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Series: Innovation and Change
10. From Yohannes to Menilek
A Conservative Period in Ethiopian History
Despite the very significant reforms, and innovations, of the reign of Yohannes discussed last week, his years were on the whole a conservative period. This, as we have seen, was at least partially due to the series of invasions, by Egyptians, Italians, and Dervishes. These made it impossible for Ethiopia to contemplate peaceful progress.
The Emperor’s conservative influence seems to have extended beyond the lands directly under his rule, and was felt in far-off Shoa. In 1886 Yohannes thus succeeded in getting Menelik to expel the missionaries from that province.
It has also been argued, by some authorities, that the Emperor’s known dislike of innovation for a time delayed Menilek’s plans, both to produce coins and to grant a concession for the construction of a railway. Such delays, if true, were, however, probably not due to conservatism on the part of Yohannes, but rather to the fact that Menilek, as the Emperor’s vassal, was in no position to initiate such projects.
The Question of Smoking
The influence of Emperor Yohannes, added to that of the priesthood, probably caused Menilek to range himself for a time among the opponents of smoking, though, as we shall see, he was destined later to introduce toleration for smokers. The French traveler Paul Soleillet, writing in 1885, states that Menilek had prohibited smoking in Shoa. In explaining this to the Frenchman the King of Shoa reportedly gave a curious, and scarcely credible, explanation for his action. He is quoted as declaring that a considerable number of murderers, and other criminals, had been able to escape punishment by proving that they had acted while under the influence of tobacco. This plea, he claims, was acceptable because Ethiopian law excused crimes committed by persons who were either mad or drunk, and the judges apparently considered that smoking somehow affected the reason. Under the new law, however, criminals who escaped punishment for their crimes could nonetheless be punished for taking tobacco, the penalty being the confiscation of all the criminal’s belongings.
Menilek, and the Foundation of Modern Ethiopia
The foundations of modern Ethiopia were laid by Menilek II, a reforming sovereign, who ruled as King of Shoa from 1865 to 1889, and as Emperor from 1889 to 1913. Despite the battle of Adwa, fought on 1 March 1896, his reign was far more peaceful than those of his predecessors, Tewodros and Yohannes.
Apparently much influenced by Emperor Tewodros, at whose court he was brought up, Menilek attached great importance to the question of modernisation, and, throughout his life, displayed immense interest in scientific inventions of all kinds. “One is sure,” wrote the Frenchman Victor Goedorp, “that he will be particularly pleased by being brought optical instruments or mechanical devices, all of which interest him greatly”. Count Gleichen, a British observer of the time, recalls that Menilek asked the British envoy, Rennell Rodd, “some very intelligent questions on the latest discoveries in medical science,” and appeared specially interested in the discovery of anti-venine as an antidote to snake-bite.” Menilek, agreed the French envoy Klobukowski, “was a friend of progress, much interested in new inventions.” The monarch’s fascination with novelties was in fact so great that Lincoln De Castro, a physician attached to the Italian Legation, observed in jest that, if a foreigner arrived with the project to construct an escalator from the earth to the moon, Menilek would tell him to proceed if only to see if it could be done.
From the outset of his reign Menilek, like Tewodros and Yohannes before him, was most anxious to import foreign technicians. As early as June 14, 1874, we find him writing to the Khedive of Egypt – a country with which Ethiopia had long had strained relations – requesting assistance in finding persons with a knowledge of the arts and crafts.
The request appears to have been fruitless, but a few years later, in 1877, Menilek sent a message to a Swiss trader at Aden, with whom he had business contacts, asking him to send him some Europeans skilled in various crafts. They were to serve as instructors to Ethiopian workers, and be employed as Government engineers. The trader informed some of his compatriots of the sovereign’s desire, with the result that three young Swiss technicians arrived in 1878. They were Appenzeller, a specialist in ironwork, Zimmermann, a specialist in woodwork, and Alfred Ilg, a graduate of the Zurich Polytechnic. Appenzeller and Zimmermann soon returned to Europe, but Ilg remained in Menilek’s service for many years, and played an important role in the country’s development, in both the technical and politico-diplomatic fields.
