The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - A Victorian Gentleman & Ethiopian Nationalist - The life and times of Hakim Warqenah, Dr. Charles Martin

Peter P. Garretson

Reviewer - Anne Parsons


The bare essentials concerning the life of Hakim Wärqenäh Eshäté are well known. But this book extends and improves our knowledge of the man and his life enormously. It is the result of almost a lifetime of research by Professor Peter Garretson who has had access to the unpublished diary and autobiography of Wärqenäh, currently held by his descendants in Addis Ababa. The book makes extensive use of these sources, as evidenced by the numerous and detailed footnotes.

It is certainly a fascinating story. Born in Gondar into an elite family who were imprisoned by Tewodros II at Magdala, the young Wärqenäh was found by Anglo-Indian troops in the confusion following the battle and was thought to be an orphan. He was taken to India and his care and education eventually passed to the hands of Colonel Charles Martin - whose name Wärqenäh adopted. Wärqenäh studied medicine in Lahore and later in Scotland, being the first western educated Ethiopian medical doctor. He practised medicine for a time in Burma, but shortly after the Battle of Adwa in 1896 decided to return to Ethiopia to help the people in the country of his birth. Over the next couple of decades his time was divided between Burma and Ethiopia and during his time in Addis Ababa he became an influential figure at the Ethiopian court.

He was not only a medical man though, as this rigorous analysis of Professor Garretson's makes clear. Garretson considers that Wärqenäh's role as a major progressive force in Ethiopia has been underestimated in the past. He was committed to anti-slavery issues, being Ethiopia's major campaigner in this field, and he also led developments in education (and helped to found a school for girls). In 1930 he became governor of one of Ethiopia's first model provinces, Chächär, and in 1935 was appointed as Ethiopian Ambassador to London. He was obviously playing an important international role at this time and accompanied the Emperor to the League of Nations. In 1940 Wärqenäh retired to India, but returned to Ethiopia in 1942 following liberation and lived in Addis Ababa until his death in 1952.

I have mentioned already the unpublished private papers used by the author but the bibliography clearly shows the breadth and depth of the research undertaken, including interviews with current family members and others who knew Wärqenäh personally.

Although few in number, the photographs in the book show Wärqenäh at most stages in his life and start with the young boy, aged six years, in India; progress through young adulthood with friends in Burma; include a scene with family and servants circa 1920; show Wärqenäh with the Emperor; and finish with a very dignified portrait in later life.

A personal dislike (although I realise it may not trouble others) is the very academic transliteration system used for Ethiopian names - such as Wärqenäh and Haylä Sellasé, rather than the more familiar, to most people I suspect, Workeneh and Haile Selassie. It is also a shame that poor proofreading has failed to spot that some of the transliterated characters are incorrect in the explanatory preface. There is a detailed index, which will undoubtedly be a useful aid, but some individuals appear to have gained duplicate entry under a transliterated name as well as under a more Anglicised form.

Readers should be aware that this is not a light read nor is it an armchair biography. But for anyone with a deep interest in Wärqenäh, his influence on Ethiopian matters during his lifetime, and the influence of his family after his death, will find the time spent reading this thorough work a rich reward.

A Victorian Gentleman & Ethiopian Nationalist book cover

A Victorian Gentleman & Ethiopian Nationalist: The life & times of Hakim Wärqenäh, Dr. Charles Martin
Peter P. Garretson
James Currey, 2012
ISBN 9781847010445
Hardback 366 pages; 236 x 158mm
b&w illustrations
Price £55.00

First Published in News File Winter 2012

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