The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Europeans on the Blue Nile Region

Richard Snailham

published 1992

Part 1: To 1896

Two centuries ago, in November 1770, James Bruce was on his way, as he thought, to discover the source of the Nile in the Mountains of Ethiopia. It was to prove a momentous journey, but a controversial one; the dying rumbles of the scholarly storm that it engendered were still to be heard forty years after his return. Bruce was not his own best advocate in the contentious aftermath of this three-year visit to Gondar and the highland plateau, and Dr Johnson, whose famous “Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia” had appeared in 1759 and who knew a thing or two about the country, came to doubt that the Scotsman had ever been to Ethiopia at all.

Bruce seemed, for example, never to acknowledge that there were two Niles, and that the one in which he was interested was to be known as the Lesser or Blue Nile. From their sources to their confluence at Khartoum the White Nile (though it brings down less water) is two and a half times as long as the Blue Nile. Furthermore, since the time of Nero the course of the White Nile had been known to geographers as far upstream as the Sudd in southern Sudan. Yet when Bruce published the story of his journey in 1790, he called it simply, “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile…”

In other ways he was either ignorant or self-deluding about what it was he had done. Throughout his life he believed himself to be the first discoverer of the source of the Ethiopian Nile, although he had learnt (if he did not al ready know it) from the French geographer d’Anville, whilst at Marseilles on his way home to Kinnaird, that it had been found over 150 years before by a Jesuit missionary: the Emperor Susenyos had conducted Fr Pedro Paez there in 1618, during the time of Portuguese influence in Ethiopia. Paez’s description of what he had seen was used a decade or so later by a fellow Jesuit, Fr Jeronimo Lobo, who himself visited the Tissisat Falls on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile, if not the source itself. His book was translated into French and Samuel Johnson’s earliest work was an English version of it 1735 - “A Voyage of Father Jerome Lobo”. This shows convincingly that the first European discoverer of the Blue Nile source was Pedro Paez. But Bruce in later years would have none of it, deriding Lobo’s evidence as false, and referring, in one of his unedifying, anti-catholic outbursts, to “the lies of a grovelling, fanatic priest.”

It is possible, too, to argue that Bruce did not recognise the real source of the Blue Nile when he saw it. Effectively, it is at the point where the river issues from the south-eastern corner of Lake Tana. Here, near the town of Bahardar Giorgis, the Blue Nile, or Great Abbai [Note 1] as the Ethiopian part of the river is known, begins its 1,000 mile journey to Khartoum. The course which Bruce was heading for so urgently across the rolling hills of Gojjam was that of a smaller, though considerable river which flows into the 40-mile-wide Lake Tana and is its largest feeder. The Ethiopians have always held that this river, the Little Abbai, is the true source of the Blue Nile waters, believing presumably that they flow into and through the more tranquil Lake Tana before brimming over down the Great Abbai at Bahardar. It was to the springs of the Little Abbai, or Watet Abbai (Milk Abbai) as the Emperor Haile Selassie liked to call it, that Pedro Paez came. And to these “coy fountains”, reverenced by the Ethiopians, James Bruce came also on 4th November 1770.

A few days earlier he had crossed the Great Abbai near Bahardar. But before doing so he had taken the opportunity, like Paez and Lobo before him, of riding to Tissisat to see the second largest falls in Africa. Here the river drops into a narrow gorge in which, as it flows, it progressively buries itself below a series of terraces until after 400 miles or so it is churning down through a canyon about a mile deep and some fifteen or twenty miles from rim to rim. By the time it leaves Ethiopia it has plunged over waterfalls and cataracts from a height of 6,002 ft (1,830 m) at Lake Tana to 1,442 ft (464 m) at Roseires in the Sudan. Because the Blue Nile gorge, which seems on the map like a rounded, flattened W, has cut its way deeply into the face of north-western Ethiopia, it has had a continuing effect on the communications, and thus on the politics of the country. It has proved to be at once a totally impracticable trade route in itself, and an effective barrier to traffic across it. The course of the river has never offered a satisfactory route into the Sudan. Ethiopian nagadies with their mule-trains must have discovered early in history that because of its sheer cliffs and steep scree-covered sides no way along its banks is passable for long. Indeed, their fears of its malarial heat and humidity have caused them always to eschew the gorge and stick to the breezy uplands on either side. With added sophistication they today talk of the “radioactivity” in the gorge and are still extremely loth to allow their pack-animals to be taken into it. The attempt to pioneer a navigation of the river itself by boats was not made until the disastrous expedition of the American W N McMillan, in 1903. And although if was successfully navigated by Major John Blashford-Snell’s expedition in 1968, this achievement only served to underline the dangers of the passage.

