Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
16. Drinking, Drunkenness, Smoking, and Dress in Menilek’s Day
Foreign Drinks – and Drunkenness
We saw last week that foreign alcoholic drinks gained increasing popularity in Menilek’s day. This impression, based on the reports of foreign travellers, is fully confirmed in the subsequent writings of Alaqa Lamma Haylu’s son, Maaza Lamma. Discussing this development as a temperance advocate, he recalls that this was a time when a brisk trade in spirits, particularly araki, or brandy, was carried out by Greeks, who were also the first distillers on a commercial basis. Many Ethiopians were at this time introduced to a wide variety of foreign wines and spirits, among then champagne, marsala, and malaga, rum and absinthe, mastica, ouso and cognac, pernot and whiskey.
A certain increase in the city’s drunkenness, according to Maaza Lamma, was also reported, though good old Menilek is said to have attempted to hold it in check.
Menilek, Tolerant of Tobacco
The old Ethiopian prohibitions on smoking, to which reference was made in an earlier article, came to an end in the Menilek period. The French traveller Jules Borelli, writing in August 1886, stated that the prohibition was then no longer a formal one, and that Menilek (unlike Emperor Yohannes in the past) showed himself “very tolerant” towards the use of tobacco.
Tradition has it that Menilek introduced toleration of smoking, by telling his men that they could smoke provided they did not do so openly. Before leaving on an expedition for Debra Tabor, which was under the jurisdiction of the Emperor Yohannes, he thus gave the diplomatically couched command:
“Your vice under your loins,
“Your provisions on your donkey.”
A subsequent British Consul, C.H. Walker, gave a slightly different version of Menilek’s injunction, namely. “Keep thy habit in thy waist-band, thy food upon thy donkey.”
It was still customary, however, to refrain from smoking while in the presence of the Emperor.
The story of the penetration of foreign textiles reveals an interesting dichotomy between the need to import supplies from abroad, and the reluctance to accept innovation. Though imported cloth was in some areas gradually adopted for the manufacture of certain items of clothing, the shamma, or toga, was at this time still invariably made of local material. At the turn of the century the British traveller Augustus B. Wylde emphatically stated: “All shammas . . . are made of . . . locally grown cotton.”
Despite the general increase in cotton imports during the Menilek period resistance to innovation may be seen at the turn of the century in the tendency where possible to import thread rather than finished cloth. This enabled the imported material to be woven in a traditional manner on local looms. A British consular report for 1905-1906 thus significantly observes: “Owing to the ease of introducing the cheap imported thread into the web in a native loom, the sale of the imported shamma is decreasing.”
The result, as the Georgian physician Dr. Merab reported, was that the typical Addis Ababa dweller of the 1920’s, wore trousers made of imported cloth, but locally woven shammas.
Singer Sewing Machines
An important innovation in the field of dressmaking was the advent of the Singer sewing machine in the early twentieth century. The British consular report for 1905-1906 states that 9,600 Maria Theresa dollars’ worth of sewing machines were imported that year via Harar, and that Ethiopians were then “just beginning” to use these machines. Shortly afterwards, in 1909, Singer established a branch in Addis Ababa, and was soon afterwards supplying not only the capital, but also Harar, Dessie, Gore and Gondar. Hundreds of Singer machines were sold for 150 Maria Theresa dollars each, payable over many months. Three different types of German machine were also on sale prior to World War 1.
The tailors, who thus rapidly adopted machinery, were usually installed in the open air in full view of their clients; sometimes the former placed themselves in an open shed, sometimes under an overhanging roof.
Singer machines were soon so well established, Dr Merab states, that by his day the tic-tic-tic of their needles had long ceased to terrify or surprise the passer-by.
Despite the large quantity of imported textiles, and the rapid introduction of the sewing machine, European dress was slow to win acceptance. Innovation, curiously enough, seems to have started at the top of the body and to have only slowly made its way down. Wylde, writing at the turn of the century, thus noted: “The Abyssinian is beginning to take to European clothes on the upper part of his body, such as shirts, coats and waistcoats, but as yet he has not adopted the lower garments, and in the transition change he looks a curious and grotesque object. European hats are getting very common, and are generally of the bowler, wideawake or Terai patterns, and have nearly superseded the straw and grass-made hats of the nearly identical European shape.”
Ethiopian women, on the other hand, seem to have clung more to the old head-gear, for Wylde, writing of the Menilek period, says:
“Some of the women still wear these straw hats, and when nicely made and placed jauntily on a well-shaped head and shading a pretty face do not look at all bad.”
Very few persons indeed are said to have, at this time, adopted European clothing in its entirety. Merab, for example, estimates that, excluding servants employed in European houses, there were by 1909 not more than a hundred Ethiopians with European dress.
Elsewhere he gives it as his opinion that in the capital there were only about 50 Ethiopians wearing European type trousers, mostly of khaki.
The practice of wearing shoes was also slow to be accepted. Dr Merab states that Menilek only began wearing them late in life, while Lij Yasu was often seen barefoot on official occasions, though he also frequently wore pumps or slippers. Ordinary Ethiopians, according to the same autority, went without shoes, even in the rainy season when they had to traverse much mud. Sandals were, however, frequently worn, and in the three or four years prior to 1910, a new type appeared on the market with a piece of leather at the front and back to cover toes and heels rather like shoes.
The early years of the twentieth century witnessed the beginnings of European type housing. Dr Merab states that between 1908 and 1913 about a hundred such houses were constructed in the capital, mainly by Indians, Greeks, and Italians. By the latter year, however, there were not more than two hundred modern type houses, as against perhaps twelve to fourteen thousand of traditional form. Foreign type housing was, however, monopolised by Europeans and Armenians; and the only Ethiopians to abandon Ethiopian type housing were the Emperor, three or four Rases or Dejazmaches and Negadras Haile Giyorgis.
The first brick factory was set up outside in 1907. and three others were established shortly afterwards, the enterprise being either Greek or Italian.
Even more significant was the introduction of corrugated iron sheeting, the use of which began to be considerable soon after the Jibuti railway reached Dire Dawa at the end of 1902. A British Consular report noted that, though corrugated iron had been unknown at the dawn of the century, its import had increased considerably immediately prior to the trade year 1905-1906 when it was estimated that 50,000 sheets had been purchased. By 1911 no less than 555 tons of galvanised iron are stated to have been imported via Jibuti.
The growth of Addis Ababa and the development of communications, both of which have been described in earlier articles, led to a general increase in the number and range of imported goods reaching the major Ethiopian markets. The British traveller Percy Powell-Cotton, writing of the Addis Ababa market at the turn of the century, for example, says that “one long alley was entirely devoted to cotton goods from America, India and Manchester.
The traditional Ethiopian interest in foreign medicine resulted in a steady increase in the import of foreign drugs. Dr. Merab, who opened the first Addis Ababa pharmacy on December 1, 1910, states that all European and Indian groceries in the capital stocked such items as iodide of potassium, Ricord’s pills, quinine, castor oil, Epsom’s salts, laudanum, phenic acid, a large number of balms and anti-septic cotton.
And Church Paintings…
An interesting development, which was discerned by another British traveller, Herbert Vivian at the turn of the century, was the advent of Italian paintings in the Churches, hitherto as we have seen, a preserve of Orthodoxy.
The pasting of such imported trash over historic church murals was a vile habit, which was to become increasingly common in later years, and one against which we should all protest!
Imported Amharic Bibles also became somewhat more common in this period. Their introduction received warm support from Emperor Menilek.