French literary interest in Ethiopia dates back to the 17th century when the little-known Ethiopian traveller Sega Krestos appeared in the country. This inspired the publication of a short anonymous novelette entitled La reine d’Ethiopie. Historiette comique (Paris, 1670). It author, presumably seeking to distinguish the Ethiopians from the Negroid peoples of Africa then better-known in the West, noted that his hero was handsome, with an aquiline nose and without thick lips.
The publication in London almost a century later of Samuel Johnson’s celebrated allegory The Prince of Abyssinia: A Tale (London, 1759) also had a significant impact in France, where Johnson’s novel was immediately translated into French, and published in Paris in the following year.
French awareness of the Ethiopian city of Gondar, which had become the country’s capital in the early 1630s, was long afterwards reflected in an anonymous two-volume work Grandor ou le héros abisin, histoire héroi-politique (Trèves, 1789).Supposedly “sold by a Copt in Egypt to a European traveller” the story abandons Johnson’s “happy valley” and is set instead in Gondar and several other parts of Ethiopia during the reign of “Saghed”, a distortion of several Ethiopian royal names then known in Europe. The work’s main thrust was however to introduce the reader, in the year of the French Revolution, to a variety of political terms then coming into increasing usage in France, such as Aristocracy, Despotism, Democracy, Arist-Democracy, etc.
Subsequent French interest in Ethiopia, in the third quarter of the 19th century, owed much to the rise of Emperor Tewodros and in particular to his resistance to the British expedition of 1867-8. This resulted in the composition of two French plays set in Ethiopia: Théodore Barrière’s Théodoros: Drame en 5 actes (Paris, 1868) and Jules Renard’s Deux prisonniers de Théodore: Pochade abyssinienne en un acte (Paris, 1869).
These dramatic essays were followed shortly afterwards by a fictitious French travelogue: Emil Jonveaux’s Deux ans dans l’Afrique Orientale (Tours, 1871), which supposedly described conditions in Ethiopia towards the end of the Emperor’s reign. An English translation, Two Years in East Africa (London, 1875) later also appeared, with the more explicit sub-title: Adventures in Abyssinia and Arabia, with a Journey to the Source of the Nile. The French edition states that the author had never actually visited Ethiopia, but this information is omitted in the English edition in which the translator claims to have “carefully revised the details” in the original text and “added many new and interesting particulars from authentic sources”. The result, we are assured, was that the Nile and its “mysteries” and the “bloody tragedy” of Magdala were “more truly interesting than the most striking fictions”.
Subsequent French perception of Ethiopia was influenced by Menilek’s unexpected victory at the battle of Adwa in 1896. This was reflected in François de Courel’s play La fille sauvage. Pièce en six actes (Paris, 1902), which was first performed in Paris at the Theatre Antoine. The drama is largely set in a “barbarous country”, referred to as the country of Menilek, which, we are told, had long since “submitted to Christian culture”, with the result that it would one day “astonish the universe” by “the rapidity of its progress”. This play subsequently inspired a very different American drama, with the same title, written by Clara Kimbell, and released in 1918.
The first largely factually-based French novel set in Ethiopia was Le soleil d’Ethiopie. Roman (Paris, 1929) written by the French nobleman, Viscount Jean Esménard, an accomplished traveller who wrote under the name Jean d’Esme. The book features the imaginary journey across the country of three Europeans, a British couple and an Italian. The author had previously also written a popular travel book À travers l’empire de Ménélik (Paris, 1928).
This pioneering work was immediately followed by another travel-based novel: André Amandy’s La voie sans disque. Roman (Paris, 1931). Its author had previously described his own travel experiences in a travelogue entitled La désagréable partie de campagne. Incursion en Abyssinie (Paris, 1930), and later wrote an amusing novel Quartier des légations (Paris, 1951). Set in an imaginary town called Atbara, capital of the supposed empire of Arafani, it told of sundry diplomatic intrigues among the foreign envoys.
Other publications of this period included a popular French historical novel: Le passant d’Ethiopie (Paris, 1936) by Jérôme and Jean Tharaud, which highlighted some of the more exciting events in the country’s history from the time of the Portuguese in the 16th century onwards onwards.
The most prolific French author of this period was, however, Henry de Monfreid, whose numerous works include a mixture of fact and fiction, much of which has been widely translated into other languages.
Subsequent French writings on Ethiopia included several further historical novels. Among them we may mention Makeda, reine vierge. Roman de la reine de Saba (Paris, 1940) by Gabriel d’Aubrède; Le mystère du Mahteb (Paris, n.d.), translated from the English Mystery of the Mahteb (New York, 1942) a fantasy by two American authors, Alice Lide and Margaret Johansen; Pierre Benoît’s, Le Prête Jean. Roman (Paris, 1952). Also of interest was a collection of French poetry on Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian towns composed by E. Karam, in Juvénalia (Beirut, 1932).
Life among the teachers at the University College of Addis Ababa was subsequently caricatured by a staff member, Jean Godbout, a French Canadian in his novel L’Aquarium (Paris, 1972). His colleague, the prolific professor of philosophy Claude Sumner, later produced three volumes of French Poésies éthiopiennes (Addis Ababa, 1976-8) and a French translation of some drama of the Ethiopian playwright Segaye Gabra-Medhin in La couleur de mon chant (Yaoundé, 1977).
Also in the educational field was Marc de Gouverain’s novel Retour en Ethiopie présenté par Hugo Pratt (Paris, 1970), in which a French volunteer teacher in Ethiopia returns after an absence of many years and reports some fantastic as well as many highly probable developments.
Ethiopia also found its way into some French writing for children, most notably Noël aux Quatre Vents (Paris, 1968) by Dominique Saint-Alban, and F. Balsan’s Ambushes en Ethiopie (Paris, 1971).