The ways onto the Ethiopian plateau from the Sudan have always therefore been either by river via the White Nile, the Sobat and the Baro to Gaznbela and Gimbi (Gambela, in Ethiopia, was until recently served by steamers from the Sudan), or by mule via Wanbera or Gubba onto the fertile Gojjam highlands. This last is, for example, the way Major R E Cheesman, the greatest of the Blue Nile explorers, chose to come in to Danghila to take up his post as H M Consul in North-West Abyssinia in 1926. It is also the route taken by Colonel Daniel Sandford and Major Orde Wingate in 1941, when they brought the Emperor Haile Selassie back into his realm to begin its liberation from the Italians.

As well as offering no easy route up or down its course, the Blue Nile, in fact, presents a formidable obstacle to travellers who wish to cross it. Apart from two shaky seventeenth century structures in the far north, it was permanently bridged nowhere in Ethiopia until 1951, when a beautiful, concrete, Italian arch was thrown across at Shafartak, on the direct route from Addis Ababa to Debre Marcos, the capital of Gojjam province [Note 2]. Nine years later Haile Selassie opened a bridge at Bahardar Giorgis, which links Gojjam with the ancient capital of Gondar and with Eritrea beyond.

Before these improvements, road travel to Gojjam was extremely hazardous and involved crossings by ferries or jendies - ad hoc constructions of reeds and skins, propelled by swimmers. The province was thus cut off from the main stream of Ethiopian affairs and has only been subdued to the control of Addis Ababa in this century. A long history of separatism and independence is marked by such events as the civil wars against Fasil and the Galla people of Gojjam, in which the young Emperor Takla Haimanot II was involved when James Bruce reached Gondar, or by the colourful career of Leul-Ras Hailu of Gojjam, [Note 3] who rebelled against Haile Selassie in 1932 and collaborated with the Italian squadristi between 1936 and 1941. In various forms the fires of Gojjam nationalism still flickered on into the 1950s and 1960s and the province was a focal point of resistance to Colonel Mengistu’s regime in the 1980s.

How, over the years, have Europeans become acquainted with the Blue Nile? The first to see and cross it was the Portuguese Jesuit Fr Antonio Fernandez in 1613. Fr Pedro Paez had just completed a second catholic church at Gorgora, south of Gondar and by the shores of Lake Tana. The Emperor Susenyos, not yet convinced of the wisdom of giving up his monophysite Coptic christianity in favour of the Roman Catholic form, wanted to send an embassy to Portugal to reassure himself about the power of the religion he was being asked to embrace and to seek military aid in his endemic struggle against the Galla. Fernandez was the lucky priest selected by Paez to go home. With ten other Portuguese and an Ethiopian he set off from Gorgora in 1613 to march - incredible as it seems - the 1,200 miles due south to the Portuguese trading post at Malindi on the coast of Kenya, thence presumably to take ship for Lisbon. Fernandez crossed the Blue Nile gorge where the gorge of its important tributary, the Abaya, cuts in near Collela.

Here, thanks to the apostate Ras Sela Christos, then ruler of Gojjam, a third Jesuit church was later built. Fernandez’s party marched along the Zema, tributary of the Abaya, and into Gojjam. Leaving Ras Sela’s court in April with forty men they reached the Great Abbai again at a place they called Mina, “where it turns towards the north”, as Fernandez said. This may have been at a fording point now called Melka Mabil, and here they crossed on jendies. Unhappily they were later checked in southern Ethiopia by anti-Jesuit elements, and despite long negotiations forced to return north after nineteen months in the bush [Note 4].

Five years later Susenyos took Paez to the source of the Little Abbai at Sakala and the Tissisat Falls, and shortly after Jeronimo Lobo may have followed. Lobo’s description of the sacred springs and of the falls were to be unfairly rejected by Bruce, though the size of Tissisat as given by Lobo is much nearer reality than Bruce’s. That Lobo claimed to have walked under the falls and seen a rainbow through their waters was regarded by Bruce as mere Jesuitical fancy; yet Major Cheesman did this in May 1926, and it is no doubt still possible when the dry season reduces even the Nile to a modest stream.

