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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 return to France

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1Having disembarked at Marseilles, he dawdled in Provence, visited Aix and Arles and then crossed the Languedoc to go to Toulouse via Carcassonne and finally reached Saint-Gaudens. He stayed only a few days in March in his native town before going up to Paris. He suffered so much from his eyes that he had to be hospitalized for three weeks by the friars of Saint-Jean de Dieu.

2So he was in France. But how can we not suppose that this man, as we know him, would have preferred to stay in Ethiopia? He invested in his Ethiopian studies, accumulated knowledge and documents, established friendships, held prestigious and sometimes important functions. How could he be resolved to see all things compromised, to renounce at 51 an "apotheosis" the interrupted career of a classical journalist would never give him again? The reasons for imagining that Mondon did not accept with a light heart that Lagarde had taken his place are many. For sure he even planned to defend it and to come to Paris to seek the support would allow him, not to have the same one again but to go back to Ethiopia with any function. To the journalist Brisson who asked him about his intentions, he answered that he would - of course - go back.

3But four months later, on June 16th 1898, he was nominated as "lecturer in Abyssinian" at the École des Langues orientales (Langues Ο'), with a salary of 4000 francs, and he stayed. What happened?

The lecturer in Abyssinian

4He had surely been told in high places not only that he would not get any new mission in Ethiopia but also that his presence in the country was not desirable. From this moment on nobody was to overshadow Lagarde who was the sole representative of the French Republic.

5Delcassé who was not in the Colonies any more but not yet at the Foreign Office might not have been able to help him efficiently. Which secretary acted to create job as a lecturer for Mondon? The Colonies might wish to "comfort" him because he had had to give way in Addis Ababa to one of its governors? The Foreign Office? But nothing proves that this Secretary felt he owed him a debt of gratitude.

6Maybe it was Mondon himself who found this withdrawal solution and applied for the job to the Secretary for Education, Rambaud whom he would later consider as his benefactor. The initiative came maybe from the Langues Ο' itself. Actually a request for the creation of a teaching post for Abyssinian the holder of which could be Mondon had been made to the Secretary for Education dated 2nd June 1898 by the Further Training Council of the school. But because this step came only a few days before the signature of the official nomination of Mondon, it was maybe only a scheme to give to this nomination the administrative form required.

7Whatever the path which had led Mondon to the Langues Ο', he could only have been flattered. It meant using in a good way his competences to appoint him with the task of creating an Abyssinian course. It was above all the right moment. France wanted to increase its influence in an area where its merchants were active and to train French dragomen for the newly-opened diplomatic agency in Addis Ababa or for Djibouti. The necessity of finding another job for an unofficial political agent left the doors of the University open to Amharic. Otherwise it is probable that no teaching of this kind would have been created for a long time. So this course opened the teaching of African languages at the Langues Ο' and in France. Let's say anyway that the same year a course in Mande started and that as part of the chair of Malay there had been a lecture of Malgache since 1895.

8The Italian ethiopianist C. Conti Rossini hinted that Mondon had been promoted only because of his political services and against the ethiopianist J. Perruchon. A long time high ranking official in Erythrea and amply remunerated, Conti Rossini was not well placed to reproach Mondon. Moreover the circumstances of the creation of this function were enough to invalidate his opinion. If as a patriotic Italian, Conti Rossini did not like Mondon, it should not hide a reality: Perruchon was a specialist in gueze (classical Ethiopian) and not Amharic, and so was not a serious candidate against Mondon. Conti Rossini's remark suggests however that Perruchon might have coveted the job. His aggressiveness when he reported the work of Mondon is therefore more understandable.

9During the summer between his appointment and the moment he took up his duties, Mondon, at the Foreign Office's request, welcomed and accompanied as far as Jerusalem an Ethiopian delegation on a visit in France. From Palestine he sent to Le Temps two reports. Back in November, he gave his first lecture on Amharic the following month.

