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Series: Innovation and Change
13. "Why Can’t We Have an Amharic Typewriter?"- Menelik
We saw last week that Menilek’s court had very different ideas on the question of technological innovation.
One such view was expressed by Ras Makonnen to the French traveller Hugues Le Roux, who suggests that the Ras was alarmed by the possible dangers of European contacts. According to the Frenchman, the Ras observed:
“The Emperor welcomes (the railway) with undiluted joy. The Emperor has not seen the Kingdoms of Europe like me. He has not shuddered at the contact of civilisation.”
Speaking of the Emperor, the Ras is nevertheless reported to have added: “He is the son of Wisdom. Without doubt God lavishes him with the clarity which we others lack. God leads him towards his destiny.”
“By the Hole that a man Makes, a Hyena can Pass”
Personal loyalty to the Emperor undoubtedly played a major role in persuading the society to accept the idea of innovation. Fear that the railway might endanger the country’s independence was, however, not easily dispelled. The French envoy Kloukowski quotes Empress Taitu as likening the line to a hole, and observing, “By the hole that a man makes, a hyena can pass.”
Several years later, on November 21, 1911, Ethiopian troops were reported to have sung the following , most pertinent, warning:
“From Massowah to Asmara runs the railway, and from Jibuti to Dire Dawa; from Khartoum the boat runs to Gambela. Officers, let us think this over. If we do not throw off this load which presses on us, in the evening it will be too late.”
Details of the arrival of the first bicycle are lacking, but it appears that Menelik had seen one at least by 1901. The Frenchman Goedorp recalls the monarch was greatly interested by the machine, and “even took consciencious lessons.”
The vehicle, however, was little more than a toy, and did not gain acceptance, for many decades.
The First Steam-Roller
The first steam-roller, which was a gift from the Emperor of Austria, arrived in 1904. It was transported by rail as far as Dire Dawa, then the terminal of the railway, and was pulled the rest of the way, sometimes by as many as 3,000 soldiers employed in this by no means easy task.
On witnessing the arrival of the machine, which was operated by the Armenian Sarkis Terzian, Ras Makonnen is supposed to have said to Le Roux on May 18, 1904: “Ah well, we have been present at an event which will have its date in the history of Ethiopia.”
Should we not celebrate it, dear reader? Perhaps in the year 2004!
The economy, however, seems to have been unready for the machine. After several years’ service, it broke down on the Addis Ababa-Addis Alam road, and was not repaired. Being almost impossible to move, it was allowed for a couple of decades to remain, in the northernmost part of the capital, where it stopped. The relic caught the imagination of the people. It caused the sefer, or locality, where it stood to be called the sebara babur sefer, or area of the broken engine. The word babur being of course derived from the French word “vapeur”, i.e. steam-engine.
The machine’s memory is also perpetuated in a popular poem, recalled for me many years ago by our old friendAto Araya Sellassie Wareta. In it a prostitute is addressed in the following words:
I warned you much, but you never care, Would that you become as useless as Serkis’ engine.
Menelik and the Motor Car
The motor car made its debut shortly afterwards, in 1907, when two vehicles, one British and one German, arrived in Addis Ababa. It is said that Menelik was warned by his courtiers against riding by car, but he was most enthusiastic to do so. The French envoy Klobukowski notes that this remarkable man wished to drive even before even knowing how to do so. The German traveller Arnold Holtz relates that the Emperor spent a full three hours studying how the machine worked, and adds:
“I was surprised that such an old man going into a car for the first time had so much courage that he asked us to drive with the greatest possible speed. ”
Another account describes the “old Emperor laughing and puffing for breath … as happy as a school boy,” while his galloping escort was “left somewhere on the horizon.”
The public at large is reported to have let out a great wail when it first saw its sovereign disappear in this new “devil’s carriage,” but it was not long, it is claimed, before Menelik became a “fairly expert driver.”
Within the next few years the Emperor obtained several British traction engines, which were used, in 1908, to run a transportation service in the dry season between Addis Ababa and the then terminal of the railway, at Dire Dawa.
