August 17, 2018

Historical Ties Between Estonia and Africa

Estonia has been doing business with Africa for a long time.

Relations between Estonia and Africa have drawn increasing public attention in the last decade. This is probably due to Estonia’s participation in international military missions to African crisis points as well as the activity of the global education, development cooperation and humanitarian aid NGO Mondo in Uganda, Kenya and Ghana. Working visits to Africa by Estonia’s prime minister, Jüri Ratas, and President Kersti Kaljulaid in 2017 are important signs of increasingly closer relations. Driving economic cooperation, sharing Estonia’s experience in e-state building, solving the migration crisis, security and the battle against terrorism—all these are areas in which Estonia and African countries will continue to have more frequent contact. Research and personal contacts have also played an important part in establishing ties. On the centenary of the Republic of Estonia, it is fitting to recall our earlier contacts with the African continent.

Contacts Between Estonia and Africa Prior to 1918

Our knowledge of Estonian contacts with Africa in the medieval era is rather episodic. Finds of Arabic coins (minted in North Africa) in Estonia hint at possible contacts in the Middle Ages. As far as personal ties with Africa are concerned, Estonia-born people would only have these in the modern era. As far as we know, the first person from Estonia to visit West Africa was University of Tartu-educated Johan Philipp von Krusenstierna (1626–94), who in 1656–8 held the position of commander of a Swedish Africa Company fort in Cabo Corso on the Gulf of Guinea in the Swedish Gold Coast (now Ghana). As competition between European countries for this area was fierce, Krusenstierna’s tenure proved to be short: in 1658, the fort was taken by the Danes and the imprisoned commander was sent to Europe.

Some years later, in 1663, Ottho Ralingh from Tallinn reached the southern tip of Africa, and entered the service of the Dutch East India Company as a corporal in a fort at the Cape of Good Hope. Exactly one hundred years later, another man from Estonia—the Narva-born Johannes Rauck (possibly an Estonian with the last name Rõuk)—went into service with the same company and moved to Cape Town.

There is one known contact in the opposite direction dating to the 18th century. Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s great-grandfather Abram (Ibrahim) Petrovich Gannibal (1696–1781), who was most likely Eritrean in origin, lived in Estonia in 1731–52. His first position in Estonia was as a teacher at the garrison school for non-commissioned officers in Pärnu. After retiring he lived in Karjaküla Manor near Keila, after which his service took him to Tallinn, first as the fort’s artillery commander and later as superintendent. His memory was still alive in Estonia almost a century later—it is known that when peasants in northern Estonia were given last names in 1835, several families were named Hannibal.

The development of African studies in Estonia has been significantly influenced by people from Estonia who entered the service of foreign missions in the 19th century. Here it should be stressed that we are talking about a handful of solo missionaries, mostly of Baltic-German origin, who travelled to Africa from Estonia. Estonians in the Russian Empire, who were only freed from serfdom in the early 19th century, would have had difficulty finding opportunities to work in faraway corners of the world through foreign missions. In Estonia, the ideas and perspectives of missionary activities are first and foremost associated with German missionary societies and schools.

One of the people attending a mission seminary in Berlin was Gustavus Reinhold Nyländer (c. 1776–1825), who worked as a missionary in Sierra Leone in 1806–25 and is believed to have been Estonia’s first Africanist. People have called him both a German and a Swede, but it has been speculated that he also had some Estonian blood in the family. He made a major contribution to the study of African languages—of the books he published in London, his 1814 Grammar and Vocabulary of the Bullom Language is the most important and has the greatest scientific value.

The first Estonian to join a foreign mission was Hans Tiismann (1829–86). He came from an Estonian peasant family and worked as a missionary in East Africa (modern-day Kenya) in 1866–8. His work area was Ribe, a village near Mombasa, home to the Nyika people. Sadly he was not a particularly successful missionary, but his articles and a book on Africa, as well as a small collection of Nyika artefacts, have survived and are preserved in the Estonian History Museum. After Tiismann, several other missionaries of Estonian origin worked in Africa, among them Evald Ovir (1873–96), whose ground-breaking article on the verb in the Swahili language was published in a German journal, and Leonhard Blumer (1878–1938), who lived and worked with the Maasai people in Arusha and the surrounding area for 23 years (1907–30). Among his many publications in the Maasai language, he compiled a Maasai spelling book.1