The pedagogue

10Mondon had never taught before and Amharic had never been taught in France. To conceive a pedagogy for this language was not an easy task for him. Although he did not have the support of an Ethiopian tutor for the students, he received enlightened advice from his colleague Barbier de Meynard, a specialist in languages of the Near East. Because he thought particularly of his students he hurried on the publication of his Grammar of Abyssinian language.

11As for the kind of teacher he was, all the evidences square and praised his seriousness and his capacity for being understood by all the students from 18 to 50... His teaching was "very comprehensive", "both scholarly and practical" said one of them. Apart from his work at the Institute, and helped by some of his students, like J. Blanchart, to whom he had transmitted his passion for his "second native country", he was the guardian angel of all Ethiopians living in or passing through Paris. In short the journalist who so fond of Ethiopian matters "was worthy of the teaching duties with which he had been entrusted". Some of his students would show a lasting interest for Ethiopia: Blanchart, a civil servant of the Foreign Office he would have liked as his successor, Jacques Faitlovich a future ethiopianist and supporter of the Falasha, Erich Weinzinger the founder of La Correspondance d'Éthiopie and Marcel Cohen a linguist who would actually succeed him.

12In July 1900 the Foreign Office gave him the task of guiding a second Ethiopian mission led by the ras Makonnen in France and then in Jerusalem. The first project, later abandoned, planned that Mondon would join it on its way back to Ethiopia. When they came to Paris, the Ethiopians had the possibility to meet the first students trained at Langues Ο'and to establish their knowledge in Amharic. Mondon and Blanchart joined them later to go to Palestine. In October, Mondon wrote to the administrator of the school on headed notepaper from the New Grand Hotel of Jerusalem to inform him of his return at the beginning of November and to say he was satisfied with the services done by his protégé Blanchart.

13From 1902, he extended his linguistic preoccupations and therefore started to be interested in Breton, Gipsy, Galician, Basque, Assyrian, Sabean, etc. Because of this dispersion he could have neglected his Ethiopian studies, but it had not been the case. Mondon started to learn Gueze, wrote, published articles, organised some talks about Ethiopia and French-Ethiopian relations, took part in the meetings of the Asiatic Society and kept up a regular correspondence with Ethiopianists of the other countries of Europe: the Portuguese Esteves Pereira, the Italian Ignazio Guidi, the British Wallis Budge and Lady Meux. He also kept in touch with his Ethiopian friends, Menelik and Taytu and the important men of the Empire, the ras Täsämma Nadàw, Wäldä-Giyorgis Abbayé, Wälé Betul and Mäkonnen Wäldä-Mikaél.

14He also maintained relations with some French friends, the ones who were involved in "colonial action". He had on the other hand apparently no relations either with the Foreign Office or with the Colonies anymore. His student Weinzinger even says that the former showed at this time very little consideration to him.

Publicist again

15He did not give up his work for Le Temps for which he remained the specialist in Ethiopian matters. Is Mondon the author of all the chronicles this newspaper published on Ethiopia up until 1910, when Mondon died? As long as the archives of Le Temps kept their secrets, it would be impossible to affirm this.

16Several indications confirm this anyway. The column title "In Ethiopia", for example, is one of the last letters sent by Mondon from Addis Ababa to Paris. Some articles are even signed, and some others, anonymous, were clearly announced in the newspaper. Lastly, the style is the same. So what should we think of the reference "from our special correspondent" in the headline of almost all of the texts? Does it call their attribution into question or does it mean that Mondon might have made some journeys to Ethiopia between his return in 1898 and his death? It was financially impossible for him to go during his university holidays but we have no evidence to affirm he never did it.

17The most likely explanation is that Le Temps tried to preserve its reputation of seriousness. Mondon's way of using different press dispatches and personal letters from Ethiopia justified it. He mastered the art of telling stories (he wrote some novels...) enough to suggest -a white lie - that he wrote from Ethiopia. In consideration of this, the article of December 1st is enlightening: the reader can fairly think the journalist is in Addis Ababa when he gives his first lecture of Amharic a few days later. Nothing excludes anyway that the articles written in Ethiopia were sent to publication after his return to France.