The Postal System
The Ethiopian postal system meanwhile had been brought into existence. The country’s first postage stamps, ordered from France, were put on sale at the end of 1893, the formal decree establishing post offices, etc. being issued in the following year. French advisers were used by the Emperor in developing the service, and Ethiopia in due course joined the International Postal Union in 1908. This was, in a sense, a first step towards becoming part of the international community of nations – the League of Nations itself was founded over a decade later.
The Telephone and Telegraph
The first telephone was imported into Ethiopia by Ras Makonnen, who received it as a gift during his visit to Italy in 1889. The instrument was at once set up in the Palace, but, according to the Frenchman, Stevenin, aroused the antagonism of the clergy. According to his account a commission of eight priests declared that the instrument was inhabited by a demon. Menelik, however, is said to have ridiculed them, declaring:
“The priests seem to me cretins. The apparatus works without any kind of diabolical intervention. These priests are day dreaming. If they go on in this way I will leave them to their religion and become a Muslim.”
Not long afterwards the Emperor and Empress heard a phonograph for the first time when the British envoy Harrington played them personal messages from Queen Victoria. His reply message is extant, and was long afterwards transcribed by our old friend, the late Abraham Demoz.
Two telegraph and telephone systems were later established at the turn of the century. One, constructed by the French engineers responsible for the railway, followed its track from Addis Ababa to the coast. The other, erected by Italian technicians, linked the capital with the Italian colony of Eritrea in the north, as well as with a number of provincial centres in southern and western Ethiopia.
Menelik personally made considerable use of the telephone, and found it invaluable in giving orders to provincial governors. Stevenin, however, states that apparently in deference to public suspicion of innovation, the line was not allowed to enter the Palace, but stopped near the house of one of the principal courtiers, the Afa Negus.
Be that as it may, it is recalled that when Menilek was angry, everyone knew it at once in the palace; and, thanks to the telephone, in the capital, within a few minutes, and, in provincial capitals, within the hour.
Tradition holds that the telephone at this time was, however, often associated with Satan in the public mind.
Some of the Somalis, towards the coast, had, on the other hand, a more utilitarian approach. The British traveller Herbert Vivian observed that “Menelik’s telegraph wire stands out against the minaret or mud cabin as a symbol of progress,” but adds that, for some unknown reason, the Somalis called the telegraph poles “photograph trees.” Though there is no evidence that the Somalis were opposed to the line on ideological grounds, they frequently cut down, and purloined, large stretches of the wire to use in the manufacture of ornaments.
This was doubtless a very valuable source of metal wire!
Why Can’t We Have an Amharic Typewriter?”
The first typewriters arrived in Ethiopia around the turn of the century, but were, at first, only used in foreign circles. Menilek, who was presented with one by the American envoy Robert P. Skinner in 1903, was very enthusiastic about it, and immediately asked “Why can’t we have an Amharic typewriter ?”
A good question!
Important developments had meanwhile been taking place in the field of taxation, money and banking.
In 1892, Menilek reorganised the system of taxation, and extended the principle of tithe for the upkeep of the army. He also established granaries for military use, so as to bring to an end the traditional system whereby the soldiers were allowed to requisition, or loot whatever they liked from the peasantry. This reform, as we have seen, had been attempted in vain by the Emperor Tewodros, and was thus at last in great measure accomplished.
Menilek’s chronicler, Gabre Sellassie, comments that the new regulations followed the proverb that one should give according to one’s capacity, and were “very popular” with all concerned.
“That Our Country May Increase in Honour”
Two years later, in 1894, Menilek issued Ethiopia’s first national currency, “in order,” as an official proclamation declared, “that our country may increase in honour, and our commerce may prosper.”
Nine years later, in 1903, the Emperor proceeded to install a mint in the Addis Ababa palace. Willy Hentze, the Austrian engineer responsible for setting up the machinery, recorded that the sovereign sometimes came three, four or even five times a day to inspect it and often spent hours examining and watching it. “I saw,” Hentze commented, ” that in Menelik the world had lost a valuable engineer.”