The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 19th May 2011

The European Mapping of Ethiopia, 1573-1857

Given by - Prof Christopher Clapham

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons


Professor Christopher Clapham started his lecture by telling us that although he had no formal qualification as a cartographer, maps were in his blood, as his father and grandfather had been chartered surveyors, and he had been buying maps for the whole of his life since boyhood. Professor Clapham has a large personal collection of maps and drew upon these to outline the European mapping of Ethiopia.

Of the many maps shown and discussed during the evening the following highlight the progress made over four centuries.

The first map where Ethiopia can be identified was compiled by a Venetian monk, Fra Mauro, in 1460. This demonstrates that European knowledge at this time was rather limited. Although it does contain familiar place names such as Axum, Bagemder, Amhara, Wag and the volcano Zuqala, they are generally in unexpected locations. Also, the Abbay is depicted without the well-known bend. It is certainly not an accurate map of Ethiopia. Unfortunately Prof. Clapham did not have an illustration of this map (but low resolution images can be found on the internet on sites such as Wikipedia).

Next was discussion of a so-called 'Prester John Map' (as they referred to the country in this manner) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius published in 1574. Here Abyssinia is shown extending as far south as modern day Mozambique.

A map dated 1619 by Gerard Mercator (the original published in 1590) shows that by this date the extent of Abyssinia was realised to be far less than previously thought with most boundaries firmly fixed inland. Reasonably accurate placements can be seen for Aksum (named as Cassumia) and the monastery of Debre Bizen (Monaster de Visione).

1619 Mercator Map
1619 Mercator Map - Abissino Rum Sive Pretioƒi Ioannis Imperiu
Photo - © Christopher Clapham

Over the next decades several similar and derivative maps - such as that by Willem Blaeu in 1635 - were produced and these all drew heavily on Mercator.

It was not until the revolutionary map of Job Ludolf in 1683 that the European mapping of Ethiopia took significant strides forward. His was the first map produced by someone who had a real interest in, and knowledge of, the country, culture, and history rather than one produced simply by a map-maker. His informant was an Ethiopian monk named Gregorius. In this map latitude is accurately plotted for the first time, thus confining the country to a realistic and small part of Africa. Longitude initially seems to be confused but is accurate according the measuring system of the time. There is a proper identification of the Takkezze river (although totally imaginary rivers are also mapped) and the Abbay (Nile) is correctly shown with the big bend heading off towards the Sudan border. The monasteries of Bizen, Stephanos at Lake Hayk, and Debre Libanos are well placed, the latter monastery making its first appearance on a map. Amba Gishen is noted as the princely prison. A very enchanting feature is the depiction of camels with salt loads in the Danakil area.

1683 Ludolf Map
1683 Ludolf Map - Jobi Ludolfi - Habessinia Seu Abassia - Presbyteri Johannis Regio
Photo - © Christopher Clapham

Less than 10 years later in 1692 another massive advance occurred in the map of Venetian geographer Vincenzo Maria Coronelli. Again, this was heavily dependent on the preceding maps but Coronelli 'cleaned up' the visual appearance of his map losing a lot of pictorial and decorative clutter making it much easier to use.

The maps of Ludolf and Coronelli only concerned Ethiopia, but in 1707 the French cartographer Guillaume de l'Isle issued a map covering a wider area including what is modern Egypt and Sudan. de l'Isle's map refers to Falasha and exiled Jews as well as Gallas although there is some misconception about the term Luba which refers to an Oromo age-grade rather than kingship. At this point there has still been no reference to the Somali, Sidamo, or Wolaita nor to the city of Harar.

Just over forty years later in 1748 the British cartographer Emmanuel Bowen published a map, boasting it to be a new and accurate map of Ethiopia. However, it was nothing of the kind, and appears to be copied from the de l'Isle map reproducing all the previous misconceptions; it merely translated all French texts into English.

The travels of James Bruce ("to discover the source of the Nile") are well known and his map published in 1790 is believed to be the first drawn up by someone who had actually visited the country. It is most surprising to realise that Bruce apparently failed to notice that the source of the Nile was included on Ludolf's map published nearly 90 years before he commenced his travels in the 1770s.

1790 Bruce Map
1790 James Bruce Map - A Journey through Abyssinia to Gondar, its Capital, From thence to the Source of the Nile
Photo - © Christopher Clapham

Only two years after Bruce's map appeared the German publishers Weigel and Schneider issued a version heavily reliant on Bruce. Professor Clapham noted that his copy of this German map had manuscript annotation with personal observations by a contemporary German traveller. So far, investigation by colleagues at Hamburg University has not been able to identify who this traveller might have been.

Professor Clapham revealed a particular fondness for the next map - Henry Salt 1814 - as it was the first one he bought in the 1960s. There are many 'firsts' that can be attributed to this map - recognisable hills called Entoto; the appearance of Harar (a surprising omission from earlier maps considering its importance as a centre of trade routes); the identification of some Somali territories; mention of the Ogaden; and recognition that the Awash river does not reach the sea. Despite these advances there are yet again imaginary rivers running north parallel to the Awash.

1814 Salt Map
1814 Henry Salt Map - Map of Abyssinia and the Adjacent Districts, Laid down partly from Original Observations taken in the Country and partly compiled from Information collected there by Henry Salt Esq.
Photo - © Christopher Clapham

The evening's survey concluded with the map of Augustus Petermann published in London in 1856. This coincides with the accession of Tewodros to the throne and has quite a large amount of new information. It accurately shows the line of the great northsouth escarpment and the towns of Debre Tabor, Sekota, and Finfin (later Addis Ababa) are shown.

Professor Clapham noted that by this point in the mid 1800s, the mapping of Ethiopia had advanced greatly and the great nineteenth century European explorations were well underway.

At the end of the lecture one audience member reminded us that Professor Clapham should not be quite so modest about his own skills as an explorer and map-maker since he had, with Kabir Ahmed and Society member Eric Robson, explored and surveyed the caves of Sof Omar and published the results and maps in the late 1960s.

The audience had lots of comments and questions and several eagle-eyed members had been able to identify places on screen as the lecture progressed. We thank Professor Clapham most warmly for a wonderfully illustrated gallop through four hundred years of maps and history.

First Published in News File Summer 2011

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