Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
01. The Beginnings of Ethiopia’s Modernisation
The last decades of Menilek’s (1889-1913) reign marked the beginning of Ethiopia’s modernisation, which had been delayed, among other reasons by almost a century of internal or external warfare. An unprecedented period of peace after the battle of Adwa, the opening up of foreign contacts in the aftermath of the Italian defeat, and the advent of increasing numbers of foreign craftsmen, created an entirely new climate for economic and technological developent. This owed much also to the Emperor’s almost child-like interest in innovations of all kinds, and to the ability of his trusted Swiss engineer Alfred Ilg. All these factors contributed to the founding at this time of a modern state. The Founding of Addis Ababa One of the earliest developments in the field of modernisation had its origin in 1881, when Menilek, then only king of Shawa, abandoned the old Shawan capital, Ankobar, and established his headquarters further south, on the mountain of Entoto. Later, in 1886, his consort Queen Taytu, and her courtiers, moved down to the nearby plain, the site of thermal waters. There they set up a new place of abode. Taytu named it Addis Ababa, literally New Flower. Five yeras later it became the capital of the Ethiopian realm, The settlement, which rapidly acquired the character of a boon town, had by 1910 an estimated population of around 70,000 permanent and 30,000 to 50,000 temporary inhabitants. The town became the site of many of the country’s principal innovations, and, because of its sizeable population, enabled a degree of specialisation of labour scarcely known elsewhere in the land.
Enter the Russians The growth of Addis Ababa, which was particularly rapid after the battle of Adwa, was accompanied by the construction of some of the country’s earliest modern bridges. They were important in that the land in and around the capital was broken up by deep ravines, which were filled during the rainy season by unfordable torrents. One of the first Addis Ababa bridges was erected by a group of Russians after one of their number was drowned on the way to or from the then nearby Russian Legation. Other bridges were built over the Awash river on the trade route to the Gulf of Aden coast, and in Gojjam. Its local ruler, King Takla Haymanot, obtained the bridge-building services of an enterprising Italian, Count Salimbeni.
Where Tewodros had Failed Partly in view of the impending conflict with the Italians, Menilek subsequently reorganised the system of taxation. He instituted a tithe for the upkeep of the army, in 1892. This marked an important step, which Emperor Tewodros had attempted, but for lack of resources had failed to take, towards terminating the old, but iniquitous system, whereby the soldiers lived by looting from the peasantry.
New Money The need to assert Ethiopian sovereignty in the face of Italy’s Protectorate claim may well also have helped to prompt Menilek to issue the country’s first national currency in 1894. This, according to the Ethio-Italian Additional Convention of 1889 was to have been struck in Italy, but Menilek, after denuncing the Italo-Ethiopian Wechale treaty, of 1889, had it minted in Paris instead. The at least partially political motive for instituting the new currency was revealed in an official proclamation. It declared that this money was introduced “in order that our country may increase in honour and our commerce prosper”. The new money bore the then politically relevant Biblical motto: “Ethiopia stretches forth her hands to God”, as well as effigies of Menilek and the Lion of Judah. The currency was based on a silver dollar, of the same weight and value as the old Austrian Maria Theresa dollar, or thaler, which had circulated throughout Ethiopia, as well as much of the Middle East, since the mid-eighteenth century. Despite this equivalence Menilek’s money failed to supplant the thaler, which for the next half century was to remain the country’s principal coin. A mint was later established in the palace, with Austrian help. It was used to strike Menilek’s smaller denomination coins, but not the thaler piece itself, which was imported from Paris.
A Postal Service The year 1894 also witnessed the issue of Ethiopia’s first postage stamps. These too were produced in Paris, and bore representations of Menilek and the Lion of Judah. The stamps were at first little used in the country itself, but were well received by philatelists, and provided the basis for the subsequent development of an efficient postal system. This owed much to the assistance of French advisers, and enabled Ethiopia to join the International Postal Union in 1908. This was the first international organisation to which the country was admitted, but by no means the last.
The Jibuti Railway Another important step taken by Menilek at this time was the granting to Ilg, in 1894, of a concession for the construction of Ethiopia’s first railway, to link Addis Ababa with the French Somaliland port of Jibuti. Ilg, whose work confined him the Ethiopian capital, obtained the support of the French trader Lon Chefneux, who became his partner. Implementation of the project could not, however, take place until after the battle of Adwa, on 1 March 1896, and the consequent elimination of Italy’s Protectorate claim. The French Government almost immediately afterwards the gave permission, on 5 March, for the laying of an adjacent section of the line across French protectorate territory, between Jibuti port and the Ethiopian frontier. The railway project, however, soon ran into numerous technical, financial and political difficulties. Building operations were so delayed that the railway line reached Dire Dawa, half way between Addis Ababa and the coast, only in 1902. The original railway company then went bankrupt. Menilek was obliged to grant a second concession, in 1906, to his personal phycisian, Dr Vitalien, who had the support of the French Banque de l’Indo-Chine. Railway construction work, backed by French finance, was then resumed, and the line duly arrived at Aqaqi, in the vicinity of the capital, in 1915. The coming of the railway, the country’s greatest technological achievement of the period, contributed greatly to the expansion, and permanence of Addis Ababa. Of major commercial importance, the line also led to substantial expansion of the country’s import-export trade.
Railway construction was accompanied by the installation of the country’s first telephone and telegraph line, which followed the railway track from the capital to the coast. This line, which was erected by the technicians working on the railway, and led from Addis Ababa to Jibuti. The line was supplemented,after the battle of Adwa, by a second one, installed by Italian electricians. It ran from the Ethiopian capital to the frontier of Eritrea, as well as to a number of provincial capitals to the south and west of the country.