Seventeenth-century painting depicting Saint George and the dragon, in the church of Debre Birhan Selassie in Gonder. Courtsey United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (R. Garraud)
After the mid-nineteenth century, the different regions of the Gonder state were gradually reintegrated to form the nucleus of a modern state by strong monarchs such as Tewodros II, Yohannis IV, and Menelik II, who resisted the gradual expansion of European control in the Red Sea area and at the same time staved off a number of other challenges to the integrity of the reunited kingdom.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Gonder state consisted of the northern and central highlands and the lower elevations immediately adjacent to them. This area was only nominally a monarchy, as rival nobles fought for the military title of ras (roughly, marshal; literally, head in Amharic) or the highest of all nonroyal titles, ras- bitwoded, that combined supreme military command with the duties of first minister at court. These nobles often were able to enthrone and depose princes who carried the empty title of negusa nagast.
The major peoples who made up the Ethiopian state were the Amhara and the Tigray, both Semitic speakers, and Cushitic- speaking peoples such as the Oromo and those groups speaking Agew languages, many of whom were Christian by the early 1800s. In some cases, their conversion had been accompanied by their assimilation into Amhara culture or, less often, Tigray culture; in other cases, they had become Christian but had retained their languages. The state's largest ethnic group was the Oromo, but the Oromo were neither politically nor culturally unified. Some were Christian, spoke Amharic, and had intermarried with the Amhara. Other Christian Oromo retained their language, although their modes of life and social structure had changed extensively from those of their pastoral kin. At the eastern edge of the highlands, many had converted to Islam, especially in the area of the former sultanates of Ifat and Adal. The Oromo people, whether or not Christian and Amhara in culture, played important political roles in the Zemene Mesafint--often as allies of Amhara aspirants to power but sometimes as rases and kingmakers in their own right.
Meanwhile, to the south of the kingdom, segments of the Oromo population--cultivators and suppliers of goods exportable to the Red Sea coast and beyond--had developed kingdoms of their own, no doubt stimulated in part by the examples of the Amhara to the north and the Sidama kingdoms to the south. The seventeenth through nineteenth century was a period not only of migration but also of integration, as groups borrowed usable techniques and institutions from each other. In the south, too, Islam had made substantial inroads. Many Oromo chieftains found Islam a useful tool in the process of centralization as well as in the building of trade networks.
By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, external factors once more affected the highlands and adjacent areas, at least in part because trade among the Red Sea states was being revived. Egypt made incursions along the coast and sought at various times to control the Red Sea ports. Europeans, chiefly British and French, showed interest in the Horn of Africa. The competition for trade, differences over how to respond to Egypt's activities, and the readier availability of modern arms were important factors in the conflicts of the period.
In the mid-nineteenth century, a major figure in Gonder was Kasa Haylu, son of a lesser noble from Qwara, a district on the border with Sudan. Beginning about 1840, Kasa alternated between life as a brigand and life as a soldier of fortune for various nobles, including Ras Ali, a Christian of Oromo origin who dominated the court in Gonder. Kasa became sufficiently effective as an army commander to be offered the governorship of a minor province. He also married Ali's daughter, Tawabech. Nevertheless, Kasa eventually rebelled against Ali, occupied Gonder in 1847, and compelled Ali to recognize him as chief of the western frontier area. In 1848 he attacked the Egyptians in Sudan; however, he suffered a crushing defeat, which taught him to respect modern firepower. Kasa then agreed to a reconciliation with Ali, whom he served until 1852, when he again revolted. The following year, he defeated Ali's army and burned his capital, Debre Tabor. In 1854 he assumed the title negus (king), and in February 1855 the head of the church crowned him Tewodros II.
Tewodros II's origins were in the Era of the Princes, but his ambitions were not those of the regional nobility. He sought to reestablish a cohesive Ethiopian state and to reform its administration and church. He did not initially claim Solomonic lineage but did seek to restore Solomonic hegemony, and he considered himself the "Elect of God." Later in his reign, suspecting that foreigners considered him an upstart and seeking to legitimize his reign, he added "son of David and Solomon" to his title.
