Request a high resolution copy

Letter from Charles Doughty-Wylie to Gertrude Bell

There is currently no summary available for this item.
Reference code
Bell, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian
Wylie, Charles Hotham Montagu Doughty-
Creation Date
Extent and medium
1 letter plus envelope, paper

8.9806034, 38.7577605

30 May.
Adis Ababa –

My dear Gertrude –

Being much in need of your advice & sympathy I am going to set before you some things Abyssinian – It will be badly enough done, probably dull, assuredly selfish, because your world is full already – Still you can burn it, and anyway I won’t hear any more reason, and here goes –

Menelek [sic] died last November – after four years of speechless paralysis – His proclaimed heir Yasu [sic] is now I think 18 – his grandson, son of his daughter by a great chief, Ras Mikhail, once a Moslem, and now ruler of the really Moslem state of Wollo – The country is feudal & mediaeval, with the conquering Abyssinians superimposed on the Gallas the aborigines – Slavery, a very powerful priesthood, every form of feudal tenure – it might be Norman England, even down to the thatched huts & the drinking of mead – about customs, marriage, habits etc it’s a most fascinating, unknown place well worth a study – but its politics I want to keep you in.

Well then – as I see it, our interests, and we border the place near entirely, are peace and trade which keeps peace – a strong Abyssinia able to stand alone & to keep order on the frontiers – no foreign spheres of influence, no costly necessity for cleaning up Alsatias, or for finding money to pay bondholders, - no threats or entanglements which must be cut by force – and no unnecessary meddling –

Per contra to the Abyssinians we are represented sometimes as greedy neighbours – “see what they’ve done – things in the dust, Africa trampled – The unquiet devils on your borders building up armies & riches – and in Cairo sits Kitchener sharpening his sword” –

The other interests are (to begin with the little) American – trade only – Russian, no trade, protects the Greeks, is of the same church, plays no hand at present – German, trade, intrigue to create definite tangible interests for which she will have to be compensated on the division of Abyssinia by Italy, France & England.

I left out Turkey not come but coming & Austria who is a pander when not selling arms.

French interests are their port of Gibute, (a free port) their railway from it to Adis Ababa, not quite finished – the financing of loans or of anything profitable – a large & to us very deadly arms trade – I don’t think the French want to break up the country, as long as they can get money without it – But I may be wrong even now, and certainly at any time their policy might change – At least they are bound to prevent injury to their railway the interest on the capital of which is guaranteed by the French Government –

Italy is in danger – the Italians have spent and are spending huge sums in Eritrea, where there is a railway from Massowah to Armara, (a climb of 8000ft with 28 tunnels) another railway in course of construction by Veren Agordat to reach Gondar in Abyssinia – and in Benadir in the harbours of Brava, Mogadishu & another (dash it, its name is gone from me) – neither Eritrea, nor Benadir can even pay unless they acquire a rich hinterland – for this end were they created – Then in Italy just at present Tripoli – fed all the world has waxed fat & kicked – Rodd says they look upon this country as a sphere for Italian irredentism – Adna is close to Eritrea – 3 years ago I reported after a journey in Eritrea that every official every officer thought of the day of revenge, the day of hope & glory.

To get rich lands accessible by Massowah in touch with the line which they are building from Agordat, the Italians want Gondar & the lands round Lake Tsana – This brings them up against us.

Lake Tsana is practically the source of the Blue Nile which gives of the Egyptian flood the fertilising half. Lord Cromer like the great man that he is long ago sent an expert to L. Tsana – By his direction Harrington procured a Treaty giving us the right to be consulted if any works were ever made – or rather to put it better that no works should be constructed which should obstruct the flow of the water from the Blue Nile L. Tsana or the Sobat, except in agreement with the English & Sudan Govts. But after this Treaty Lord Cromer (and it is now many years ago) for reasons of his own was not satisfied. He wanted some hold on Abyssinia, and if he had got it, we should not now be in such difficulties with Italy. He offered through Harrington to Menelek a subsidy of £10,000 a year provided that the L. Tsana arrangements were left as they were – That I take it was the reason to show the world if need were, or the Govt of Egypt – But he had L. Tsana already and did not propose to build works – What he wanted was a quiet hold on Abyssinia –

Its a long story and many documents do not now exist – but it seems that other things were added – Harrington wanted this & that – Menelek hesitated and finally refused to take the money -

When I was in charge before here an Italian offered to build these works, - I shook it off by the Treaty & so on – now Lord Kitchener wants to service the subsidy but in exchange for a permission to build as likes him best. These negotiations I have opened and Lord K’s Treaty is on its way –

To return to the Italians – they are well represented here by Count Colli, who has some 12 years experience of the country – originally a cavalry officer, he is 3 years younger than I am, a very charming quiet & capable man. He is helped by some large secret service fund, and by the Italian Telegraph line which goes from here to Armana, - the Terminals & intermediate stations are in Italian hands. These men control the telephone also. Colli has made himself the intermediary between all the northern chiefs & Adis Ababa – now (and this is important) between Yasu and his father, to whom alone the boy listens.

