Articles in this series:
Series: Nineteenth Century
01. An Essay in Nineteenth Century Ethiopian History
The rise of Kasa, the future Emperor Tewodros II, marked the opening of a new, and, in the light of later events, crucially important, era of Ethiopian history. Most of his attempted reforms were never achieved, but nonetheless charted the course taken in the decades which followed.
Kasa, who was born around 1818, was the son of a chief of Qwara on the western frontier. A distant member of the royal family (rather than a self-made man, as some authorities once thought), he was brought up in a monastery, but later became a free-lance soldier. His courage won him the loyalty of his followers, and enabled him to gain control of Qwara, and assume the title of Dajazmach. Empress Manan, the mother of Ras Ali, the then ruler of Bagemder, looked on him as no more than an upstart. She despatched an expedition against him, but he easily defeated it. Ali thereupon recognised him as governor of Qwara, and Manan arranged for him to marry her daughter, Tawabach, in 1847.
In the following year Kasa advanced into Sudan as far as Dabarki, where the Egyptians had erected a fort. He tried to capture it, but his soldiers suffered heavy casualties, and were routed. The engagement was significant, for it taught him that a traditional Ethiopian force was no match for a modern European-style army equipped with fire-arms.
Kasa, in the ensuing civil war, rapidly defeated his rivals, including Ras Ali, and by 1854 had made himself master of the entire north-west of the empire, including both Amhara and Gondar. The only significant rulers outside his sway were Dajazmach Webe of Tegray and King Hayla Malakot of Shawa.
Coronation as King of Kings Tewodros
Webe, who claimed the imperial crown, was then planning to march to Gondar, where a newly arrived Coptic metropolitan, Abuna Salama, had agreed to crown him as emperor. Kasa, however, defeated, and captured, the would-be monarch, whereupon Abba Salama agreed to anoint Kasa instead. The latter was accordingly crowned on 7 February 1855, as Emperor Tewodros. The name was significant, as an old legend, then widely believed, prophesied that a monarch called Tewodros would one day appear, rule justly, wipe out Islam, and capture Jerusalem.
Despite his military prowess and early victories, Tewodros was throughout his reign in a difficult military position. His power base was in the north-west of the country, far from the coast. He was therefore unable to
obtain fire-arms from the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden ports, which primarily served his rivals or enemies, the rulers of Tegray and Shawa. The only other trade route through which weapons might have been procured, that to the west, was likewise closed to him on account of his conflict with the Egyptians in Sudan.
Consul Plowden’s Reports
Despite this on-going military weakness Tewodros from his assumption of power showed himself a remarkable ruler. This is evident in an early report of the British consul, Walter Plowden, who observed, on 7 April 1855 that Tewodros, who was “capable” of “great things, good or evil”, and considered himself “a destined monarch”, and the “defender of the Cross against the Crescent “. In a later report, of 25 June, Plowden noted that Tewodros was “persuaded” that he was “destined to restore the glories of Ethiopian Empire, and to achieve great conquests”. Elaborating on the monarch’s almost fanatical character, he continued:
“When aroused his wrath is terrible, and all tremble; but at all moments he possesses a perfect self-command. Indefatigable in business, he takes little repose night or day; his ideas and language are clear and precise; hesitation is not known to him… He is fond of splendour and receives in state even on campaign. He is unsparing of punishment [but] generous to excess, and free from all cupidity, regarding nothing with pleasures or desire but munitions of war for his soldiers… His faith is signal: ‘without Christ’, he says, ‘I am nothing; if He has destined me to purify and reform this distracted kingdom, with His aid who can stay me?’: nay, sometimes he is on the point of not caring for human assistance at all…”
Turning to the Tewodros’s personality, which was soon to have a major impact on serious events soon to unfold, the consul observed that newly crowned monarch was:
“particularly jealous… of his sovereign rights and of anything that appears to trench on them… he wishes, in a short time, to send embassies to the Great European Powers to treat with them on equal terms. The most difficult trait of his character is this jealousy and the pride that, fed by ignorance, renders it impossible for him yet to believe that so great a monarch as himself exists in the world…’
As for Tewodros’s modernising ambitions, which set him apart from his predecessors, Plowden concluded:
“The arduous task of breaking the power of the great feudal Chiefs – a task achieved in Europe only during the reign of many consecutive Kings – he has commenced by chaining almost all who were dangerous, avowing his intention of liberating them when his power shall be consolidated. He has placed the soldiers of the different provinces under the command of his own trusty followers, to whom he has given high titles, but no power to judge or punish; thus, in fact, creating generals in place of feudal chieftains more proud of their birth than of their monarch, and organising a new nobility, a legion of honour dependent on himself, and chosen for their daring and fidelity..
“Some of his ideas may be impracticable, but a man who… has done so much and contemplates such great designs cannot be regarded as of ordinary stamp”.
He certainly was not!
Unifier, Reformer, and Innovator
Tewodros, as the above early reports at least partially recognise, was essentially a unifier, reformer and innovator. His first and foremost objective was the military conquest of the country. Abandoning the old capital, Gondar, in favour of Dabra Tabor, and making the natural fortress of Maqdala, in Wallo, his principal headquarters, he carried out a series of expeditions which brought Tegray, Wallo, and, finally Shawa, into his empire. His control over these provinces was, however, for the most part but temporary.
Struggling to gain control of the empire Tewodros was much preoccupied with military matters. He was apparently much influenced by his defeat Dabarki. This convinced him, according to the British traveller Henry Dufton notes, “that the primitive mode of warfare of his country would have to be superseded by a more modern one if he were ever to accomplish the splendid designs of his ambition”.
Tewodros, though a man of war, was deeply aware of the suffering created by the country’s unpaid soldiers, who traditionally ravaged the peasantry far and wide in search of food. He was appears to have been fired with the ambition to replace such soldiery by a modern-type army that would live on rations, or pay, provided by the state. This “great reform”, as an English eye-witness, C.T. Beke, called it, would have enabled the country’s inhabitants, almost for the first time in their history, to live in relative peace and security.
The reforming monarch, however, found it virtually impossible to establish such an army, if only because he lacked the resources with which to remunerate his men, and was moreover often unable to make them obey orders which conflicted with his interests. While in Dalanta in 1856, for example, he is said to have permitted his soldiers to take what they wanted to eat from the peasantry, but commanded them to touch neither the latter’s clothing nor their cattle. The men were, however, disobedient. They seized, and slaughtered, all the cattle they could find, whereupon their exasperated master curse them, saying, “As you have killed what belongs to the poor, so will God do unto you!”