Ethiopia's Image in World Literature

19 Mar 2017

One solid month has elapsed since we lost  the beloved son of Ethiopia who fought in many battles that no one could imagine. Professor Richard Pankhurst played a leading role in the campaign to have artefacts looted from Ethiopia by the European colonial powers returned to their country of origin, a campaign which achieved its most spectacular success in 2005 when Italy returned the Axum obelisk, a 1,700-year-old, 180 ton carved granite stele that had been hauled away by the Italians in 1937 during Mussolini’s occupation of the country and subsequently re-erected in a busy Rome piazza.

This article doesn't discuss about the renowned historian. But to let readers peruse his work   written on Addis Tribune, in 1998.

The article tries to illustrate how the world embraced Ethiopia's Literature following the victory of Adwa.   

We hope the script could brief us how the world perceived the  victory and the power of literature in  influencing the then and current readers.


The Article

(From Covent Garden, London, to Ras Alula and the Battle of Dogali )



James Bruce

Despite the publication of James Bruce's classic Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in 1790, and of several other important travel works on Ethiopia in the next few decades, creative writing on the country was slow to resume in any inten— intensity Mirza Abu Taleb Khan, an Indian visitor to Britain at the turn of the century nevertheless reported seeing a play at a Dublin theatre which figured a supposed "Ethiopian" magician, called Harlequin.

The Theatre Royal in London's Covent Garden likewise put on a play: William Dimond's The Ethiop, or the Child of the Dessert, but it had in fact little or nothing to do with Ethiopia. Bruce's influence was, however, eventually felt, and a French author, Francois Joseph de la Seerie, duly wrote a short novel set in Ethiopia, with the title L'Abyssinie ou les Sources du Nil, i.e. “Abyssinia or the Sources of the Nile” (Paris, 1818)

Alexander Pushkin

In Russia meanwhile the poet Alexander Puskhin was reflecting on his partial African – and, in all probability Ethiopian ancestry - his descent from one of the country's most famous slaves, Abraha or Ibrahim Hannibal. This caused Pushkin to begin a story about his ancestor. Never completed, and containing little in fact little about Ethiopia, it was written in 1827-8, and published as Arap Petra vilikogo, (St. Petersburg), and translated onto English as "The Moor of Peter the Great".

Biblical interest in Britain had led meanwhile to another line of interest in Ethiopia. This caused a Church of England clergyman, the Reverend Thomas E. Hankinson, of Corpus Christi College, to compose a long poem, entitled Ethiopia Stretching Out Her Hands unto God (London, 1838)

In the decades which followed, the term Ethiopia was appropriated by numerous Negro, or Black American, minstrels, who produced various musical works embodying the name. This led to a flood of publications with such titles as Ethiopian Quadrilles, (New York, 1843) Ethiopian serenades, (Philadelphia, 1845, Ethiopian Accordion Instructor (Boston, 1848) Black American use of the term also led to the publication by an American, Robert M. Be Witt, of a volume of Ethiopian Plays (New York, 1873), which had, however, no relationship with the country except in their title.

Mansfield Parkyns

The publication in 1853 of an eye-witness account of Ethiopia, Life in Abyssinia by a British resident, Mansfield Parkyns, led his compatriot the prolific British writer William Dalton, author children's stories about Africa and the East, to produce one such work set in the country: The Tiger Prince or Adventures in the Wilds of Abyssinia (London, 1863). Widely read at the time it was duly translated into German as Der Tiger-furst (Leipzig and Berlin, 1881).

Emperor Tewodros

The Anglo-Indian expedition against Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia in 1867-8 generated further international awareness of the country. This led to the composition by an English musician, John Pridham, of a piano suite entitled The Abyssinian Expedition: Grand Divertimento for the Piano (London, 1868).

