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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

The man and his works

Texte intégral

The man

1Statements on Mondon's personality are rare and suspect when they came from travellers influenced by the reception he gave to them in Addis Ababa or from political opponents. It seems that those who met Mondon-Vidailhet were impressed by two characteristics: physically he was short and not really handsome, and morally he was nice in the meridional way.

2Describing him when he was in the Garde nationale, Stanislas said he was "appreciated by all his bosses and colleagues who felt a little pity for this fragile and slender young man, etc.". In getting old, he had fattened out and C. Michel who met him at the end of his second stay in Ethiopia might write that he was "short, alert, plump and with a "Gascon" spirit tempered by occasional gravity". And Brisson: "his height is mediocre, his appearance peaceful [...], but he has sharp wits which sparkle in his dark eyes and his language is marked by wisdom which is never solemn, because it is moderated by the great meridional temperament". This journalist adds he had a simplicity and a bonhomie which made him difficult to dislike.

3On the other hand, the Italian newspaper La Tribuna describes him in 1897 as "ugly, old, suffering from gout and dirty". But for sure this too negative description was prompted by the resentment the Italians had accumulated towards him. The photograph published by Le Roux shows what is anyway true in this description. Even if only the face and the high part of the chest are visible, we can easily guess that Mondon was not tall. His round bald head with piggy eyes because of the ophthalmia is sunk into his shoulders. From his look emanates a little foxy charm. His clothes are dreary and his deportment is lax. No haughtiness at all: he did not wear his fifties very well. The photograph which is in his administrative file taken in a studio in Toulon after his return to France and reproduced at the head of this work, shows the same person but "with new life in him". Although he is wearing decorations on his chest, his moustache and his goatee are lacking in pride.

4"Simple", "cheerful", "nice"... These traits are confirmed by the visitors who had had the advantage of being welcomed or accommodated by him. The Marquis de Bonchamps, the Prince d'Orléans, Le Roux, Vignéras, etc. describe him as pleasing and cordial. His students share these opinions and expand on them. Weinzinger wrote in the preface to the posthumous edition he had made with the notes of his master that he was a "modest erudite", "ready to be of service". Mondon was "expansive", "obliging", "absolutely disinterested, [and] lived on his salary, on very modest incomes and a little on his writing" adds Commandant Ferrus for his part.

5Of is intellectual qualities the most significant were obviously intellect and this inquisitiveness of mind which had pushed him to learn "both languages of France", "both languages of Spain", Italian and its dialects, Greek, English, etc. It is not easy to think that he was fluent in all of them, but it is possible he could hold his own in most of them. Without any training as a philologist (we could say linguist) or as a scientist which saves making lots of errors, he went further than this step of practical knowledge only for some of them. He said himself he was more "polyglot" than "philologist". His probity lastly was great whatever Perruchon may have suggested. He published only after having checked any details and admitted easily when he was mistaken.

6The moral descriptions which gave of Mondon a negative image are one more time from his political enemies. He had badly received three visitors coming to Addis Ababa to try to negotiate the release of the Italian prisoners of Adwa or at least to improve their fate: the catholic-coptic prelate His Grace Cyrille Macaire, delegated by the Pope, Father Oudin, and the Count of Choiseul. The last two were sent by a committee of ladies from Rome. According to Yaltasamma, Mondon had two reasons to be unpleasant to them: "anticlericalism" and "Italophobia".

7Mondon was anti-clerical without doubt, and also italophobe. He was also, as we have already stated, a republican and probably a free thinker but he was even also a freemason. These memberships can explain some animosities he felt toward one person or another, and inversely.

8In his lampoon whose very excesses are the spice, Yaltasamma says also of Mondon that he was "empty, disdainful, jealous of any newcomer and that he tyrannized his compatriots threatening to use his influence on the gebbi to have them deported". The deportation of Vanderheym by Menelik in January 1895 might give some substance to such a view but Mondon had not been involved in this event. La Tribuna improved the story in finding him presumptuous and precised that he was "hated by everybody, including his compatriots with whom he is always arguing".

9Among Mondons most obvious faults, he seemed to be effectively conceited which did not exclude a certain modesty that some people have admitted. Stanislas expresses these apparently contradictory traits by saying that "his self-confidence (...) never goes over a very severe modesty"! From this came his inclination to introduce himself as a real autodidact. He was proud for example of not being able to play the piano although he played the violin, the cello and the harp reasonably, because he had learned it with a teacher like German! Decorations and titles did not leave him indifferent and he would add to his name until his death the reference "State counsellor of the Empire of Ethiopia".

