Nikolai Ivanovich Ashinov (or Achinov) (1856-1902) had made a previous visit to north-eastern Africa, arriving in Massawa in 1885. The circumstances surrounding this earlier expedition suggest its basically political character. Not only were Ashinov's relations with the newly arrived Italians of a very unfriendly nature, he lost little time in making contact with the Mahdists. According to one source, Ashinov was able to meet personally with Osman Digna, the Mahdi's principal lieutenant and empire builder in the eastern Sudan. This account even suggests that Ashinov went so far as to act as an intermediary in an attempt to establish direct relations between the Mahdi and the Tsar, returning to Russia carrying gifts from the Sudanese leader and in the company of a Sudanese sheik. The same source reports that while in Africa, Ashinov received an official commission from Emperor Johannes IV of Ethiopia to obtain modern weapons for the Ethiopian army--an undertaking assumed by a number of subsequent Russian visitors to Ethiopia.
Yet his activity between 1888 and 1889 as promoter of an abortive attempt to establish a "New Moscow" at the mouth of the Red Sea constituted the real starting point for Russia's sub-Saharan enterprises.
However frequently Ashinov has been depicted by his detractors as an ignorant adventurer, there is good reason to believe that he was personally very much aware of the wider international political setting and the strategic factors which surrounded his African project. Even before his expedition had set forth for Tajura Bay (the proposed location of New Moscow), Ashinov had advanced a series of appealing strategic arguments for Russian involvement in the north- eastern corner of the continent. First, a Russian presence on the Suez route would serve as a threat to Britain and as security for passage between eastern and western Russia. Second, a favourable Russian position at the mouth of the Red Sea might somehow be used as a bargaining point for promoting Russian interests on the Bosporus. Finally, a Russian port at Tajura Bay would provide a point of departure from which future Russian contacts with Ethiopia could be developed. In particular, Russia could, from this sanctuary, strengthen Ethiopia and, in turn, rely upon that country to oppose the British, both in the Red Sea region and in the interior of the African continent.
Ashinov seemed to envisage a joint Franco-Russian effort which would fortify the Ethiopian state as a bulwark against the advance of Britain and Italy. As Ashinov made final preparations for his colonial expedition in 1888, it became apparent that he intended to obtain, with the help of French financiers, modern armaments for Ethiopia in quantities hitherto unknown in north-eastern Africa. This threatened to have a significant effect on the balance of power in the region. In a statement made in 1888 at Nizhniy Novgorod, Ashinov described the strategic effect these arms would ideally produce. "The Negus," he explained, "thus empowered by Russia and France, will succeed in uniting the peoples of Africa and in blocking the path of Anglo-Italian movement."
Ashinov's ideas coincided with significant currents of opinion within Russia. The notion of a shift of interest from the Balkans to Africa appealed to many Slavophiles, who were becoming increasingly frustrated with the pace of Russian expansion southward toward the Bosporus. His thinking, moreover, was developed at a time of intensified Russian concern over British control of the Suez Canal- demonstrated by the Imperial government's lobbying effort in behalf of the Suez Canal Convention of 1888. Furthermore, the Ashinov scheme was devised during a period when many people in both France and Russia were awakening to the importance of "creating at the heart of the Red Sea an independent and civilized nation [Ethiopia], capable of being the guardian of a straits which must henceforth play in the policy of the maritime powers a role no less considerable than that of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles."
The popularity of Ashinov's ideas explains in large part the surprising degree of support accorded his ambitious African project. Sympathy for Ashinov was to be found not only among Russian Slavophiles, but within the very highest circles of the Imperial Russian government.
Official interest in Ashinov's plans was aroused after his preliminary visit to Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1888. Leaving six Russians and a temporary encampment at Tajura Bay, Ashinov returned to Russia escorting two Ethiopian priests who had come to attend the 900th anniversary celebration of Russian Christianity. Constantine Pobedonostsev, Procurator of the Holy Synod and Alexander III's most influential advisor, received this delegation. Realizing that Ethiopia had "since olden times . . . maintained itself in Eastern Christianity," and had long "nourished sympathy for Russia," Pobedonostsev urged his sovereign to see Ashinov and the Ethiopians himself. In so counselling the Tsar, it appeared that Pobedonostsev was making more than purely religious calculations. His letter to Alexander included the following observation:
"As regards Ashinov he is of course an adventurist, but in the present circumstances he serves as the sole Russian person to have penetrated Abyssinia. [Pobedonostsev was apparently ignorant of Kovalevsky's travels.] It would be worth at least seriously questioning him in order to hear, in his own words, about that enterprise which he has already initiated on the banks of the Red Sea. By all indications it can have for us no little importance . . . In such enterprises the most convenient tools are cutthroats of the likes of Ashinov."
Alexander complied with Pobedonostsev's advice and granted an audience to the unusual delegation. At approximately the same time, the Tsar received a proposal which would have drawn him even further into Ashinov's schemes. This proposal came from N. M. Baranov, Governor General of Nizhniy Novgorod and an enthusiastic supporter of Ashinov. Baranov urged the Tsar to support the formation of a "Russo- African Company" along the lines of the colonial enterprises of other European powers. Using a fortified Russian settlement at Tajura as a base, the company, it was hoped, would be in a position to exploit the economic resources of the region.
According to Baranov's plan, the Tsar could reap his reward for assisting the enterprise by taking control, at a politically appropriate moment, of all military, naval, and administrative functions of the Tajura colony. Such a policy, in the opinion of Baranov, promised certain strategic advantages for Russia in its struggle against the British. "At a time when nearly all governments, one after another, and often at great sacrifice . . . are striving to seize points along the African coast," he observed, "a handful of Russian Cossacks occupied the shore of Tajura Bay, recognizing not only the geographical, but particularly the strategic importance of this bay in the event of war with England."
Baranov's request for Imperial authorization to form a Russo-African Company was forwarded to Alexander by Pobedonostsev on October 9, 1888, eliciting from the Russian sovereign the response, "I will see what can be done about this." Apparently the Tsar was sufficiently interested in the military implications of the scheme to seek the opinion of his Minister of the Navy, Admiral Shestakov. The latter, for his part, seemed to be sympathetic to the project, but advised that before commencing any governmental involvement at Tajura Bay, it would be necessary to send some reliable Russian sailor to familiarize himself with the situation existing there. Shestakov ultimately supported the endeavour to the extent that he sent a Russian gunboat to the Red Sea in order to give naval protection to Russia's colonists.
It is interesting to note that these preliminary attempts to establish a direct Russian stake in Africa were made in the face of the most persistent opposition on the part of the Foreign Ministry. Foreign Minister de Giers and the officials directly responsible to him feared the adverse reactions which Ashinov's schemes might create on the part of European powers which had interests in the Tajura region. In particular, they were concerned about the attitude of France, whose budding friendship with Russia was being assiduously cultivated. Thus, from the outset, Russia's official diplomatic establishment made repeated attempts to discredit Ashinov and to prevent him from reaching the Tsar.
The voices of caution within the government, however, clearly lacked sufficient power to prevent the Russian sovereign from heeding the call of the expansionists. One suspects, in fact, that Alexander III shared to a certain extent the sympathies then prevalent among the higher commercial and ecclesiastical circles in Russian society. In any event, it was difficult for him to ignore and impossible for him to repudiate the current of Slavophile sentiment which existed within Russia. This broad wave of nationalist zeal, which held Orthodoxy to be Russia's unique gift to humanity, was the moving spirit behind Great Russian expansion during the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Slavophilism also appeared to be guiding Russian energies in the direction of Africa as it stimulated the revival of Russian projects in the Holy Land during this period. After the disastrous defeat of Russian diplomacy and military strategy in the Crimean War, the Imperial Russian government came increasingly to rely upon the efforts of Slavophiles to advance its interests in the Middle East. Ostensibly non-political Slavophile bodies such as the Slavonic Society and the Palestine Society began to be used by the Russian government for the most purely political of purposes. Religion, never free from politics, saw increasing service as a cloak for the foreign policy manoeuvres of the Russian state.
Such was the context within which Ashinov's projects must be viewed. At the time these projects received their most serious consideration by the Russian government, Slavophiles were taking their turn at the helm of Russian policy. It is important to note that the Palestine Society, headed by the Tsar's brother, Slavophile Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich, actually collected the funds which made it possible for Ashinov and 175 Russian settlers to set sail from Odessa in December, 1888, bound for Africa. In brief, the colonization of north- eastern Africa had become simply another, although admittedly one of the most ambitious, of Slavophilism's expansionist plans for Russia.
No one was more thoroughly identified with the Ashinov expedition than was the most prominent Slavophile of his day, Pobedonostsev. By arranging for the expedition to include a spiritual mission, he was responsible for endowing it with a mantle of religious respectability. The Procurator of the Holy Synod evidently took a personal hand in selecting the individual who was to lead this mission, Father Paissi. The political interests and background of this priest suggest moreover, that Pobedonostsev was acting in accordance with the political orientation which had characterized Uspensky's original conception of Russian ecclesiastical contacts with Ethiopia.
Given the enthusiasm of Russian Slavophiles for Ashinov, the Tsar must surely have been tempted indeed to give his endorsement to the Tajura project. Daring Russian exploits in an exotic portion of the globe offered real promise of rendering a service to the throne if only by capturing the popular imagination and diverting it from the dangerous pathways of revolution. Yet despite the encouragement given to Ashinov by members of the Imperial family and the enthusiasm for his cause displayed by Pobedonostsev and other Slavophile members of the Imperial cabinet, Alexander's attitude remained one of caution. Whether it was by instinct, or by virtue of warnings given him by the Foreign Ministry, the Tsar retained a healthy suspicion of the adventurous Cossack. On January 12, 1889, he observed to Pobedonostsev: "I think this sly old fox Ashinov will dupe everyone, rob everyone, and throw them out."
But what is perhaps more interesting is that Alexander appeared to be highly reluctant to make any move which would interfere with the realization of Ashinov's schemes. Although he probably had small hope for its success, the Tsar seemed quite content to adopt a wait-and- see attitude with regard to Ashinov's project. Such behaviour clearly invites speculation as to the possible Russian response had something substantial materialized at Tajura Bay. It is possible that in such an event, the government might have assumed leadership over the enterprise, developing it along the lines anticipated by Governor Baranov.
History, however, was to decide otherwise. Russian Slavophiles displayed a dangerous ignorance of the workings of European colonialism when they argued that so modest a colonial beginning as the occupation of a site in Africa by a band of Cossacks was unlikely to arouse the suspicions of other powers. Both Britain and Italy were overtly hostile to Ashinov's schemes from the start. Not only did their diplomatic representatives in St. Petersburg make repeated efforts to prevent the embarkation of the New Moscow expedition, but once the Russians had arrived in the Red Sea the Italians managed to follow them with gunboats and even to plant a spy in their midst.
Apparently the governments of Italy and Britain, with stakes of their own in the region, were uneasy about the possibility of Russian colonial ventures along the Red Sea coast. What seemed to cause them equal disquietude was the thought of new arms shipments being made to indigenous African forces--especially of the variety which Ashinov intended to make to Ethiopia. The convening of the Brussels Conference of 1888-89, where France and Russia were asked to join a general restriction on arms deliveries to Africa, was probably prompted by such considerations. It is also likely that the same motivation induced Britain and Italy to remind France of its territorial claims in the vicinity of Tajura and to urge the French to deal harshly with Ashinov and his settlers.
France, however, was a potential supporter of the Russian expedition. Not only had Ashinov been careful to echo pro-French sentiments, but his political ambitions in north-eastern Africa coincided in many ways with those of the Third Republic. This coincidence of purpose might best be explained in terms of the community of interests which was emerging in Franco-Russian relations at the end of the 1880's. During this decade both powers were forced to witness the consolidation of the British route to India and to endure the frustration of having their Mediterranean projects blocked by Britain and the Triple Alliance. France and Russia had discovered an equally fundamental bond in the hostility they shared toward British power in Asia. By August, 1891, therefore, the two powers allowed their friendship to develop into an acknowledged entente. This was sealed in January, 1894, by the conclusion of a formal military alliance.