Tewodros's first task was to bring Shewa under his control. During the Era of the Princes, Shewa was, even more than most provinces, an independent entity, its ruler even styling himself negus. In the course of subduing the Shewans, Tewodros imprisoned a Shewan prince, Menelik, who would later become emperor himself. Despite his success against Shewa, Tewodros faced constant rebellions in other provinces. In the first six years of his reign, the new ruler managed to put down these rebellions, and the empire was relatively peaceful from about 1861 to 1863, but the energy, wealth, and manpower necessary to deal with regional opposition limited the scope of Tewodros's other activities. By 1865 other rebels had emerged, including Menelik, who had escaped from prison and returned to Shewa, where he declared himself negus.
In addition to his conflicts with rebels and rivals, Tewodros encountered difficulties with the European powers. Seeking aid from the British government (he proposed a joint expedition to conquer Jerusalem), he became unhappy with the behavior of those Britons whom he had counted on to advance his request, and he took them hostage. In 1868, as a British expeditionary force sent from India to secure release of the hostages stormed his stronghold, Tewodros committed suicide.
Tewodros never realized his dream of restoring a strong monarchy, although he took some important initial steps. He sought to establish the principle that governors and judges must be salaried appointees. He also established a professional standing army, rather than depending on local lords to provide soldiers for his expeditions. He also intended to reform the church, believing the clergy to be ignorant and immoral, but he was confronted by strong opposition when he tried to impose a tax on church lands to help finance government activities. His confiscation of these lands gained him enemies in the church and little support elsewhere. Essentially, Tewodros was a talented military campaigner but a poor politician.
The kingdom at Tewodros's death was disorganized, but those contending to succeed him were not prepared to return to the Zemene Mesafint system. One of them, crowned Tekla Giorgis, took over the central part of the highlands. Another, Kasa Mercha, governor of Tigray, declined when offered the title of ras in exchange for recognizing Tekla Giorgis. The third, Menelik of Shewa, came to terms with Tekla Giorgis in return for a promise to respect Shewa's independence. Tekla Giorgis, however, sought to bring Kasa Mercha under his rule but was defeated by a small Tigrayan army equipped with more modern weapons than those possessed by his Gonder forces. In 1872 Kasa Mercha was crowned negusa nagast in a ceremony at the ancient capital of Aksum, taking the throne name of Yohannis IV.
Yohannis was unable to exercise control over the nearly independent Shewans until six years later. From the beginning of his reign, he was confronted with the growing power of Menelik, who had proclaimed himself king of Shewa and traced his Solomonic lineage to Lebna Dengel. While Yohannis was struggling against opposing factions in the north, Menelik consolidated his power in Shewa and extended his rule over the Oromo to the south and west. He garrisoned Shewan forces among the Oromo and received military and financial support from them. Despite the acquisition of European firearms, in 1878 Menelik was compelled to submit to Yohannis and to pay tribute; in return, Yohannis recognized Menelik as negus and gave him a free hand in territories to the south of Shewa. This agreement, although only a truce in the long-standing rivalry between Tigray and Shewa, was important to Yohannis, who was preoccupied with foreign enemies and pressures. In many of Yohannis's external struggles, Menelik maintained separate relations with the emperor's enemies and continued to consolidate Shewan authority in order to strengthen his own position. In a subsequent agreement designed to ensure the succession in the line of Yohannis, one of Yohannis's younger sons was married to Zawditu, Menelik's daughter.
In 1875 Yohannis had to meet attacks from Egyptian forces on three fronts. The khedive in Egypt envisioned a "Greater Egypt" that would encompass Ethiopia. In pursuit of this goal, an Egyptian force moved inland from present-day Djibouti but was annihilated by Afar tribesmen. Other Egyptian forces occupied Harer, where they remained for nearly ten years, long after the Egyptian cause had been lost. Tigrayan warriors defeated a more ambitious attack launched from the coastal city of Mitsiwa in which the Egyptian forces were almost completely destroyed. A fourth Egyptian army was decisively defeated in 1876 southwest of Mitsiwa.
Italy was the next source of danger. The Italian government took over the port of Aseb in 1882 from the Rubattino Shipping Company, which had purchased it from a local ruler some years before. Italy's main interest was not the port but the eventual colonization of Ethiopia. In the process, the Italians entered into a long-term relationship with Menelik. The main Italian drive was begun in 1885 from Mitsiwa, which Italy had occupied. From this port, the Italians began to penetrate the hinterland, with British encouragement. In 1887, after the Italians were soundly defeated at Dogali by Ras Alula, the governor of northeastern Tigray, they sent a stronger force into the area.
