The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 10th November 2009

Ethiopia and Lichfield: the fact and fiction of Rasselas

Given by - John and Jean Broadbent

Reviewed by - Andrew Chadwick


It is twelve years since Jean and John Broadbent first visited Ethiopia and since then they have made regular, extensive travels around the country. Their Anglo-Ethiopian Society Lecture entitled Ethiopia and Lichfield: the fact and fiction of Rasselas was based on one they gave in August 2009 as part of the Samuel Johnson Tercentenary Celebration in Lichfield, Samuel Johnson's birthplace.

Dr Samuel Johnson, famous for his Dictionary of the English Language, wrote a small novel 250 years ago to raise some much needed cash to cover expenses incurred at the time of his mother's illness. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), is the tale of the fourth son of a mighty Emperor, who, in time honoured tradition, was incarcerated in a palace in the mountains "till the order of succession should call him to the throne".

Jean's talk, illustrated with photographs taken by John, described their visit to three Royal prison locations in Ethiopia, and considered the state of knowledge of Ethiopia in Europe provided by the various sources from which Johnson obtained material for his novel. Johnson was born 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire. The son of a bookseller, he lived his life within the world of books. Although he attended Pembroke College, Oxford, lack of money forced him to leave after a year, whereupon he took work as a teacher before moving to London.

Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, after nine years of work. Described as "one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship", it had a significant impact on Modern English, bringing Johnson popularity and success, but little financial gain - he is believed to have received a total of £75 for the copyright. Out of money and needing cash to pay for his sick mother, Johnson wrote his 'little book' about Prince Rasselas in a week. Originally to be entitled The Choice of Life, it is a moral tale about the pursuit of happiness and the right to pursue it for one's self. The book is just 100 pages in length, with short chapters written in (what Jean Broadbent described as) a 'difficult' language.

Although a novel, Rasselas is based on fact. Johnson had translated A Voyage to Abyssinia by Jeronimo Lobo in 1735 and used it as the basis for what was described as a 'philosophical romance'.

The plot concerns Rasselas, the fourth son of the Abyssinian Emperor, who was confined in a private palace - atop a steep-sided mountain which rose from the centre of a lake in a hidden valley - until his time came to take over the throne. This was, by all accounts, a common practise not only to better educate the prince, free from distraction, in preparation for rule when the time came, but also to reduce the risk of a coup by preventing Princes from becoming puppets of others.

Eventually, Rasselas escapes the confines of the palace and journeys to Cairo with a plan to discover the secret of a happy life. His observation of other people eventually leads to the conclusion that there is no easy path to happiness, and he returns to Abyssinia along with his companions.

The Broadbents' illustrated talk revealed the thorough research which they lavish upon their subject, tracing Johnson's life with, for example, visits to Lichfield, where there is a statue of Johnson erected overlooking the museum and, of course, the newly restored Dr. Johnson's House in the City of London. Also shown were photographs of two gravestones inscribed with the name of Rasselas, showing the power of Johnson's ideas at the time.

Though of a travelling mind, Johnson only went as far as the Hebrides and northern France. He was a staunch opponent of slavery, revered by abolitionists, and Rasselas became a name adopted by emancipated slaves.

Continuing their pursuit of the facts, or fiction, behind the story of Rasselas, the Broadbents travelled to Ethiopia and, with their guide, visited three flat-topped 'Ambas' (the so-called mountain prisons) at Debre Damo, Amba Gishen and Weihini in the north of the country.

Debre Damo is a working monastery and seminary. It was included in the trip because of its former role as a prison mountain, in Aksumite times.

Amba Gishen is shaped like a cross, and is an old volcanic plug, a basalt formation in a valley which was originally volcanic ash. Over 400 monks and nuns occupy a monastery and four churches on the Amba, with over 2,000 people, in total, living in a poor town on top. Gishen was a prison mountain for Princes, as confirmed by one of the monks, and a subterranean cave in front of one church is said to be the hiding place of a piece of the True Cross in the 14th century, under Emperor Dawit, when Ethiopia was invaded by Islamic forces.

An illustration of the third prison mountain on the journey, Weihini, is portrayed on the cover of Thomas Pakenham's The Mountains of Rasselas (1st edition). The Broadbents were unable to climb and explore this Amba, but John's photographs gave a good impression of its impenetrable, near-vertical, sides.

Among the books on display at the talk was a copy of In Search of Sheba by Barbara Toy, published in 1961. Toy entered Ethiopia, having walked across the Sahara, where she hired an aeroplane and a pilot who landed her on top of Weihini Amba. In the book are photographs which (allegedly) show evidence of a former prison, in the form of an old wall and dilapidated guard house at the edge of the Amba, the continued existence of which the Broadbents were able to confirm.

Also on display were copies of a number of detailed historical maps of Abyssinia. These ranged from a copy of the 1290 Mappa Mundi, centred on Jerusalem, to copies of a number of later maps which were more accurate and, for the first time, showed Africa in its entirety. On one, a series of crescent flags alongside many countries indicated the spread of Islam across northern Africa, except for Ethiopia where Christianity held out. Gold mines were also indicated in and around Ethiopia, perhaps giving rise to the notion that King Solomon's Mines were located there.

A copy of Richard Pankhurst's book, Historic Images of Ethiopia, was also on display. In it is an English translation of a letter, in Latin, from King Henry IV to 'Prester John King of Abyssinia', written in 1400. The letter, giving praise and congratulations, seeks to open communication, and to form a relationship with Abyssinia, saying that the world should hear more of its Christian King. The letter introduces John, Archbishop of the East and Aethiopia, but there is no way of telling if it was ever sent, or if it reached the then Emperor, Dawit I.

There was a copy of a 1558 map, from an atlas given as a present by Queen Mary to her new husband, depicting Prester John on the throne in Ethiopia. Also, a copy of a 1540 map, from a German woodcut concentrating on the source of the Nile, records the home of Prester John, all of which give an idea of the fascination, at that time, with finding this Christian monarch and equating Abyssinia with the 'new Jerusalem'.

This was an engrossing lecture, thoroughly researched and prepared by two people who have a clear grasp of their subject and a willingness to invest time (and money) in pursuing a wider understanding of Ethiopia's history and geography. The meticulous planning of their expeditions is commendable; their desire to share their experiences, admirable; and their enthusiasm for Ethiopia, infectious.

First Published in News File Summer 2010

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