Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
12. Menilek, the Building of Bridges, Roads, and the Railway
Menilek’s reign witnessed the taking of a number of important steps to ameliorate the country’s difficult communications, as well as to reduce its isolation from the rest of the world.
Bridge-Building on the Awash River, and the Tamchi
The first of these innovations was the erection of a bridge over the Awash river, in 1886, by Menilek’s Swiss engineer, Alfred Ilg.
This, however, was not the first such edifice built in nineteenth century Ethiopia. A couple of years earlier, in 1884, King Takla Haymanot of Gojam had erected a bridge over the Tamchi river, a tributary of the Blue Nile. It was constructed under the direction of an Italian, Count Salimbeni, and was a miracle of improvisation. Salimbeni recalls that the workers did not take readily to the discipline of manual work. However, the King, anxious to forward the project, himself lent a hand. By carrying stones he succeeded in breaking down the general reluctance to engage in manual work.
The supply problem was also difficult. Limestone had to be carried a distance of three days’ journey. Trowels were made out of the engineers’ frying pans, hammers out of local ploughs, and rope out of twisted cowgut, while bamboos were set in straw-strengthened mud to serve as scaffolding.
Notwithstanding the success of the Tamchi bridge there is said to have been much discussion before Menilek’s Awash bridge was subsequently decided upon. According to Ilg, who may however exaggerated the extent of the opposition in order to enhance his own role in the proceedings, Menilek was at first skeptical when the Swiss engineer proposed the erection of a bridge without poles.
The Royal Fist
Ilg therefore constructed a toy model to demonstrate his idea, but the King hit it with his fist, whereupon it fell to pieces. A second model shared the same fate, but a third, which was stronger than its predecessors, withstood the royal fist, whereupon orders were given for construction to begin.
Ilg describes the building operations in a humourous, though revealing, letter which is reminiscent of Salimbeni’s efforts at improvisation of a few years earlier. “Shoa,” he writes, “has advanced a step forward . . . the beams had to be carried 15 kilometres on human shoulders. For the bridgeheads I had to square up the stones on the spot. I even had to burn coal in order to forge the nails, rivets, screws and bolts required. Add to this a tropical sun with all its dangers, heavy rains with resultant dysentery, intermittent fever, and cyclones which almost pulled out my beard and carried the tent in all directions. At night the hyenas almost stole our leather pillows from under our heads, jackals and other rabble plundered the kitchen and obliged me to obtain respect with strychnine.”
Ilg’s wooden bridge was soon afterwards destroyed in local fighting, but was at once replaced by a second. When this wore out two French engineers, Stevenin and Trouillet, erected a steel footbridge. The construction work once again was by no means easy. The girders, Trouillet observed, were brought up from Jibuti with “great difficulty,” and to make matters worse, the King had used for other purposes the cement sent from Europe with the result that the engineers had to make their own lime from stone brought from Minjar province, a distance of three days’ journey away.
The construction of the Awash bridge was followed, in the next few decades, by numerous other bridges in other parts of the country.
Early in the twentieth century the old bridge over the Blue Nile was repaired. Menilek’s chronicler, Gabra Sellassie, comments, doubtless also with some exaggeration, that hitherto no one had dared to cross the river during the ruins, but that henceforth everyone walked across in safety, and blessed those who had built the bridge. They supposedly declared: “May the Lord give long life to Menelik and Taitu ! May power remain with their descendants ! May their Kingdom flourish eternally like the plants at the edge of the water!”
A Similar Sentiment
A similar sentiment, it is interesting to note, was recalled to the present writer half a century or so later by Dagnew Kendi, a student from Begemder. He reported that he once saw an old woman crossing the seventeenth century bridge of Fasiladas over the Angareb river near Gondar. As she crossed, the water suddenly rose, whereupon she cried out, “King Fasil is dead, gone for ever, never to come back and see Gondar. But what he has done for us remains a symbol of the dedication and love he had for Gondar. If it had not been for him I would have joined my ancestors. God bless his soul! ”
She, for one, seems to have appreciated that innovation!