Yohannis was unable to attend to the Italian threat because of difficulties to the west in Gonder and Gojam. In 1887 Sudanese Muslims, known as Mahdists, made incursions into Gojam and Begemdir and laid waste parts of those provinces. In 1889 the emperor met these forces in the Battle of Metema on the Sudanese border. Although the invaders were defeated, Yohannis himself was fatally wounded, and the Ethiopian forces disintegrated. Just before his death, Yohannis designated one of his sons, Ras Mengesha Yohannis of Tigray, as his successor, but this gesture proved futile, as Menelik successfully claimed the throne in 1889.
The Shewan ruler became the dominant personality in Ethiopia and was recognized as Emperor Menelik II by all but Yohannis's son and Ras Alula. During the temporary period of confusion following Yohannis's death, the Italians were able to advance farther into the hinterland from Mitsiwa and establish a foothold in the highlands, from which Menelik was unable to dislodge them. From 1889 until after World War II, Ethiopia was deprived of its maritime frontier and was forced to accept the presence of an ambitious European power on its borders.
Figure 4. Colonization of the Horn of Africa and Southwest Arabia, 1820- ca. 1900
By 1900 Menelik had succeeded in establishing control over much of present-day Ethiopia and had, in part at least, gained recognition from the European colonial powers of the boundaries of his empire. Although in many respects a traditionalist, he introduced several significant changes. His decision in the late 1880s to locate the royal encampment at Addis Ababa ("New Flower") in southern Shewa led to the gradual rise of a genuine urban center and a permanent capital in the 1890s, a development that facilitated the introduction of new ideas and technology. The capital's location symbolized the empire's southern reorientation, a move that further irritated Menelik's Tigrayan opponents and some Amhara of the more northerly provinces who resented Shewan hegemony. Menelik also authorized a French company to build a railroad, not completed until 1917, that eventually would link Addis Ababa and Djibouti.
Menelik embarked on a program of military conquest that more than doubled the size of his domain (see fig. 4). Enjoying superior firepower, his forces overran the Kembata and Welamo regions in the southern highlands. Also subdued were the Kefa and other Oromo- and Omotic-speaking peoples.
Expanding south, Menelik introduced a system of land rights considerably modified from that prevailing in the Amhara- Tigray highlands. These changes had significant implications for the ordinary cultivator in the south and ultimately were to generate quite different responses there to the land reform programs that would follow the revolution of 1974 (see The Struggle for Power, 1974-77, this ch.). In the central and northern highlands, despite regional variations, most peasants had substantial inheritable (broadly, rist-- see Glossary) rights in land. In addition to holding rights of this kind, the nobility held or were assigned certain economic rights in the land, called gult (see Glossary) rights, which entitled them to a portion of the produce of the land in which others held rist rights and to certain services from the rist holders. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church also held land of its own and gult rights in land to which peasants held rist rights. In the south, all land theoretically belonged to the emperor. He in turn allocated land rights to those he appointed to office and to his soldiers. The rights allocated by the king were more extensive than the gult rights prevailing in the north and left most of the indigenous peoples as tenants, with far fewer rights than Amhara and Tigray peasants. Thus, the new landowners in the south were aliens and remained largely so.
At the same time that Menelik was extending his empire, European colonial powers were showing an interest in the territories surrounding Ethiopia. Menelik considered the Italians a formidable challenge and negotiated the Treaty of Wuchale with them in 1889 (see Diplomacy and State Building in Imperial Ethiopia, ch. 4). Among its terms were those permitting the Italians to establish their first toehold on the edge of the northern highlands and from which they subsequently sought to expand into Tigray. Disagreements over the contents of the treaty eventually induced Menelik to renounce it and repay in full a loan Italy had granted as a condition. Thereafter, relations with Italy were further strained as a result of the establishment of Eritrea as a colony and Italy's penetration of the Somali territories.
Italian ambitions were encouraged by British actions in 1891, when, hoping to stabilize the region in the face of the Mahdist threat in Sudan, Britain agreed with the Italian government that Ethiopia should fall within the Italian sphere of influence. France, however, encouraged Menelik to oppose the Italian threat by delineating the projected boundaries of his empire. Anxious to advance French economic interests through the construction of a railroad from Addis Ababa to the city of Djibouti in French Somaliland, France accordingly reduced the size of its territorial claims there and recognized Ethiopian sovereignty in the area.
