About early Ethiopian cartography

The first use of maps by the Ethiopian administration occurs under Menelik’s reign but it is not precisely known how and when cartographic surveys under Ethiopian supervision started.

Aleksandr Bulatovich, a Russian officer accompanying the Red-Cross detachment, arrived in Ethiopia in 1897. Invited by Menilek as a witness of his conquests, he followed the emperor during three campaigns in the South and spent most of his time surveying. Bulatovich was probably the first surveyor working for an Ethiopian ruler. Léon Darragon, a French cartographer followed after 1899 (see BNF and Gallica).

Le Roux & Menilek CP-1
Post card no credit mentioned (private collection). Menilek holding the map on his lap; Hugues Le Roux standing in front of him. At the rear (from left to right : Alfred Ilg and Léon Chefneux)

Nevertheless Ethiopian geographical knowledge of Africa already existed prior to the first surveys. The well-known circular-letter, sent by Menilek in 1891 to most European chancelleries seems to summarize what Ethiopians knew about neighboring regions (for a translation of Menilek’s circular-letter, see BROWNLIE Ian, African Boundaries…, 1979, London-Berkeley, pp. 777-779). It is often considered that his European counsellors, Alfred Ilg and Léon Chefneux, or even the Italian diplomats, could have advised the king of kings of Ethiopia in writing it. That might be possible for the idea of the circular-letter and the need of fixing broader frontiers .

At that time all regions bordering Ethiopia were known by Europeans, as well as the farthest places claimed by Menilek. John Hanning Speke discovered the ‘Nyanza’ in 1858 (Nyaza or Nyanza is a bantu word meaning large water area or lake and, of course, especially refers to Lake Victoria or Victoria Nyanza). The White Nile and his confluence with the Soba river was identified by Samuel Baker and his wife in 1864-1865. The ‘Lake Samburu’ in the letter is the Lake Naivasha that was discovered in 1883 by Gustav Adolf Fischer.

There is a linguistic evidence for a European influence in the making of the letter: the use of the name “White Nile” (ነጭ አባይ [näč’ abbay]) in the Amharic text which can only be a translation from English to Amharic.

 

Mnlk Circula-letter
The last four rows of the first page of Menilek’s circular-letter (1891) with mention of White Nile

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