The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 24th March 2010

A Princess in the Family

Given by - Annie & Tony Betts

Reviewed by - Maria-José Friedlander


Annie and Tony Betts gave a fascinating talk, illustrated with slides, about the mysterious "Princess" in her family about whom Annie's grandfather had often talked. Their search for the truth about this story has taken them to many countries in Europe, the Middle East, and three times to Ethiopia.

Georg Wilhelm Heinrich Schimper was born on 2nd August 1804 in Bavaria. His father was a mathematician and he had an older brother, Karl. At the age of fourteen he became an apprentice carpenter, and at seventeen he joined an Infantry Regiment where he learned to be a blacksmith - this practical training was to prove very useful later in his life when he was in Ethiopia. He became fascinated with the natural world and, in 1828, he joined his brother Karl at Munich University to study Natural Science. He did not finish his formal training but it was here that he met Eduard Ruppel who in 1830 had become the first naturalist to traverse Abyssinia. This meeting was to whet Schimper's appetite for his own future.

Schimper was commissioned by the botanical garden in Wurttemberg to collect specimens abroad. He went to a number of countries in the Mediterranean and from Greece he sent a flowering crocus which was to be named after him - Colchicum schimperi. From Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula he sent over 30,000 botanical specimens to Mannheim. He was rewarded by being made an Honorary Member of the Mannheim Society for Natural Science and they agreed to pay for his expedition to Abyssinia which he envisioned would take five years but which, in fact, lasted a lifetime - he never returned!

Schimper met and obtained permission from the local ruler Dajazmach Wube Haile Maryam of the Simiens to travel in Tigray. Wube had conquered Tigray a few years before. Schimper developed a good relationship with him and he allowed him to settle in Adwa. From 1837 to 1855 he collected thousands of hitherto unknown plants which he sent to various botanical gardens in Europe. He is considered to be the single greatest contributor to the knowledge of the Horn of Africa's flora; the catalogue at Kew has over 2,400 "schimperi" entries. He was a meticulous collector - Dorothea McEwan has recently discovered a manuscript in the British Library containing over 400 handwritten pages by Schimper about the flora at various altitudes, and his descriptions of the plants and their uses in agriculture, cooking and as medicinal remedies. He also drew detailed maps of the places he travelled through - the Betts were able to locate Amba Sea, his summer residence, on the hills outside Adwa using one of his maps!

Such a resourceful man was a godsend to Dajazmach Wube who used him in his dealings with the European powers as his translator and confidant. He eventually gave him the province of Anticho, east of Adwa, to govern and it was here that he introduced the potato and watercress crop. In 1843 Wube also provided him with a wife, Woizero Mirtsit, believed to be a close relative of Wube's. They had four children: three girls and a boy. The eldest, Desta Maria Yeshimabet, born in 1844, was Annie Betts' great grandmother.

In 1847 the German painter and architect, Eduard Zander, arrived in Adwa, and Wube gave him permission to stay. His arrival coincided with Wube's political ambition to become emperor of Abyssinia. He ordered the two Germans to build him a royal residence, and a church, deep in the Simien Mountains, in Derasge Maryam, for his intended coronation. Slides of the castle, the church, the crown and ceremonial robes were shown as well as of an illustrated Book of Revelation which is only one of two known Ethiopian copies in existence, the other being in the British Library. This is very fortuitous for the Anglo-Ethiopian Society since one of our members, the late Robin McEwan, had made a meticulous study of both of these biblical books, and his PhD thesis, Picturing Apocalypse at Gondar, which was published by his wife Dorothea after his death, is well known to the members of the Society.

The interior of the church at Derasge Maryam has wonderful, pristine paintings; amongst them is a frieze portraying Wube, his wife, and Abuna Salama on their way to his coronation in the church of Derasge Maryam - which never took place! Instead it was Emperor Tewodros who was crowned in the church in 1855 after having defeated Wube. It is interesting to speculate about the input Schimper had in the building of the church - I am convinced that the detailed floral decoration framing each wall of the maqdas was either painted by him or under his close supervision.

Another fascinating side of the Betts' lecture took us to Gaffat to reveal Schimper's involvement with the volatile Tewodros. In 1856, Samuel Gobat, the Bishop of Jerusalem, had sent a group of Protestant artisan missionaries to Abyssinia to establish a mission. The Emperor had allowed them to stay because of their practical and technical skills - which he intended to use for his new capital of Debre Tabor. In 1860 the missionaries settled in Gaffat where they established an artisan colony, and where they lived happily for a few years until Tewodros took them to Magdala and imprisoned them. It was from Magdala that they were rescued in 1868 by the British under the command of Lord Napier.

However, before this event took place, one of the German missionaries, Christian Bender, had married Schimper's eldest daughter, Yeshimabet, in Adwa. After the wedding the couple returned to Bender's house in Gaffat. In 1864 another German missionary, Gottlieb Kienzlen, married Schimper's second daughter, Tsehaytu. This time Schimper had to take the girl to Gaffat for the wedding; he also took along his other children. After the wedding he was refused permission to return to Adwa and this is how he, and his family, came to be imprisoned at Magdala and later rescued by the British.

When the British departed, the Benders and their three children, who had been born at Gaffat, left with them. The children stayed in Jerusalem while their parents went on to visit family in Germany. Schimper's twenty year-old son, Ingdashet, also left to be educated in Basel and, eventually, in Karlsruhe to study engineering; he never saw his father again. Eduard Zander and his family went as far as Massawa where Eduard died on 15th September 1868.

Schimper returned to Adwa with his wife and their two remaining daughters, Teblat and the widowed Tsehaytu and her child. He spent his days finishing a geological map of Tigray which Dorothea McEwan recently rediscovered in the British Library where it had been put away for over 140 years. A slide of the map was shown and, as those of us who have travelled extensively in this area will verify, there is no modern map that compares with the accuracy of Schimper's. At this time he also set about rebuilding his botanical collections. It seems that after his wife Mirtsit died, Schimper married again and had more children, but no details of this family exist. It is known that his life was hard - some of his letters state that he and his family had no bread to eat for weeks. However, he was to live to the ripe-old age of 74; he died in Adwa in October 1878 from cholera.

Of his family, the Benders - Christian and Yeshimabet - returned to Adwa in 1869 where Yeshimabet started a small school while Christian was employed by the British and Foreign Bible Society to teach, and sell Bibles in Tigrayan. Their three children had been left in Jerusalem to be educated at the Bishop Gobat School. In January 1875 the Bender's fourth daughter, Elisabeth, Annie's grandmother, was born. Christian died a few months later, in Alexandria, on his way back to Europe and Yeshimabet took the child to live in Jerusalem (where Yeshimabet died four years later). In 1899 Elisabeth was working as a governess in Syria where she married Jacob Kuenzler, a Swiss missionary doctor who was on his way to Urfa in Eastern Turkey - where they were to spend their lives working with Armenian widows and orphans.

And so ended a most fascinating talk on the life of that great botanist which encompassed Ethiopian as well as English histories. The Betts have written a book about the "Princess" in their family which has now been published and, if the talk is anything to go by, it will be a captivating read!

A Princess in the Family by Annie and Tony Betts, published by Domtom Publishing Ltd, Burgess Hill, UK, 2010.
344 pages; 270 x 200mm; numerous photos
Paperback ISBN: 9781906070120
Price £20.00 from www.domtom.co.uk

First Published in News File Summer 2010

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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