The University of Tartu, reopened in 1802, was interested in teaching and studying the geography, nature, history, culture and languages of African lands. The African contacts of the university’s lecturers and alumni were varied—from lectures to participation in Russian globe-trotting expeditions, as well as personal contacts etc. Ethiopian Studies became a field of research at the university. In the early 19th century, Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Hezel, professor of Semitic languages, began giving lectures on the Ethiopian language. In 1837, the university library received ten works on Ethiopia. A more thorough focus on Ethiopian studies, including the study of texts in the Ge’ez language, occurred at the University of Tartu in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.2

Estonia and Africa from 1918 to 1940

In 1918, international recognition was important for the newly formed Republic of Estonia. When Estonia joined the League of Nations in 1921, among others it was recognised by two African countries: the Union of South Africa, and Liberia. The Ethiopian Empire was not yet a member of the League (it joined in 1923), and other African states were either colonies, mandates or protectorates, which meant that any communication with them went through their mother countries. In the interwar period, mutual contacts were developed on various levels, but the main areas of contact were trade and the protection of rights of Estonian citizens in Africa.

Unfortunately, there is no information on trade between Estonia and Africa in the first years of the Estonian Republic. It is known that in 1919–23 Estonia traded with Morocco, to where it exported cement, wood and spirit; and Mozambique, from where spices and sugar were imported. The main trading partners in the interwar years were still Egypt and South Africa.

In 1924–39, when the total value of trade in imported goods reached 27 million kroons, Estonia’s imports from Egypt made up 73% of its trade with Africa.3 The main reason for this active trade was Egyptian cotton, which had already been a valuable imported article for Estonia in the past.

Lasting economic relations between Estonia and Egypt had existed since the second half of the 19th century, after the Krenholm Manufacturing Company was founded in Estonia in 1857. At the time, this was Russia’s biggest cotton-spinning and weaving mill, so Egypt’s main export became a valuable import for Estonia. In addition, Krenholm used raw material from the US, India, Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan) and South America, almost every year between 1857 and 1914.4

The Baltic Cotton Manufacturing Company, founded in Tallinn in 1899, further increased Estonia’s demand for cotton. In addition to cotton, Estonia imported other goods from Egypt (e.g. fruit, tobacco, onions, palm oil, hemp, animal feed, copper goods, coffee beans, tea),5 but in small, irregular batches over a few years. Thirty-four different Estonian products found a market in Egypt, with the main exports there being paper and sheet glass. In 1927 the first talks took place on signing a trade agreement, which would have enabled Estonia to make better use of the Egyptian market. Unfortunately, the agreement was not concluded, for several reasons: Egypt’s new protectionist customs laws and the country’s tense domestic situation, as well as (possibly) Estonia’s negotiating tactics, which tended to delay making decisions.6

Estonia’s other important African trading partner was South Africa, where Estonia mainly exported lumber and paper. Other goods (cheese, butter, canned meat and fish, sweets) formed a rather small part of the trade. In total, 40 categories of goods with a total value of 2.4 million kroons were exported to South Africa in 1926–39. Estonia’s imports from South Africa were one-fifth of that amount. Of the imported goods, the most important were tanning extracts, followed by wool, cotton, animal hides and tobacco.7 In tropical Africa, Estonia’s main trading partners were British colonies (Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Kenya and others), from where palm oil, coffee beans, cocoa beans, sisal and tanning extracts were imported. The list of Estonian goods shipped to tropical Africa was not very long: paper, wood, aluminium goods and sweets. Estonia also attempted to export butter and cheese, but with little success—dairy products tended to spoil quickly in a hot climate. Some of the countries to buy Estonian produce were Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Angola and Mozambique.8

Next to the need to provide Estonian citizens with consular protection, the development of trade was one of the key motives in planning Estonia’s consular network. The Great Depression, which began in 1929, raised the question of consular relations between Estonia and African territories, which had already been discussed. Estonian business circles demanded that the government take effective measures to find new opportunities to market Estonian goods. One measure with which the Estonian government hoped to improve the foreign trade situation and find new markets for Estonian goods was to expand the network of consular posts. The Republic of Estonia had 119 consular agents in 1929, and this number increased to 140 by 1932.9[ix] In previous years, Estonia only had two consulates on the African continent, both in Algeria: one was opened in Algiers in 1927 one in Oran the following year. In the 1930s, new consular posts were established in Morocco (Marrakesh in 1932), South Africa (Cape Town in 1933, Johannesburg in 1937) and Egypt (Cairo in 1933). All these consulates continued to function successfully until the autumn of 1940, when they were closed on the orders of the Estonian SSR.

