At a Glance:
Prince, Explorer, Naturalist
Papal States (in modern Italy)
Bird names: 1
Ethiopia and Somalia
Content note: this profile contains discussion of MURDER AND COLONIALISM.
Ruspoli’s Turaco (Tauraco ruspolii)
This is a story that ends with an elephant potentially saving human lives. When Eugenio Ruspoli took shots at said elephant, it responded by swinging him around in the air, and then trampling him to death. Albeit unintentionally, this act of self defence put an end to the campaign of violence Ruspoli had been waging across his “explorations” of Ethiopia and Somalia.
Prince Eugenio Ruspoli (1866-1893) was born into a priveaged background – son Prince Emanuele Rusopli – a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and twice Mayor of Rome and Ecaterina Cocuța Conachi – a Romanian princess who had been instrumental to the unification of Moldova. The House of Ruspoli as a whole could best be described as having a extremely colourful history, ranging from fighting for the Italian Fascists in World War 2 to marrying an ultra-rich Brazilian heiress, being taught hypnosis by Orson Welles to a man who went into battle in a wheelchair pushed by his assistant. Eugenio was very much in this mould; the wealth of his upbringing allowed him to indulge in his burgeoning passion for exploration.
He would make two expeditions to Somalia and Ethiopia, and while the first would result in a number of specimens being presented in Europe, the second would be cut abruptly short by his death. Little first hand account of his expeditions seems to have survived, however, twenty four years after Ruspoli’s final expedition, the American Arthur Donaldson Smith would pass through very similar territory, and the ramifications of Ruspoli’s passing could be felt even then. His book, “Through Unknown African Countries”, makes several of troubling claims of violence and cruelty.
He had an escort of only forty armed men, but the Gallas [note: the Oromo people] would not let him enter their country because the only white men who had ever crossed their borders, Prince Ruspoli and Captain Bottego, had attacked them continually.Arthur Donaldson Smith, Through Unknown African Countries – p.2
As this adventurer [Ruspoli] had taken everything from the natives that he could lay his hands on, they were not going to trust any men armed with rifles in the future,Arthur Donaldson Smith, Through Unknown African Countries – p.152
One or two old women remained in their homes, in some instances, and implored us not to kill them ; they said they had been “humbugged” by Ruspoli’s men, and would not believe my protestations of peaceArthur Donaldson Smith, Through Unknown African Countries – p. 153
It would seem even his own men were not immune to his callousness either – a contemporary report notes that on a return journey to his camp he ran into his own men who “had abandoned their camp, owing to sickness and want of provisions, but the Prince
turned them back at once”.
Ruspoli’s legacy as a naturalist would be limited by his own lack of efficacy. He seemingly was more interested in the hunting aspect of collecting as his notes were woefully lacking – even his namesake species wasn’t properly identified until 50 years after his death as he hadn’t recorded where he had shot it, and no Western Scientists could locate the extremely range limited species again until long after his death. Even a contempraneous text notes that because he failed to have even determined their latitudes during their exploration, noting certain features on the map would be “reserved to some future explorer.”
Left: A card listing the details of the type specimen of a species designated Dienemellia ruspolii. When and where it had been collected are unclear. [link]
His end would come near the foothills of the Amara mountains; he spotted a large elephant and approached to within thirty yards to take a shot at it. He apparently missed. The huge creature would, as Donaldson Smith described it later “kept swinging Ruspoli about in the air before he lowered the body to the ground and stamped out the little life that was left”. With their leader dead, the expedition would return to Italy. An ignominious death for a man who seemed to fancy himself the great adventurer.
Eugenio Ruspoli seems almost archetypal of the the age of colonial exploration. Wooed by tales of adventure, he set out on expeditions he was woefully underqualified to lead, and was able to get that station purely on the basis of his inherited wealth and social station. The result; bringing murder and cruelty to the people of East Africa, and his own death at the age of only 27. The turaco that was given his name apparently not even deemed worth his time to document correctly – a story that highlights how little “contribution” to knowledge can be needed to be honored this way.
- Through Unknown African Countries by Arthur Donaldson Smith [link]
- The Ibis, Vol. VI 1894 – p. 564 [link]
- Ecaterina Conachi saved the Union of Romanian Principalities by preventing her husband from becoming ruler [link]
- Birdwatch: Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco – The Guardian, 2011 [link]
- Italian Explorations in the Upper Basin of the Jub [link]