This coincided with the performance and publication, in France, of two plays about Tewodros: Theodore Barriére's Theodoros: Drame en 5 actes. i.e. "Theodore: "Play in 5 Acts"  (Paris, 1868) and Jules Renard's Deux prisonniers de Theodore... Pochade abyssinienne en un acte, i.e. "Two Prisoners of Theodore... Humorous Abyssinian Piece". (Paris, 1869)

Interest in the country soon afterwards led to the publication of an imaginary travelogue: Emile Jonvaux's Deux ans dans l'Afrique Orientale. i.e. "Two Years in East Africa" (Paris, 1871), which was followed by an English translation, with the somewhat expanded, and more explicit title, Two Years in East Africa: Adventures in Abyssinia and Arabia.(London, 1875) A further fictitious travel work was subsequently produced by a Polish writer, Dr. I. Zagifl, whose Podroz Historyczna po Abissynii... was published in Wilno in 1884.


Another source of interest in Ethiopia had meanwhile been unleashed in Italy, and later throughout the world, by the Italian Composer Giuseppe, Verdi's renowned opera Aida. First commissioned by the Egyptian Khedive in 1869 it was performed in Cairo in 1871, and later in many European and American towns.

The story, which was entirely fictitious, was written by the Italian author Antonio Ghislanzoni, on the basis of a French text by Camile du Lonze. It told of the invasion of Egypt by an Ethiopian king, Amonasto, whose beautiful daughter Aida was also taken prisoner. She falls in love with the Egyptian commander Radames, and “they both die a tragic death. A French version of the opera was later published in 1877.

Italian Colonialism

The coming of the Italian Colonialists to northern Ethiopia (later the Italian colony of Eritrea) in 1885, and the Ethiopian commander Ras Alula's victory over the intruders at the battle of Dogali in 1887, resulted in the appearance of a number of Italian novels, plays and songs on Ethiopian themes. The first of these publications included three anonymous works, which appeared in 1887: Una leggenda Abissina, i.e. "An. Abyssinian Legend" published in Milan; a pamphlet highlighting the departure of Italian women for Africa, to accompany their lovers, published in Florence; and "To Circe", an allegedly "barbaric song, published in Foligno. There was also an Ode, by Manfredo Vanni, to Lieutenant Alfredo Busatti, the first Italian killed at Dogali, published in Florence, also in 1887. Many chauvinistic Italian poems were also turned out around this time by the pro-colonialist poet Remigio Zena.

Ras Alula and Dogali

Opposition to colonialism was at the same time voiced by the Italian anti-imperialist poet Ulisse Barbieri, who composed an Inno abissino, or "Abyssinian" Hymn", to the stirring tune of the Italian patriotic anthem Irma di Garibaldi, or "Garibaldi Hymn". Barbieri's repeated refrain was Va fuori del'Africa, i.e. "Go out of Africa".

Italian interest in Ethiopia, in the aftermath of the battle of Dogali, soon afterwards found expression in a popular romance by Luigi Gualtieri. Entitled La figlia di Ras Alula 0 le notte abissine, i.e. "The Daughter of Ras Alula or Abyssinian Nights" (Milan, 1888), it was almost immediately turned into a play, with the same title, by one A. Castelletto, an English translation of which appears in Ethiopia Observer for 1972.

A somewhat shorter work, Gli amori dellafiglia di Ras Alula in Africa, i.e. "The Loves of the Daughter of Ras Alula in Africa" (Florence, 1888) also appeared. Other Italian publications of this time included a sensationalist pamphlet entitled I mangatori di carne uimma nell'Africa, i.e. "Eaters of Human Flesh in Africa" (Florence, 1888) and a popular song on the Battle of Saganeiti and the Death of Five Italian Officers, (Milan, 1881).

Such Italian writings for and against the war were followed in the next few years by several others. Prominent among them was a novel by Carlo Rigetti, entitled I fascino di Dogali, i.e. "The Fascination of Dogali"; (Milan, 1889); Guglielmo Merloni's five’act play Il seminarista in Africa, i.e. "The Seminarist in Africa" (Fano, 1889); and Napoleone Corazzini's Pantera nera, scene abissine, or "Black Panther, Abyssinian Scenes" (Naples, 1890).

Interest in Ethiopia at the end of the 19th cenTury also continued to be fueled by the Queen of Sheba story. This found expression in the Portuguese poet Eugenio cle Castro's Belkiss, rainloa de Salad, d'Axum et do Himyar, i.e. "Belkiss, Queen of Sheba, Axum and Hymer” (Coimbra, 1894), which was translated into Italian by Vittorio Pica in 1896. MT


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