By aligning itself with France, the Tsarist government was able to benefit from France's far-flung territorial rivalry with Britain. With the help of the French, the Russian government was in a position to threaten the British, knowing that "with the Russians in the Pamirs and the French on the Mekong, India was indeed caught between two fires." Other terrain for anti-British manoeuvres was also opened to Russian foreign policy. Northeast Africa was a conspicuous case in point. Indeed, the political fact of Franco-Russian amity underlies the entire record of Imperial Russian involvement in Ethiopia and the region surrounding the mouth of the Red Sea.
Although there was no Franco-Russian alliance when Ashinov came to Paris in 1888 seeking support for his African projects, French political sympathies were already well enough established to ensure a warm reception for this Russian traveller. According to one source, the French cabinet even discussed the idea of giving some kind of assistance to Ashinov's expedition. No decision to this effect was taken but the government of France, like that of the Tsar, appears to have been at least initially willing to reserve judgment on the Cossack.
In 1862 France had occupied Obok, a port on Tajura Bay, and by 1888 it was actively extending its jurisdiction among the Somali tribes along the coast. Although it had significant territorial interests in the area, France, through its authorities in Obok, apparently offered no interference when Ashinov's party disembarked and began to occupy an abandoned fortress at nearby Sagallo. It seemed that as long as Ashinov was willing to recognize France's ultimate sovereignty in the region, these authorities were prepared to leave him in peace and to allow him to proceed with the construction of New Moscow. When, however, Ashinov balked on the critical issue of raising a French flag over the establishment and implied to French officials that he recognized only the authority of the local Danakil chieftain, Mohammed Leita, with whom he had independently established friendly relations, suspicions were aroused. Thus, the sovereignty-conscious French, fearing competitive encroachments in the area, probably took the first available opportunity to protest to the Russian government.
At this juncture it became apparent that the fears of Foreign Minister de Giers had in fact materialized. In light of Ashinov's apparent readiness to defy France, the Russian government realized that any further identification with the Cossack was apt to prove highly embarrassing. It therefore instructed its Chargé d'Affaires in Paris to inform the French Foreign Minister that the Russian government "was absolutely not privy to Ashinov's adventure, which was conducted on his own responsibility and at his own risk," that it was "entirely ignorant" of the agreement Ashinov reportedly signed with the local authorities concerning Sagallo, and that if the locality fell "under the protectorate of France," then Ashinov would have to "submit" to the laws existing there. Foreign Minister de Giers also found an opportunity to inform the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg that Russia would find it "natural and legitimate" for France to take measures to assert its rights vis-à-vis Ashinov.
Tsar Alexander, who at the outset had not seemed overly concerned that Ashinov might provoke the French in Obok, was soon receiving reports of the Cossack's misbehaviour both from his ambassador in Paris and from officers in his own navy. Quickly coming around to de Giers' point of view, the Tsar decided that it was "absolutely necessary to pull this beast Ashinov out of there [Tajura] as soon as possible." Accordingly, it was resolved that a Russian gunboat should proceed to Tajura Bay to retrieve Russia's knight errant.
The diplomatic correspondence between Russia and France indicates that the latter was perfectly willing to allow Russia to discipline Ashinov. It is understandable, however, that France interpreted de Giers' earlier assurances as an indication that Russia would not stand in the way should French forces undertake the forcible expulsion of the Cossack. Orders were therefore issued to Admiral Orly's Red Sea squadron to do so. These orders were hurriedly countermanded when it was learned that the Russians had decided to deal with Ashinov themselves. Ironically, the Russian decision was not communicated to the French Foreign Minister until February 17, 1889, the day on which Admiral Orly bombarded New Moscow, killing several Russian settlers and abruptly ending Russia's only colonial venture in Africa.
What significance did the Ashinov expedition hold for the future of Imperial Russia's involvement in north-eastern Africa? What were the political implications of this shooting incident between French and Russians on African shores?
Perhaps the most conspicuous result of the Sagallo incident was its effect on relations between France and Russia. The Ashinov affair did not constitute a serious threat to the new entente between the two powers. As French diplomatic sources clearly reveal, the only real problem between the two governments was one of communications. Not only had France and Russia virtually agreed upon a common policy with regard to Ashinov before the incident occurred, but their behaviour in the course of Sagallo's aftermath was the very model of accommodation and amity.
The Tsar personally harboured little sympathy for the unsuccessful Ashinov. Upon hearing the news of Sagallo, he pronounced it "a sad and stupid comedy." More important, Alexander insisted publicly that Ashinov, and not the French authorities in Obok, should bear the responsibility for the affair. He went so far as to authorize his government to publish an official statement which recognized French sovereignty over Sagallo and which reaffirmed the opinion that the French had acted entirely within their rights in forcing Ashinov to respect the laws of the locality. No effort was spared to make known the Russian government's disgust with Ashinov and to expose him as a useless ruffian.
The government of France was equally prompt and solicitous in its pronouncements. Regrets were hurriedly expressed to the Russians for the loss of life, and the French National Assembly even took the unusual step of passing a vote of sympathy. In order to repair as much damage as possible, the French were quick to draw the distinction between their opposition to Ashinov and their attitude toward the Russian spiritual mission. So as to emphasize their friendly disposition toward the latter, French authorities in Obok reportedly offered Father Paissi a caravan to facilitate his voyage to Ethiopia.
In sum, there is good reason to believe that the net result of Sagallo was to enhance Franco-Russian amity. Given the cooperative and obliging manner in which the issue was treated by both powers, it is possible to regard the Ashinov affair as a successful test of the viability of the Franco-Russian rapprochement. As such it did much to create a favourable climate for the close Franco-Russian cooperation which characterized the entire record of Imperial Russian involvement in north eastern Africa.
However fortunate its final outcome may have been in terms of relations with France, internally, the Russian government's experience with Ashinov was largely an unsettling one. For one thing, it brought into focus the startling lack of concert among the various branches of the Russian government involved with the country's foreign relations. To the consternation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, other administrative units such as the Ministries of War and the Navy were embarking upon relatively independent policies, and even semi-official bodies such as the Palestine Society were acting as autonomous agents, promoting an entire series of Slavophile intrigues in the Middle East. To more than one high official of the Foreign Ministry, the Ashinov episode was sad evidence that "we have departments, but not a government."
At the same time the failure of the Ashinov enterprise did appear to vindicate the position of the Foreign Ministry and to represent a significant defeat for the Slavophiles. This failure was a source of acute personal embarrassment to Pobedonostsev who had strongly supported Ashinov. The Procurator did further damage to his standing within the Imperial government by spuriously denying that he had had any hand whatsoever in the Ashinov affair and by attempting to lay blame at the feet of General Richter and the late Admiral Shestakov.
Yet, by promoting Ashinov's expedition, the Slavophiles were responsible for bringing north-eastern Africa into the realm of Russian public consciousness in a way they might scarcely have anticipated. When Russian blood was spilled on African soil, the region inevitably acquired new and special status in the eyes of the Russian public. To some, Ashinov suddenly became a hero, a true Russian "patriot" who had made "valiant efforts to establish close relations with Abyssinia." Other influential Russians, who wished for no repetition of the Ashinov experience, nonetheless held hopes for Father Paissi's continued progress toward Ethiopia and expected their government to take steps to put its relations with Africa on a more satisfactory footing. More numerous still were those who concluded from the Ashinov episode that Russian prestige in the Red Sea area was at low ebb and that Italian presence in the region constituted a growing threat to Russian interests. Such a climate of opinion induced Lamsdorff (then First Secretary of the Foreign Ministry) to wonder whether "in spite of the recently experienced scandal, attempts at new adventures might not be repeated."
Certainly the Russian government could not afford to remain altogether oblivious to the more reasonable expectations aroused by the Ashinov fiasco. If it never had before, Russia was now forced to take seriously the question of its prestige in Ethiopia. A diplomatic dispatch from the Russian Consul General in Cairo not long after the Sagallo incident indicated that this was the case. Commenting upon the Consul General's description of the harm which Ashinov's appearance in Ethiopia might have done to Russian prestige, the Tsar made the remark: "thank the Lord he did not get to Abyssinia."
Thus the Russian sovereign appeared to have been not only intensely annoyed with Ashinov, but also considerably relieved at the thought that Russia's knight errant had been unable to penetrate the African interior. Did this perhaps imply that Alexander was beginning to harbour some definite ambitions with regard to north-eastern Africa? Did Russia already have something on the Ethiopian fire which could have been spoiled by premature moves such as those the impetuous Ashinov was likely to make? The subsequent behaviour of the Russian government clearly suggests that it did.
At least one of the highest officials of the Imperial Russian government, General Vannovski, the Minister of War, was reluctant to support the Ashinov expedition for the very reason that he had other plans for establishing contact with Ethiopia. Some time before the unexpected termination of the Ashinov expedition, General Vannovski had decided to explore Ethiopia's potential as a weapon in Russia's strategic struggle with Britain. His first move was to send a Russian officer on a reconnaissance mission to Ethiopia in early 1889. Thus, while the Imperial government was still preoccupied with the diplomatic confusion left by Ashinov's adventures, the Ministry of War was pursuing an alternative, but probably more reliable avenue toward initiating Russian relations with Ethiopia.
Vannovski's interest in Ethiopia appears to have arisen within the context of the Anglo-Russian confrontation in Afghanistan (1884-85). As the Times of London was careful to point out, when the Russian advance halted at Merv, "the Komaroff [sic.] war fever gave rise to the idea of creating Russian interests in Africa with a view to harass England in the event of hostilities breaking out between the two countries." In short, the Russian Minister of War had undoubtedly come to the conclusion that in Africa it was possible "to hamper the British government more effectively than [was] . . . feasible either in Afghanistan or in India."
Vannovski's strategic motivations are further suggested by his decision to use for the African mission an officer who had previously been assigned to the Afghan frontier. The individual chosen, Lieutenant V. F. Mashkov, was a veteran of Russia's Central Asian campaigns against the British and was regarded by the latter as capable of zealous Anglophobia. Even more significant, Lieutenant Mashkov was a person who had done considerable thinking about the strategic importance of north-eastern Africa, had studied the people and geography of the region, and had advanced what was, in effect, a fully developed plan for the establishment of a Russian position of strength in the area.
Under the pseudonym of V. Fedorov, Mashkov had written a book entitled, Abyssinia: An Historical-Geographical Essay with a Map of Abyssinia and the Tajura Inlet, which described this plan and emphasized its strategic importance. Leaving aside the question of any overt Russian colonialism in the region (Mashkov's reference to this option serves as a reminder that the idea was then current in Russia), Mashkov made a comprehensive argument for securing not only religious, but also military and economic control over Ethiopia. In this context he makes an interesting case for the economic advantages of a Russian presence in Ethiopia, citing the importance of a new market and a firsthand source of colonial products for the stability of the rouble and the welfare of the Russian population.
In enumerating the political benefits of Russian dominance in Ethiopia, Mashkov emphasized essentially three points. In the first place, by becoming "a kind of neighbour" of Egypt, Russia would find itself in a position to check that country's capabilities for supplying the Ottomans with auxiliary military forces. Instead of being forced to witness Egyptian troops fighting Russians, Russia might, with the help of the Ethiopians, "give Egypt a job to do [militarily] in its own back yard." In the event Egypt should be transferred altogether into the hands of Britain, such tactics would be equally useful for ensnaring British power along the Nile valley.
In the second place, Ethiopia's quarrel with Italy, in Mashkov's opinion, held real promise of diverting a portion of Italian strength from the European war theatre. A development of this kind would represent a significant victory for Russian interests, given Italy's membership in the anti-Russian Triple Alliance.