Despite Bruce’s idée fixe that he was the first discoverer of the only Nile worth consideration, his contribution to geography was great and his 5-volume book gives the only authentic view of eighteenth century Ethiopia [Note 5]. It is fascinating in its frank, tolerant, curious approach to the bizarre life in the court at Gondar and in its treatment of the social, religious and economic conditions of Ethiopians. But it is less valuable for its obsession with the search for the Nile’s source - which for Bruce was the crux of his journey and the justification for the whole narrative. He was the first of a long line of Britons who have involved themselves with Ethiopia. He made a courageous lone journey into a barbaric land and visited the source of the Little Abbai, circling Lake Tana in the process. And he wrote a book which contemporaries like George Selwyn and Horace Walpole regarded as pure Munchausen, but which has since been shown to be solidly based on Ethiopian truth - stranger than fiction though this often was.

For a hundred years after Bruce, visitors to Abyssinia, as it was then generally known, confined themselves to the eastern parts of the country: Henry Salt in 1805 and 1809-10 penetrated Tigré (Eritrea); Charles Johnston, Major W Cornwallis Harris and M. Rochet d’Héricourt separately visited Shoa and the court of King Sahle Selassie - great grandfather of Haile Selassie - in the 1840s: Captains Richard Burton and John Speke found their way into the secret city of Harar in 1855; and in 1868 Sir Robert Napier led his punitive force into Northern Abyssinia to defeat the Emperor Téwodros II at Magdala. By the 1860s there were a few Europeans at the courts of the various kings and rases in the then disunified Empire, and one of them, Antoine d’Abbadie, had met Téwodros when he was a rising young condottiere called Kassa, and had forecast his future greatness. It was d’Abbadie who made a remarkable journey in 1868 from Massawa to a point in Wollega 140 miles south of the Blue Nile, and carried out a cartographic traverse which was the basis of all maps of the region until the 1960s aerial survey of Ethiopia by the US Mapping Mission. D’Abbadie crossed the Nile at two fording points, Melka Yekatel and Melka Wainet, though he says little about it.

A year after Napier’s withdrawal from Zula the Suez Canal was opened. The importance to Britain of the security of Egypt and the Nile valley was given added point by this development. Since Napoleon’s adventure to Egypt in 1798 Britain had been aware of the strategic value of the Near East in her imperial scheme, but for sixty years after 1815 she managed to work more or less harmoniously with France to maintain stability and foster trade in the Levant and protect the overland links to India and the orient across the Suez isthmus. Britain might resent the use of French officers by Mehemet Ali, the expansionist Pasha of Egypt (1805-49), and might resist de Lesseps’ plans of the 1850s for the cutting of a canal at Suez, but in the main the broad identity of French and British policies made conflict undesirable, for their differences were overshadowed by a common fear - of Russian intrusion into the Near East. France met this threat with trade and investment in Egypt, Britain with the Mediterranean fleet and the efforts of Palmerston to shore up the Sublime Porte in Constantinople. This worked well enough until the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the 1870s and 80s made positive intervention by France and Britain seem almost inevitable. Gladstone took the plunge with his unilateral and “temporary” occupation of Egypt in 1882.

During this time the role of the Nile, and particularly of the Blue Nile, in Egypt’s destinies was becoming more widely appreciated. In pharaonic time the effects on her economy of any failure of the annual inundation were understood, and exchanges on this point are traceable to at least as early as the 11th century AD. In the 1820s Mehemet Au, his way paved by explorers like John Lewis Burckhardt and George Waddington, had set about achieving the conquest of the whole of the Nile valley for Egypt (for Turkey, technically) - “The ambition of Muhanunad All is to possess all the banks and islands of the Nile, and to be master of all who drink its waters from Abyssinia to the Mediterranean”, wrote Waddington. His son Ismail led a small army into the Sudan, and the lower reaches of the Blue Nile were traced as far as Fazughli by a party in which was the French explorer, geologist and antiquarian Frédérjc Cailliaud - “a one-man Institut de France” Alan Moorehead calls him. Soon Egyptian rule impinged on Ethiopian where foothills begin to rise from the plains of Sennar.

