Sanna Ibsa to Goshu Zewde, [1839?]

Dr Getatchew Haile

(click image to zoom)

From: ACTA AETHIOPICA, Vol. I, "Correspondenceand Treaties 1800-1854", Sven Rubenson, 1987, Document no. 31, page 40.

BN, Ethiopi. Abb 249, Oromiñña(?) original in the form of a typical Ethiopian scroll, 400 mm long and 65 wide, written in red ink with the exception of a few lines at the top. The Arabic translation (?) also reporduced here was printed in the Bulletin de la Sociètè de Geographie (2, XVII (1842), opposite p. 160) with the annotation that the letters (presumably the two versions) had been given to Arnauld d' Abbadie by Dejjazmach Goshu of Gojjam and that Arnauld had forwarded a copy from Berbera to Paris on 14 Jan. 1841 Since Arnauld had spent much of the year 1839 with Goshu, including a short campaign against the Oromo south of the Blue Nile, it may safely be assumed that the scroll was acquired at that time, though it might of course have been written earlier. To my knowledge it is the only preserved document in "Oromiñña script".

I have not been able to ascertain where or by whom the Arabic translation was produced. In a letter from Berbera, which was also published in BSG (2, XVIII (1842), pp. 120-126), Antoine d'Abbadie declares that he tried hard to decipher the original text with the help of the Arabic version. He felt fairly sure that the text ran from right to left and that the symbols represented syllables, that is, provided the language was Oromiñña and the content identical with that of the accompanying Arabic text. Informed by his interpreters, however, that the Muslim Oromo did not translate the Arabic phrase Al-hamdu lillah, etc., into their language, and unable to identify these Arabic words behind the strange symbols, Antoine d'Abbadie gave up his attempt (see also BN, Ethiop. Abb. 272, fols 65-66, 72 v.).

The d'Abbadie brothers attributed the letter to Abba Bagibo (the horsename of Ibsa Bofo), ruler of Limmu-Innarya 1825-61. According to the Arabic version of the letter, however, the one who wrote (or sent) the letter was "Sanah ibn Amir Jibril". When Antoine reached the court of Abba Bagibo at Sakka in 1843, he made a new attempt to solve the mystery of the strange script, once more in vain. He was informed, however, that Abba Bagibo had not written the letter. Instead it was attributed to his son "Sanna abba ragou". The emissary was identified as Baquse Korme (baqu`sE:kormE). See BN, Ethiop. Abb. 265, fol. 2v; also fol. 106v for an attempt by Antoine d'Abbadie to find solution by translating the Arabic into Amharic.

Charles Beke, who made extensive inquires about the lands south of the Abbay while visiting Gojjam in 1841-2 (Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, XIII (1843), pp. 254-269), was also told taht Abba Bagibo's eldest son and heir apparent was "Sanna, or Abba Rago". I have not been able, however, to verify Antoine d'Abbadie's statement that Ibsa Abba Bagibo was also known as Amir Jibril.

Dejjazmach Goshu Zewde, here addressed wakil for dejjazmach, was the ruler of Gojjam from c. 1825 until 1852. 'KN, deciphered "Gana" by the contemporary translator into French, no doubt refers to Goshu's horsename Abba Kanno. Through his father Dejjazmach Zewde Tulu, Goshu was or of Oromo descent and had spent his childhood among the Oromo. He spoke Oromiñña and used it in writing occasionally, but then with the Ethiopic script.

The petition for a marriage alliance and the request that Goshu not abandon Gudru testify to the good relations which - in the interest of the trade - normally existed between the Gojjames and the ruler of the Oromo principalities immediately south of the Abbay (JRGSL, vol. XIII, p. 257). See Abir, Ethiopia, pp. 73-94. To my knowledge no further attempts to decipher the "Oromiñña script" have been made. The above is therefore a translation of the Arabic version. This was according to the contemporary translator in Paris "du style le plus barbare", or in Antoine d'Abbadie's words "en Arabe vulgaire de la Haute-Ethiopie". It is indeed very barbarous. The almost unique method of linking sentences is with lakin (but, however) which has largely been ignored in the translation. Unlike most of the Ethiopian letters, it does not betray the influence of Sudanese or any other known colloquial dialect. It is rather a very infelicitous attempt on the part of the translator to express himself in "classical" Arabic.

I have assumed that Antoine d'Abbadie knew what he was doing when he accepted the connection between the scroll and the letter in Arabic, but would like to emphasize that we have no internal evidence for such a connection. On the contrary, the document with its square of symbols strongly resembles an ordinary magical scroll, in which case not only the "alphabet" but also the eventual words might be unintelligible. This does not, of course, nullify the message preserved in the Arabic text.

English Translation

Praise be to God alone. May blessing and peace be upon the Messenger of God, Muhammad, after whom there is no prophet. And now, after most perfect greetings to [His] Excellency Dejjazmach Goshu [Abba] Kanno, son of Zewde (Hadrat Wakila Kashu, 'KN ibn ZWDY). O reader of this letter, say to him, "O brother of mine in the two worlds (i.e. heaven and earth), you speak with your tongue as if it were with my tongue, like the rains and the seas. You sent me some goods (mal). They came and I received [them] (lit. took in my hand). However, I ask your friendship and desire your affection. Ask [from] me, my dear friend, just as I ask [from] you, if you have [true] affection for me, my dear friend and apple (lit. cooling) of my eye. I ask you to have affection for me and I shall have affection for you. Because of what I am saying, do not abandon the land of Gudru (KDR). He who travels in the land of Gudru and needs something in the land of Gudru, give it to him as if it were your country and mine, and keep your word. Show affection to me and make our relationship like that of a father and a son. I ask you to give me your daughter. I am rich in excellent horses and mules and war equipment and lion skins and many lands. All that I have is as if it were yours, if you desire it with your heart. If you give me your daughter, you will have my country all that is godd in it. If in your heart you desire money, [tell me] how much, even [if it amounts to] thousand(s), and I will send it if we are sure the route is safe. However, I am fearful about the route. Keep your word. I have asked you for affection. If you say welcome to all [of these proposals], I desire to seek out all good things for your sake. Greetings."

The writer of the letter (mustamidd al-waraq) is Sanna, son of the Amir Jibril (Sanah ibn Amir Jibril). May it reach Dejjazmach Goshu Zewde (Kashu ibn ZWYD [sic]). I have sent it by the hand of Baquse Korme (Bakshi ibn KRMI). The man Baquse is my friend. I love you, O my father, as you love me. However, I have made him travel between you and me [so] treat [him] as your friend [while he is] in your country. Greetings.