A final reward for Russian association with Ethiopia, Mashkov anticipated, might be the acquisition of a port on the Red Sea. Since "bellicose Ethiopia" was inevitably bound to cut its way to the Red Sea and to conquer Africa's Red Sea coastline, Russia "might easily obtain from her one of the ports to the south" which Ethiopia needed least. A facility of this kind would be valuable to Russia as a much needed coaling station. But more significantly, such a port would provide an installation from which Russian torpedo boats and privateers could "at any given moment close the Red Sea trade route to English vessels," forcing the English commercial fleet to make the circuitous and not altogether secure trip around the entire African continent. Hence Russia's position on the Red Sea would serve, in Mashkov's words, as "an eternal threat to the welfare and consequently to the power of England. . . . The capability of shutting this route would force the proud English to drop their pervasively hostile tone towards us, and possibly, might assist in the solution of the Eastern Question in a desirable sense for Russia."
Arguments such as these must have seemed appealing to Russia's anti- British Minister of War. One source indicates that General Vannovski received Mashkov personally on several occasions. This source refers, moreover, to a scheme, submitted in writing by Mashkov to Vannovski, which corresponded almost identically to the plan outlined in Abyssinia. That Mashkov subsequently departed on a secret mission to Ethiopia, reportedly with the Russian War Minister's financial authorization, implies that Vannovski was amenable to Mashkov's thinking and was prepared to proceed at least initially with his plan for Ethiopia.
Arriving in Abyssinia in October, 1889, the members of Mashkov's party presented gifts to Menelik II and were warmly received by the Ethiopian sovereign as "military representatives of his brother, the Negus of Muscovy." It is possible that the occasion of this first direct communication between the governments of Russia and Ethiopia was utilized to discuss the question of Russian assistance in Ethiopia's impending struggle with Italy. In any event, the Russians promptly returned to St. Petersburg, reportedly carrying a personal letter from Menelik to Tsar Alexander.
Although Mashkov's first assignment in Africa was carried out in extreme secrecy, British observers were quick to recognize the official character and political significance of the undertaking. The activity of the expedition was inconspicuous and its proportions modest, yet the London Times was prompted to predict that, "incredible as it may appear, the outcome of the expedition seems likely to be infinitely more wide-reaching and enduring than our own armed enterprise of 1868 [referring to the Napier expedition]."
The Russians themselves attached considerable importance to Mashkov's preliminary visit. The attitude of the Imperial government emerges most graphically from a remark made by Alexander III on the question of Russian intentions in Ethiopia. "We will hear out Mashkov himself, review this matter very carefully and make a final decision," he wrote on the margin of a dispatch from one of his diplomats. Evidently the Tsar was awaiting the return of the Russian officer to determine whether he would enter into close relations with the Ethiopians.
When Mashkov did appear in St. Petersburg, the Tsar granted him a lengthy private audience, in the course of which a secret map of Abyssinia prepared by the Italian General Staff was reportedly consulted. In addition, Mashkov received a decoration from the Russian sovereign which was regarded as unusually important for an officer of his rank. In brief, the Tsar did not appear to be in any way adverse to Mashkov's plans for Ethiopia.
The Tsar's affirmative reaction to Mashkov's initial investigation was even more obvious in his decision to send this officer back to Ethiopia in early 1891. Alexander seemed prepared at this time to commit himself to the principle of Russo-Ethiopian friendship. Not only did he address a letter to Menelik expressing his readiness to extend "a brotherly helping hand to Ethiopia in case of need," but he also entrusted Mashkov with rifles for the Ethiopian ruler perhaps as a token of what Russian assistance might yield in the future.
A larger expedition was organized for Mashkov's second visit to Africa. Although this expedition was ostensibly of a "scientific" nature and was conducted under the auspices of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society, it received the firm support of key organs within the Russian government. In addition to the Ministry of War -- the Ministry of Finance, the Holy Synod, and even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs participated in determining the expedition's composition, its tasks, and its financing. Contrary to its position with regard to Ashinov, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and particularly its Asian Department, enthusiastically endorsed the efforts of Lieutenant Mashkov. So dramatic was the change of position on the part of this Ministry that the London Times was prompted to observe:
The value set upon the political results anticipated from Mr. Mashkov's mission may be accurately gauged by the keen interest displayed by the cautious Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is credited with a considerable degree of squeamishness in matters of this kind.
Indeed, in many respects, the Foreign Ministry gave positive assistance to the Mashkov mission. Not only did it occupy itself with dispatches from the field concerning the mission, but it made very definite diplomatic moves to clear the way for Mashkov's activities in Africa. Stressing the unarmed nature of the enterprise, Foreign Minister de Giers went out of his way to recommend that French authorities in Africa welcome Russia's second "traveller" to Ethiopia. Moreover, the Foreign Ministry took even greater pains to convince the Italian government that the expedition was primarily scientific in nature. First Secretary Lamsdorff carefully explained to the Italian Ambassador in St. Petersburg that the mission had "no political character." Yet, curiously enough, the Russian government in virtually the same breath made known its refusal to accept Italy's self-assumed role as a "go-between" in Ethiopia's relations with the outside world. Mashkov's departure for Ethiopia was made the occasion for announcing Russia's intention to take a firm position in behalf of Ethiopian independence.
Menelik II, who had used Italian arms in his successful bid for the Ethiopian throne, had been obliged to sign a treaty of friendship with Italy in 1889. The Italian government subsequently interpreted this Treaty of Ucciali, and Article 17 in particular, as legal grounds for asserting an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia. Such an interpretation was contrary to Menelik's understanding of the treaty. (In fact, the Amharic text of Article 17 asserted that "Ethiopia may use the services of Italy in the conduct of its foreign relations," while the Italian text consciously employed the term "is obliged to use the services of Italy.") Thus, when Mashkov arrived in Africa, the question of Ethiopian independence vis-à-vis Italy was uppermost in the mind of Menelik.
The Ethiopian reception of the Mashkov mission was exceedingly warm, almost to the point of embarrassing the Russians. In the tense atmosphere, politics quite naturally became a prominent subject of conversation. By his own account, Mashkov discussed the Treaty of Ucciali in considerable detail with Menelik. Upon learning of Italy's efforts to convince Europe of its claim to an Ethiopian protectorate, Menelik reportedly became indignant, exclaiming, "this has never happened and it never will."
According to Mashkov, the Ethiopian Emperor was extremely grateful that Russia and France had refused to accept the Italian claims. Apparently Russia's diplomatic sympathy prompted Menelik to seek further support. When Mashkov returned to St. Petersburg in August, 1892, he brought with him a request that a Russian artillery officer be sent to Ethiopia to train Ethiopians to operate and repair modern weapons. In addition, Mashkov was accompanied by the son of a noble of Harrar, who was to be trained in a military school in St. Petersburg. Developments of this kind seemed to foreshadow success for Mashkov's plan to "transfer into our hands the armed forces of the country."
While in Ethiopia, Mashkov also sought to promote two other aspects of his strategic design for the assertion of Russian control over the country. Presumably as part of his plan for the eventual subjugation of Ethiopia, Mashkov appeared to be working for the conclusion of a Russo-Ethiopian commercial treaty. According to one source, such an agreement would have been designed to obtain a new outlet for "Russian fire arms, fire-water, and church utensils" - in return, Russia would have received much-coveted Ethiopian gold.
In addition, Mashkov seemed to have been pursuing Porfiry Uspensky's notion of Russian religious hegemony in Ethiopia. Like Ashinov, Mashkov had been accompanied to Ethiopia by a Russian monk, Father Tikon, appointed by the Holy Synod. Together, they apparently had instructions "to mould the religious question into a powerful lever to be used in Abyssinia as it was heretofore employed against the Turks in the Balkan Peninsula." After meeting with the head of the Ethiopian Church, Abuna Petros, Mashkov appeared quite encouraged about the prospects for asserting "Russian protection" over Ethiopia's religious affairs.
However ambitious were his aspirations, the principal tasks entrusted to Mashkov by the Russian government were essentially of the traditional political reporting variety. Important among these was the task of determining the political strength of Ethiopia internally, and assessing its strategic position with regard to neighbouring areas.
It was probably in the interest of determining Ethiopia's military strength that Mashkov visited Ankober, where Menelik was grouping his army to oppose the Italian supported pretender, Ras Mangasha. Interest in Ethiopia's relations with the Mahdists may similarly have prompted him to make an "exploring tour" as far north as Khartoum. In any event, one of Mashkov's most valuable services was to obtain a clear impression of the extent of Ethiopia's determination both to resist the Italians and to become a friend of the Russians.
How did other European nations react to Mashkov, his mission, and his ideas? As might have been expected, both the British and the Italians were highly sceptical concerning the motivations underlying the Russian expedition to Ethiopia.
Intense in their hostility to Mashkov's second Ethiopian mission, the Italians were quick to deprecate the cultural and religious aspects of the undertaking. How could Russians bring civilization to Ethiopia, the Italian press asked, when Russia itself did not possess that valuable commodity? Moreover, the Italians warned the Ethiopians to be wary of the motives of the Russians, who, heavily in debt in Europe, were apt to exploit Ethiopian riches for their own selfish benefit. Mashkov observes that while in Ethiopia, he was on numerous occasions confronted by Italian accusations to the effect that the Russians "under the guise of friendship" would subjugate Ethiopia as they had their "small Orthodox neighbours."
The British, known for their perceptivity in such matters, were also inclined to look for ulterior motives on the part of Russia. They were hardly deceived by the veil of scientific inquiry which had been drawn around Mashkov's enterprise. In a tone of caustic certitude, the Times of London declared:
"As a matter of sober fact, the astronomic, geological, meteorological, botanical and zoological observations which the Geographic Society can reasonably anticipate from Lt. Mashkov and his devoted comrades will prove about as valuable to science generally as were the startling archaeological discoveries of the conscientious Mr. Pickwick, as expounded to the learned club that bore that worthy scholar's name."
Instead, the British clearly recognized that the Imperial Russian government was closely connected with the affair and that the Tsar would be unable to disassociate himself from Mashkov, as he had from Ashinov. By the same token, British observers attributed considerable political significance to Mashkov's enterprise, going so far as to regard it as an attempt to drive in "the thin edge of an enormous wedge" of Russian influence into Africa. Thus, they were apprehensive lest the Mashkov mission prove to be only the beginning of a series of African victories for Russian diplomacy. "Where will the good fortune of Mr. Mashkov himself end," asked the London Times, "welcomed as he will be by the Aboona [head of the Ethiopian Church], beloved by the Negus, and befriended by the clergy and the people?"
What caused the British particular anxiety was the perennial question of their security in Egypt. Indeed the thought of a renascent or a rearmed Ethiopia was a disquieting one both to the Egyptians and to their English overlords. Since the possibility of Russian military assistance to Ethiopia was currently in the air, the suspicions of the British were aroused lest such benevolences ultimately lead to direct moves against Egypt. In this connection certain ominous historical precedents came to mind. As the Times observed:
"Russian diplomatists . . . will not neglect to remind the world that the ill-fated King Theodore firmly intended to assert his rights to Egypt proper at a time when British interests there could scarcely be said to exist."
Thus was Russian activity fitted into the context of Franco-Russian opposition to British power. It was felt in Britain that France would probably welcome the influx of Russian influence in Ethiopia. It was feared, moreover, that the French would see in the success of Mashkov a means by which to recover their lost position in Egypt. Perhaps, the British concluded, the establishment of Russo-Ethiopian relations was itself a manifestation of a joint intention on the part of Russia and France to "draw a sponge over the late history of Egypt."