The Egyptians were as interested in tapping the fabulous gold mines of Fazughli and rounding up legions of black slaves as they were in safeguarding their annual supply of silt and water. This was soon bound to cause friction with Abyssinia and it was young Kassa, the future Téwodros II, who was first able to retaliate - successfully at Metemma, less so at Gallabat - after which France and Britain, who wanted no trouble in the area, cooled both sides down.

The Tigrean Emperor Yohannes IV was the next to try conclusions with the Egyptians, and their revival under Khedive Ismail was the occasion. Abyssinia still had no properly defined frontiers and Egypt was moving in where direct Ottoman control was failing. Massawa was purchased in 1866 and Keren, a plateau town in Eritrea, together with the whole west coast of the Red Sea, was in Ismail’s hands by 1872. Then the Sultanate of Harar in the east fell. By 1875 the forces of Islam had all but encircled Abyssinia, though at Gundet (1875) and Gura (1876) Yohannes was able to drive the Egyptians out of Eritrea - “Here are your soldiers!” he said as he repatriated prisoners after Gura, “If you want any more eunuchs for your harem drive me up the rest of your army!”

After 1882 the problem of the Blue Nile and the livelihood of Egypt became merged with the problem of Suez and the route to the East: first Gladstone, then Salisbury wrestled with it. By 1888 Salisbury had concluded that Egypt was ours indefinitely and “that British policy must be directed to securing the entire Nile basin against the encroachments of other European powers” (Eric Stokes). He believed, as others had, that Egypt lay at the mercy of the power which could control the Nile head-waters. Our recent protégé, Italy, although after 1889 claiming a protectorate over Abyssinia, was not felt to be a threat, and Germany, who was, was defused in East Africa by the Agreement of 1890. But France, with whom relations had become strained, grew annually more menacing under men like Ferry and Hanotaux.

Following the British invasion of Egypt another difficulty had appeared: almost immediately the revolt of the Mahdi in the Sudan further threatened the stability of the area. In answer, two barely compatible courses were taken: the Italians, late developers amongst colonising powers, were encouraged to move inland into territories fringing Abyssinia which France might otherwise interest herself in, and the Emperor Yohannes, who viewed these moves with misgiving, was visited by Admiral Sir William Hewett’s Mission of 1884 and his aid against the Mahdi’s “dervishes” was solicited. The jihad was being directed against coptic Abyssinia as much as against the British in the Nile valley. In the event, Yohannes’ best general, Ras Alula, beat the “dervishes” at Kufit (1885) and the Italians at Dogali (1887), but Negus Takla Haimanot, the semi-independent King of Gojjam, did less well. The Mahdi’s men over-ran the western half of Gojjam - coming very near to the sacred source of the Blue Nile in the process - and sacked Gondar in 1887. Meanwhile, General Gordon, who ironically had viewed with distaste all overtures to the slave-owning “christian” Emperor, had been killed in Khartoum, and four years afterwards Yohannes died of wounds in his hour of victory over the “dervishes” at Gallabat (1889) [Note 6].

But the greatest triumph for Abyssinian arms was yet to come. Yohannes’ obvious successor as negus neghest, or King of the Kings, was Menelik of Shoa, the third and greatest of successive warrior Emperors who saw the national importance of internal centralisation and a firm foreign policy. In 1891 he had declared in a bold Circular Letter to European Heads of State, “If powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to be an indifferent spectator”; and he had delineated an ambitious frontier which included 150 miles of Blue Nile now within the Sudan. If this were not firm enough he had added, “I shall endeavour, if God gives me life and strength, to re-establish the ancient frontiers (tributaries) of Ethiopia up to Khartoum. By 1896 he had doubled the size of Abyssinia by “re-incorporating” [Note 7] territory in all directions except the north. Both flanks of the Blue Nile gorge were subdued, Wollega in 1889 and Gojjam after the death of Negus Takla Haimanot in 1901. The Italians had meanwhile begun a classic colonial take-over bid by making with Menelik the Treaty of Wuchali (1889), whose Italian and Amharic versions differed in a vital particular. After insisting on their own interpretation of it the Italians were soundly beaten at Adowa in 1896. An African army had overcome a European army in a pitched battle, and the defeat went “unavenged” for forty years.

