in one or another language he knew. Sometimes he translated for Menelik the newspaper (Le Temps?), leafed through manuscripts and showed him his work in hand or talked with him on any subject, thus deserving to be called the "close adviser" of the Emperor. Clochette, arriving in Addis Ababa, would be impressed by the expanding importance of Mondon (and also of Chefneux) in Menelik's entourage.

17He had similar relations with several important Ethiopian men and it seems he gave them a positive image of France and French people. After his return to France he would keep up with some of them an important correspondence. Weinzinger wrote in 1913 that Mondon was "one of the rare Europeans who really loved Abyssinia and who has been paid back by Abyssinians". We can imagine Mondon opened to anybody and not only to important men. Le Roux evoked for example his relations with an old bright priest: "This man who enjoyed life said one day to Mondon: - Mister Mondon! you say the Earth goes round?... And you think I care!... You want me to see it turning?... So give me some cognac! ". Despite some criticisms to Mondon (see below) Weinzinger is right to add: "The French people owe him the great welcome they have always had in Ethiopia, especially with the Emperor Menelik II".

Mondon-Vidailhet and the Italians

18During Mondon's stay in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian-Italian war broke out and would end in the Ethiopian victory in Adwa on March 1st 18%. The signed peace in Addis Ababa on October 26th was supposed to ensure the independence of Ethiopia for some decades. But despite Menelik's efforts, it durably humiliated Italy so much that it would burden the future of the two countries' relations.

19Mondon was a close witness of these events in which he played a role whose importance is very difficult to weigh. According to Stanislas, some authors and journalists of the time, he directly influenced the anti-Italian policy of Menelik. The former French consul in Massawa, François Soumagne might have said about the battle of Adwa that "the winner was Mondon because he had prepared everything". It is actually difficult to prove whether Mondon had inspired the Emperor with a spirit of resistance to the Italians' intrigues or had simply encouraged him to it. But it is an established fact that the Italians had this opinion so much that they complained of his italophobe attitude to Paris. It was nevertheless fair enough that a French agent tried to oppose the Italian plans. French-Italian relations had been very bad especially since the adhesion of Italy to the Triple Alliance (1882) beside Germany and Austria. But according to Yaltasamma, the italophoby of Mondon was not patriotism:

Ce n'est pas, d'ailleurs, que nous croyions devoir attribuer l'attitude anti-italienne de M. Mondon à une appréciation exacte ni peut-être à un souci très grand de l'intérêt de sa patrie. Très passionné, nous le répétons, il déteste les Italiens, nation qu'il a beaucoup fréquentée et dont il parle bien la langue. Il les déteste comme il déteste les musulmans, c'est-à-dire d'après son goût personnel, sans que cela ait grand rapport avec le patriotisme [...].

20It seems that Mondon had played a more concrete role on two occasions during the Italian-Ethiopian conflict. When the Emperor began operations on October 12th 1895, he stayed in Addis Ababa as an "adviser for external relations" to ras Dargé, Menelik's uncle, in charge of the government during his absence. Mondon then intervened on behalf of the Italian prisoners in writing to Menelik and he might have later taken every opportunity to obtain releases, spontaneously or at Lagarde's request. But Yaltasamma and the Italians thought that because he kept on writing articles against Italy after its defeat and "heaping sarcasms on the poor war prisoners", he in fact stirred up the Ethiopian vindication, "by exciting the irritation of the defeated to its highest point, when elementary prudence - not to mention justice and humanity - commanded to calm it down". The cool reception he gave to His Grace Cyrille Macaire who came to negotiate might prove right.

21He might have been the main person consulted by Menelik on the content of the Italian-Ethiopian peace treaty and on the convention on war prisoners. The two men might have examined in detail the articles, the day before the signature on October 12th 1895 by the military doctor C. Nerazzini, the Italian plenipotentiary whose coming to Addis Ababa Mondon had made easier by giving him a pass. Present were: the Italian general M. F. Albertone, war prisoner, Ilg, Chefneux and of course Mondon-Vidailhet and the Emperor.

