Part II


Owing to his Hungarian patriotism, and—having been an illegitimate child— his family circumstances and upbringing (he wanted to prove himself to his father), he insisted on publishing his books and other writings in Hungarian, despite offers from Portugal and Britain. Consequently, although his Hungarian mentor at the Academy of Sciences, János Hunfalvy, immediately translated the book and published it in German, the lack of an English and Portuguese edition, and the incompleteness of the French translations, meant that Magyar’s findings did not make it into the mainstream of international research. (It is especially tragic that even though the internationally renowned British explorer and ethnographic field researcher Sir Richard Francis Burton, who greatly admired Magyar’s achievements, translated Magyar’s work from German into English, the British publishers rejected it on the grounds that it had not been translated from the original language, despite the fact that the translation by native German speaker Hunfalvy may have proved to be a flawless source of data.)

Besides all this, we could almost say that an assessment of the true reception of Hungary’s first field researcher in Africa has only recently got under way. For example, today we know that the fact of Magyar’s African undertaking was first made public in 1852, when his journal excerpts and letters to his father were published. From then on, Hungarian and German-language newspapers, magazines, and journals reported constantly on the Hungarian naval lieutenant commander’s exploration of the Ovimbundu country.

Here we would like to give at least an overview of how Magyar’s work was received, and how it was incorporated into Hungarian and foreign culture and academic scholarship. Some possibly less well-known events in this process can already be found in nineteenth-century descriptions of his research, in the works of János Hunfalvy, Gusztáv Thirring, Sándor Márki, Lajos Sami, János Jankó, and other nineteenth-century academic writers.

Nevertheless we should emphasize that among them Thirring was a pioneer in perhaps the most important area of the subsequent analysis of Magyar’s research when, for example, he used contemporary travelogue data—not only in his later book (1937), but also in one of his earlier studies (1888)—to refute the accusation that Magyar’s geographic names (and the settlements, regions, mountains, valleys, and bodies of water that they denoted) were made up.

We are of course unable to give a detailed account here of the period from the time of Magyar’s first publications in Hungary (1852–1854) until his death (1864), and then the period from his death until the turn of the century, during which reactions to his work were relatively abundant. Nonetheless we should mention that the academician János Hunfalvy was the most prolific disseminator of Magyar’s research, curating more than a dozen publications in Hungarian and German. Besides the unembellished descriptions, we also find among them attempts at critical analysis. In his introduction to the main book and in his notes on it, in particular, besides Magyar’s lack of professional training he also criticizes, for example, his method of linguistic data gathering, and in numerous places he tries, in a somewhat didactic manner, to use the international literature to provide some background to our explorer’s descriptions.

As regards the international response, here I would like to quote the conclusion reached by the French geographer Abbé Dinome at the time (1860), based on Hunfalvy’s German translations:

[T]his work could contribute greatly to further building all that
[explorers and researchers] are trying to learn about every
aspect of the African countries and peoples, not only by serving us
with an entertaining read, but … so that we may considerably
broaden our knowledge of Africa and correct the things that we
have learned so far.

In one of his books (1876) the aforementioned R. F. Burton refers warmly to Magyar’s achievements: ‘the late Ladislaus Magyar, who had previously informed the Bengualan Government that the Casais [River] was reported to fall into the Indian Ocean at some unknown place, in 1851 followed this great artery lower than any known traveller’.

Without a doubt, Magyar’s key geographical discovery was the recognition and description of the largest reservoir feeding the southern African Zambezi, along with the sources of several large rivers in this vast region.

However, in contrast to this period of seemingly abundant Hungarian commentary, in the first decades of the twentieth century we effectively have to make do with the writings of one Hungarian author on Magyar. With his monograph published after almost half a century of preparation, as well as a few similarly important essays and papers, Gusztáv Thirring was essentially the only person to address Magyar’s work substantively, yielding new findings. (Any foreign critical literature that may exist from the period are still to be discovered.)

The roughly three quarters of a century from the end of the Second World War until the present day, however, has been characterized by a constant expansion in the body of analysis of Magyar’s work both in Hungary and abroad. We are constantly coming across new responses, mainly on the internet but also in journals and library documents. In what follows, therefore, we only intend to give a broad overview of international contributions, while of course making every effort to ensure that the authors of all academic papers presenting the most important discoveries are mentioned.