10He maybe had a not easily controllable feeling of superiority because of his knowledge of Amharic which allowed him to enter into the intimity of Ethiopian life but which also cut him off the other foreigners who did not usually like the cultural renegade. This was the case with the French people to whom he should have been particularly close as a representative of the French government. Maybe he misused this secret quality, that everyone knew anyway. Finally, according to some testimonies, if he was cordial and if he liked talking or telling stories, he was however deeply "maladjusted" and "wild". Which frustration did he show?

11Yaltasamma blames Mondon also in saying vaguely that his private life did not please the Empress. This author says too much or not enough. The testimony of Miss Trouillet, niece of the merchant, allows us to imagine what his private life was like and then detail the accusation. She actually writes: "He liked Abyssinian girls, but no love affair".

12We would fail to appreciate the character of Taytu and the Ethiopian customs in this matter to think that Mondon-Vidailhet might have risked the reprobation of the Empress because of his romantic behaviour, unless he did not do it in the accepted way. The Empress was not very prudish and it is said that when she was in her mature age she might have played some pranks. It is proved she liked marrying (she herself got married from four to seven times according to the authors before marrying the Emperor). Did Mondon shock her by declining a project of marriage she arranged for him? But she was too much of a xenophobe to think about marrying a European...

13Is it necessary to state that all the Europeans living in Ethiopia, at court, or in town, from the imperial adviser Ilg to the joiner Dubois, had love affairs with Ethiopian women, whether or not they ended in "madamism". Sometimes the Emperor encouraged them indirectly by offering them young women slaves. Why should Mondon have been an exception? What should we conclude? The Empress had a strong personality and did not like Europeans. Mondon might have been displeasing for a thousand reasons different from the one given by Yaltasamma or perhaps he was simply antipathetic to her.

14About the private life of Mondon, we know also that he never got married in France but in the documents concerning him there is a trace of a "false marriage" and of unrecognized children. We conclude by saying that the notes of Dehérain contain this sentence: "According to what Cordier said to me, he had lived it up although he was 60".

His works

15We will here deal only with the most significant work of Mondon directly in connexion with Ethiopia. It does not mean that the others are not interesting. On the contrary we are convinced that, for example, the study of his political articles would be beneficial for the knowledge of the man and his ideas, but also of the journalistic milieu during the second part of the 19th century and of the colonial sphere's ideology. But it would be out of place.

16Before evoking Mondon's contribution to Ethiopian studies, we have to refute an accusation (one more...) against him: he is said to have been ignorant of, or very bad at Amharic. Yaltasamma compared the knowledge in this language of some Europeans at Menelik's side and wrote:

[Dubois] connaissait très bien la langue abyssine, mieux même que M. Ilg, à qui les Abyssins reprochent une prononciation insuffisamment distincte, mieux surtout que M. Mondon, qui ne parle jamais avec l'empereur sans l'aide d un interprète; et ce n'est pas à lui que serait arrivé la méprise de ce dernier, qui, un jour, troublé peut-être par la conscience de l'antipathie de l'impératrice à son égard, au lieu de:«Écoutez-moi», lui adressa une expression, assez semblable en abyssin, mais mal venue auprès de la vieille impératrice, de la part d'un vieil homme qui passait pour aimer tout l'opposé des femmes mûres: "Baisez-moi".

17To appreciate Mondon's Amharic, is Le Goguyer alias Yaltasamma well placed? To pass judgment on his use of an interpreter, we should have more information. Anyway such a custom in public stems from protocol. It does not mean he did not know the language. Concerning the mispronunciation, he might have made in confusing ይሳሙኝ yesamugn ("give me a kiss" [and not "Baisez-moi" as said Yaltasamma], from the verb መሳም mäsam) and ይስሙኝ yesmugn ("listen to me", from the verb mäsmat) this is a well-known anecdote but whose supposed heroes are several and various. It is still told by the Europeans of Ethiopia to ridicule the occasional Amharic speakers who are not really modest and to try to disparage the confirmed ones to lay their knowledge open to suspicion. It is not plausible anyway that a man as attentive as Mondon to Ethiopian etiquette might have been so vulgar as to enjoin the Empress to listen to him!

18The truth is that Mondon had studied Amharic almost on his own in books. He had practised it actively on the spot belatedly and at old age. It seems normal that his knowledge and his practice of the language might not have been beyond any criticism. On the contrary he was surely the only Frenchman who had simultaneously a good knowledge both theoretical and practical of this language well known for being hard to learn.

19His first book as an Ethiopianist, the Practical Manual, had been written at, he said himself, the request of the colonists of Obock. The book had been therefore distributed in Paris and in the branches of A. Savouré's business house in "Djiboutil"[sic], in Harar and in Ankobär. It is a small book in accordance with the pattern of this kind of literature: morphology and syntax preceding a vocabulary listed by theme and followed by elements of conversation.

