It was the French who gave to the world the term concessionaire—just one of the many indications of the hold which the Gallic race maintains over the language of diplomacy. It first meant the right to supply a government department which was granted as a monopoly to some business man, ostensibly because he would quote lower prices were he assured of the market for a number of years, but often because he had handsomely bribed the official in whose discretion the matter lay. There was in those days no thought that a government had any other monopolies which it could concede, but with the development of industry and the insatiable demand for raw materials, came the opening up of distant regions, in which the concession hunter played a distinguished part.

He was no longer the suave courtier entering into relations with the chamberlains of Emperors and the mistresses of kings to put through his “little bit of business.” He was instead a ragged wanderer who thrust his way into unknown parts, either hammering fragments of rock with his geologist’s hammer or scanning with eager eyes the last grains of mineral remaining after the washing and sifting of silt from a river bed.

Often he spent the whole of his life roaming hungry and tattered with the constant feeling that fortune lay just over the next ridge of barren hills or down the next creek of some poisonous stream. But sometimes he made a discovery. His next thought was to rush back to civilisation and stake his claim.

If the discovery were made in savage country where there was no government able to sign charters and apply seals to paper, then the concession hunter applied to the great power which had the land under its protection or regarded it as a sphere of influence. In the comparatively rare event of there being no great power with its eye on that particular piece of country at the time when the discovery was made, there were usually several quarrelling over it soon after the news leaked out.

Little by little many of these concession hunters became the recognised agents of their governments, or else of some big industrial or trading concern which usually had government backing in some form or other if its status were thoroughly investigated. These were the days when kings were shareholders, and when prime ministers did not scruple to take their share of the loot. Of course all this was as old as Columbus, in fact much older; but the demands of the huge machines constructed by nineteenth century science started it off once again in a newer and more thorough style.

A bird’s eye view of the whole of Africa during the century of expansion and imperial thrust would have revealed a vast map of forest, desert and jungle cut by the great rivers and with here and there on its surface small bodies of men lost in the vastness but plodding on towards some phantom goal. Mostly they died of thirst or fever or poisoned arrows; but there was a darker side to it all, for sometimes, if they were about to make too determined use of their country’s flag they died by secret order of some rival power.

Every schoolboy is familiar with a few great names and stories, the essence of which is held in those inspired words: “Mr. Livingstone, I presume,” but once the student of history begins to delve into the literature of exploration it is the mass of unknown names which amazes him and the number of unexplained mysteries in which so many of the lesser known stories end.

There soon comes a feeling that besides the comparatively unknown names there are others never known at all, the names of men who undertook secret expeditions for their countries and whose failure to return was explained away without reference to the work they were engaged upon.

No Oppenheim has ever done justice to exploration, which was much more closely akin to espionage than most people realise. Perhaps the reason is that the sinister side of it all is just a shade too unpleasant for our taste. That men should fight each other is admitted to be natural, and that men should fight with Nature is natural too, but there is a queer feeling somewhere in the human mind that when Nature is winning in the fight all men are allies. The story of an expedition lost because its vital stores were diverted by the agent of some rival power is inexpressibly shocking to the civilised mind; but such incidents are known to have occurred.

It is well to point this out because great powers have a way of talking about their civilising mission to barbaric lands. It is a useful corrective to that sort of talk to reflect what deliberate cold-blooded barbarities have been committed by civilised men in the interests of their countries.

Since Abyssinia was the last African territory to remain untouched by European penetration most of the explorers who came in the nineteenth century to penetrate her mysteries were possessed of more or less official backing. A good many of them perished, and those who did not made very little impression on the country. After Adowa, however, came a period when the governments had called off their agents, and most of the concession-hunters were free lances. Since it is their accounts which have contributed in no small measure to the “bad name” which Ethiopia is said to possess among explorers and their like, it is worth while to look at the matter from the Ethiopian point of view.

The penniless adventurer arrived and requested an audience with the Negus. The more disreputable he was the more truculent was his demand for a hearing. He nearly always hinted that big interests were behind him, that there were men in Paris or London or Rome to whom he had only to say the word for their money bags to be unloosed. All that he wanted was an option for a year or so on about two-thirds of the country. He wouldn’t pay for it, because he was doing the favour, not the Ethiopian Government.

After a good many negotiations he would at last be persuaded to see reason. His demand for a sort of roving option would be translated into more understandable and practical terms. An area of, say, a thousand square miles would be allocated to him. Then came the question of payment. He had no money, but said that he could easily raise some. Very well, he was to have three months to raise a certain number of dollars, which if paid would extend his option for a year.

Now had the concession-seeker been dealing with a European capitalist he would have been forced to admit that terms such as these were reasonable in the extreme; but because the other party to the bargain was the ruler of an African country, he became, as soon as he insisted on reasonable safeguards before parting with valuable rights over his territories, a scheming and crafty oriental who drove hard bargains, who requested large fees with which to line his coffers, who was in short, a swindler.

Journalists hanging round the less reputable drinking haunts of Addis Ababa would hear this story over and over again.... Poor Old Johnny or Poor Old Francois who came out to Abyssinia, gave the best years of his life to exploring the country, paid down his last dollar for a grudging concession, and then because the time limit had expired before the chaps in Europe would stump up, was bilked of what by right of toil and discovery was assuredly his.