In addition to László Vajda’s competent biography (1951) focusing on the barriers to international recognition as well as giving an overview of Magyar’s ethnographic achievements, we should also mention Csaba Ecsedy’s highly informative essay published in Hungarian (1969) and English (1984). Regarding the journal excerpt describing the River Congo voyage, he points out the importance of Magyar’s descriptions of the former tribal chiefdoms along the banks of the Congo and holds his summary on the Boma slave colony in high esteem. Nevertheless, his most notable piece of analysis aims to achieve what Thirring also attempts in his book (1937), namely to describe Magyar’s intellectual development; how a naval officer became an adventure-seeking traveller and later a self-taught researcher of geographical and ethnographic data, a self-made ethnologist.

However, it  was  undoubtedly László Krizsán (1929–2006) who concerned himself most with Magyar’s work. In numerous essays, as well as in his DLit thesis, which he defended in the Soviet Union but later ran into problems having it recognized in Hungary, he sets out to reveal new discoveries made by Magyar about the slave trade. An example is his theory on the concentrated or shrinking slave trade, or the fugitives from slavery and the secret Quilombos (self-sustaining communities) created by Africans fleeing slavery. Hungarian researchers malign him as a vulgar Marxist. It is true that Krizsán had no access to the contemporary international research literature, and his sometimes exaggerated conclusions, which indeed occasionally bordered on fantasy, presumably also stemmed from this lack of information as well as the approach brought with him from Moscow. However, these were always expressed in a spirit of great respect for the African peoples. All this being said, true to his profession as an archivist and historian, he nevertheless contributed a great deal of new data to Hungarian learning.

The age of modern research in Hungary, however, is marked by the literature published from the 1980s and 1990s onwards: István Fodor, Zsófia Vajkai, Éva Sebestyén, Zsombor Nemerkényi, Mihály Sárkány, and others each explored an area of Magyar’s work in accordance with the highest professional standards, yielding a virtually endless stream of findings.

Especially prominent among these is István Fodor’s book, in which the outstanding linguist gives an account of our fieldworker’s contributions to research into the Umbundu language, processing the data based on incredibly varied phonetic, lexicological, and grammatical criteria, together with a comprehensive review of the international literature on the Umbundu language.

Zsófia Vajkai’s attempt (1989) to explore Magyar’s contribution to research on traditional agriculture is similarly valuable.

The most important product of Éva Sebestyén’s work is the three volumes of Magyar’s writing (2008, 2008, 2012), with her extensive introductions providing a multifaceted analysis. Her findings (2012) relating to the original manuscript of the monograph, in which she reviews various aspects of our hero’s research, are especially deserving of our admiration. We consider her analysis of the Ovimbundu people’s origin myth as recorded by Magyar to be highly significant, along with the publication of two other, shorter versions from Silva Porto’s mass of manuscripts and her attempt at a historical, ethnographic, and folkloristic background study of the text.

In the seemingly narrow field of geography, Zsombor Nemerkényi nevertheless reached some important conclusions in his assessment of an important aspect of Magyar’s work, his two original maps. Meanwhile, even in his dissertation this cartographic researcher has embarked on an important work that may—if the extensive list of present-day versions of the many former geographical names is a taste of what is to come—be a precursor to the long-awaited publication of a critical edition of Magyar’s writings.

As regards international research findings after the Second World War, or at least those that have come to light so far, there is only space here to list the names of the authors.

The books and other writings of three important British researchers, Gladwyn Murray Childs, Merran McCulloch, and Adriann Edwards are important to mention since they deal with the history, geographical environment, social structure, familial system, and ethnography, as well as a general description (McCulloch) of the Ovimbundu and more specifically the Kingdom of Bie. The various eras and events of Angolan history are explored in the works of professors David Birmingham in the UK and Beatrix Heintze in Germany. In a recent letter to me, Birmingham comments that he first read Magyar’s book at the beginning of his career, in the 1960s, with great enjoyment.