18Moreover, which other editor of Le Temps could have been the author of these chronicles? No journalists whose names began with "M" wrote on Ethiopia. This subject had become private to Mondon-Vidailhet. But it was the only one he attended to for Le Temps. The conclusion seems, as his brother said, that he had effectively collaborated with Le Temps "for 20 years", from his departure in 1891 until 1910. On March 31st an article signed Mondon came out, which seemed to be the last he published. It dealt with the recent death of Menelik and with his succession. But the news was false... the Emperor would only die three years later, after Mondon.

19What about Gascony? Mondon defined himself as "a Parisian from Saint-Gaudens”. He was the kind of man who, wherever they go and whatever native countries they choose, stays attached completely to his birthplace. From Paris, he would therefore collaborate with some regional and regionalist publications. He never missed the opportunity to go to Saint-Gaudens. He of course spent his holidays there, in the family castle at Estancarbon. He received friends there, organised musical evenings during which he played the harp or the violin, and worked for hours in the family library to prepare his lectures or to finalize his articles.

The end and the succession

20His health started to deteriorate in 1910. He had heart trouble and also suffered with his stomach because, Stanislas said, of the "exotic foods". From time to time he could not give his lectures and had to be replaced by a confirmed student such as Weinzinger.

21At the end of November, it got worse. On the 28th he gave up coming to the school. His health deteriorated rapidly from that time and he died in November during the night of the 29th to the 30th in his flat in Villiers street. According to the announcement of his family, he died fortified with the rites of the Church and was buried three days later in the cemetery of Saint-Gaudens.

22Le Temps of December 1st announced Mondon-Vidailhet's death in lapidary words which evoked simply his lengthy collaboration with the newspaper and the success of the "Letters from Abyssinia". Conti Rossini paid tribute his memory as an Italian patriot, with more resentment than objectivity, as follows: "Mondon-Vidailhet, former unofficial agent of France in Abyssinia, who had been appointed for his political services to the chair of Amharic at the École des Langues orientales de Paris [...], died in November".

23Three of the students taught by Mondon: Blanchart, Budzynski and Faitlovitch who graduated respectively in 1901, 1902 and 1906, could aspire to his succession. But the first was a civil servant, the second was a business man and the third was... Polish-Russian, which did not allow them to succeed their lecturer right away. So a fourth one, Marcel Cohen would get the better of them. This student had followed Mondons lectures for only one year but he had planned to study the Semitic meridional languages, and this ambition was justified by a scientific knowledge superior to his school friends'. He had at the time a mission in Ethiopia.

24Cohen was informed by his parents of Mondons death and wrote on December 10th to the administrator of the school to apply, and it was agreed that he could take up his duties only in November 1911 when he would be back from Ethiopia. With a great sense of reality, he did not forget to give some instructions to his parents concerning "the possible sale of Mondons books" which means of course to buy them back! In another letter he seemed to fear the potential competition of Faitlovitch, but finally he would be chosen.

25La Presse Coloniale presented the nomination of Marcel Cohen in a completly different way. According to this newspaper, Cohen was the favourite of a university lobby composed in particular of Sylvain Levi, a specialist in Sanscrit, the linguist Antoine Meillet, the historian Gabriel Monod and the administrator of the school (and specialist in Russian) Paul Boyer. The latter had apparently tried to place Cohen by forcing Mondon to quit. Maybe a link exists between the unknown reasons for Boyer's behaviour and the mysterious reservations he spoke about in a rough letter? Anyway this death had arrived just at the right moment... But La Presse Coloniale went further in accusing the lobby of being ultimately responsible for his death: "Mondon-Vidailhet died of weariness because he had been for so long the object of numerous harassments imagined by some real torturers without any pity on a scholar who had turned white under the harness".

26So a linguist with university training and also an ethiopianist succeeded an autodidact who loved Ethiopia.

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 1997

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