22It seems that the Italians might have wished that Mondon as a citizen of a state which was European and colonialist, might have supported their undertakings and misfortunes or at least been neutral. When he knew about the criticisms of the Italian press against him, he answered back vivaciously through Le Temps:

Tandis que - Cincinnatus sans m'en douter, et Cincinnatus avant les âpres combats - je regardais avec la satisfaction d'une conscience tranquille, pousser les légumes d'Europe dans le jardin d'acclimatation dont j'ai doté la capitale éthiopienne, les journaux de la péninsule faisaient de mon humble et pacifique personne une sorte d'Oriando furioso de l'artillerie du négus, au grand dam des bataillons du roi Humbert. Ceux qui me connaissent riront bien en apprenant que nos confrères d'Italie, à grand renfortde trompettes, ont jure de terrasser le monstre, l'hercule français, complice de l'Étniopie victorieuse. Quelques uns ont poussé la chanté jusqu'à m'avertir que je serais pendu comme un simple brigand des Calabres. J'en frémis. Et si je n'étais à quelque mille kilomètres des foudres du général Baratieri, je redouterais le sort que Sa Majesté Ménélik n'aurait pu éviter, si la Providence avait été aux ordres des nouvellistes joueurs de tonnerre, qu'ils ont cru avoir mis dans leur jeu. [...]
Mais laissons ces fadaises. La situation est assez sérieuse pour que je n'en veuille même pas aux grotesques supporters qui font de la copie sur mon dos, au coin du feu comme moi, et à plus de mille kilomètres des champs ensanglantés du Tigré.
Est-ce ma faute, après tout si une folie est une folie, et si une jeune nation comme l'Italie n'en pouvait commettre de plus grande que de s'attaquer à un peuple dont l'antiquité se perd dans la nuit des temps.
Il est certes ennuyeux de se trouver en face de terribles réalités, alors qu'on a cru se trouver devant un décor de théâtre dont on agite les trucs à sa fantaisie. Et, en vouloir aux gens qui vous ont crié: "Casse-cou!" n'est ni juste, ni digne d'un peuple intelligent.
Dussé-je être cinquante fois pendu, je redirai encore ce que j'ai dit [...].

23Some Italian newspapers suggested that Mondon might have been hired and asked how much he had been paid. "He could have answered, said Stanislas by mentioning a gift, a white-metal inkpot (Dehérain says a cross] with a market value of three francs and the thanks and gratitude of the Italian plenipotentiary". Nerazzini took care of him when he got his eye disease again in November 1896. In acting so, the Italian respected the Hippocratic oath more than he thanked or forgave Mondon.

24There is one question. Why did the Italians attribute the inflection of Ethiopian policy more especially to Mondon than to Ilg or Chefneux? We have to remember that Mondon was a representative of a state, which was not the case of the other two advisers, and that he could through his collaboration with Le Temps give an extent to his arguments in favour of Ethiopia, which was what the Italians dreaded, and finally that he was close to Menelik and therefore suspected of having on him a real influence.

25Was it really the case? Yaltasamma is one of those who think that Mondon's influence on the Negus was similar to that of all his advisers except Chefneux: worthless.

Nous ne croyons pas non plus que M. Mondon ait pesé du plus petit poids sur les décisions au Négus, dont on l'a cru conseiller. Il était d'abord, et pour des raisons qui touchent à la vie privée, très mal vu de l'impératrice. Ensuite nous savons bien que le Négus, qui n'a jamais eu grande confiance en nul Européen - sauf un que nous nommerons plus loin [Chefneux] - rejeta l'un de ses conseils bien connu celui là, à savoir quand l'ingénieur italien Capucci fut convaincu d'entretenir une correspondance secrète avec son gouvernement bien que les hostilités n'eussent pas encore éclaté entre Ménilek et les Italiens, M. Mondon fut d'avis au Conseil des Européens, que l'empereur réunit pour statuer sur ce fait que le cas en Europe, était passible de la peine de mort Cependant l'empereur se contenta envers le coupable de prononcer la simple peine de l'internement Pas davantage, nous ne croyons à l'efficacité des efforts que M. Mondon est censé avoir faits pour introduire des fusils de réforme de l'armée française en Abyssinie121. [...] Mais il n'en reste pas moins à l'actif de M. Mondon sa campagne bruyante dans le journal le Temps, qui fut plus funeste à l'Italie que les armées abyssines...

26As far as Capucci was concerned, Mondon could have acted only to let the Emperor exert his magnanimity? Even if Menelik rejected his opinion on the fate of the Italian, it did not exclude that he might have followed his suggestions in other circumstances! If Yaltasamma is right to underline that Menelik did not need any advice, he is wrong not to add that the Emperor was clever enough to take advantage of everything his European advisers might say to him. These were probably the limits of the exercise of the possible influence of Mondon.

The Lagarde delegation

27Mondon's ophthalmia, improved at the end of December 1896 and he was able to remove the blindfold. At the same time a French delegation arrived in Djibouti which was to be headed by the governor of Djibouti, Léonce Lagarde and went to Harar. Its aim was to discuss with the ras Makonnen, chief of the bordering province of Hararge, the layout of the boundaries between Ethiopia and the French colony. Eventually, the delegation was to go up to Addis Ababa: the battle of Adwa had projected Ethiopia on to the international scene and because French policy had supported the independence of Ethiopia, advantage might be taken before the other countries took position.