Ethiopia’s early bridges were considered almost sacrosanct. Because of the difficulty, and expense, of construction and maintenance, the rule was established for most bridges that they should be used only during the rains, when it was not possible to ford the river. At all other times the bridges were barricaded and, closed to the public.
The importance of even such “part-time” bridges cannot, however, be under-estimated. The great inconvenience resulting from their absence, particularly during the rains, is vividly described by Gabra Sellassie. He states that in Addis Ababa the judges refused to call guarantors or witnesses between the feasts of Gabra Menfus Qeddus in Hamle and Maskaram, i.e. from July 12 to September 15 or 16, because of the immense difficulty of crossing the swollen rivers, and that many litigants, in trying to go to court, were in fact carried away while crossing rivers. It was quite common in those days, the Georgian Dr. Merab confirms, for two or three Europeans, and perhaps a score of Ethiopians, to be drowned attempting to cross rivers every year in the capital.
Addis Ababa’s first stone bridge was in fact built by Russian engineers, after one of their compatriots had perished trying to cross the Kabana river.
The First Modern Roads
Early in the twentieth century, the first modern roads were constructed between Addis Ababa and Addis Alam, and between Harar and Dire Dawa. This was done with the assistance of Italian and French engineers respectively. Other roads followed in the next few years.
Road-building was an especially significant development in the Ethiopian context, for it marked an important step towards economic and political unity, as well as the breaking down of parochial ways of thinking.
Contemporary attitudes to road-building may be seen from the fact that Menilek’s chronicler likens the Addis Ababa-Addis Alma road to those of the ferenge, or Europeans. The British Ethiopicist Armsbruster, however, roundly declared: “The fact is the Abyssinians object to the construction of roads.”
In support of this statement he explains that Menilek had sent an engineer to Semien to improve the track, but that the local ruler, Dejazmach Gessesse, had “put so many obstacles in his way that he had to return without affecting anything.” The Dejazmach, we are told, had the full support of the local population, who declared, “If this road is improved, it will be all the easier for the Moslems and heathen to come up and attack us.”
The Jibuti Railway
Menilek’s reign also witnessed the advent of the railway, the bicycle, the steam roller and the motor car.
A concession for the construction of a railway from the Ethiopian capital to the French Somali port of Jibuti was granted by Menelik to Ilg as early as March 1894. The technical, financial and political difficulties involved were, however, so great that the line, which was constructed largely with French capital and skill, did not reach Dire Dawa until the end of 1902, and Aqaqi, 23 kilometres from Addis Ababa, until 1915.
The first train services from the coast to the capital were inaugurated only in 1917.
“Shoa Will be No Longer Yours”
Though Menilek’s perseverance and determination eventually ensured the success of the railway project, the idea of initiating so revolutionary a means of transport aroused much heart searching. According to the Italian observer Felter, Menilek had no sooner signed the railway concession than he began to have second thoughts about it. Empress Taitu and Ras Makonnen were both also reputed to have been worried about the project. Makonnen was supposed to have said to Menilek, “When the railway reaches Harar, Harar will be no longer yours; and when it reaches Addis Ababa, Shoa will be no longer yours.”
Opposition to the railway was taken for granted in British official reports for 1897 and 1898. Colonel Sadler, the United Kingdom resident in Aden, wrote: “It is reported that Menelek said all his Rases are against the railway.” Harrington, the British envoy in Addis Ababa, likewise quoted one Ras, who had said of the railway, “This is idiotic, Menelek has given away the key to his treasury.” Count Gleichen, who participated in a subsequent British mission to Ethiopia, drew a similar picture, observing: “A large number of the chiefs, at all events in the more western portion, would strongly object to such a new-fangled idea, on the grounds that it would introduce into the country the all-pervading white man.”
British official reports state that there were even popular demonstrations against the railway, though these were thought to be officially inspired. In April 1898, Harrington, wrote of a “popular meeting at the capital to protest against the Railway.” Shortly afterwards an Ethiopian nobleman, somewhat naively, observed to the British envoy, Rennell Rodd, “We don’t want rapid communication with the coast; the railway will be very useful to us in the interior; we shall wait till it is finished and then destroy its connection with the sea.”
But they didn’t!