Certainly the attitude which the French government took toward the Mashkov expedition did nothing to dispel British fears. On the contrary, the apparent solicitude of the French for Mashkov's every step deepened the British conviction that the French were "expecting a fair percentage on their investment" in a program of collusion with Russia. Everywhere, Mashkov was received in a friendly fashion by French officials. Not only did the French in Africa provide his expedition with much useful advice for its journey inland, but they reportedly supplied it with an armed escort of Senegalese troops.
That British fears regarding the Mashkov expedition were justified is in fact suggested by Lamsdorff's own diary. Conceding the mendacity of the official Russian statement to the Italian government, this diary reveals:
The Mashkov expedition, although officially purely scientific in character, in fact pursued political objectives. The French and Russian governments repeatedly sought to strengthen their influence in Abyssinia in the first place in order to counterbalance the designs of Italian imperialism there; and in the second place . . . to threaten the Upper Nile and thus the very position of the English in Egypt.
The political significance of the Mashkov missions in the development of Russian relations with Ethiopia has been largely overlooked by scholars. Whatever celebrity or notoriety was acquired by Ashinov in the course of his African adventures, Lt. V. F. Mashkov should be regarded as the individual who laid the foundations for the initiation of direct relations between Ethiopia and Russia. His two visits to the court of Menelik made possible the first direct and reciprocal exchange of messages between the rulers of the two countries. Although Ethiopian monarchs had on several occasions sought to enter into direct communications with the Russian Tsar, Mashkov's second visit to Ethiopia marked the first Imperial response to Ethiopian overtures.
Although it may be true, as K. S. Zviagin points out, that Mashkov's success in Ethiopia was to a certain extent hindered by his lack of fluency in local languages and by illness, 113 it is nonetheless certain that Mashkov was able to return to Russia in 1892, after nearly a year in Ethiopia, with the confidence of having won, for himself and for his country, the friendship of Ethiopia's sovereign. Through his conversations with Menelik, he had suggested that friendship with Russia could well serve as a diplomatic avenue for Ethiopia to assert its independence from the Italians. Moreover, as a result of Mashkov's second mission, Ethiopia possessed for the first time tangible assurance of the Tsar's support--something Menelik had good reason to remember in the course of his ensuing struggle with the Italians.
In contrast to earlier Russian ventures in Africa, Mashkov's activities appear to have conformed to a consistent and well- developed strategic plan. If his first visit to Ethiopia had been only exploratory in nature, his second mission represented an officially considered move on the part of the Russian government. As a well-informed traveller, Mashkov was able to explain to Russians the nature of the political situation in north-eastern Africa. As one of the first political observers of Africa to recognize the plight of underdeveloped peoples when confronted with the onslaught of European civilization, he was able to stimulate Russian sympathy and support for Ethiopians. Finally, as writer and lecturer, Mashkov, upon his return from Ethiopia, was able to spark popular enthusiasm for a land and for peoples far beyond the confines of Russia's traditional sphere of interest.
Although several years elapsed before Russians reappeared in Ethiopia, this period did not represent a hiatus in Russia's growing interest in the African continent. In 1893, for example, a particularly dramatic attempt was made by a Russian officer, Captain A. V. Eliseev, to reach the headquarters of the Mahdists in the Sudan. Eliseev was also a medical doctor who had learned on earlier visits to North Africa that the instruments of his profession gave him a far better entrée among local inhabitants than did the arms used by other Europeans in their African travels. No evidence has yet come to light to indicate conclusively whether Eliseev's Sudan mission was undertaken at the explicit behest of the Russian government. Nonetheless, the expedition does appear to have been conducted in the spirit of an anti-British intelligence operation and to have yielded information of value to the Russian government in assessing the strength of the British position in Egypt and along the Nile.
It was in the context of continued Russian interest in Mahdism that Eliseev returned to Africa in 1895, at the head of a Russian expedition bound for Ethiopia and the Sudan. In many ways this expedition appeared to fit clearly into the pattern of Russo- Ethiopian exchanges which had been established by Mashkov. Members of the mission may have described their undertaking as a "modest scientific enterprise," but, like Mashkov's visit to Ethiopia in 1891- 92, their expedition had a distinctly political flavour. In addition to Eliseev, two other members of the expedition, K. S. Zviagin and N. S. Leontiev, held commissions in the Russian army. That they were given leave of absence for an African journey in itself implies that their objective was more than purely scientific in nature. Moreover, both the Ministry of War and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs evinced a definite interest in the success of the undertaking. Vannovski's Ministry outfitted the expedition with weapons and scientific instruments, while de Giers and his colleagues arranged for the cooperation of the French government, as they had done in the case of the Mashkov expedition. The Holy Synod, following the now established pattern, appointed an ecclesiastical representative (Father Efrem) to accompany Eliseev and to pursue the objective of unifying the Ethiopian and Russian churches.
Thus, whether or not the decision to support Eliseev's venture represented a conscious effort on the part of the Russian government to pursue the political projects begun by Mashkov, in effect Russia was proceeding along the path prescribed by that earlier African traveller. Eliseev's own desire to visit Ethiopia may even have been inspired by reading the works of Mashkov. At any rate, by corresponding with Mashkov before his departure for Africa, Eliseev was able to absorb much from the experience of the Russian expedition of 1891-92.
Even if Eliseev's party had been anxious to avoid altogether the concerns of international politics, the circumstances surrounding its arrival in Ethiopia would have made this impossible. The appearance of the Russians coincided with a severe deterioration in Ethiopia's relations with the Italians. By 1895 an all-out military confrontation between Ethiopia and Italy was becoming inevitable.
In his new capital, Addis Ababa, Menelik had been eagerly awaiting news of the return of his friends the Muscovites. Undoubtedly he was thinking in terms of the services which these sympathetic northerners- -themselves no friends of the Italians--could render Ethiopia. When word finally came that the Russians were again visiting his country, Menelik was obviously very much pleased. Before they had penetrated Ethiopia further than the provincial capital of Harrar, the members of Eliseev's expedition were treated to an official welcome of proportions unprecedented for any European visitor in the country.
In the course of the ceremonies, the Russians met with Ras Makonnen, Menelik's principle lieutenant and designated successor, who had come to greet them in behalf of the Ethiopian sovereign. Before very long it became apparent that the Ethiopians desired a significant and rapid expansion in their official relations with Russia. In this connection they indicated that they were prepared to dispatch a high level embassy to Russia. Would this be acceptable to the Tsar?
It was decided that Eliseev should himself return immediately to St. Petersburg to make the necessary preparations, while Leontiev and the other members of the expedition would proceed to the court of Menelik. The new Tsar, Nicholas II (1894-1917), received the Russian officer upon his return, and on May 10, 1895, twelve days before his death, Eliseev reported on his journey to the Russian Geographical Society, the official sponsor of his expedition.
England and Italy, seeing in the Eliseev expedition a new step toward Russo-Ethiopian rapprochement, exhibited no less hostility toward the enterprise than they had toward that of Mashkov. The French Governor of Djibouti, M. Lagarde, even became concerned lest agents of these powers bribe the natives into attacking the expedition on its journey inland across the Danakil Desert. In such a situation, the promise of the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg that France "will see your expedition through to the very borders of Ethiopia," was fulfilled with particular care.
The experience of A. V. Eliseev thus served as a further illustration of Franco-Russian cooperation in north eastern Africa. But it was significant for other reasons as well. Although Eliseev himself never reached the court of Menelik and his expedition did not come equipped with much-needed military supplies for Ethiopia, Eliseev was able to assert with certain justification that he and his companion had "served to a certain extent as pioneers in the establishment of various kinds of relations with Abyssinia." One member in particular, Captain Leontiev, played a significant role in the further development of Russo-Ethiopian ties. Probably as a result of his utility to Menelik as an expert on military tactics and on the modernization of the Ethiopian army, Leontiev rapidly acquired considerable influence at the Ethiopian court. Having equally close ties in Russian court circles, he was able to act as liaison in subsequent exchanges between the two governments.
Eliseev's repeated efforts to gather intelligence on Mahdism suggest that Russia was aware of the value of that movement as an indigenous force capable of disrupting the plans of British and Italian imperialism in Africa. Yet in the wake of the Eliseev expedition of 1895 it became apparent that Ethiopia was of far more immediate value to Russia as an anti-Italian, anti-British force. It was equally apparent, moreover, that the Ethiopians were willing and able to enter into close relations with Russia.
If he did nothing else, Eliseev contributed significantly to the prompt inauguration of Russo-Ethiopian relations by appearing in Ethiopia at the most favourable psychological moment. His visit provided a timely opportunity for the Ethiopians to manifest their friendly attitudes toward Russia and it encouraged them to send their first official mission to St. Petersburg. In a political sense, the Eliseev expedition marked the beginning of the period of greatest intimacy between Imperial Russia and Ethiopia.
Captain Leontiev and Father Efrem had been at the court of Menelik only a short time before they were asked to escort Ethiopia's first full-scale mission to Russia. This they did, arriving in St. Petersburg in June, 1895.
Menelik's unprecedented decision to send an embassy to Russia was undoubtedly based on a variety of considerations. Ostensibly he felt obliged to render homage to the memory of Alexander III, whose friendship had been extended to him via a personal communication brought to Ethiopia by Mashkov. In addition, there was the continuing question of religious rapprochement between Russia and Ethiopia. Not only did this factor prompt Menelik to choose an Ethiopian bishop to be one of the members of his embassy, but it allowed him to draw an ecclesiastical veil over much of the embassy's official activity in Russia.
Although Ras Makonnen had previously assured Eliseev that Ethiopians "neither ask nor expect anything from Russia: the sole desire of all of us is that she treat us sympathetically, believing in the friendship of a people sharing her faith," one suspects that from the Ethiopian point of view the most pressing arguments for sending a mission to Russia were political and military in nature. In 1895 one political fact seemed to overshadow all else: Ethiopia was on the verge of an all-out war with Italy. In such a situation, the country needed every manner of military assistance available in order to fight a modern European army. Menelik's pointed reference to Alexander III may, in fact, have been intended as a discrete hint that Ethiopia could now use that assistance which the late Tsar had promised.
All diplomatic symbolism aside, it was obvious from the composition and rank of Menelik's embassy that the Ethiopians had come to discuss critical affairs of state. In addition to his first cousin, Prince Damto (an important military leader who served as "Extraordinary Ambassador"), and another relative, Prince Beliakio, Menelik sent with the mission to Russia his personal secretary, a general of the Ethiopian cavalry, and two additional officers of the Ethiopian army.
Further indications of the embassy's particular interest in military matters can be gleaned from observing its itinerary in Russia. In addition to their repeated contacts with the highest echelons of the Russian military establishment, members of the embassy attended demonstrations of Russian army manoeuvres, observed weapons tests, and visited arms factories. Moreover, the Ethiopians' travels ended on a martial note when their Russian hosts evoked, in the course of farewell ceremonies, the memory of the seventeenth century proposals for a Russo-Ethiopian military alliance. As a parting gift, the Ethiopians took with them a number of modern weapons and a large monetary gift for Menelik.
Throughout its stay in Russia, the Ethiopian embassy had been received in a manner which attracted both popular enthusiasm and political attention. The Russian church, aroused as never before to the prospects of union with its Ethiopian counterpart, turned the visit at many junctures into a triumphal and emotional procession. Similarly, the Russian press did much to stimulate genuine popular enthusiasm for Ethiopia. But perhaps the most prominent display of hospitality toward the visiting dignitaries came from the very group of Slavophiles which had been most active in promoting the projects of Ashinov. The unsuspecting Ethiopians were literally showered with invitations--from Pobedonostsev to dine at Tsarkoe Selo, from Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich to stay with him in Moscow, and from Governor General Baranov to visit Nizhniy Novgorod.