20Perruchon criticized the Manual, speaking ironically about the mistakes made by the author but he had anyway no reason for being nice to Mondon. The criticisms of lack of accuracy and of philological method made by the Italian scholar Guidi carry more weight. The Ethiopian writer in Amharic Afä-Wärq Gäbrä-Iyäsus (Afevork) had also criticized Mondon for having given only "a vague and wrong idea of Amharic" especially in the Manuel. But it is the opinion of a well-known italophile.

21Mondon recognized himself that his book had "no scientific pretentiousness" and that the practical misknowledge of the language might have been responsible for some mistakes. But, he said, "a Russian officer had been able to travel without any interpreter and to learn the language with only this book", which proved to him that it had achieved its aim. He recognized honestly the help he received from the trader Savouré and from Coulbeaux whose Grammatical Notions of Amharic, which seem up to now unpublished, he used.

22The Grammar of Abyssinian is also the first of this kind in French. Begun or devised by Mondon before his first journey to Ethiopia, it had been carried on during his second stay (he maybe thought to print it on the printing presses he had brought to Menelik) and ended in Paris. The publication itself is dated 1898, year of the bicentenary - by chance or deliberately - of the publication of the grammar book of Job Ludolf who was the founder of Ethiopian studies in Europe. Its appearance in libraries had been effective only in March 1899. The printing, like the Manuel's had been done by the Imprimerie nationale with the letters created by d'Abbadie.

23This grammar book developed and emphasized the strictly grammatical part which set out practically only the morphology of the language (and only six pages for the syntax!). Matured over the years, it had the advantage of the experience in the field the author had had by making spot checks with informants. Mondon even let it be understood to his readers that Menelik himself was one of them and that he sometimes rectified his mistakes. The Grammar was an interesting reflection of the Amharic of Choa as it was at the time but it did not avoid the criticisms of Perruchon who found that "it does not show a sure and practical knowledge of the language". He reproached him for some mistranslations, inaccuracies, contradictions and excessive plagiarisms of the Grammatica elementare of Guidi.

24Even if these two books are nowadays out of date we must not forget that they had been helpful for years in spite of their weaknesses and that they have left their mark on the pedagogy of Amharic.

25In the prospect of a comparative study of the Ethiopian Semitic languages which he had recognized as necessary, Mondon wrote some articles on the Harari and on the Gurage dialects. Some other notes of his on these languages had been published after he died by his student Weinzinger, but Mondon was not only interested in philology. He also had a passion for literature and history. His main contribution to these subjects had been the publication of the Amharic text of the chronicle of the Emperor Tewodros II, written by aläqa Wäldä-Maryam, and of its translation. Mondon had also written some ethnographic articles on the people of the Horn of Africa, and an important work on Ethiopian music which had been for years the only reference on the matter after that of Villoteau published in the Description of Egypt.

26The "Letters from Abyssinia" published in Le Temps cannot be considered strictly as scientific contributions, but the subjects are so various and their content so true that they are a substantial mass of information about Italian-Ethiopian relations, the life at court, the customs, the feasts, the great people, the policy of the Powers, etc. The whole shows simultaneously a warm sympathy (sometimes even blind...) for the country and its culture, a wish to share this knowledge with his readers and an unconditional support for its independence.

27In these texts, Mondon shows us that he is a man with practical experience even if he did not travel a lot within the country. His ear is always ready to take an interest in one word or in some still unknown information, and his eye to enjoy a scene from everyday life. Because more than for the court or the manuscripts of Ethiopia, he had a passion for the streets of Ethiopia, its markets, its fetes and ceremonies, the lively side of the country.

28When he died, Mondon-Vidailhet had left projects, drafts and some unfinished works. He had especially planned to write and to publish a comparative study of Celtic and Romanic languages, which he considered as his major work and for which he had at the end of his life rather neglected his researches into Ethiopian matters, but he died before. Several other miscellaneous works of which his brother Stanislas had made a list also remained unfinished.

Mondon-Vidailhet's collection

29Mondon's family had left to the Bibliothèque nationale his unpublished or unfinished works which deal with the history and languages of Ethiopia as well as the handwritten books of his collection. The whole represents today the "Fonds Mondon-Vidailhet". The Bibliothèque nationale had then 113 manuscripts out of which only 27 are in Gueze (classical Ethiopian) or various languages. The other 86 pieces, the main part, are Amharic texts. One text is also in Tigrigna This is the originality of this legacy which had doubled at the time the number of books in Amharic held in European libraries!