28Here started the relations between Mondon-Vidailhet and Lagarde. Some commentators wanted to consider that Mondon had done everything to torpedo the mission because he felt his role as adviser was threatened. Others underline on the contrary the faultless honesty of Mondon towards the official representative of France and deny this animosity. Mondon did not like Lagarde who came as a commissioned civil servant and might wish to have his mission changed into a permanent representation, which would be the case a few months later.

29The way Stanislas, who can only have got his information from his brother, spoke about the Lagarde mission without ever mentioning the name of the governor of Djibouti proves it. But Mondon's lack of official status together with his patriotism demanded that he place himself at Lagarde's service. Maybe he was also aware he had not the profile of an ambassador and that he could not compete with a careerist of Lagarde's calibre. Lagarde was anxious to shine and also to promote the interests of his colony whereas Mondon was able to defend Ethiopia's own interests. Without doubt the first found the second a little "too Abyssinian"! Yaltasamma calls them rightly "the two enemy brothers of French-Abyssinian policy".

30The Foreign Office charged the governor of the Somali French Coast with guiding the delegation to Harar and with staying there long enough to negotiate the delimitation of the boundaries. If circumstances might have allowed him to go up to Addis Ababa to try to sign a treaty which might put in a concrete form French diplomatic efforts since 1891, he was first to refer it to Paris.

31Menelik, who did not like official delegations and who suspected Lagarde of being responsible for the leak of information about the Ethiopian army to the Italians, at first tried to have him welcomed only by his cousin the ras Makonnen, who would have all authority to negotiate. Behind these imperial reservations Yaltasamma and some others saw Mondon's handiwork for he might have said when he knew Lagarde was coming: "all I have done here in the last five years is lost".

32Menelik finally agreed to welcome the Lagarde delegation. Maybe it was political, but why not a result of Mondon's action? Ignoring his personal interest which might have been to prevent Menelik meeting Lagarde, he wrote to the latter to encourage him to come Addis Ababa. Lagarde, as planned, asked Paris and waited three weeks in Harar for the answer. In this long period of time, quite explainable, some authors see the result of a sinister machination which Mondon, who was jealous, weaved to keep the delegation stuck in Harar.

33The Lagarde delegation of which one member, S. Vignéras, would make himself the chronicler, reached Addis Ababa where Mondon met them with a great reception. They stayed in town from March 8th 1897 until the 28th. During this stay, Lagarde seemed to have a certain authority over Mondon (which was conferred by orders coming from Paris?). The publicist accepted this situation willingly. He supported Lagarde especially in his wish to favour the Bonvalot - de Bonchamps delegation in its move to Fachoda to the detriment of its rival, the delegation of Clochette. When Lagarde left Addis Ababa, he accepted to follow up matters for him and to fulfil some precise tasks.

34Away from Addis Ababa since April 1897, Lagarde came back in November. This time it was to stay for ten years as first "extraordinary envoy and plenipotentiary secretary of the French Republic", a position for which he had been nominated since June 15th. Mondon had no reason to stay in Ethiopia anymore but for his interest in the country and its people. But even if he had wanted to he could not have stayed: one of these two men was de trop! Did Mondon feel by himself that the situation was untenable or did Lagarde pass on the orders for his departure?

35And in addition, he had his ophthalmia again, and this was a way to withdraw honourably from a country where "he had his heart set on defending the interests of everybody without taking on his own". On December 16th 1897 he left Addis Ababa with his Ethiopian secretary and "light luggage consisting of Abyssinian books and notebooks written by him". He arrived in Marseilles at the end of February 1898. So ended his second and last stay in Ethiopia. He had spent a little less than three years in the country, had not visited any new region and had sent about thirty articles to Le Temps.

36Schneider and Vanderlinden thought that Mondon came back to France only at the end of 1898. This affirmation is based on a short story published in La Patrie which indicated on November 1st 1898 that Mondon "arrived a few days ago in Paris" and on the publication in Le Temps of December 1st of a "Letter from Abyssinia" by Mondon dated 20th October. As we will see later, in November 1898, Mondon indeed came back to France but from a journey in Palestine where he had gone with an Ethiopian delegation. As for the dating of articles in Le Temps it does not mean anything: Mondon published in this newspaper until his death in 1910. Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet came back definitively in February 1898.

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 1997

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