chapter  6
24 Pages

Missions and Missionaries

T HIRTY years after Bruce had left the country his biographer, Alexander Murray, remarked: 'No European has traced his steps or penetrated into Abyssinia. Even the

name of the present king is uncertain.' Ethiopia was in the midst of what has been called the 'Zemene mesafent', the Era of the Judges, when petty rulers fought among themselves, the Emperor's authority was constantly challenged and, as in Old Testament times, 'there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes'. 1

If the interior of the country remained largely terra incognita the Red Sea was rapidly assuming a new significance. With Napoleon casting longing eyes on the Levant and Egypt and threatening British interests in India, the military as well as the commercial importance of the area was attracting increasing attention. The cutting of the Suez Canal was still more than fifty years away but the land route between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was - as it had been in antique times-busy with trade between Europe and the East. If Britain was to retain her leading position a fresh look had to be taken at the countries bordering the sea and the French would have to be forestalled. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, European explorers were once more attracted to the interior of the continent. Bruce's careful charts of the Red Sea were coming in useful and the British and French governments, in traditional rivalry, were each considering establishing relations with the rulers of Ethiopia. The first mission after Bruce's travels was undertaken by George Annesley, Viscount Valentia, who commanded a British ship in the Red Sea engaged in a hydr~ graphic survey. He dispatched his secretary, Henry Salt, to explore the country in 1805 and, four years later, Salt was sent on an official

mission by the British Government to make contact with the King of Abyssinia. He published an account of his journeys in 1814 but his movements had been hampered by the unsettled state of the country and he failed to reach Gondar. He mentioned the Falashas in his book but added nothing significant to the existing knowledge of the subject.