Alfred Ilg’s Rise in Favour
The story of llg’s rise in his master’s favour illustrates the recurrent interest in fire-arms which, as we have seen in these articles, were characteristic of so many rulers of Ethiopia. It is said that soon after Ilg’s arrival Menilek asked him to make him a pair of shoes. The Swiss replied that he was unacquainted with such work, but the sovereign insisted that he should obey, which he did. The ruler was enchanted by the shoes, and requested that the young engineer should then make a rifle. Ilg again protested his ignorance, adding that it would cost much more to manufacture the weapon than to import one from abroad, and that the finished product would inevitably be far inferior. Menilek brushed these arguments aside. Echoing an argument earlier put forward by Tewodros, in his conversations with the Protestant missionaries at the latter’s court, he remarked that the cost was a matter of no account: It was important to know whether a rifle could be made in the country with the resources there available. Ilg thereupon yielded to the monarch’s entreaties. and constructed the required rifle. Menilek was so pleased that he ordered the gun to be kept in a place of honour in his armoury.
Interest in Weapons
Menilek’s interest in weapons was in fact not dissimilar to that of previous rulers. The French engineer Aubry relates that Menilek asked him whether he could make a sword, and that, when he replied in the affirmative ,the King “manifested great pleasure.” The story, it will be seen, was reminiscent of Sahle Sellassie half a century earlier.
Menilek and a Musical Box
Another story told about Menilek, which many travelers repeat, may be quoted in illustration of the already referred to preoccupation of many sovereigns with the need to obtain armament from abroad.
President Grevy of France, it is said, once sent Menilek a gift of an old-fashioned cannon, and a musical box. Without showing his irritation, Menilek asked the French envoy to thank the President of France for remembering that the Emperor was a grandfather, since they were excellent toys for his grandchildren. He then conducted his guest past his arsenal, and, pointing to the most modern cannons and rifles in his possession, he declared: “These are my toys ! ”
“Technical Knowledge of Weapons”
Whatever the truth of this story, which, it will be noticed, recalls an earlier one related about Tewodros, there is abundant evidence that Ethiopian technical knowledge was traditionally at its highest in the military field. In 1907, for example, the British ambassador in Germany reporting on the visit of an Ethiopian delegation to Hamburg, where it was shown the latest military equipment, noted:
“Their hosts were much astonished at the technical knowledge displaced by them in handling the weapons, and at their announcement that they themselves were in possession of most of the models shown.”
It was not surprising that when the Ethiopians later came to speak of the screw-driver they called it “yatamanja mafcha”, or instrument for unscrewing a gun
“Should He Want to Be My Husband…”
The popular interest in fire-arms, and the widespread knowledge of the different makes, may be illustrated by a couple of later poems recalled by Ato Alemayehu Mogos, of Gojjam.
One, describing an attack, declares:
Attack him with a minishir (miniature gun). Attack him with a minishir. So that he is wounded but, not dead,. With the help of a wechefo (Wetterley) he caught him and destroyed him. With a sinider (Snider) from where you are, sling (i.e. fire).
In the second poem, a woman declares:
A person carrying a moskob (i.e. Russian gun), should not pass by my door. You will be destroyed in my hands like dried leaves in a fire. A person carrying a wechefo, let him make his voice heard to me. A person carrying a minishir, let him be my lover. Should he want to be my husband, let him buy a mawser (Mauser).
Foreign Training of Troops
Menilek, like his predecessors, employed a number of foreigners in training his troops. As early as 1877 he employed a Frenchman called Pottier for this purpose. and later made use of several other foreign experts, mainly French and Russian. A.B. Wylde records that before the battle of Adwa, of 1 March 1896, the Emperor’s troops were instructed in the use of the powerful Hotchkiss guns by a French officer, M. Carrere.
“Not Inferior in Experience”
Ethiopian artillery men were later trained at Addis Ababa by a Frenchman, Clochette, and by two Russians, Zwiaguine and Leontieff. “Their trainees”, Wylde says, “not inferior in experience to those of the Italians who were also natives.”
A plan of the Emperor’s to obtain the services of two British artillery specialists came to naught, apparently because the monarch was reluctant, or unable, to pay the 6,000 Maria Theresa dollars a year salary deemed necessary by the British Government. The Emperor’s cousin, Ras Makonnen, later employed a Frenchman, Viscomte de la Guibougere, popularly known as Arab Pasha, to train his troops at Harar. The Bourg de Bozas mission considered these some of the best troops in the empire.