But we must also briefly mention Jan Vansina’s illustrious student, Joseph C. Miller, as well as John Kelly Thornton, Inge Brinkman, and others who, in their studies of Angolan history, often focus on Jaga-related questions. We should add to this a substantial number of works by the late Jan Vansina (1929–2017), pioneer of Oral History Research, and one of the leading authorities on the history of Central Africa, since they often contain references to Magyar, in studies of various topics ranging from the Jaga to the Kassanje Kingdom established by them, to numerous other events of Angolan and Congolese history between the sixteenth and twentieth century.

The German researcher Roma Mildner-Spindler wrote what is without a doubt the most important study of Magyar of the past two or three decades (Paideuma, 1996), however, a detailed description of this work exceeds the scope of this article. It is a shame that her doctoral dissertation and another paper, which presumably hold further references to Magyar, are not accessible.

The work of Dame Judith Listowel (Judit Márffy Mantuano, 1903–2003), who arrived in England in her early thirties, should not be omitted either. A baroness of noble descent who chose a career in journalism and was later forced to permanently emigrate, she first garnered much publicity in the English-speaking world when she presented Magyar to her readers through his parallels with Livingstone (The Other Livingstone, 1974). The book, incidentally, is painstakingly accurate and conforms to the highest professional standards. For example, she conducted extensive investigations in Angola to search for traces of Magyar (his grave), locating his presumed descendants in the process.

Naturally, Portuguese researchers have made a rich contribution to this field of research, albeit with a slightly broader scope. They study, among other, travel literature, caravan trading, population numbers, and the extent of famine, as well as health problems (tropical diseases), commonly using Magyar’s data as well, often in relation to Silvo Porto. Maria Emília Madeira dos Santos, José C. Curto, Roquinaldo Amaral Ferreira, Maria da Conceição Neto, Constança do Nascimento da Rosa Ferreira de Ceita, or the US-based Mariana P. Candido are among those who we could mention in this regard.

A special mention is due to Alexandra Aparíció, who completed her university studies in Hungary, and has written several papers about Magyar. In one of her important works she confronts what is perhaps the most sensitive issue: namely, how is the human face of the African people, and specifically the Ovimbundu, judged and portrayed in the travelogues of a Hungarian trader and traveller, latterly a self-taught ethnologist, who settled near the then capital of Bie and married into the family of a tribal chief?

A special aspect of Magyar’s reception is that he has also entered international literature. We have already mentioned Antal Havas’s narrative poem of 1895, the bulk of which depicts Magyar’s exploits in Africa in rhyming verse reminiscent of János Arany. The major event of recent years, however, was the poem invoking the love between Princess Ozora and Magyar by Angolan poet Ana Paula Tavares, which has already been translated into several European languages.

* * *

The autumn of 2018 saw a series of conferences and conventions held in Hungary to mark the 200th anniversary (on 13 November 2018) of the birth of this renowned African field researcher and ethnologist. We are confident that as a result of these conferences, which led to numerous new discoveries, and the abundance of new data sources that they uncovered (e.g. documents certifying his years spent at the Fiume Naval Academy), this exceptional Hungarian scholar will take his rightful place in Hungarian cultural history and the sacred pantheon of our national memory; and sooner or later, his academic achievements will also receive their due recognition from the international scientific community.

Translation by Daniel Nashaat


The details of the literature sources mentioned in the book can be found in the following works by the author of this essay:


2018    ‘Magyar László szellemi hagyatékáról. Az elvégzett és az el nem végzett kutatási feladatokról

– születése 200. évfordulóján’ (On the Intellectual Legacy of László Magyar. Research Tasks Completed and To Be Completed—On the 200th Anniversary of His Birth), Vasi Szemle, Vol. 74, Issue 5, 523–550.

2019 ‘Magyar László recepciója itthon és külföldön’ (The Reception of László Magyar at Home and Abroad), in  István  Rákóczi,  ed.,  Magyar200.  Szombathelyi  tudományos  konferencia és megemlékezés (Magyar200. Szombathely Academic Conference and Remembrance) (Budapest–Szeged: Primaware), 69–95, https://oszkdk.oszk.hu/storage/00/02/81/10/dd/1/ Magyar_200_Ebook.pdf.

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