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

Alain Rouaud

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

Journalist in Ethiopia: first stay

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The Chefneux delegation

1We have at the moment no details on how Mondon became a member of this delegation. It is for example impossible to say if he had any political mission or not. Anyway he knew Chefneux and had the run of government departments and political circles. This is undoubtedly enough. We can add that, except for some Catholic missionaries, he was, with Antoine d'Abbadie the only French Amharic-speaker alive. This French delegation was moreover the first sent to Ethiopia since the beginning of Menelik's reign: for all these reasons he had to be part of it.

2Mondon already had a reputation as an Ethiopianist and expert in Ethiopian matters. To get to this level he had kept up a correspondence with the French consuls in Massawa and might have been in touch (but how?) with the Negus Yohannes. He had practised Amharic a little with Antoine d'Abbadie. He had regularly seen the few Ethiopians passing through Paris but also explorers and traders like Chefneux or Savouré, diplomats back from Ethiopia like Soumagne, or missionaries on leave like Coulbeaux who had helped him too in his linguistic studies.

3On the basis of his research in libraries and the information he got from travellers, he had written a Manuel pratique de la langue abyssine ("Practical manual of the Abyssinian language") whose publication in the Imprimerie nationale was accelerated to come out before the departure of the delegation. The book was for the use of "explorers and traders". At the end of his preface, Mondon thanked Savouré for his precious help.

4Mondon-Vidailhet was one of those men who had liked and studied Ethiopia before actually visiting the country.

5The opportunity he had to go with the delegation was pure chance but it did not catch him off his guard: he was prepared for a journey which might never have taken place. He joined the Chefneux delegation without any precise duty (it is not impossible he had to pay for his fare) and was introduced as the special correspondent of Le Temps. This newspaper was republican and anticlerical perhaps because there were several Protestants as members of the editorial staff. He logically supported W. Waddington's policy for a "conservative republic" which would be concerned with developing public education without any clericalism. It had the reputation of being well supplied with news from abroad and independent but also of not being able to abandon a doctrinal style. Influential and "perpetually unofficial" it targeted the establishment (it was expensive) of the centre-left but its circulation was far lower than that of important popular daily papers.

6Whether he asked or was asked, Mondon had come into contact with this influential daily paper. He was to be a foreign correspondent. This was apparently the first time he had contributed to this eminent paper. But it agreed with his opinions and would offer him readers worthy of the rather unusual nature of the information he wanted to give. It may be useful to bear in mind that Adrien Hébrard the editor of Le Temps had been senator of Haute-Garonne (Saint-Gaudens is one of its subprefectures) from 1879 until 1897.

7Because the delegation was not ready, Mondon decided to get there before. He could therefore travel in peace and meanwhile practise his Amharic in the field. In Marseilles - where Arthur Rimbaud died two months earlier - on January 12th 1892, he boarded the Peï-Ho owned by the Messageries Maritimes. It took ten days to reach Obock which was, and would be for four years longer, the capital of the French colony. Mondon wrote there his first letter published in Le Temps on March 2nd 1892. He went immediately to Aden where he stayed from the 23rd until the 30th of January, and went on to Djibouti. He stayed for a long time in the new town from where he sent his second letter on February 28th, and left on March 15th. He took a route which was traditional at the time, to go up to Harar, which was an inevitable stop-over on the way to Addis Ababa, and he reached it on March 26th.

8Guest of the ras Makonnen, a cousin of the Negus and governor of this Muslim town conquered by the Ethiopians in 1887, Mondon stayed there for more than six months He deserved therefore to be called "inhabitant of Harrar" by Lagarde. This long stay was probably the opportunity for him to study the Harari language he continued to study later. The delegation led by Chefneux joined him finally on October the 16th, and on the 28th they all went to Ankobär. They stayed six days in the former capital of Choa and then continued to Addis Ababa where they arrived on December 15th. Almost one year had passed since Mondon had boarded the Peï-Ho.

9Menelik received the delegation for the first time on December 18th and then a second time two days after at the investiture ceremony of the Legion of Honour which was the pretext for the mission. Mondon related the event as follows:

Le roi des rois, vêtu d'un magnifique manteau de velours noir brodé d'or, la tête entourée d'un large bandeau de mousseline blanche, était assis au fond d'une seconde tente parée de soie, couché sur son haut alga entouré de toute sa cour. Je suis frappé de la clarté du teint et de l'aspect européen et propre de l'entourage impérial. Le manteau de cour abyssin, en soie noire, à capuchon orné de glands, avec des parements de soie rouge, est vraiment gentil et distingué. Le métropolitain Matéos ruisselant de dorures comme une chasse de saint, était assis à la droite du trône. L'oncle du roi, le ras Darghié se tenait auprès de lui. Tous les grands dignitaires de l'empire étaient présents. La grande tente tamisait sur la foule des officiers une douce lumière dorée. M. Chefneux, en habit noir, s'avança et prononça un excellent discours, où il rappelait l'amitié plus que séculaire de la France pour l'Éthiopie, les efforts faits par empereur Ménélik pour la civilisation de son les marchés pays, d'esclaves supprimés partout où les Éthiopiens ont établi leur domination, les ingénieurs, les marchands, les ouvriers bien accueillis et protégés. Il ajoutait que c'était en témoignage d'éclatante sympathie pour cette oeuvre si noble, qui ne pouvait laisser la France indifférente, qu'il était chargé de remettre au monarque éthiopien la plus haute distinction qui existât dans notre pays […]
M. Chefneux et moi avons ensuite remis à Sa Majesté éthiopienne le grand cordon de la Légion d'honneur avec la plaque. Nous avons même dû enlever le manteau impérial qui ne se prêtait pas à nos décorations et placer le grand cordon sur une magnifique toge blanche, où il produisait un effet splendide. Ménélik II était radieux.

Menelik's friend

10This report was to be published in Le Temps only in July 1893 because Mondon caught an ophthalmia at the beginning of January and had to stop all activity. He could not even go back to France with the delegation on February 19th 1893. Because it was proved he really did have a problem with his eyes we may not suppose he was asked to or had himself decided to stay behind to carry out some instructions.

11Mondon was immobilized in Addis Ababa at an exceptional time, as the Italian-Ethiopian quarrel had reached its height. This was actually the moment when Menelik denounced the Ucciale treaty in letters addressed to the King of Italy and to the main European heads of state.

12By March 10th, Mondon had recovered. But he did not leave anyway because there was no rush. He re-established relations with the Negus (on his initiative or on Menelik's) and was from that time received regularly at the gebbi. The sovereign curious in everything took a liking to the southern and polyglot republican who was delighted to be accepted in the prince's privacy. We know that the fluency of Mondon in Amharic had sparked it off. Menelik, curious and maybe flattered had been conquered. Mondon was already conquered.

13Conversations multiplied and the Empress Taytu sometimes took part in them. They were about very varied subjects: literature, languages known by Mondon, the organisation of different states in the world, etc. Gradually trust and a measure of familiarity grew so that he deserved to be called "Menelik's friend" by the lampooner Yaltasamma in mockery, but a title Mondon was apparently proud of. Menelik had even asked him to write essays, and one of them, about the governing of the European states, has survived.

14Ordered in May 1893 this document was delivered to the Emperor on June 9th and he seemed very satisfied with it. The short text was written in Amharic and had the following title: "Memoirs to Menelik II King of the Kings of Ethiopia". It was a succession of addresses aimed at the sovereign all starting with "Djan hoy!" ("Majesty!") in which Mondon developped some political ideas, simple and even simplistic on government. But for Ethiopia at the time such ideas were audacious reform projects.

15If you, as European states do, guarantee justice and the protection of private property, the people will be rich and happy, was the essence of what Mondon said to Menelik. They will pay therefore substantial taxes willingly and will be faithful. Abolish taxes in kind, create efficient taxation authorities (and he enclosed a draft of a tax-collection account book!), promote agriculture, introduce the potato, do not neglect coffee, increasingly establish freedom of trade and you will ensure your own prosperity and your people's. Turned physiocrat, or more simply a disciple of Sully, he quoted freely the famous maxim: እርሻና ንግድ የፈረንሳይ ሁለት ጡቶች ናቸው ("agriculture and trade are the lifeblood of France").

16Menelik was offered as examples to follow, Henri IV whose kindness ensured that his descendants reigned for 200 years, Louis XVI who had popularized the potato by wearing a flower of this tuber pinned onto his clothes, and also the Emperor of China who ploughed a furrow in person every year to show his people how important agriculture should be in the economy of a nation. But Menelik had already used this procedure in June 1889 to encourage farmers to plough pending the reconstitution of the livestock decimated by the famine.

17It was strange to see the free-thinking republican turned paternalistic monarchist. He got caught up in the game of the sycophant-mentor. It is understandable he had taken Henri IV as a model: the founder of the Bourbon dynasty had always been treated indulgently by official republican history. The recourse to Louis XVI is stranger. With regard to this transformation, Yaltasamma find fault with Mondon on one point, the use of titles he maybe misused at court as well as in his memoirs:

En Abyssinie, les anciens commerçants européens, en parlant de Ménilek, disent le roi, comme dans les premiers temps [lorsqu'il n'était que roi du Choa]; M. Ilg, tenu de mieux se conformer a la nouvelle situation, et aussi plus cérémonieux - si bien que sa femme le traite d'Excellence - dit l'empereur ; M. Mondon seul, et dans les circonstances les plus futiles, les plus triviales, ne dit jamais - et tout le monde en rit - que Sa Majesté.