Doors opened, as they did for few visitors, to enable the Ethiopians to meet the highest officials of the Russian government. 138 Finally, on June 30, 1895, the Ethiopian embassy was formally presented to Nicholas II and members of the Imperial family. In a sense, the long series of efforts on the part of Russians and Ethiopians to establish friendly relations between their two countries reached a culmination in this meeting. In the course of the audience, Prince Damto gave the Tsar a personal letter from Emperor Menelik and, in effect, formal diplomatic relations were thereupon established between Russia and Ethiopia.
Given Italian pretensions to a protectorate over Ethiopia, such a diplomatic event represented the most open defiance of Italy on the part of the Ethiopians. Quite possibly Menelik sent his embassy to Russia with this very purpose in mind. Whatever his intent, it is clear that as a result of the mission Menelik succeeded in breaking the spell of diplomatic isolation which had hung over Ethiopia since the Treaty of Ucciali. In brief, he had secured official recognition of Ethiopia from one of the major powers. The exceedingly warm reception accorded the Ethiopian mission was tantamount to an open repudiation by Russia of the Italian claims of suzerainty. But equally important, the Russian government chose to make its support of Ethiopia's right to political independence still more explicit. The Russian Foreign Minister as well as Russian diplomats in Italy chose the occasion of the Ethiopian mission to reiterate in no uncertain terms that Russia had never recognized either the Treaty of Ucciali or any Italian protectorate in Ethiopia.
The success of Menelik's embassy to Russia thus worked to bring Ethiopia's conflict with Italy to a head. It is no exaggeration to say that the favourable Russian reception of the mission contributed significantly to Menelik's determination to pursue a struggle which led to the fateful confrontation at Adowa on March 1, 1896. Some evidence exists which suggests that Menelik deliberately postponed military moves against Italy until the return of his mission to Russia. Although he may not have obtained all the immediate military aid he needed, Menelik did have good reason to believe as a result of his mission, that he could turn to the Russians for assistance in the future. If only in terms of moral support, Menelik had found considerable encouragement in Russia for asserting Ethiopian independence.
Menelik was dramatically successful in his confrontation with the Italian army at Adowa. Of the approximately 20,000 Italian troops participating in the battle, over half were killed, wounded, or taken as prisoners by the Ethiopians. As rarely before in the long history of the country, virtually the whole feudal hierarchy of Ethiopia had rallied behind a single national leader to expel a foreign invader.
Certainly Menelik had good reason to rejoice in the final outcome of his life and death struggle with the Italians. It is no exaggeration to say that the question of Ethiopia's very existence had been resolved decisively at Adowa. The battle was also decisive in a much wider sense. Adowa was the first example of the defeat of a major European army on the African continent. As such, it became a prominent point of reference in the cultural heritage of African nationalism. By the same token, it won considerable respect for Menelik among European governments of the day. One government, that of Crispi, was overthrown in the wake of the battle, bringing to an abrupt end Italian claims of suzerainty over Ethiopia. In effect, as a result of Menelik's astounding victory, a number of European powers, particularly those which harboured imperialist intentions for north-eastern Africa, felt obliged to undertake hurried reassessments of their policies in the region.
In the opinion of the leaders of these countries, the virtual elimination of Italy from north-eastern Africa created a power vacuum which could be exploited to their advantage. Ethiopia itself seemed to recognize that there was room for immediate territorial aggrandizement. This, in turn, served to stimulate the natural proclivity of European imperialists to seek new real estate of their own on the African continent. In brief, the battle of Adowa triggered a rush for territory so energetic and so precipitate that it is appropriate to speak in terms of a "race for the Nile" during the two years after 1896.
The most immediate reaction to the new political situation in north- eastern Africa came from Britain. Within days of Italy's defeat at Adowa, Lord Cromer had received authorization from the British government to embark upon the re-conquest of the Sudan. Much more was at stake in this decision than simply the longing of Victorian Britain to avenge the memory of its fallen hero, General Gordon. In the first place, the services of Italy could no longer be relied upon to look after British interests in north-eastern Africa. Lord Salisbury hardly needed to be reminded that the vital route to India was now exposed to the subversive intentions of England's adversaries. Moreover, as Cromer recognized, Britain could not allow the sources of the Nile to remain unguarded--given its interests in Egypt and its plans for a colonial empire in Africa. Ever an eloquent exponent of the growth of British colonialism, Winston Churchill (who went to cover the Sudan campaign as a young journalist) explained:
"It must not be forgotten that the sources of the Nile are physically as much an integral part of Egypt as the roots are an integral part of the tree.
Of what use would the roots and rich soil be, if the stem were severed, by which alone their vital essence may find expression in the upper air? Here then is the plain and honest reason for the River War."
Closely related to this concept and perhaps equally important as a rationale for Britain's prominent role in the race for the Nile was the English dream of linking its northern and southern African possessions. The east bank of the Nile south of Khartoum offered the most favourable terrain for the construction of a Cape to Cairo railroad. Although the ownership of this area was uncertain, Ethiopia seemed a likely suzerain unless Britain could acquire the territory first. Extremely disquieting to the English in this regard was the possibility that France, with its increasing influence in Ethiopia, would ultimately find itself in a position to cast a permanent veto upon British attempts to connect its footholds in the African continent.
French strategists were certainly not innocent of such intentions. Experience in Africa had already impressed them with the utility of pre-empting the British by gaining control of the rivers upon which British possessions were dependent. On the Upper Nile the use of this stratagem would not only work against British interests in Egypt, but it might serve the added purpose of frustrating Britain's continental designs. Moreover, if Britain had the audacity to plan a north-south axis of power in Africa, then France, too, was capable of extending its own cordon across the continent in the opposite direction--from east to west.
Ethiopia's victory at Adowa and the subsequent British decision to move southward from Egypt served to convince the French government to proceed with the implementation of its transcontinental plan. Even as Lord Kitchener was making his first preparations to move up the Nile toward Dongola, an expedition of major proportions left France on its way toward the Upper Nile. This expedition, led by the intrepid French explorer, Captain Marchand, had specific instructions to traverse the continent from west to east via French possessions. Relying upon the anti-British sentiments of local Mahdists, it was to secure French claims to the Bahr el Ghazal, an immense and sparsely populated region lying south-west of Khartoum, and thereby to establish French power once and for all on the west bank of the Nile.
An equally important aspect of the French transcontinental plan involved Ethiopia. While Marchand was heading eastward, the Governor of Djibouti, M. Lagarde, was transferred to the court of Menelik. There, he was to make arrangements for two French expeditions to cross Ethiopia and join Marchand from the east. Ultimately, all French forces were to meet at some convenient point such as Fashoda. There, French forts would be constructed on both banks of the White Nile and the river would be sealed off to the British. France ostensibly had no territorial pretensions to the east bank of the Nile. Lagarde was simply instructed to encourage Menelik to make good Ethiopian claims by occupying all the territory lying between his frontier and the river. Thus, when the British arrived, they would find no room for their cherished north-south corridor.
Such was the strategic plan by which the French sought to prevent the extension of British power in Africa. The territorial designs of both France and Britain, emerging clearly in the wake of Adowa, inevitably involved Ethiopia, a nation whose power had lately become of obvious importance. In such a situation, what would be the position of Russia, whose growing sympathy for Ethiopia had reached a highpoint at the time of Menelik's dramatic encounter with Italy?
Although it was not one of the chief protagonists in the drama, as an ally of France and a friend of Ethiopia, Imperial Russia played an active role in the race for the Nile. Russian policy in north-eastern Africa had for many years been oriented toward cooperation with France in the interests of curtailing British power in Egypt and the Red Sea. As an almost inevitable consequence of such a policy, Russia found itself irreversibly aligned with Ethiopia in opposing Italy. Both during and after the battle of Adowa, the Russian government continued to demonstrate clearly its support for Ethiopia and its sympathy for France's anti-British strategy in Africa.
It is important to note that Russia assisted Menelik in his fateful encounter with the Italians. Although French and Russian arms to Ethiopia are thought to have played an influential role in the Adowa battle, perhaps even more significant was Russian advice concerning military tactics.
It is entirely possible that one Russian officer, Captain N. S. Leontiev, was responsible for developing the major outlines of Ethiopian strategy against the Italians. Leontiev, who had come to Ethiopia with the Eliseev expedition of 1895, had, since that time, served as a member of a council which Menelik had formed to discuss the military approach to be used against Italy. In this capacity, he had urged the Ethiopians to apply a strategy similar to that used by the Russians in their victory over Napoleon. By allowing the Italians to penetrate deeply into the country and then by cutting off their line of supply, Ethiopia could, in Leontiev's opinion, use its greatest advantage--geography--to overcome Italy's military strength. This, with certain modifications, was essentially the policy which Menelik followed. Ethiopian geography was used to maximum advantage, while Italian weapon superiority remained ineffectual.
That the Ethiopians associated Leontiev with their success at Adowa was apparent in the tokens of esteem which they bestowed upon him. Not long after the battle, Menelik took the unprecedented step of granting Leontiev an Ethiopian title. In addition he entrusted the Russian officer with the task of returning prisoners to the Italian government and even bade him undertake diplomatic initiatives in connection with the conclusion of an Italo-Ethiopian peace treaty.
In any event, whether it was out of appreciation for specific services rendered by individual Russians, or because of gratitude for a less tangible kind of moral support, Menelik clearly felt that the Russian government, together with that of France, deserved to share his jubilation at victory over the Italians. To this end, he took the trouble of informing immediately both, the Tsar and the President of France of the successful conclusion of hostilities so that, in his words, "our friends can rejoice with us."
In its own way, the Russian response to Adowa was as prompt and unequivocal as that of Britain. Almost immediately after news of the battle had been received, the Russian Red Cross Society decided to dispatch a medical team to Ethiopia, voting 100,000 roubles for the enterprise. This gesture reflected not only popular enthusiasm for Menelik's cause, but also growing recognition on the part of the Russian government that the time had come to invest materially in Ethiopia's well-being. Russian military officials cooperated with the endeavour by authorizing Lt. General N. K. Shvedov, and four other officers to lead the Red Cross expedition. In all, nearly fifty Russians appeared in Ethiopia in June, 1896, inaugurating the first significant Russian presence in Ethiopia.
As might have been expected, British fears were aroused by this seemingly beneficent Russian mission. As one British observer put it:
"Pills and bandages . . . [are] marking the first footsteps of Russia in Africa, and opening perhaps, under the cloak of charity and humanity, what may become a foundation to build a right to interfere in the politics of Abyssinia and the north-east of Africa and also on our line of commerce to the east."
An even more immediate note of alarm was sounded by the Italian government. On the basis of reports which were no doubt exaggerated, the Italian government came to the conclusion that the mission disguised a direct Russian move to reinforce Ethiopian military strength. Communicating repeatedly with Russian Foreign Minister Lobanov-Rostovsky, the Italian government sought to prevent the departure of the Russian mission from Odessa. Failing that, it announced that it would deny the Russians access to Massawa, their designated point of disembarkation.
Despite Italian attempts to frustrate its progress, the mission arrived in Addis Ababa in July, 1896, receiving a warm welcome from Menelik. As Russian doctors began to treat Ethiopian soldiers, they won ever increasing respect from the Ethiopian sovereign. So badly needed were the services of these doctors that when the time came for the mission to return to Russia, Menelik made known his desire to see the establishment remain in Ethiopia on a continuing basis. Several of the doctors were persuaded to stay in Addis Ababa and a permanent Russian hospital was opened there in 1898. (Although the activity of this hospital ceased in 1906, its work was resumed by the Soviets after World War II.)
It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy the political return which Imperial Russia derived from medical assistance to Ethiopia. Yet, there is little question that this assistance earned considerable goodwill from Menelik personally and from the most influential members of his government. By treating the Emperor and those closest to him, various Russian doctors were able to establish comparatively intimate relationships with Ethiopia and its rulers. If only in terms of knowledge accumulated and information gathered on the scene, Imperial Russia's experience in supplying medical assistance to Ethiopia was a useful beginning for subsequent Russian involvement in sub-Saharan Africa.