I have been fostering a rival line in Abyssinian hands, and hope to send a definite order for the wire etc to the Sudan in a few days, perhaps tomorrow –

As for Tsana the Italians if they heard of any subsidy would no doubt oppose it tooth & nail – A few months ago Colli was supreme here & of great influence with Yasu & the Govt. But the war cloud grows larger in Eritrea – The Eritreans besides their railway in the building, have called out their militia, sent for staff officers – reconnoitred certain places, fortified the frontier, - they had a good excuse it is true in the civil war in Tigre – good as it was, I think it an excuse –

That civil war in Tigre puts me in mind that you can’t be expected to understand this letter written as hard as I can drive – The civil war in question was finished for the moment in two considerable fights, 10,000 men a side. But there is an even chance of another –

Ras Mikail, Yasu’s ex Moslem father, is to be crowned tomorrow King of Tigre, the old fiercely Christian home of Amhara kings – its doubtful if they fight or not – their prince one Dejaz Sizum, grandson of King John (put on the throne by us & killed by the Dervishes) has accepted an invitation to Dessie to the coronation – if King Mikail is wise he will send back Siyum as Viceroy to Tigre – if he is a fool, he will put him in chains, and send to Tigre one of his own firebrands – Tigre will scatter, - some to Eritrea, some to Ras Waldo Giorgis – (He is most important, but I can’t tell you about him) – anyway much turns on what they do tomorrow at Dessie – If the Tigreans cross the Eritrean border some of the bloods of King Mikhail hot sword after them, why then the revenge for Adna may be drunk in every garrison –

And as for me I am now very busy and very happy if it wasn’t that I am crippled for the time – There are the arrears of years to put straight - questions without end, some small, & many big – If there is war there will be no more business and I hope I shall go to Basreh via London, when its more or less over – for I have little doubt that the Italians will win – so we shall lose Tsana & trade & 100 things – and see them ˣ misgovern as they will misgovern – But personally whatever happens I should hate to see the control of the Nile water surrendered – and I can’t believe we should surrender it.
ˣ Did you know that after the killings of Arabs in Tripoli they flew to the opposite extreme, and served out every officer with a Koran to carry about with him!

I like the Abyssinian, which is unusual, and still more unusual he likes me – they hate Thesiger, and perhaps that’s a great reason for their liking any body in his place – And it greases the wheels – I can do things that he can’t even attempt because of it –

I shouldn’t have said this to any body but you, whom I know the soul of discretion – And will you forfive me for writing you such a long & unintelligent letter – I haven’t set the stage for you a bit – only given you a programme – But nor have I told you one of the problems – here it is – I must have your opinion.
[Page missing?]

This is a rotten letter – you don’t of course know anything of the Tripartite Agreement between Italy, France & England, - or of the recent discussions between Rodd & Agnesa – or of the projected French loan – or the arming of chiefs by Italy – of her southern proposals – or the risk of a dynastic war – of the Austrian artillery – But there is no time to tell you – only a war between Italy & Abyssinia means for us the gravest situation – Either contrary to our express declarations we must let go what we said we must have, the sources & affluents of the Nile, i.e. the life of Egypt & the Sudan – and we must be prepared to take them over ourselves & administer distant extremely difficult countries at huge expense – And that the Italians want war & will have it sooner or later I am convinced – But first I want to push through the subsidy & Treaty.

It sounds easy enough, but in reality it is very difficult. The Abyssinians are entirely suspicious, and Tsana is to many of them sacred – There are prophecies that when the foreigner owns Tsana, down goes Abyssinia – on islands in Tsana in unvisited islands (would that we might use them) are said to be tombs of the ancient kings, dating perhaps to the 4th century or earlier – perhaps as old as Axum which is as old as Meroe, perhaps older – A dam might flood these other Philoes –

In Tsana is water enough for the whole Ghezireh, the certainty of the profit on the £3,000,000 loan and more than that, and the dam is easy to construct –

The strain being great between Italy & Abyssinia, the Tsana project delivered with my speeches (real enough) of friendship, comes news that at a place called Nogara, 5 miles from our Sudan frontier and 25 from the Eritrean, had arrived parties of Italians – they had dug wells, they were building a bridge, they had hoisted a flag – they had retired in peace after doing all these things –

Should one say nothing even though the news was official & confirmed, feeling that it might provoke some outbreak – feeling that the Abyssinians were bound to know sooner or later –

Should one tell them, - if an Italian flag is hoisted 5 miles from our frontier can they even believe we did not know it? Not they - & those who hide a thing like that at a time like this, are they friends or enemies? If they talk to us of treaties & friendship shall we believe them? Surely they too are for the division of Abyssinia – they would like to see us fight the Italians, & take their shre of the spoil when we are weak –

I thought – waited & telegraphed for confirmation – and told Yasu –

What would you have done?

But that’s only one smallish thing – there are others to examine – but bad luck to it you will never be here to help –
Yrs ever

IIIF Manifest