Part 2: 1896 to the Present

The victory over the Italians at Adowa (1896) marked Abyssinia’s emergence into the modern world and through her gates came a flood of foreign advisers, diplomats, emissaries and adventurers, French, Russian and, belatedly, English. Prince Henri d’Orléans called on his way home from the Far East in 1897; Captain Montague Weilby, 18th Hussars, and Herbert Weld Blundell, came in 1898 with Captain John Harrington, our first diplomatic representative. Weilby made a pioneer journey from Addis Ababa, Menelik’s new capital, south to Lake Rudolf in Kenya and thence to the River Sobat in the Sudan [Note 8]. Weld Blundell, with Lord Lovat, came back the next year to conduct a safari through western Abyssinia more directly to the Sudan. They shot their way through Wollega, bagging 10 elephants, 2 lions and 18 different kinds of antelope, and making a notable collection of birds. In the country of the Shankalla they came close to and sighted the Blue Nile [Note 9]. More significantly politically was Mr Rennell Rodd’s Mission of 1897 to restore Menelik’s faith in British friendship, diminished by his suspicions of our aid to the Italians in the recent campaign, and to arrange for a British Legation at his court [Note 10].

Our underlying concern here was to counter increasing French influence on Menelik who had round him men like Léonce Lagrange, the railway engineer Chefneux, Alfred Ilg (a Swiss), Mgrs Taurin and Jarosseau - the first Catholic missionaries in the country since the 1630s, and mining engineer Comboul, who prospected for gold south of the Blue Nile gorge and found it in Wollega: “L’Oullaga n’est certainement pas inférieur au Transvaal”. The French were reacting, understandably enough, to the hopes expressed by jingoistic Britons like Johnston, Kirk, Lugard and Mackinnon, and by Cecil Rhodes in particular, of a link from the Cape to Cairo. Augustus B. Wylde, the “Manchester Guardian” man on the field of Adowa, wrote of “the telegraph and railway that is to be made from Egypt to the Cape”. To check Rhodes some Frenchman dreamed similarly of a west-east link - from Fort Lamy in Chad, via Fashoda and the Blue Nile to Addis Ababa and Djibouti. And in 1897 the construction of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway from the French port of Djibouti was started. Although it did not reach Addis Ababa until 1917, there were at the outset grandiose plans for its continuation into the Congo. Before the rails had reached even Dire Dawa, Captain J-B Marchand had in 1898 led his small force of Senegalese from Lake Chad to Fashoda on the White Nile. Anglo-French relations were at their nadir. However, Herbert Kitchener, lately triumphant at Omdurman over Al Khalifa’s Mahdists, marched south and persuaded the French to hoist the Egyptian flag and subsequently retire westwards. The immediate threat to the Nile waters seemed to have receded, and work on the railway continued slowly, but with a more obviously commercial incentive [Note 11].

Marchand was now off the board, but the game of chess between Britain and France went on, with the focus more directly on the Blue Nile waters. Jean Duchesne-Fournet left Addis Ababa on a “scientific” mission to Lake Tana [Note 12]. His men crossed the Nile somewhere north of the present Shafartak bridge and rode to Debre Marcos and Bahardar, taking accurate bearings and making careful maps of their progress. They then circled Lake Tana and after visiting one of its islands, headed south, crossing the Blue Nile twenty miles below Bahardar by the first “Portuguese” bridge (probably built by Indian and Ethiopian masons just after the Jesuit expulsion in 1632). This bridge is about half a mile downstream of the Tissisat Falls, which from their maps they appear, incredibly, to have missed. They toiled over a high shoulder of the Choke massif and back to Debre Marcos. Their final crossing of the Nile on their way to Addis Alem and Addis Ababa, was just upstream of the Guder River confluence, at a point in the Black Gorge where Signor Castanio, an Italian engineer, was few months later to begin the bridge that he never finished, whose stone abutments still wait unspanned amongst the enveloping trees.

The ominous presence of this mission on the Blue Nile head-waters encouraged Britain to make the Treaty of 1902 with Menelik, in which the Emperor bound himself not to “construct or allow to be constructed any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana or the Sobat [Note 13] which would arrest the flow of waters into the Nile”, except with the agreement of the governments of Britain and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. Menelik also said he had “no intention of giving any concession with regard to the Blue Nile or Lake Tana except to H.M. Government”. An engineering and survey expedition led by C E Dupuis on behalf of Sir William Garston, Adviser to the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works, set out for Lake Tana in 1902 and later pronounced that it would make an excellent reservoir.

