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I speak of Africa

Hiob Ludolf and Ethiopia

An elephant defending the farmer's harvest, from: Hiob Ludolf. A new history of Ethiopia. London: [printed for Samuel Smith?], [1682?] [FCO Historical Collection FOL. DT376 LUD]An elephant defending the farmer's harvest, from: Hiob Ludolf. A new history of Ethiopia. London: [printed for Samuel Smith?], [1682?] [FCO Historical Collection FOL. DT376 LUD]The ancient Christian empire of Ethiopia, believed by the Portuguese to be the home of the mythical Christian ruler Prester John, was of considerable interest to early modern Europe.

The sixteenth century Portuguese explorers, overestimating its strength, hoped that it might prove a valuable ally and bulwark against the Moslem dominance of the Arabian Gulf and Horn of Africa. Attempts were made by the Portuguese and the Jesuits to bring the Ethiopians to acknowledge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but these met with only short-lived success and Ethiopia retained its own form of Oriental Orthodox Christianity.

By the time the German orientalist Hiob Ludolf (1624-1704) wrote his account of Ethiopia, the identification of Ethiopia as the home of Prester John was losing its popularity, and Ludolf gives no credence to the tradition. Yet Ethiopia, an isolated and little known mountainous Christian outpost in an otherwise largely Moslem or pagan continent, continued to intrigue European readers. Ludolf, whose account draws heavily on material gleaned from an Ethiopian monk, Gregorius, whom he met in Rome and who taught him the Ethiopian language, pursued a fruitless scheme to promote European trade with Ethiopia.

The plate on display is one of several in the book to depict Ethiopia’s exotic wildlife. It illustrates an anecdote recounted by Gregorius:

This Elephant had brought forth a young one, in a certain field which her landlord had sow’d with corn; who willing to dislodge such an unwelcome guest, had resolv’d to kill the said elephant; his neighbours dissuaded him, assureing him that the slaughter would not be unreveng’d; but on the other side, that she would defend his ripe harvest against all others … The husbandman following this counsel, preserv’d his harvest untouch’d, suffering no other injury than what the beast spoil’d in her passage to and fro.

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