Possibly as a result of the friendly attitude engendered by Russia's medical mission, Menelik felt disposed to request that the Russian Tsar act as mediator in his peace negotiations with Italy. It is likely that this request, together with a letter of appreciation from Menelik, was delivered to the Russian government by Menelik's personal secretary, Grazmach Iosif, who returned to St. Petersburg in the company of Leontiev in the fall of 1896. Although the Russian government provisionally declined the offer, it did commit itself to aid Ethiopia militarily in the future. Not only did Leontiev go back to Ethiopia with rifles and ammunition, but he carried with him an assurance from the Russian government that a much larger consignment of arms would be forthcoming in the near future. Evidently Russia, like other European powers, had seen in Menelik's victory at Adowa an indication of Ethiopia's potential military strength. As would soon be seen, Russia's response to Adowa involved not merely the extension of medical and military assistance, but also a decision to assign for the first time a fully accredited diplomatic mission to the court of Menelik.
The Russian diplomatic mission to Ethiopia was a direct outgrowth of the Franco-Russian desire to strengthen Ethiopia as a counterweight to British power in Africa. On more than one occasion in the past, Russian and French officials had been tempted "to explore together . . . the most appropriate means of safeguarding the common interests of the two countries in Abyssinia," and to consider the establishment of diplomatic representation there. In this vein, French Foreign Minister Hanotaux discussed with acting Russian Minister Shishkin the possibility of the simultaneous dispatch of official diplomatic missions to Ethiopia which would work jointly to promote the interests of the Franco-Russian entente in the area. Evidently the idea appealed to the new Russian Foreign Minister, Count Muraviev, who, in talks with Hanotaux in January, 1897, announced his intention of sending an official mission to Ethiopia under the leadership of his personal friend, M. Vlassov.
In the fall of 1897, as Vlassov prepared to depart for Ethiopia, the governments of France and Russia took steps to coordinate the specific instructions which their respective envoys would receive and to clarify the concert in their policies toward Ethiopia. That the French government clearly recognized the congruity of interests between the two countries was apparent in a special note which it submitted to the Russian government in September, 1897, Underlining the importance of maintaining Ethiopian strength, the diplomatic note went on to observe:
"It does not seem that on any of these points Russian interests are opposed to our own. They are, on the contrary, identical to ours on all questions of major importance such as the maintenance of the independence and integrity of Abyssinia, a kingdom which serves as a barrier to the unlimited growth of Italian and English [colonial] establishments."
Certainly the French government had made no mistake in assessing the Russian position concerning Ethiopia. Particularly with regard to the question of preventing the north-south extension of British power, the Tsarist government saw eye to eye with its French ally. As the Tsar told Vlassov before his departure for Africa, the Russian mission should be oriented toward the support of French policy in Ethiopia, "in order that the English might be prevented from establishing themselves in that country thereby uniting their possessions in the south with the political influence they are seeking to establish in the valley of the Nile." By 1897, Russia, along with other European powers, clearly recognized the nature of the contest in Africa. As one member of the Russian mission put it: "Will England be able to accomplish her cherished dream and cut through the entire continent from north to south, laying her hands on the riches of the lands at the centre and creating for herself a second India--or will France be able to stop her?" Clearly Russia was hoping that the French would be the victors in this struggle.
As the opposing transcontinental lines of French and English movement emerged with increasing clarity, Ethiopia, or the territory to the west of Ethiopia, attracted new attention in Europe as the most likely point of Anglo-French confrontation. Largely as a result of their earlier cooperation with Ethiopia, the French, together with their Russian supporters, had by 1897 gained a distinct advantage over other powers in the rush to curry favour with Menelik--a monarch who, it was believed, might hold the key to the outcome of the Nile race. Not only were plans afoot to use Ethiopian territory to promote the interests of France's east-west axis in Africa, but proposals were being discussed to erect a French dam on the Nile confluent, the Sobat, so as to "wash out Egyptian civilization" should that ever become necessary.
In this situation the British saw a severe threat to their plans in the Sudan. If this region were to be finally re-conquered, they reasoned, then the scope of the Dongola expedition would have to be expanded to include a decisive move against Khartoum. This, in turn, would require that Britain eliminate the Franco-Russian menace in Ethiopia and prepare ground for the expansion of British power southward up the Nile valley. To this end, Britain dispatched, in the spring of 1897, a high level mission to Menelik's court.
This mission, under the leadership of Rennell Rodd, had a difficult assignment indeed. How was it possible to convince Menelik of British friendship when Britain's support of Italy and of Italian claims in Ethiopia was well known to the Ethiopian ruler? To make matters even worse, the Rodd mission had to contend with what appeared to be a strong Russian influence at Menelik's court. A French eyewitness describes vividly the atmosphere of Anglo-Russian confrontation surrounding Rodd's first audience with the Negus:
"The Indian soldiers [forming Rodd's escort] are nearly face to face with two Cossacks brought by Leontiev. And it is not one of the lesser curiosities of the day to observe [these Russian] men dressed in black Circassian uniforms, sabre at the side and dagger in the belt, Astrakhan caps on the head, looking at the Sikh turbans and red uniforms [of the Indian soldiers] opposite them here in Africa at the court of the Emperor of Abyssinia. In Asia they [the Russians] are used to lying in wait for these soldiers from the heights of the Pamirs, looking forward to the opportunity of being allowed to come down to provoke them on the plains of India."
Rodd seemed particularly suspicious of the "considerable influence" at Menelik's court wielded by Count Leontiev, who had recently returned to Ethiopia from Russia. In correspondence with Prime Minister Salisbury, Rodd took note of Leontiev's "keen interest in H.M. government's intentions in the Sudan, as well as in the direction of the Great Lakes." Perhaps aware of earlier Russian flirtations with Mahdism, Rodd seemed distinctly worried about Leontiev's plans to visit the Mahdist headquarters at Omdurman. In particular, he appeared to be concerned lest the Russian officer promote collusion between Menelik and the Khalifa on the eve of Britain's campaign against the Mahdists. This matter was of particular importance to the British at the time since their intelligence had discovered that European weapons were finding their way into the hands of the Mahdists.
Although Rodd himself was able to make a good impression upon Menelik, his mission, politically speaking, was only of limited success. British efforts to divert Menelik's attention from the Nile valley by offering Ethiopia territorial concessions in the north east were to no avail. Moreover, Rodd evidently surmised, from the tenor of his conversations with the Ethiopians, that it was not politic at that time to push for Britain's real objective--control over the territory along the east bank of the Nile. Yet, despite its shortcomings, the Rodd mission did furnish the British government with fresh evidence that a move of its own forces up the Nile was necessary to forestall the cast-west designs of the French and the territorial appetites of Menelik. Rodd's recommendations undoubtedly played an important part in convincing Salisbury to hasten the British advance against Khartoum and to make a British move from Uganda toward Fashoda. In brief, after Rodd's mission had returned from Ethiopia, the race for the Nile acquired an irreversible momentum.
There is little question that the French government was aware of the political objectives of the Rodd mission, for even before the English had arrived in Addis Ababa, the French had presented a plan of their own to the Ethiopian Emperor. Lagarde was instructed to warn Menelik of the danger which British ambitions along the Nile represented to his own territorial aspirations in the region. In order to protect himself from territorial encirclement by the British, Menelik should, in the opinion of the French, push his own frontiers westward to the Nile where he would join with the forces of Marchand and link the possessions of France and Ethiopia.
Such thinking must have appealed to Menelik, for on March 20, 1897, on the eve of the arrival of the Rodd mission, he and Lagarde signed a secret Convention on the White Nile. By the terms of this agreement, the French government undertook to assist Ethiopia in establishing itself along the east bank of the Nile. Thus, it was hoped "the colours of His Majesty [the Emperor of Ethiopia] will fly on the right bank of the White Nile while the French standard will be raised on the left bank" --and no room would be left for even so much as a narrow English railroad.
Rodd's obvious interest in the territory between Ethiopia and the Nile served only to strengthen Menelik's desire to realize his own territorial ambitions in that area. Shortly after Rodd's departure, the Ethiopian army began preparations to move westward, and by the end of 1897, over 250,000 Ethiopian troops had been mobilized for the Nile campaign. Indeed, French plans seemed to be developing in the most satisfactory way. Ethiopia--the only missing piece in France's territorial puzzle--was fitting nicely into the grand east-west design.
From the outset Russia was associated with this joint Franco- Ethiopian strategy. Captain Leontiev had, in fact, informed the French in 1896 of Menelik's plans to push his frontier westward to the White Nile and had pointed out the advantages which France might derive from supporting such a move. His own appointment by Menelik to the post of Governor General of Equatoria, the most south westerly province of Ethiopia and a region of considerable strategic significance to Britain's Cape to Cairo scheme, further stimulated French interest in using Ethiopian territory to promote its east-west projects. Terming Leontiev's appointment the result of "a long and wisely prepared policy" on the part of Menelik, the French adventurer, Prince Henri d'Orléans, found in it much encouragement for his own scheme to link up with Marchand via Ethiopia. Together, d'Orléans and Leontiev developed a plan to exploit the new province of Equatoria, and, at the same time, to serve the larger interests of their respective countries.
In Russia too there was optimism that Leontiev's new responsibilities in Ethiopia might provide a means for increasing Russian influence in central Africa. Escorting a second Ethiopian diplomatic mission to Russia in October, 1897, Leontiev was able to tap the same wellsprings of Slavophile sympathy which had endorsed Russian projects for Ethiopia in the past. It could in fact be maintained that at this time Russian ambitions for a political foothold in Ethiopia reached their furthest point. As Count Witte (albeit a critical observer) pointed out:
"There exists in Russia in the highest circles a passion for conquest, or more precisely, for the seizure of that [territory] which is not nailed down. . . . [In the religion of Ethiopia] there are certain rays of Orthodoxy and on that foundation we are anxious to declare Abyssinia under our protectorate and at the proper moment devour it."
Not only was Leontiev granted a personal audience with Tsar Nicholas in the fall of 1897, but during the winter of that year, he and d'Orléans were able to raise sufficient funds from Russian and French commercial interests to enable them to organize a large expedition for their return to Ethiopia. The French government, anxious to use d'Orléans and Leontiev to support Marchand, even supplied them with a force of tirailleurs Sénégalais, recruited from its colonies in West Africa.
Given such initial success, d'Orléans was justifiably optimistic concerning his plans to frustrate the British in Africa. Unfortunately, however, his accomplice had made one fatal mistake: Leontiev had enlisted British interests in the scheme to exploit Equatoria.
Remembering their unhappy experiences with another Russian adventurer, officials of the Russian Foreign Ministry had for some time been on their guard against Leontiev. In fact, they probably regarded the Vlassov diplomatic mission to Ethiopia, which arrived in Addis Ababa in February, 1898, as a reliable alternative to Leontiev's activities in the sphere of Russo-Ethiopian relations. One of Vlassov's responsibilities in Ethiopia was to control the activities of Leontiev and to investigate the information he was sending to St. Petersburg. Hardly was Vlassov obliged to look very long before he discovered that Britain under the guise of certain financial arrangements with Leontiev, was attempting to establish its control over Ethiopia's strategic south-western province. By May, 1898, it was possible to sound the alarm.
News of Leontiev's dealings in London struck Paris with considerable force. In the opinion of the French government, something had to be done immediately to prevent the success of the Equatoria scheme. Asking his ambassador in St. Petersburg to make certain that the Imperial government was fully informed of the particulars of the affair, French Foreign Minister Hanotaux suggested that Russia join France in alerting the Ethiopians to the situation. In response, Hanotaux was told that the Russian Foreign Ministry, acting under the express orders of the Tsar, had asked the Russian representative in Ethiopia "to admonish Menelik regarding the danger of English interference in the affairs of his country under the cover of these [Leontiev's] arrangements." Shortly thereafter, the Russians were able to calm their French allies with the assurance that Leontiev's influence in Ethiopia was already on the wane. In so responding to the Leontiev affair, the Imperial government displayed an awareness of the strategic importance of Ethiopia's western provinces and, at the same time, demonstrated that it was willing to offer its services in the strategic game against Britain.