Sometimes the story was more circumstantial. The concession had been granted, everything was ready to start; but the wily government officials were determined that the conditions of the lease should be broken, so stirred up native troubles in the district which hindered the work. Then, when the date was passed by which certain agreed work had to be finished if the contract were to stand, the government officials stepped in and scooped the pool.

These tales, which lost nothing in the telling, were many of them sheer falsehood; while those in which there was a substratum of fact would have made very different telling from the point of view of the Emperor or his advisers. Poor Old Johnny or Jimmy or Francois was not always the fine upstanding empire builder of the subsequent narrative. Often he was a crook who had been warned off most other parts of Africa and had drifted into Abyssinia as a last chance. He had probably managed to get some sort of recognition from his legation, for his history was probably not known and it is difficult for one white man to refuse another of the same race when reminiscences of Piccadilly Circus or the Bois de Boulogne have once been exchanged far from home. Thus armed, Johnny or Francois would obtain an audience either with the Emperor or with one of the ministers, and would be granted leave to fit out an expedition in an agreed direction. He would be warned that certain areas were closed to him and that in others he must go at his own risk, but (since Johnny and Francois rarely were lacking in a sort of desperate courage) he would make light of the warnings. In due course his expedition, fitted out largely on credit, would start.

In a short while stories would begin to filter back to the capital of what the white man was doing. Sometimes they were not very pleasant stories. Wages were not being paid as stipulated; food had been stolen from villages; a mule or perhaps cattle were laid at the white man’s charge. So, sometimes, were definite cruelties.

Sometimes the slave trade came into the picture, though it is only fair to say that, as regards concession hunters, conduct of this sort was rare. It was whites of mixed southern European stock who gave most trouble in that direction, though there were occasional cases of concession men who joined forces with these outcasts to lend to their proceedings the prestige of an exploring expedition.

After as much had been borne as was possible, the permit would perhaps be cancelled. The white man, who had to make out a good case to his consul in order to get sympathy and his passage money home, would invent a harrowing story of intrigue against him, hinting that he was being persecuted because he had stumbled on government secrets so terrible that were they to be known the European nations would demand at once that such horrors should be ended.

Sometimes the expedition returned and the concession asked for was granted on condition that production of one sort or another should be started by a certain date. Often the concessionaire was bluffing, and when the time came to explain his default he would relate how all the delays which he had experienced were the result of secret instructions from the government to the tribes.

Where does the truth lie in all this tangle of charges and counter-charges? It is not the purpose of this chapter to say. But at least it seems probable that the Ethiopian point of view has something to be said for it. Even consuls, who are usually disposed to defend the doings of their nationals, have many times washed their hands of certain “prospectors”—which it is hardly likely they would have done had not the conduct of these pioneers of Empire placed them beyond the pale.

It is possible that having been many times bitten by men of this sort the Ethiopian government has adopted too suspicious and unhelpful an attitude towards the concessionaire. It may be that occasionally a local chief has set himself against the intrusion of white men into his district and has deliberately created difficulties.

But risks of this latter kind are part of the game. In the event of a concession being successfully exploited the profits are high. It is thus only natural that the risks shall be in proportion. Doubtless some prospectors have been unlucky.

To suggest that the central government, which has everything to gain from the stimulation of production in the country and which is usually a partner in the enterprise at least to the extent that there is to be an agreed taxation of output, is secretly hampering the work is hardly reasonable. It is the normal alibi of the man who has failed. Whether the failure is entirely his own fault, whether it is the result of circumstances over which he has no control, or whether the hostility of some local chieftain has contributed towards it, there can be almost certainly no more blame attached to the officials at Addis Ababa than arises from the fact, of which the prospector is always warned, that the writ of the Negus does not carry everywhere in his dominions the same authority. And if the Negus is to be blamed unduly for this, the retort is always open to him that, judging from the news of punitive expeditions which appears from time to time in London newspapers, there are parts of the British Empire where the white man’s writ is on occasion disregarded.

And as a footnote to this chapter a word is advisable concerning one of the bravest and most able explorers who ever visited the savage regions of Abyssinia—Nesbit, whose book, Forest and Desert, is as fine a piece of adventure writing as can be found.

He tells with great gusto how on finding that his permit did not include a certain area which he was most keen to visit he ingeniously trapped one of his men into telling him the native name (complete with spelling) of this province which he forthwith inserted on the permit with his own hand.

It is a good story. The keenness of the explorer is understandable, and doubtless many Englishmen chuckled as they read. But look at it from the other point of view. What happens in England to people who alter government forms to suit their own convenience? I am not sure, but it is probable that whatever happens to them is quite unpleasant. Nothing happened to Mr. Nesbit. He was even preparing to return to Ethiopia as a war correspondent when his tragic death in a flying disaster cut short a brilliant scientific and literary career.

No word of this commentary must be taken as implying the least reflection upon Mr. Nesbit, a courageous man, who felt that in the interests of science it was fair to use forgery for the purpose of acquiring knowledge. He acted honourably according to his lights, and certainly had no ulterior motive in his expedition. But picture yourself as a British official reading how by means of a faked passport an Ethiopian has obtained entry into some forbidden area. What is your reaction? Answer that question honestly and you will have gone a long way towards solving the problem of why Abyssinians have never offered foreigners such a welcome as these brave men have thought themselves entitled to; in which case this chapter, which is bound to be misunderstood in many quarters, will not have been penned altogether in vain.

Next Chapter

Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
Emperor Haile Sellassie First Theocracy Reign
Order of the Nyahbinghi

Crest of the Nyahbinghi Order

June 20, 2021