They were busy times on the Blue Nile: in the same year that the Duchesne-Fournet mission concluded its work and Signor Castanio was labouring to link Shoa and Gojjam by bridge, the first recorded attempt to navigate the river was made. The American big-game hunter W.N. McMillan had three steel boats carried in sections from Addis Ababa to the confluence of the Great Abbai and the Mugher. Here, in June 1903, they were launched. They had only gone a few miles when they were swept into an S-shaped cataract where - the dry-season river being low in water - they were dashed against rocks. A boat and its stores were lost, but no lives.

McMillan had planned to act in conjunction with a Norwegian colleague, B H Jessen, who was proceeding upriver from Khartoum in a launch. Jessen was the first man to clear the cataracts at Roseires and Fainakka at low water, but turned back when he heard of McMillan’s upset. In 1905, however, he succeeded in penetrating the gorge on foot. With Sudanese bearers he forced an extremely difficult passage along the northern bank at least 160 miles into Abyssinia, before climbing out of the gorge to visit Ras Mangasha at Burie [Note 14].

About the same time Herbert Weld Blundell was in the region again. In April, 1904, he marched north from Nejo to the confluence of the Great Abbai’s largest tributary, the Didessa. The following January he set off from Addis Ababa on an important journey which was the first to mark out, however, tentatively, the actual course of part of the Great Abbai. From its junction with the Guder he passed along its southern side, descending to the river itself five or six times and crossing it twice near the Didessa. He did not meet Jessen, who was at this time hacking his way upstream, but marched south via Mendi to the River Dabus, where he found the Shankilla people avidly panning for gold.

Meanwhile, much of Britain’s unease about the head-waters of the Nile had been relieved. In 1904 ancient scores with the French were buried in the Entente Cordiale achieved between Lord Lansdowne and Delcassé. Amongst other weighty overseas matters, Egypt, Sudan and Abyssinia were discussed. France agreed to renounce her “historic aspirations in the Nile valley and the two powers, with Italy, agreed jointly to respect the independence and integrity of Abyssinia. For a generation this pledge was more or less honoured, though there was much talk of “Spheres of Influence” and Britain and Italy began to watch each other’s moves increasingly warily. Abyssinia’s new leader, Ras Tafari Makonnen, who became Regent in 1916 and who was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, watched them warily too. Despite the survey expeditions to Lake Tana of Pearson and Buckley in 1915 and Grabham and Black in 1920, nothing came of British hopes of eventually controlling the Nile flood by a dam at Bahardar [Note 15].

Eventually in 1925-6 Britain and Italy hatched out a deal whereby they would mutually encourage Abyssinia to allow various construction works on her soil to be started: by Britain, a barrage at Lake Tana and a road from the Sudan to service it; by Italy, a railway linking Eritrea to Italian Somaliland, presumably via Gondar, Danghila, Debre Marcos and over the Blue Nile to Addis Ababa. If Britain was conceded her barrage she would recognise Italy’s “exclusive economic influence in the west of Abyssinia”. Haile Selassie naturally bridled at this calculated exertion of pressure and took the matter to the League of Nations, which he had recently joined and of whose debility he was soon to become the most tragic witness. The concession for a dam might have been secured had it not been tied to an acceptance of Italy’s “economic influence”. The Regent was right to be on his guard, for, as Angelo Del Boca has recently shown, Mussolini was at this time beginning to dream of the absorption of Abyssinia within the Italian colonial empire [Note 16].

The 1920’s saw the first concerted attempts to reveal the course of the Great Abbai. Charles Rey, a prolific if repetitious writer on Abyssinia, took his wife in 1926 on a journey into Gojjam. They crossed the Abbai at a point previously visited by Weld Blundell, just downstream of the Guder confluence. Mrs Rey sat à la turque on a jendy of ox-hide stuffed with grass and overlaid with rugs. She was propelled across by three dozen naked swimmers, whilst other Galla kept up a wild fusillade of shots to deter crocodiles. They were well entertained at Debre Marcos by that wily feudal chieftain Leul-Ras Hailu and returned to re-cross the Nile near the Jamma River junction [Note 17].