18Convinced of the idea the Emperor had about the promotion of the French-Italian friendship, Mondon derided to go back to have his eyes examined. Did he officially have the mission of winning over Menelik, which he considered finished? Or did he take the initiative himself? Out of patriotism or vanity? As far as we know, it is impossible to deride once and for all. On July 23rd 1893 he paid the Emperor a farewell visit and had with him a conversation, of which he made an analysis in Portuguese written in Greek characters. Menelik decorated him with the Star of Ethiopia and gave him presents such as manuscripts and entrusted him with some missions the precise nature of which we do not know.

19Mondon left Addis Ababa on the 25th, reached Djibouti on September 12th and disembarked in Marseilles on October 1st 1893. He had stayed in East Africa sixteen months. Apart from the regions along the road from Addis Ababa to Djibouti he travelled through twice, and some places, such as Ankobär, he had seen by making a detour, he had only visited in depth Addis Ababa, Harar and their surroundings. In each of them he had stayed seven months.

20During his absence from France, the publicist had sent to Le Temps at least 23 letters (Schneider and Vanderlinden counted only 16). They were often anonymous or signed simply "M". The merchant Vanderheym declared: "Mr Mondon is the anonymous author of the ′Letters from Abyssinia′ published in Le Temps". The newspaper published them under the title Letters from Abyssinia′ from about three to five months after they had been written. Thus ended the first journey Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet, made later designated "a journey of exploration". He was then called an "explorer" several times. During his second stay in Ethiopia, he was to be considered as a "naturalist" and "explorer".

Short journey in France

21Back in France, he shared his time between Saint-Gaudens and Paris. He probably carried out the missions given to him by Menelik. He corresponded with the Emperor to give him an account of these and to inquire about the Ethiopian political situation. He also got a printing press with Ethiopian characters, thanks to the Imprimerie nationale, this institution having been equipped with them by Antoine d'Abbadie.

22His aim was to go back to Ethiopia as soon as possible. He had probably promised Menelik to come back. Mondon had certainly rejected the idea of going back on private terms because of his lack of financial resources but also to be in a position to reinforce his relations with the Emperor or with the Great Powers of the Empire and then to collect the fruit of his first journey. He needed a social reason, a mission, a cover we might even say. Undoubtedly he reported in high circles his stay on his own in Addis Ababa and he probably convinced without any effort his interlocutors to take political advantage of the relations he had started with Menelik in such circumstances in order to use them for the development of French-Ethiopian relations. For that he had to be sent back to Ethiopia. Political friends without any doubt played their role and this time Delcassé, Secretary of State for the Colonies from April 4th to December 2nd 1893, was probably one of them. Finally, maybe the Ethiopians themselves intervened to ask Mondon to come?

23All of this is only supposition because nothing has yet been discovered as to the process which led to giving a new mission to Mondon nor anything which could explain why this mission was secret or at least unofficial. Was it to be careful of the susceptibility of the other active Powers in Ethiopia or simply to give Mondon's initiative every chance of success. It is not necessary to specify that the real reason for Mondon's presence in Addis Ababa would never be for the European community in Ethiopia anything but an open secret.

24He would then go back as a permanent secret representative "French agent", "delegate agent" or "unofficial agent". All these vague expressions one can find in archives show very well that he had no precise status. The role he had been given seemed to be to represent Paris to the Negus and to advise him in a way which would be in favour of French interests. As we have said, these interests coincided more or less with the Ethiopians'. But which administration or department had taken the opportunity to delegate Mondon with this dual mission? we are tempted to answer it was the French Foreign Office. But why not the Department of Colonies, the Navy, the secret services or even the Government itself?

25It does not matter because the formula of an unofficial representation of France was convenient for Menelik who was used to saying that "official ambassadors were the cause of unnecessary difficulties". Therefore, he would not hesitate to give Mondon some duties that an official accreditation would not have permitted. Mondon would never give any explanation about the origin, the importance and the exact content of his "attributions" so much so that Weinzinger, his disciple, would say in evoking it: "We supposed he had an unofficial mission". In a letter to Paul Boyer, administrator of the École des Langues orientales, Stanislas hinted to him he knew more about the role of his brother than he had written in his note: "I have avoided giving to my brother's stays in Abyssinia and to the role he had played then an official public nature".

26Another point is: had Mondon been paid by France for these duties? There has been until now no available information which could enable this question to be answered. But a document hints that on the contrary he had to pay out of his own pocket and that he did not have any trade activity to increase his income unlike most of the other Europeans of Menelik's entourage (but they came for it). Was he paid by the Ethiopians? Stanislas is firm on this point: “My brother did not receive any salary for these duties (as a State councillor of the Empire)". Of course he had in Ethiopia traditional advantages in kind: accommodation, etc. On the whole, the stay cost him a fortune. In a note consigning a statement of Miss Trouillet to P. Boyer, we can read: He [Mondon] has spent 25 to 30 000 fr in Abyssinia, neither for trade nor for business". Where did this money come from?

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 1997

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