30Homage should be paid to Mondon-Vidailhet for having understood that the Amharic language would definitely supplant Gueze and that the vast Empire constituted by Menelik would enter into modern life by speaking this language. It implied that henceforth preferential scientific attention, or at least a more sustained one than to the classical language, would be turned to Amharic. It was for sure his sensitivity as a journalist which had led him to tackle in this way Ethiopian culture, through modernity.

31He even wrote:

Il serait à désirer que l'Éthiopie actuelle cessât de tant admirer son ancienne littérature, fort peu originale d'ailleurs, à part ce qui touche à l'histoire, et que des manuels d'instruction touchant nos sciences européennes pussent être imprimés en abyssin [amharique].

32Therefore, he called on the Ethiopians to speak this language in all walks of life. In this way he expressed not only the faith he had in its vitality but also that he put trust in the creative spirit of those who speak it.

33Less than one century after, his wishes have been fulfilled. Gueze is not a literary language anymore and even its religious use is run down by Amharic whose triumph is seriously threatened only by English. It is not sure, in any case that the new linguistic policy started since 1991 will modify this situation a lot. A sign of this new time, two years before Mondon's death (but did he know it?) Afä-Wärq Gäbrä Iyäsus gave to Ethiopia its first novel in Amharic, one of the first written in an African language.

34The books of this collection had been bought by Mondon or copied on his request. But he had also had about forty new ones written which were original creations or simply transcriptions of popular oral productions. Some of these, like for example a small Amharic treatise, show his concerns as Secretary for Education of Ethiopia. To carry on these unsubstantial ministerial duties, he had no means but he had willing and serious, if a little pretentious. He had brought the printing press to print such texts.

35Poems, religious hymns, fables, proverbs, chronicles, etc. are then part of the Ethiopian collection of the Bibliothèque nationale. Scene of them had been useful to the works of other Ethiopianists, for example to the edition of a hundred Amharic fables by Martino Mario Moreno or of the chronicles of Yohannes IV by R.P. Marius Chaîne and Lanfranco Ricci.

36As a linguist, Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet had been controversial but, with the detachment of time, he seemed to have had a junction-role. Successor to Antoine d'Abbadie, he is the precursor of Marcel Cohen and the founder of the pedagogy of Amharic in France. About his predecessor, Cohen said:

Au cours d'un séjour de cinq ans environ auprès de Ménélik, cet érudit n'a perdu aucune occasion de se renseigner sur les langues parlées et sur la science abyssine. [...]. Mais Mondon-Vidailhet était riche surtout de son expérience pratique : il a été chargé, le premier en France, et peut-être dans le monde, d'un enseignement spécial de l'amharique [...]. Cet enseignement, poursuivi avec le plus grand zèle jusqu'à sa mort en 1911 [sic], était appuyé de ses principales publications [...].

37As an agent of French influence, he had played an important role as a correspondence written in 1902 by the Secretary for the Colonies, G. Doumergue, to Th. Delcassé his counterpart of the Foreign Affairs, well shows:

Vous n'ignorez pas en effet que M. Mondon-Vidailhet a été avant et pendant la guerre Italo-abyssine l'agent occulte de notre diplomatie à la Cour du Négus et que durant cette guerre il a pu jouer, grâce à l'ascendant qu'il avait pu acquérir par une connaissance approfondie de la langue, des moeurs, de l'histoire du pays et au grand bénéfice de notre influence, le véritable rôle de Ministre des Affaires Étrangères de l'empereur Ménélik. M. Mondon-Vidailhet s'est encore employé de tout son pouvoir à faciliter la marche en avant des missions Clochette et de Bonchamps. Enfin, vous savez mieux que moi que depuis sa rentrée en France il [a] pu, sans parler du cours qu'il professe, se rendre utile à plus d'un titre; il a servi d'interprète et de conseiller lors du séjour des ambassades Éthiopiennes en France, qu'il a en outre accompagnées à Jérusalem, et son expérience a été largement mise à profit à l'occasion du passage récent du Ras Makonnen.

38As a journalist, chronicler and painter of Ethiopia of the time, he had given an exceptionally interesting testimony on the Empire of Menelik. As an unofficial agent of the French government and so as a political actor, he had played a role the extent of will be later estimated, but which is currently already judged as important for the development of French-Ethiopian relations and for the safeguard of Ethiopian independence.

39The last word goes to Yaltasamma:

Pour nous résumer, M. Mondon fut un ami de Ménilek, un ami irréprochable, et nul robuste et valeureux guerrier n'a fait pour l'indépendance abyssine autant que ce malingre petit homme, avec sa plume de journaliste de troisième ordre et ses dithyrambes de Tyrtée gascon.

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 1997

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