Italian-Ethiopian relations reached a low point in 1895, when Ras Mengesha of Tigray, hitherto reluctant to recognize the Shewan emperor's claims, was threatened by the Italians and asked for the support of Menelik. In late 1895, Italian forces invaded Tigray. However, Menelik completely routed them in early 1896 as they approached the Tigrayan capital, Adwa. This victory brought Ethiopia new prestige as well as general recognition of its sovereign status by the European powers. Besides confirming the annulment of the Treaty of Wuchale, the peace agreement ending the conflict also entailed Italian recognition of Ethiopian independence; in return, Menelik permitted the Italians to retain their colony of Eritrea.
In addition to attempts on the part of Britain, France, and Italy to gain influence within the empire, Menelik was troubled by intrigues originating in Russia, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. But, showing a great capacity to play one power off against another, the emperor was able to avoid making any substantial concessions. Moreover, while pursuing his own territorial designs, Menelik joined with France in 1898 to penetrate Sudan at Fashoda and then cooperated with British forces in British Somaliland between 1900 and 1904 to put down a rebellion in the Ogaden by Somali leader Muhammad Abdullah Hassan. By 1908 the colonial powers had recognized Ethiopia's borders except for those with Italian Somaliland.
After Menelik suffered a disabling stroke in May 1906, his personal control over the empire weakened. Apparently responding to that weakness and seeking to avoid an outbreak of conflict in the area, Britain, France, and Italy signed the Tripartite Treaty, which declared that the common purpose of the three powers was to maintain the political status quo and to respect each other's interests. Britain's interest, it was recognized, lay around Lake Tana and the headwaters of the Abay (Blue Nile). Italy's chief interest was in linking Eritrea with Italian Somaliland. France's interest was the territory to be traversed by the railroad from Addis Ababa to Djibouti in French Somaliland.
Apparently recognizing that his political strength was ebbing, Menelik established a Council of Ministers in late 1907 to assist in the management of state affairs. The foremost aspirants to the throne, Ras Mekonnen and Ras Mengesha, had died in 1906. In June 1908, the emperor designated his thirteen-year-old nephew, Lij Iyasu, son of Ras Mikael of Welo, as his successor. After suffering another stroke in late 1908, the emperor appointed Ras Tessema as regent. These developments ushered in a decade of political uncertainty. The great nobles, some with foreign financial support, engaged in intrigues anticipating a time of troubles as well as of opportunity upon Menelik's death.
Empress Taytu, who had borne no children, was heavily involved in court politics on behalf of her kin and friends, most of whom lived in the northern provinces and included persons who either had claims of their own to the throne or were resentful of Shewan hegemony. However, by 1910 her efforts had been thwarted by the Shewan nobles; thereafter, the empress withdrew from political activity.
The two years of Menelik's reign that followed the death of Ras Tessema in 1911 found real power in the hands of Ras (later Negus) Mikael of Welo, an Oromo and former Muslim, who had converted to Christianity under duress. Mikael could muster an army of 80,000 in his predominantly Muslim province and commanded the allegiance of Oromo outside it. In December 1913, Menelik died, but fear of civil war induced the court to keep his death secret for some time. Although recognized as emperor, Menelik's nephew, Lij Iyasu, was not formally crowned. The old nobility quickly attempted to reassert its power, which Menelik had undercut, and united against Lij Iyasu. At the outbreak of World War I, encouraged by his father and by German and Turkish diplomats, Lij Iyasu adopted the Islamic faith. Seeking to revive Muslim-Oromo predominance, Lij Iyasu placed the eastern half of Ethiopia under Ras Mikael's control, officially placed his country in religious dependence on the Ottoman sultan-caliph, and established cordial relations with Somali leader Muhammad Abdullah Hassan.
The Shewan nobility immediately secured excommunicating Lij Iyasu and deposing him as emperor from the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church a proclamation. Menelik's daughter, Zawditu, was declared empress. Tafari Mekonnen, the son of Ras Mekonnen of Harer (who was a descendant of a Shewan negus and a supporter of the nobles), was declared regent and heir to the throne and given the title of ras. By virtue of the power and prestige he derived from his achievements as one of Menelik's generals, Habte Giorgis, the minister of war and a traditionalist, continued to play a major role in government affairs until his death in 1926. Although Lij Iyasu was captured in a brief military campaign in 1921 and imprisoned until his death in 1936, his father, Negus Mikael, continued for some time to pose a serious challenge to the government in Addis Ababa. The death of Habte Giorgis in 1926 left Tafari in effective control of the government. In 1928 he was crowned negus. When the empress died in 1930, Tafari succeeded to the throne without contest. Seventeen years after the death of Menelik, the succession struggle thus ended in favor of Tafari.