In the same year there arrived in Danghila a man who was to make the solution of the mystery of Abbai’s course his life’s main work - Major R.E. Cheesman. From Danghila, between 1926 and 1934, he ranged out on a series of journeys by foot and mule in which he traced for all but a few miles the line of the Great Abbai from Lake Tana to the point where B H Jessen had left the river in 1905. Gojjam was his parish, so he confined himself largely to the northern bank; and he found the going so impossible that he was often only able to follow the river from the gorge’s rim, descending every now and then to a well-known native fording point to take meticulous measurements of water speed and depth and to observe the geology and zoology of the place. The story of these years is carefully told in his “Lake Tana and The Blue Nile”, laboriously written out for a second time after his first manuscript had been stolen with his car [Note 18]. The first car to cross the Abbai, incidentally, belonged to Ras Hailu. It was taken over in pieces and assembled in Debre Marcos. Here the Ras from time to time progressed up and down the few navigable yards of mud road whilst his amazed subjects prostrated themselves on the grass verge. The first airplane to cross the Abbai carried the film of Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930. It used the brown line of the Nile as a navigational guide on its way to Khartoum and Europe.

Europe was soon once again deeply involved in Abyssinia. In 1936 Italian armies invaded the country, and in 1940 Mussolini launched himself vaingloriously into World War 2. Britain, acting as host to the exiled Emperor, immediately planned the first assault on fascist-occupied lands. From the Sudan General William Platt, whose main thrust was to be on the Eritrean front, proposed to encourage a diversionary rebellion of Abyssinian patriots in Gojjam and Colonel Sandford flew clandestinely into the Danghila area to help foment it. Meanwhile Major Wingate, with a small Anglo-Abyssinian force, was ordered to conduct the Emperor back into his realm. Before setting off, Wingate flew to Faguta, near Danghila, to confer with Sandford. It is of some interest that after their conference Wingate and an Ethiopian patriot leader rode for four hours to visit the springs of the Little Abbai, where stood a shrine that James Bruce had noted. Later, of course, Wingate’s Gideon Force had a lot to do with the Great Abbai: Major Simonds with Begemdir Force carried out a long siege of Bahardar Giorgis, until it fell on April 28, 1941, and a mixed body of men was gathered at Shafartak to ambush the Italians as they retreated from Debre Marcos. Unfortunately, despite the urgings of Bimbashis Johnson and Thesiger (Wilfred) a large detachment of patriots under Lij Belai Zalleka could not be spurred to action and the Italians slipped over the wooden bridge towards Addis Ababa. The Emperor, with Wingate and Sanford, followed early in May to make their triumphal entry into the capital [Note 19].

The latest phase has seen the attempted navigation of the river by Europeans. In 1954 some German tourists led by Herbert Rittlinger tried, almost as a postscript to a holiday in the Red Sea and on Lake Tana, to canoe down the Great Abbai. They began at the new Shafartak bridge, but were so disconcerted by the attacks of crocodiles that they pulled out at the Mugher River [Note 20]. More canoeists, this time Frenchmen and Swiss from a Geneva club, came in 1962 under Dr A. Amoudruz. In two Canadian canoes six men paddled off from Shafartak in the dry season. They lowered their craft on ropes down the worst cataracts and almost reached the Sudan. But disaster overtook them on a moonlit night when they were shot at in their camp by a troop of bandits. Two men were killed, and another was wounded as they escaped downriver to Shogali in one of the canoes.

The most courageous single achievement on the Blue Nile occurred in September 1965, when a 47-year old Swede, Arne Rubin, canoed alone down the river from Shafartak to Khartoum in nine days [Note 21]. Rubin had been advised and helped by a compatriot, Carl-Gustav Forsmark, a safari organiser resident in Addis Ababa. The following year, the two of them made the first attempt (apart from a tentative one by Cheesman in 1926) to navigate the upper reaches of the river. They started in separate canoes about a mile below the Tissisat Falls and called it a day after Forsmark had been nearly drowned in a whirlpool about fifteen miles further south.

In 1968 a big expedition supported by the British Army, the Daily Telegraph and the Royal Geographical Society tackled the problem of the whole Great Abbai. Led by Major John Blashford-Snell, RE, it carried out a scientific survey of the gorge and, in the process, navigated almost all of the river in a variety of boats. Corporal Ian Macleod was drowned whilst swimming a tributary of the Abbai and a number of others were injured in cataracts and waterfalls. The most intimate knowledge of the river up to the present time had, however, been gained [Note 22].

