Tea and scandal: All about Karl


Karl Heinrich Saalmüller was born on the 29th of November 1829 in Heldburg, Thuringen, Germany.

He began his studies at St Chrischona in Switzerland on the 7th of January 1854 and graduated in 1857.

On the 1st of October 1858 he went to Ethiopia as an artisan craftsman with the St Chrischona-Pilgermission. He was one of several men who taught, made tools, built houses and forges and who cast cannon for Emperor Tewodros, including the prized Sebastapol.

In 1867 he married Mary Beletetch Bell, the daughter of British adventurer, John Bell, and an Ethiopian lady, Woisero Worknesh Asfa Yilma.

Karl remained in Ethiopia with until 1868. He then spent several years in Palestine and worked with the Temple settlement at Sarona.

In 1874 his eldest daughter, Dora, died in Brummana, Lebanon while visiting her aunt Susan Jewubdar Bell and uncle Theophilus Waldmeier.

In 1877 Karl, along with wife and surviving children, left Palestine to join his and sister-in-law and her family in Brummana.

Karl remained in Brummana until his death in January 1906.

These are the bare facts; they are documented, but it must be said, they are a struggle to find. Several contemporary accounts of Ethiopia during the mid to late nineteenth century exist and much has been written after the fact. Among the pages of these texts however Karl is all but invisible. To take a pointed example, his brother-in-law Theophilus Waldmeier wrote an extensive autobiography – it encompasses around twenty of the thirty years that the two men spent working and living alongside one another and yet Karl is barely mentioned.

And so the question dawns, why is Karl’s story so elusive?

In some ways Karl’s anonymity echoes that of his father-in-law.
John Bell was a trusted friend and advisor to Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia. Like Karl, John left little documentation of his life, travels and work whilst his close friend and colleague, Walter Plowden, published an account of his experiences. Contrary to Waldmeier’s silence regarding Karl, however, Plowden’s writing does make mention of John, and although somewhat lacking in detail, there are other contemporary accounts that record aspects of John’s life in Ethiopia. It is also possible that John Bell would have committed more of his story to writing had he not met with death so abruptly in 1860 when he was still aged only in his 40s. No such rationale can be applied in Karl’s case. He lived well into his 70s and enjoyed a peaceful retirement surrounded by family. His silence must therefore be seen as a product of choice.

While words may be lacking, Karl is recorded in pictures…, just a few, but as with most images, they are a vivid catalyst for imagining and seeking to understand an interesting life, even some one-hundred years after the subject’s death.


Adrien Bonfils, Lebanon
 Karl Heinrich Saalmüller, cabinet print
(c. 1900)
albumen print
14.0 x 10.1 cm (image and sheet), 16.4 x 10.8 cm (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Finding Karl was lengthy process. Upon viewing this photograph for the first time, I was so delighted to meet with his image that I completely overlooked his impressive beard and focused solely on his eyes. Uppermost in my thoughts was that Karl was a missionary. In the surrounding lines I read a life of hard work, determination and dedication, but in they eyes themselves I found warmth, kindness and intelligence. Pictured was a man of practical skill as well as of spiritual conviction.


*Adrien Bonfils, Lebanon
 Karl Heinrich Saalmüller, seated, cabinet print
(c. 1900)
albumen print
13.4 x 10.0 cm (image and sheet), 18.2 x 13.1 cm (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Shortly thereafter I came across a second studio-staged portrait of Karl. In this I observed the same traits as before but also a gentle stoop that imparted to me a sense of humble dignity – a characteristic incongruous with his formal attire and surroundings. Despite it’s staged setting, the photo did not feel like a status portrait. If anything, Karl looked out of place – an odd state of affairs considering that the photographer was his son-in-law.


 Unknown photographer, Lebanon
 Karl Heinrich Saalmüller with his grandson Charles Little, cabinet print
albumen print
13.4 x 10.0 cm (image and sheet), 18.2 x 13.1 cm (mount)
Private collection, Australia

Finally, I revisited a portrait of an elderly man and a young boy. The setting of an armchair outdoors on a dirt path against a stone wall background suggested Brummana, but the man, dressed in simple, everyday clothing and dusty shoes was difficult to define: his background could have been European or Middle-Eastern. With the aid of the two known studio portraits, the man was now clearly recognisable as Karl Saalmüllerand the child, by a process of elimination and comparison with other photos, was his grandson Charles. A swell of nostalgia at the sight of grandfather gazing down upon grandson gained a melancholic tint as it occurred to me that Charles was born in 1903. As he was no more that two or three years old at the time of this photograph that would make Karl about seventy-six and the photograph probably the last taken of him before his death in January 1906.

Whilst the neatly-suited Karl had cut quite a handsome figure in the studio photographs, this less formal portrait under natural light showed a seventy-six year old whose life experience had wrought upon him the appearance of a much older man. Suddenly Karl’s stoop in the earlier seated portrait suggested a body tired by wear and tear and the lines around his eyes in the first picture spoke of fatigue.

Along with nineteenth and early twentieth century texts, recent books such as Philip Marsden’s The Barefoot Emperor and In Their Generations by Wega Miller George chronicle the years that Karl and his colleagues passed in Ethiopia under the rule of King Theodore II. They each describe these years as harsh and difficult times. Perhaps Karl’s silence was not solely a symptom of humility. Maybe his reticence to recreate, to record his story was also a product of exhaustion and a wish to live his life looking forward, leaving the shared struggles, tragedy and trauma of the past behind along with the many achievements.

by Pat Little
25 September 2011


*Note: this photograph was most likely taken in the studio of Maison Bonfils, Beirut. The chair and table can be seen in a photograph of the studio reproduced in Yasmine Chemali’s article, The Good Woman named Bonfils, posted on the British Museum’s Endangered Archives blog on 7 March 2014.


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