Articles in this series:
Series: Late Nineteenth Century
01. The Reign of Emperor Yohannes IV
The death of Emperor Tewodros at Maqdala in 1868 left Ethiopia, as often in the past, divided, and without an overall rules. Three rival personalities by then held power in different areas. The first to gain prominence was perhaps Ras Gobaze, the ruler of Amhara, Wag and Lasta, who was crowned as Emperor Takla Giyorgis at Gondar. He was, however, soon effectively challenged by Dajazmach Kasa of Tegray, who was militarily more powerful, partly on account of the gift of arms he had received from the Napier expedition. In 1872 Gobaze set out with 60,000 men to capture Adwa, the capital of Tegray, but Kasa, making good use of his British guns, defeated him, and proclaimed himself Emperor Yohannes IV. The third contestant for power was Menilek, heir to the throne of Shawa, who, on escaping from detention by Tewodros in 1865, proclaimed himself king of the province, and, though then the weakest of the three chieftains, for a time also laid ineffective claim to the imperial throne.
Yohannes, the second of Ethiopia’s great nineteenth century rulers, was, like his predecessor Tewodros, an uncompromising patriot. He differed from the latter, however, in that he was a committed supporter of the church. Militarily he was moreover in a better military position then Tewodros, in that his power base, Tegray, was situated in the north-east of the country, relatively near to the Red Sea coast through which fire-arms had long been imported. The province’s geographical location, had, on the other hand, also grave disadvantages, which were to be particularly evident during the reign of Yohannes, for the territory was dangerously exposed to sea-born invasion, and blockade. This was the more serious in that the rulers of Massawa and the nearby torrid coastal strip between it and Tegray almost inevitably cast envious eyes on the interior, and were therefore predisposed to invade the Tegray hinterland.
Yohannes and the Egyptians
Yohannes, at the beginning of his reign, was under strong pressure form the Egyptians, whose Khedive, Ismail Pasha, was then expanding his empire in Sudan and adjacent areas on the borders of Ethiopia. On 20 May 1868, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had transferred Massawa to the Egyptians, who soon afterwards occupied the nearby port of Zulla, and instituted a rigid blockade to prevent the import of arms by Yohannes.
Faced with Egyptian hostility Yohannes decided to appeal to European Christendom. In August 1872 he sent his English aide, John, Kirkham (who also helped in training his army) on a visit to Europe, with appeals to the governments of Austria, Russia, Germany, Britain and France. This initiative evoked little European interest, as exemplified for example by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who, strangely repeating the earlier British non-response to Tewodros’s letter to Queen Victoria a decade earlier, bluntly wrote to the Kaiser.
`There is no political interest in Germany in interfering in the Ethiopian-Egyptian border dispute. An unfriendly attitude to the Khedive might lead to the damaging of German commercial relations with Egypt, which are quite important. Therefore, it is not desirable to answer Yohannes’s letter…’
A few years later, in 1974, Werner Munizinger, a Swiss adventurer in Egyptian service, seized Bogos on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, and occupied the settlement of Karan. At about the same time the local ruler of Aylat, some 30 kilometers inland from Massawa, sold his district to Egypt. Munzinger soon afterwards advanced into the Afar, or Danakil, lowlands, but was attacked, and killed, by the local people. In the following year, 1875, the Egyptian annexed the Gulf of Aden ports of Zayala and Berbera, and, advancing inland, seized the old mercantile town of Harar.
The Egyptians, perhaps influenced by the ease with which Tewodros had been overthrown by the British in 1868, meanwhile decided to attack Yohannes, and to occupy Adwa. A well-equipped Egyptian force led by a Danish commander, Colonel Arendrup, and a number of American officers, who had formerly served in the Confederate forces in the American Civil War, accordingly advanced from Massawa inland. They proceeded to cross the Marab river, but were badly mauled by the Emperor’s forces at the battle of Gundat on 16 November 1875.
Ismail, on learning of this unexpected reverse, assembled a much larger army of 15,000 to 20,000 men, armed with the most modern weapons. Yohannes thereupon proclaimed a Crusade against the invaders, and routed them at the battle of Gura, on 7 March 1876. His soldiers on that occasion captured close on twenty cannon, as well as many thousands of Remington rifles. As a result his army emerged as the first really well-equipped force in Ethiopian history.
Though his victory had been so complete, Yohannes felt unable to drive the invaders from their strongly fortified position at Massawa. He therefore made no attempt to advance to the coast, which lay tantalizingly only a hundred kilometers from the battle site. The Egyptians, on the other hand, realized the extent of their failure, as well as the apparent invincibility of the Emperor’s army. They therefore abandoned their expansionist ambitions in this part of Africa apparently forever.
The debacle at Gura did much to discredit Ismail Pasha in the eyes of his unfortunate troops. One of the Egyptian soldiers participating in the Pasha’s disastrous campaign, it is interesting to recall, was Ahmad “Urabi, who was soon to rebel against the Khedive, and emerge as the founder of Egyptian revolutionary nationalism.
The Ethiopian victories of Gundat and Gura were also important in that they helped to consolidate the position of Emperor Yohannes, and assisted him to forge a considerable measure of national unity. In 1878 Menilek of Shawa, who had for ten years been unsuccessfully claiming the title of Emperor, withdrew his pretensions to the imperial throne, and recognized Yohannes as his superior overlord. Four years later, in 1883, a dynastic marriage was arranged between the Emperor’s twelve-year-old, Ras Araya Sellase, and Menilek’s seven-year-old daughter, Zawditu. The marriage was doomed to failure, for the young Tegrayan prince died before it could be consummated.
Yohannes, fearing that the Muslims of Wallo might be won over to the Egyptian cause, later tried to consolidate the empire by attempting to convert them to Christianity by force. Several leading chiefs accepted conversion willingly, and were duly inducted into the Ethiopian state and church structure. Other parts of the population, on the other hand, secretly retained their religion, and were therefore picturesquely referred to as “Christians by day, Muslims by night”.
In the rest of the empire by contrast Yohannes proved a more conciliatory and accommodating monarch than Tewodros, and thus proved a more successful, if less spectacular, unifier than his more impetuous predecessor.
The Opening of the Suez Canal, and the Italian Acquisition of Asab
Important international developments meanwhile were taking place during the region of Yohannes, several of them to Ethiopia’s disadvantage. The opening of the Suez Canal, in November 1869, made the Red Sea for the first time since the era of the Pharaohs an annex of the Mediterranean. This greatly increased European interest in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden area, and opened the way to the coming of nineteenth century imperialism. Symptomatic of this development was the purchase that same year of the Red Sea port of Asab. It was bought by an Italian Lazarist Priest, Giuseppe Sapeto, on behalf of an Italian firm, the Rubattino Shipping Company from a local sultan for 6,000 Maria Theresa dollars. The port was subsequently declared an Italian colony, in 1882 – an indication of rapidly escalating Italian Government interests in the erea.