For his part, Menelik appeared to welcome assistance from Russia. On the surface, this assistance had certain advantages over aid from France. Russia was geographically remote and lacked any tradition of permanent military involvement in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, there seemed to be little chance that Russian imperial routes might traverse Ethiopian territory and thus threaten Ethiopian independence. Finally there was the possibility that Russian assistance, when received simultaneously with aid from France, would enhance the options to Menelik to manoeuvre freely and to counterbalance foreign influences. Menelik owed much of his strength, in fact, to his uncanny ability to use various European representatives in Ethiopia as foils against one another.
Considerations such as these weighed heavily on the thinking of Menelik in 1897, as he embarked upon his program of territorial expansion. He therefore invited Russian as well as French officers to accompany his forces. In the fulfilment of their duties these officers played a significant role in the Nile campaign. Those belonging to the Russian Imperial Guards had prominent commands in at least two of the three major columns of Menelik's army. They appeared to have been acting not only under the authority of the Ethiopian sovereign, but simultaneously on direct instructions from the Russian government. They reported both to Vlassov, of whose mission they formed a part, and to the Russian General Staff in St. Petersburg. In this sense, the Russian government made a specific, active contribution to the Franco-Ethiopian effort.
The achievements of Russian officers were significant in several respects. In the first place, these officers made valuable discoveries concerning the geography of several of the Nile tributaries important to the Franco-Ethiopian effort. Secondly, they furnished Ethiopia's advancing columns with modern topographic and cartographic data --something which was indispensable to Ethiopian strategic planning. Finally, and perhaps most important, Russian officers were responsible for planting Ethiopian (or French) flags in locations where they were likely to check British territorial advances. Their efforts in this regard were remarkably successful. Indeed, Ethiopia's contemporary boundaries owe many of their contours to the exploits of these Russians.
Of particular value to the Franco-Ethiopian effort was the activity of Captain A. K. Bulatovich. This Russian officer had accompanied the Red Cross mission to Ethiopia in 1896. Taking advantage of the opportunity afforded by this first visit to Ethiopia, he had obtained authorization from the Russian government to investigate the western portions of the country along the Baro tributary of the Nile. Thus knowledgeable concerning the geography of the region, Bulatovich returned to Ethiopia with the Russian diplomatic mission of 1898. After serving as an advance messenger between Vlassov and the Ethiopian sovereign, he undertook to join the army of one of Menelik's lieutenants, Ras Walde Giorgis, which was advancing in a south-westerly direction toward Lake Rudolf.
In January, 1898, soon after setting off with the expedition, Bulatovich discovered a previously unknown mountain range which deflected the waters of the Omo River away from the Nile. With the concurrence of Menelik, the Russian Tsar allowed Bulatovich to name it the "Nicholas II Range." In this symbolically anti-British gesture, the Tsar undoubtedly found considerable amusement.
Other exploits attributable to Bulatovich had more tangible effects. It is possible that as a result of its confrontation with Ethiopian units under the command of Bulatovich, MacDonald's British expedition decided to abandon its plans to push northward to meet Kitchener at Fashoda. Certainly the Ethiopian forts which Bulatovich constructed on the route to Lake Rudolf made it impossible to extend the frontier of British East Africa into that quarter. In any event, Bulatovich in the space of scarcely four months, assisted in adding over 20,000 square miles to Ethiopian territory. Commenting upon this achievement, he was able to note with considerable satisfaction that: "In the newly conquered territory garrisons are distributed and these provinces must be considered lost once and for all to any other power which might have had claims to them."
The participation of Bulatovich in the Lake Rudolf expedition was, by all appearances, a critical factor in its success. His energy and speed won him the title of "wildfire man" among the Ethiopians. He also earned deep appreciation from Walde Giorgis and from Emperor Menelik. So important were his services that his own commanders in Russia considered it appropriate to grant him a promotion while he was still in Ethiopia. This, in addition to the fact that he reported directly to Vlassov upon his return (who in turn communicated with Muraviev), suggests that Bulatovich was operating under the authorization, if not the specific instructions, of the Russian government.
Considerably less certain, however, was the relationship between the Imperial government and Captain N. S. Leontiev. Although this free- wheeling Russian officer had, at least after 1898, fallen out of favour, his later achievements in behalf of the extension of Ethiopia's boundaries are worthy of note. Whether or not Leontiev was at one point prepared to cooperate with the British, the net effect of his expedition to Lake Rudolf in 1899 was to inhibit the expansion of British territory northward. One account even suggests that he went to the length of replacing British flags with Ethiopian standards as he established the most southerly outposts of the Ethiopian empire. At any rate, his activity in 1899 made it possible for Ethiopia to establish its power firmly on the shores of Lake Rudolf--a position from which no subsequent foreign territorial encroachments have been able to dislodge it.
Historically, the most interesting of all efforts undertaken by Russian officers in behalf of the Ethiopian army were those of Colonel L. K. Artamonov. Under special orders from the Ministry of War, Artamonov came to Ethiopia as a member of the Russian diplomatic mission. Within days of his arrival in Addis Ababa, he received instructions from Vlassov to join the army of Ras Tsesema which was heading due west toward the Nile. As a result of Menelik's request that a Russian officer accompany the expedition, Artamonov was presented by Vlassov to the Ethiopian sovereign on February 25, 1898, to receive instructions. Evidently Menelik was concerned about reports that his general, Tsesema, was conniving with Lagarde to establish a French protectorate along the east bank of the Nile, should France succeed under Marchand in establishing itself along the west bank. He therefore asked Artamonov to report to him personally concerning everything he saw. In this way Menelik would have some means of verifying the real intentions of the French. As the project to "link hands across the Nile" was reaching its final stages, Menelik undoubtedly wanted to make sure that one of those hands, as agreed, would indeed be Ethiopian.
Accompanied by two Cossacks from Vlassov's legation guard, Artamonov soon caught up with Ras Tsesema. The latter's forces, which at the outset had numbered an impressive 15,000 were, however, weakened by disease and were reluctant to make the final push toward the Nile. According to one eyewitness, it was Artamonov who persuaded Tsesema to fulfil Menelik's instructions by sending a small detachment to complete the journey. Tsesema requested that Artamonov lead this detachment and thus, together with approximately 2,000 soldiers and two very reluctant Frenchmen, he finally arrived on July 23, 1898, at the mouth of the Sobat on the White Nile. The Ethiopian flag was solemnly raised on the river's eastern shore. Since Marchand was nowhere in sight, it was decided that members of the Artamonov detachment should cross the river and raise the French flag on the Nile's western shore in his behalf. The Frenchmen demurred, whereupon Artamonov and his two loyal Cossacks, ignoring the crocodiles, swam the river and hoisted the French flag. Symbolically, at least, they had realized the objective of the Franco-Ethiopian treaty. Menelik was delighted and the Russian Cossacks were officially decorated by both the French government and the Russian Tsar.
Unfortunately, however, this Russian heroism bore little fruit politically. Unable to find French forces heading east, Artamonov's detachment had returned to Tsesema's headquarters and had promptly begun the long and arduous journey back to Addis Ababa. Marchand, arriving at the Sobat only a few weeks later, saw the traces of their presence. However, he was too late. When the critical moment of confrontation came on September 19, 1898, Marchand faced Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian forces alone at Fashoda.
It is interesting to speculate how history might have been changed had Marchand's forces been able to communicate with those of Artamonov. Had the latter known of Marchand's proximity, he no doubt would have maintained his position on the Nile and sent word for reinforcements from Tsesema's troops. Fashoda was essentially no more than a show of force. But how might the British response have differed if Kitchener had been greeted by a thousand or more troops under Artamonov's command? Such questions must, of course, remain unanswered, for when the British arrived at Fashoda, instead of being confronted by an Ethiopian army of formidable proportions, they were threatened by little more than the bedraggled representatives of Marchand's expeditionary force.
The Russian government had followed closely the events leading up to Fashoda. As the fateful moment approached, Count Muraviev reaffirmed the support of the Tsarist government for France, assuring French Foreign Minister Delcassé that "in this affair, as in all questions concerning Egypt, the Imperial Government is resolved to act in accord with [France] . . . and to shape its position to conform with that of the French government." Likewise, the Russian press was sympathetic to the French cause. It both criticized the expansion of Anglo-Egyptian power and, at the same time, supported French demands for a port on the Nile. Upon receiving news of the Fashoda encounter the Novoe Vremia of St. Petersburg warned:
"The cabinet of St. James cannot suppose that the power allied with France regards the denouement of the Fashoda affair with an indifferent eye. . . . She [Russia] will do everything necessary to convince England that she must consider the logical consequences of this [Russia's pro-French position]. "
In the tense days following the Fashoda crisis, when war between France and England indeed seemed imminent, Tsar Nicholas appeared ready to fulfil such warnings. Convinced that England constituted a real threat to Russian interests and ever prepared to exploit Anglo- Russian hostility, the Tsar began to concentrate Russian troops in the Caucuses. As he subsequently explained to the French ambassador, "we made preparations and arrangements for any contingency."
Russian aggressiveness, however, was extremely short-lived. When it began to appear as though France might capitulate to the British, the Imperial government recognized that it was in no position to face Britain alone. Not only was it difficult to employ Russian naval forces during the winter months, but an extraordinary amount of time was required to effectively mobilize the Russian army. In such a situation, caution seemed the most prudent course. Thus, as Russian newspapers pointed out the futility of an Anglo-French war over Fashoda, Count Muraviev preached to Delcassé the virtues of conciliation and Tsar Nicholas calmed the volatile Kaiser with assurances that war was not imminent after all.
In the interests of reducing international tension, the Russian government suggested that it would recall its diplomatic representative in Ethiopia, offering the familiar pretext that Russian interests in that country were essentially scientific, rather than political. Although this diplomatic step was not carried out, it was patently apparent that in regard to Russian policy in Ethiopia, calculations of realpolitik had taken precedence over considerations of friendship or ideological affinity. Clearly Russia had, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, established a rather intimate relationship with its black brothers in Ethiopia. History shows, however, that the Tsarist government, like that of other imperialist powers, was at all times willing to use this relationship to further its own self-interest in Africa and the Middle East.
It would be a mistake to assume that all Russian activity in Ethiopia ceased after the denouement of the Fashoda crisis. Although this crisis did mark the climax of Russian optimism concerning Ethiopia's future, it did not effectively terminate Imperial Russia's interest in north-eastern Africa. The Vlassov mission, for example, remained in Addis Ababa for nearly two years after the Fashoda incident. And, as late as June, 1899, Count Muraviev was cautioning the French against agreeing to the neutralization of Ethiopia lest this preclude subsequent Franco-Russian projects in the country.
Further Russian interest in Ethiopia was no doubt stimulated by Menelik's continuing struggles against British and Italian colonialism. In the critical months following Fashoda, the Emperor's internal authority was seriously threatened by the revolt of Ras Mangasha, a pretender to the Ethiopian throne. Reportedly this revolt in the North was heavily supported by the Italians, who hoped to return to their former position in north-eastern Ethiopia, and by the British, who were anxious to prevent Ethiopian expansion toward the Nile.