The fragile economic state of the young Republic of Estonia was one of the main reasons some Estonians sought a life elsewhere. Emigration in the interwar period was constant, although small in volume. Its high point was in 1925–7. A total of 16,300 people left Estonia in 1924–38, 41% of them moving to other European countries, 30% to North America, 19% to the USSR and 8% to Australia.10 As far as Africa was concerned, Estonians mainly favoured the areas that were the most acceptable to Europeans in terms of climate: Algeria, Morocco, the Canary Islands and South Africa. In addition, there was a colony of Estonian fishermen in the Belgian Congo, the heyday of which was in the 1920s, and Estonian missionaries were working in Egypt and tropical (mainly East) Africa.

The largest permanent Estonian expatriate community of the time formed in South Africa. In 1927, the newspaper Päevaleht published an article urging Estonians to emigrate to Africa, calling South Africa a “New America” and “a land of limitless opportunities”. The same year, Endel Muna, a former employee of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and a collaborator of the newspaper Kaja, reached South Africa from Tartu County. He can be considered the founder of the Estonian community in this region. He established a livestock farm in Cape Province, at the same time continuing to work as a journalist, and later also worked as a photographer in Durban.11

He was followed in the late 1920s by a number of Estonians who made their living in a variety of fields, founding businesses and farms, working as engineers at mines or on road construction, and so on. In the late 1930s, the Estonian colony in South Africa numbered some 30 people.12 A relatively large Estonian community was one of the reasons an Estonian consulate was opened in the country in 1933. It is known that Estonian expatriates in South Africa also planned to establish Estonian societies there, but this only took place after World War II.13 According to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, in 1971 the Estonian population in South Africa numbered 150.14

This article cannot touch upon all aspects of the historical connections between Estonia and Africa, especially as far as personal contacts are concerned. For example, several Estonian cultural figures (Friedebert Tuglas, Karl August Hindrey, Ants Laikmaa, Eduard Viiralt, Aino Kallas and others) employed the experiences of their African travels in their works of art and literature. A number of Estonian travellers, permanent settlers and so on spoke of their stay on the African continent in many travelogues published in the period discussed. All of this has in its own way broadened Estonians’ horizons and generated interest in Africa’s multifaceted nature, culture and history. It is good to note that after regaining its independence Estonia has considerable past experience on which it can draw in furthering relations with African countries.


1 See also: Karin Hiiemaa, Südame kutsel: Eesti misjonärid Aafrikas. Tallinn: Olion, 2000.

2 For additional information on the contacts between the University of Tartu and Africa, see: Heli Rahkema, Tartu Ülikool ja Aafrika (1802–1940), Master’s Thesis, Tartu, 2003; Olaf-Mihkel Klaassen, Etiopistikahuvist Tartu ÜlikoolisTartu ülikooli ajaloo küsimusi, XIX, Tartu, 1987, 70–79; Martin Hallik & Olaf Klaassen, Keiserlik Tartu Ülikool ja Orient, Tartu, 2002.

3 Olaf-Mihkel Klaassen, Eesti Vabariigi konsulaarpoliitika Aasias ja Aafrikas 1918–1940. Dissertation, University of Tartu, 1992, 266.

4 Kreenholmi puuvillasaaduste manufaktuuri osaühisus 75: 1857–1932. Tallinn, 1933, 49–51.

5 State Central Statistical Bureau. Eesti majandus. XVII, XIX, XX; RA ERA, f. 1831, n. 1 s. 4565, l. 59.

6 See also: Karin Hiiemaa, Eesti Vabariik ja Egiptus 1918–1940: huvid, kontaktid, probleemid. Master’s thesis, University of Tartu, 1998, 50–76.

7 Olaf Klaassen, Aasia ja Aafrika 1918–1945 ning kontaktid Aafrikaga, teine jagu. Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 1990, 91.

8 Olaf Klaassen, Aasia ja Aafrika 1918–1945 ning kontaktid Aafrikaga, kolmas jagu, Tartu, University of Tartu Press, 1990, 59–61.

9 Eesti Vabariigi esindajad välismaal, Tallinn, 1929; Eesti Vabariigi esindajad välismaal, Tallinn, 1932.

10 Hill Kulu, Eestlased maailmas: ülevaade arvukusest ja paiknemisest. Thesis, University of Tartu, 1992, 75–77.

11 Peeter Muna’s family archive.

12 Klaassen, Aasia ja Aafrika … teine jagu, 92.

13 See also: Karin Hiiemaa, Eestlaste etnilisest mälust Lõuna-Aafrika näite põhjalKultuur ja mälu: konverentsi materjale. Tartu: Studia ethnologica Tartuensia 4, 2001, 162–172.

14 Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. Vol. 4: Dev–For. Cape Town, 1971, 393.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.