Well before his crowning as negus, Tafari began to introduce a degree of modernization into Ethiopia. As early as 1920, he ordered administrative regulations and legal code books from various European countries to provide models for his newly created bureaucracy. Ministers were also appointed to advise the regent and were given official accommodations in the capital. To ensure the growth of a class of educated young men who might be useful in introducing reforms in the years ahead, Tafari promoted government schooling. He enlarged the school Menelik had established for the sons of nobles and founded Tafari Mekonnen Elementary School in 1925. In addition, he took steps to improve health and social services.
Tafari also acted to extend his power base and to secure allies abroad. In 1919, after efforts to gain membership in the League of Nations were blocked because of the existence of slavery in Ethiopia, he (and Empress Zawditu) complied with the norms of the international community by banning the slave trade in 1923. That same year, Ethiopia was unanimously voted membership in the League of Nations. Continuing to seek international approval of the country's internal conditions, the government enacted laws in 1924 that provided for the gradual emancipation of slaves and their offspring and created a government bureau to oversee the process. The exact degree of servitude was difficult to determine, however, as the majority of slaves worked in households and were considered, at least among Amhara and Tigray, to be second-class family members.
Ethiopia signed a twenty-year treaty of friendship with Italy in 1928, providing for an Ethiopian free-trade zone at Aseb in Eritrea and the construction of a road from the port to Dese in Welo. A joint company controlled road traffic. Contact with the outside world expanded further when the emperor engaged a Belgian military mission in 1929 to train the royal bodyguards (see Training, ch. 5). In 1930 negotiations started between Ethiopia and various international banking institutions for the establishment of the Bank of Ethiopia. In the same year, Tafari signed the Arms Traffic Act with Britain, France, and Italy, by which unauthorized persons were denied the right to import arms. The act also recognized the government's right to procure arms against external aggression and to maintain internal order.
Although Empress Zawditu died in April 1930, it was not until November that Negus Tafari was crowned Haile Selassie I, "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and King of Kings of Ethiopia." As emperor, Haile Selassie continued to push reforms aimed at modernizing the country and breaking the nobility's authority. Henceforth, the great rases were forced either to obey the emperor or to engage in treasonable opposition to him.
In July 1931, the emperor granted a constitution that asserted his own status, reserved imperial succession to the line of Haile Selassie, and declared that "the person of the Emperor is sacred, his dignity inviolable, and his power indisputable." All power over central and local government, the legislature, the judiciary, and the military remained with the emperor. The constitution was essentially an effort to provide a legal basis for replacing the traditional provincial rulers with appointees loyal to the emperor.
The new strength of the imperial government was demonstrated in 1932 when a revolt led by Ras Hailu Balaw of Gojam in support of Lij Iyasu was quickly suppressed and a new nontraditional governor put in Hailu's place. By 1934 reliable provincial rulers had been established throughout the traditional Amhara territories of Shewa, Gojam, and Begemdir, as well as in Kefa and Sidamo--well outside the core Amhara area. The only traditional leader capable of overtly challenging central rule at this point was the ras of Tigray. Other peoples, although in no position to confront the emperor, remained almost entirely outside the control of the imperial government.
Although Haile Selassie placed administrators of his own choosing wherever he could and thus sought to limit the power of the rases and other nobles with regional power bases, he did not directly attack the systems of land tenure that were linked to the traditional political order. Abolition of the pattern of gult rights in the Amhara-Tigray highlands and the system of land allocation in the south would have amounted to a social and economic revolution that Haile Selassie was not prepared to undertake.
The emperor took nonmilitary measures to promote loyalty to the throne and to the state. He established new elementary and secondary schools in Addis Ababa, and some 150 university-age students studied abroad. The government enacted a penal code in 1930, imported printing presses to provide nationally oriented newspapers, increased the availability of electricity and telephone services, and promoted public health. The Bank of Ethiopia, founded in 1931, commenced issuing Ethiopian currency.
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