By 1968 little physical change had occurred on the river which the Portuguese first saw over 350 years ago. Although the initiative for building a barrage at Bahardar had passed in the 1930s from the British to the J G White Engineering Corp. of New York, nothing had been done to regulate the flow of the Blue Nile. The Yugoslav Government has enabled Ethiopia to harness some of the power of the Tissisat Falls by building a hydroelectric station there. It now provides a few kilowatts (only a fraction of its potential capacity) for the nearby town of Bahardar, which Haile Selassie had hoped to develop into Ethiopia’s second city and near to which he built on a hill a smart new palace overlooking the first few treacherous miles of the Great Abbai. Studies of the river are now carried on by the Ethiopian Government Water Resources Department; observations are made at Tissisat, the Guder River mouth and Shogali. The Sudan and Egypt, after being apprehensive for centuries about the Nile head-waters, countenanced Ethiopian plans for barrages on the Blue Nile - for hydroelectric power and possibly irrigation too. Seven were proposed, mostly over tributaries like the Fincha, where the first one was started; but one was planned to straddle the Blue Nile itself near Sirba.

Since the collapse of the Empire, the death of Haile Selassie and the imposition of Marxist rule by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam the Blue Nile region has only been in the news as a result of the manoeuvrings of dissident groups like the Ethiopian Democratic Union. Since 1977 the resistance to Mengistu has spread slowly south from Eritrea and Tigre to affect Gondar and Gojjam and in 1991 it crossed the Nile: there were reports in April of a broad coalition of Tigrean rebels achieving some successes in Wollega. It may well be from these three Blue Nile provinces, notorious for their independence of central authority over the ages, that the ultimate threat to Colonel Mengistu will come.



1 To the Amhara people it is the Tilik Abbai or Great Father.
2 There was a wooden bridge there in 1941, presumably the fruit of the Italian occupation.
3 Leul-Ras = Prince - His father had been Negus, or king, of Gojjam, but Haile Selassie allowed the title to lapse.
4 Charles F. Rey, “The Romance of the Portuguese in Abyssinia” (H. F. & G. Wetherby, 1929)
5 James Bruce, “Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the years 1766, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773” Edited by C. F. Beckingham (Edinburgh University Press, 1967).
6 M. Abir, “The Origins of the Ethiopian-Egyptian border problem in the Nineteenth Century”, Journal of African History, Vol. 8, 1967, and H. Marcus, “Ethio-British Negotiations concerning the western border with Sudan”, Journal of African History, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1963.
7 In the same sense as the French on commemorative stamps use the word rattachement when they mean annexation.
8 Capt M. S. Weilby, “Twixt Sirdar & Menelik” (Harper & Bros., 1901)
9 H. W. Blundell, articles in Geographical Journal, Vol. XV (1900) and Vol. XXVIII (1906).
10 Capt. Count Gleichen, “With the Mission to Menelik” (Edward Arnold, 1898).
11 G. Sanderson, “Foreign Policy of the Negus Menelik, 1896-8, Journal of African History Vol. 5, No. 1 1964.
12 Jean Duchesne-Fournet, “Mission en Ethiopie, 1901-3” (Masson et Cie, 1909).
13 A tributary of the White Nile which bordered Menelik’s extravagant territorial claims of 1891.
14 B. H. Jessen, “W. N. McMillan’s Expedition and Big-Game Hunting in Southern Sudan, Abyssinia and East Africa” (Marchant Singer, 1906).
15 Nothing would have come of them anyway, even had Haile Selassie been keen on the idea: if the enormous engineering problems at Lake Tana had ever been mastered it would soon have been found that only one twentieth of the Blue Nile’s waters come from the lake itself, the many tributaries supplying the greater part. A dam to raise the level of Lake Tana would have provided some additional flow in the dry season, but the floods of July-November would still have occurred. A higher water level in the lake would have submerged many ancient island monasteries and the powerful Coptic church would understandably have resisted this.
16 Angelo Del Boca, “Ethiopian War, 1935-41” (Chicago University Press, 1965).
17 Charles F. Rey, “In the Country of the Blue Nile” (Duckworth, 1927).
18 Major R. E. Cheesman, “Lake Tana and the Blue Nile” (Frank Cass, 1968).
19 Christopher Sykes, “Orde Wingate” (Collins, 1959).
20 Herbert Rittlinger, “Schwarzes Abenteuer” (F.A. Brochaus, Wiesbaden 1955).
21 Arne Rubin, “Ensam med Blå Nilen” (Forum, Stockholm, 1966).
22 Richard Snailham, “The Blue Nile Revealed” (Chatto and Windus, 1970).

First published as an Occasional Paper in 1992

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