The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Sir Peter Ustinov’s Ethiopian Ancestry

Author - Stephen Bell


The celebrated and widely-acclaimed Sir Peter Ustinov - actor, director, playwright, novelist, columnist, raconteur, wit, mimic, polyglot, humanitarian, and who sadly died on 28 March - laid claim to Ethiopian, as well as to French, German, Italian, Russian and Swiss blood.

Of all his varied ancestry, it is the Ethiopian element that is the least documented, and the most opaque. In his autobiography, Dear Me (1977), he writes that his father was born "to a mother whose origins have remained stubbornly mysterious to this day". According to the Ustinov family tradition his paternal grandmother, Magdalena, "the daughter of a Swiss missionary and an Ethiopian lady", was born at Magdala (hence her baptismal name) in 1868 and, of all times, during the very heat of battle between the forces of Emperor Tewodros (Theodore) and those of General Napier.

This would therefore make Ustinov one-eighth Ethiopian. The identity of the 'Swiss missionary' is not known to the family but in The Abyssinian Difficulty (1979) - the most recent and most detailed account of the 1867-68 Magdala campaign - historian Darrell Bates suggests that it was Saalmüller, one of the several European missionaries coerced by Tewodros into manufacturing cannon at his arsenal at Gaffat, near Debra Tabor, and later held captive on the mountain-top of Magdala until his release, along with some sixty other foreign prisoners, by the British in April 1868.

There are aspects of this version that are plausible, but others that are open to question. In a brief and enjoyable correspondence with Sir Peter on this matter, he was kind enough to write to me and to say: "you can certainly teach me far more than I can inform you."

Evidence in favour of the Ustinov version is in the form of a group photograph of some of the prisoners that was taken by a unit of the Royal Engineers at Magdala shortly after the battle. This shows a young, attractive and Ethiopian-looking lady holding a tiny infant in her arms who, in all likelihood, is Ustinov's newly-born grandmother. Further possible evidence comes from a contemporary source: HM Stanley, the American war correspondent covering the campaign for the New York Herald (and the same who, a few years later, was to acquire a lasting celebrity for his terse greeting to Dr Livingstone in the depths of the African interior). In his Coomassie and Magdala (1874), he writes of a female child being born at this time (although with the name of Theodora, rather than Magdalena) but to the wife of another of the captives, a Pole with the name of Moritz Hall. At the same time, however, Stanley's account of the campaign is deemed by Darrell Bates as 'usually unreliable'.

Nevertheless, it is towards the Polish Moritz Hall, rather than the Swiss Saalmüller, that we should turn to explain Ustinov's Ethiopian ancestry. A paper by Professor Avraham Holtz and Dr Toby Berger Holtz, The adventuresome life of Moritz Hall: A biographical study (presented to a conference of Orbis Aethiopicus in 1990 in honour of the art historian Stanislaw Chojnacki, published 1992), presents a convincing and indeed probably conclusive case. Hall, an adventurer born in Cracow, Galicia, now in Poland but then a protectorate jointly of Russia, Prussia and Austria, appears to have arrived in Ethiopia some time in the l850s. He may possibly have seen previous service in the Russian army, and through military experience might thereby have obtained some knowledge of casting in brass. He was thus compelled by Tewodros into manufacturing his ordnance at the Gaffat foundry. Some contemporary accounts suggest that he was put in charge of this work, and if so could therefore have been the craftsman primarily behind the creation of the impressive mortar (known locally as the bambwa) that remains on the battlefield of Magdala to this day.

In Dear Me Ustinov, citing the family tradition, declares that Tewodros took to chaining his (unnamed) great-grandfather to, presumably, the same weapon ("so that he couldn't get away and build a cannon for anyone else"); and during the battle itself, while Ustinov's grandmother was being born, "the expectant father was being shaken to pieces by his own invention on another part of the battlefield". This, a typical and exotic embroidering of the legends of all families over generations, is improbable; but we might further ask whether the birth of Magdalena could have been prematurely induced by the explosions all around!

It is clear that Ustinov is descended from Moritz Hall, rather than from Saalmüller. We can be sure that Magdalena's mother - to whom Moritz Hall was married, at Gaffat on 17 May 1863 - was Woizeru Walatta Iyasus; also known as Katerina, she was the daughter of the German artist Christoph Eduard Zander (several of whose topographical drawings of Ethiopia survive today in the possession of the British Museum) and his Oromo wife Woizeru Essete Work. This therefore would now make Ustinov one-sixteenth, rather than one-eighth, Ethiopian.

First Published in News File Summer 2004

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