In this context, Russia's established policy of promoting the integrity of Menelik's empire took on new life. After the British victory over the Mahdists at the battle of Omdurman, the Russian government recognized that Ethiopia was the next target in the path of Britain's imperial machine. Given past associations, it was difficult for the Russians to abandon the Ethiopians. In fact, when French support faltered, Russia, at least for a time, began to think of itself as Ethiopia's principal friend and protector. During the Ethiopian revolt, Vlassov was active, both in warning Menelik of British and Italian moves, and in attempting to make peace between the various feuding princes. More than ever, the Russian diplomatic representative occupied himself with the question of Ethiopia's military capabilities, and once again Russian officers were active behind the scenes in Menelik's military campaigns. As a final gesture, the Russian government even stood in for the French when they failed to produce a loan which had been promised to the Ethiopian Emperor.
Ultimately, however, Menelik was to prove unsuccessful in his attempts to resist the advance of British influence. By 1902, it was clear that England would have its own way in Ethiopia regardless of anything Menelik or Russia might do to prevent it. On March 15, 1902, Menelik was obliged to sign a treaty with Great Britain renouncing his claims to the east bank of the Nile and granting Britain veto power over the construction of installations to divert the waters of Ethiopia's Nile tributaries. Recognition of the futility of Menelik's cause, combined with internal political problems and grave concerns in the Far East, served to divert Russian attention from Ethiopia. By the early years of the twentieth century, Russian activity in north- eastern Africa had markedly diminished.
Although Imperial Russia was thus obliged to accept defeat in Ethiopia, its diplomatic mission in Addis Ababa was retained until the last days of Tsarism. Old ambitions regarding Ethiopia were not easily laid to rest. In fact, as late as 1913, there was a curious revival of Russian commercial interest in Ethiopia. In that year Russian Foreign Minister Sazonov received a comprehensive report from one of the members of the Russian mission in Addis Ababa urging Russian economic penetration of the country "as a basis for supporting Ethiopia in a religious and political connection." And, as if there were nothing else to occupy their attention in 1914, Russians prepared to receive in their country the Abuna Matheos, head of the Ethiopian church, to discuss the perennial question of Russo- Ethiopian church union.
An aura of unreality did indeed seem to surround the entire record of relations between the two ancient Christian empires. In retrospect, it seems incredible that Imperial Russia should have allowed itself to extend politically so far into Africa and to pursue ideological overindulgence for so long a time with its black brethren in Ethiopia. Yet, in the final analysis, it was calculations of realpolitik, more than ideological impulses, which furnished the most powerful motivations for Imperial Russian involvement in Ethiopia. One such motivation --the desire for a port on the Red Sea--was so significant an aspect of Russian involvement in Africa that it merits special consideration.
Imperial Russia's ambition to possess a port of its own near the mouth of the Red Sea was a permanent feature of its concern for north- eastern Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Recognizing that an overt Russian seizure of territory along the Red Sea coast was likely to give rise to international complications (Ashinov's attempt furnished a sufficient indication of that), the Russian government looked alternately to both Ethiopia and France as potential sponsors of its territorial objective. As the race for the Nile gained momentum, speculation grew that Russia would receive a territorial reward for its assistance in the French east-west scheme. In Britain, certain observers were convinced that the French government planned to make "territorial sacrifices . . . including Obok and the French sphere of influence on the coast" in return for the services Russia might render to France in Africa. As one British writer subsequently insisted, "Russia's share in the matter, over and above the consciousness of a good and noble action, would have been the seizure of Raheita Bay."
Although it is difficult to know what would have transpired had France's pre-Fashoda plans been successful, it does seem possible that, at least as far as the Russians were concerned, there was a definite connection between their ardour in supporting the Franco- Ethiopian cause and their hopes to see the Russian flag planted on the Red Sea.
The idea of acquiring a Russian port on the Red Sea arose in the context of Anglo-Russian rivalry in the Middle East. This idea, like the notion of Russian involvement in Ethiopia, found its origin in the thinking of Porfiry Uspensky. Recognizing that Russia might itself become involved in the intensifying struggle to control the Suez route to India, Uspensky, as early as 1862, raised the question of securing permanent representation for Russian interests at some point along the Red Sea coast. This concept was taken up by Mashkov who, in his writings of 1889, developed in full the economic and military rationale for acquiring a Russian Red Sea base.
Certainly if Russia wanted to sabotage the British position in Egypt or India, a fortified position at the mouth of the Red Sea would be a logical point from which to strike at the Suez route and thereby achieve this goal. That a Red Sea port would also serve as a valuable facility for provisioning Russian vessels and for enhancing the security of their journey to the Far East seemed to occur to Russian strategists only as an afterthought.
Throughout the Tsarist period, much of the activity of Russians in north-eastern Africa was oriented toward preparing the ground for a permanent Russian presence at the mouth of the Red Sea. By and large, this activity was concentrated in the two adjoining locations of Tajura Bay and the Raheita Sultanate.
The disproportionate emphasis which this portion of Africa's coastline received in Russian literature of the period in itself suggests that plans were afoot for some kind of permanent Russian commitment in the area. Beginning with the Cossack Captain Nesterov, who remained at Tajura to prepare for the arrival of Ashinov's settlers, Russian observers developed special interests in all aspects of the life of the locality. Lt. Mashkov, either on the basis of personal observation or careful scholarship, went so far into detail in discussing the region that he included statistics concerning the depth of the sea off Tajura (presumably for the benefit of any subsequent Russian projects for a port in that location). Others, like A. S. Troianskii, evinced a keen sense of the strategic importance of territory near, the mouth of the Red Sea and indicated to readers the eagerness with which other European nations were pursuing territorial claims there.
The political difficulties which attended the Ashinov enterprise of 1888-89 in no way deterred further Russian efforts to establish influence in the Tajura-Raheita region. In fact, nearly every subsequent Russian expedition to Ethiopia included this region in its itinerary. After visiting Tajura in 1895, Capt. Eliseev spoke in terms of "a brighter future for the shore of Tajura Bay, chosen by the notorious expedition of Ashinov." At this time the rumour was circulating that somehow France would agree to cede territory to Russia in the area--a possibility which caused considerable anxiety to the British in Aden. Not only did these British observers note the arrival of Russian naval vessels in 1895, but simultaneously they received reports that the residents of Obok were preparing to be transferred to the authority of Russian officials who, it was thought, would arrive shortly.
Perhaps even more disquieting to the British was evidence of Russian flirtations with Danakil leaders in the Sultanate of Raheita, a territory of somewhat uncertain political status. In 1895 Captain Eliseev, on his return to Russia from Ethiopia, made a detour in order to visit Raheita. Soon thereafter, British and Italian agents learned that Mohammed Dini, Sultan of this strategic spot, had expressed his open sympathy for Russia and his dissatisfaction with Italy, his nominal protector. So provoked were the Italians with the insubordinate Sultan that, upon learning that he might welcome a Russian landing in Raheita, they sent the Italian navy to capture him.
The Raheita affair of 1895 served only to enhance the growing fear in Europe that Russia, perhaps at the explicit invitation of Menelik, would obtain a protectorate over the entire Danakil region. After Italy's defeat at Adowa the next year, the German government, for one, was concerned lest Russia "seize possession of Massawa and other places along the Red Sea coast in order to take control of the vital route to India." Such fears were no doubt shared by other European governments as well.
Whether France, for its part, was ever convinced that its Russian ally should be allowed to obtain a territorial outpost on the southern shore of the Red Sea is a matter of considerable doubt. Judging from its reaction to Ashinov, there is reason to believe that the French government was jealous of its sovereignty in the region and wary of attempts by Russians to establish suzerainty there. The French reactions to Leontiev's activities in 1897 serve further to substantiate this view.
Among his multifarious activities, Captain Leontiev had reportedly approached both Menelik and Mohammed Dini with the aim of establishing a Russian port at Raheita. Learning of this scheme in early 1897, the French government, which had only a short time previously appealed to the Tsar to recall another one of his Russian officers from the same location, understandably felt uncertain regarding Russian ambitions. Although France itself did not lay claim to the Sultanate of Raheita, by 1897 it felt sufficiently suspicious of Leontiev's plans to do what it could to stop his project.
Given Leontiev's tenuous relationship with the Russian government, France could have attributed his activity to independently motivated Russian adventurism. If this were the case, however, then how could they explain the behaviour of members of the Vlassov diplomatic mission? Upon its arrival in Djibouti, Lagarde observed with surprise, "half of the mission . . . hastened off to Raheita, which is scarcely the route for Shoa." Moreover, was it not curious that Colonel Artamonov, the Russian officer who was subsequently to distinguish himself in the race for the Nile, should have led this excursion to "conduct ethnographic research in the Sultanate of Raheita?"
The truth of the matter was that Artamonov and three other military members of the mission had orders (presumably from St. Petersburg) to meet with the Sultan of Raheita. Although Artamonov's own description of the meeting offers little insight into what actually transpired during the visit, his reference to Russian sailors "who know it is impossible to sail along the coast of Africa and not have a coaling station there," offers a likely clue.
Finally, at the end of 1898, the French government was able to obtain a more accurate idea of Russian intentions. After a conversation with Vlassov in Addis Ababa, Lagarde discerned a "secret desire" on the part of his Russian colleague that France cede, or at least allow Russia free disposal of one of its ports in the vicinity of Obok. Soon afterwards, the Tsarist government overcame its reticence and took up the matter directly with the French Foreign Ministry. On December 30, 1898, it submitted a memorandum to Delcassé which referred specifically to assurances made by the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg that "France was entirely disposed to cede to Russia terrain in the bay of Djibouti (Tajura) for the purpose of establishing a coaling station there." The memorandum announced, moreover, that a Russian cruiser was on its way to Djibouti to "study the question on the spot."
Montebello, the French Ambassador in St. Petersburg, was quick to point out that he had assured Muraviev only that France would favour the establishment of a coaling station at some mutually convenient point. "There was no question of the cession of territory," he insisted. Thus, in response to the direct Russian diplomatic initiative, France's real position became clear. While the French government may have evinced a willingness to grant port facilities to the vessels of its Russian ally, on the issue of ultimate sovereignty, its position was as intractable as it had been at the time of Ashinov's unhappy adventure.
Russia's desire for a pied à terre on the Red Sea coast may be regarded as the only potential point of discord in an essentially untroubled record of Franco-Russian cooperation in Africa. This Russian ambition was treated tactfully on an intergovernmental level, yet, in the end, it inspired much the same suspicion of Russian intentions on the part of the French as it did on the part of the English and Italians.
Certainly the French could understand the Russian desire for secure maritime passage between Europe and Asia. However, as events on the Persian Gulf were soon to reveal, there were certain aggressive overtones to the Russian efforts to establish a port on the Red Sea. When Russian activity along Persia's southern coast followed upon the heels of Russian interest in Raheita and Tajura, it was possible to view the project for an African port in a wider perspective. In this context it appeared as though Russia's age-old ambition for a warm- water outlet on the Indian Ocean had been revived. Thus, aside from its more modest strategic uses, a Russian port at the mouth of the Red Sea might well have been intended to support a Russian naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
Whether or not it was intended as a means to further Russian expansionism southward, the establishment of a permanent shelter for Russian vessels in north eastern Africa would undoubtedly have made good sense from the standpoint of naval communication between European Russia and the Far East. This was dramatically demonstrated at the time of the Russo-Japanese War when Russia's Baltic fleet had to be transferred to the Japanese theatre of war. During that conflict, not only were Russian strategic options severely limited by an unfriendly Britain firmly astride the Suez route, but even French ports, including Djibouti, were partially closed to Russian naval vessels.
Thus, for lack of a safe haven on the African coast, Russian Admiral Rozhdestvensky was obliged to use the high seas both to coal his vessels and to rendezvous his squadrons. These difficulties hardly facilitated his already arduous circumnavigation of Africa to meet the Japanese. In fact, such problems are generally cited by naval historians as contributory factors in explaining the annihilation or Rozhdestvensky's fleet at Tsushima. It is difficult to refrain from wondering how the course of the Russo-Japanese War might have been affected had Russia indeed secured freer passage through Suez and realized its plans for a permanent port at the mouth of the Red Sea.