Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
17. Afawarq Gabra Iyasus, Gabra Heywat Baykadaygn – and the Accession of Lej Iyasu
Last week we caught a glimpse of reformist ideas in Menilek’s Ethiopia, and quoted a little from Afawarq Gabra Iyasu’s Amharic textbook, published in Rome in 1908, which bore the innocuous title “Guide du Voyageur en Abyssinie”. Let us now look further at that work, in which a European-educated Ethiopian and a foreigner are supposedly in conversation.
The foreigner now starts up a new conversation, by provocatively observing to his friend:
“You who understands many things concerning Europe must be greatly respected by your compatriots”
“I am Considered the Most Ignorant Person”
” Oh, monsieur,” the Ethiopian replies, “on the contrary, in my country I am considered the most ignorant person, especially when I tell of things I have heard said by some of the Europeans which seem impossible.”
” Truly ? How is that ?”
“I remember having on one occasion said that the earth went round and that the sun was fixed. The people who heard me replied that it was my head which turned and not the earth.
“And at the same time they said to each other in a tone of commiseration that to live in contact with Europeans had spoiled my intelligence instead of developing it as I spoke in an extravagant way in claiming that the earth moved.”
The character and object of the discussion, which was designed to ridicule traditional Ethiopian views, is apparent from its conclusion. The foreigner observes: “You made a mistake in speaking of something so difficult to explain to people who, like St. Thomas, cannot be persuaded except by something which they can touch with the hand.”
“The Biggest Animal in the World”
“You are right,” the Ethiopian replied, “from now on if my compatriots tell me the fly is bigger than the elephant, I will say, `Yes, it is the biggest animal in the whole world.”
Turning from these philosophical questions, to economic and political matters, the conversation touched on the absence of an efficient legal system. The Ethiopian, who as usual is expressing the anti-traditionalist view, complained that whenever a new king was crowned the law was changed. It was true, he said, that there was a code of law called the Fetha Nagast, i.e. Law of the Kingdom, but it was as old as Methuselah and its text “more confused than the languages of Babylon”. Moreover it had been written, at a period “when science and the human conscience was not as developed as today.”
Critique of Traditional Government
Traditional government was not spared from Afawarq’s indictment. The foreigner asks what the local authorities are doing and whether they were not concerned with the improvement of the roads. The Ethiopian replies:
“The authorities of the country eat, drink, sleep, and get fat like Easter sheep at the expense of the poor public which is continually and pitilessly robbed by them. These, monsieur, are the beneficial occupations of our good authorities.”
Though hostile to many of his country’s traditions the author was by no means uncritical of the Europeans. The traveller, who asks whether the Europeans in Ethiopia are not trying to introduce civilisation in the country, is informed that:
“with the exception of some individuals, all the Europeans who come to Ethiopia not only do not teach us the civilisation of their own country, but do not even retain it themselves … as soon as they put their feet on Abyssinian soil before setting out for the interior they leave behind them at the coast everything they had learnt in their own country, in Europe.”
The general point of view of the book may be summed up in its author’s words, namely, that “as long as the feudal system exists in the empire of Ethiopia neither equality nor liberty will reign there.” Warm support, however, is given to the Emperor Meniliek’s efforts at modernisation.
Gabra Heywat Baykadaygn
A no less interesting piece of social criticism was developed by Gabra Heywot Baykadaygn, an Ethiopian who had studied in Germany. It took the form of an essay, Atse Menilek na Ityopya, which was included in a collection of essays entitled Berhan yehun published in Asmara by the Swedish missionary O. Erickson. Like Afawarq’s Guide it thus had a minimal circulation in Ethiopia.
Discussing the objections to new ideas Gabra Haywot asks:
“Was not an intelligent Abyssinian who taught that the earth rotates round the sun recently arrested in Harar ? After 1900, when the 20th century had begun, was not a man stoned in the Addis Ababa market for abusing the Monophysite faith? Do we not see that our brothers, who go abroad or learn from the whites who come to Abyssinia, though they wish to help their government are nonetheless regarded as Protestants, Catholics, non-believers or spies of other countries, and are therefore starved and accused?”
Drawing attention to the progress achieved by Japan, the author declares:
“When the Japanese Government finds someone willing to go to Europe to learn it supports them by giving them money … As a result the people (of Japan) opened their eyes. They became rich, strong and respectable… China and Asia have been following the path of Japan with great enthusiasm.”
Emphasising the need for education Gabra Heywot expressed the fear that:
“because of our lack of unity while other countries are advancing in mind and technology we are being left behind, until we are regarded as savages by those other countries. While peace and knowledge are spreading all over the world we are living in darkness.”
Turning to a critique of the traditional Ethiopian-type of government of the day, the author expresses considerable bitterness, declaring that:
“the chiefs up to now regard the land they are appointed to govern as their own land, bought by their own money. They do whatever they like with the taxes collected from it. The chiefs and servants under them know of no other master save them because they depend on their generosity for their living.”
Observing that “a long time has passed since we Ethiopians have been acquainted with the Europeans,” Gabra Heywot nonetheless added: ” We have not learnt anything (from them) up to now. It is not improbable therefore that our Government may be destroyed.” His appeal was therefore for innovation: ” When, O people of Ethiopia, when will you wake up from your sleep? When will you open your eyes and see what things are being done in the world.”
The Succession Problem
Menilek’s last innovation was the appointment of a successor. By then largely incapacitated by several strokes, he took the decisive step of designating a successor in May 1909. In an innovative proclamation he reminded his subjects of the political difficulties which had followed the deaths of his predecessors Tewodros and Yohannes, and announced that his twelve-year-old grandson Lej Iyasu, the son of his daughter Shawaragga by Ras Mika’el, the Oromo and former Muslim ruler of Wallo, was his chosen heir.
Child of the Twentieth Century
Iyasu, a child of the twentieth century, was, in a sense, an innovative figure, and one who took for granted many of the innovations, which Menilek had achieved only with difficulty.
Extending the secularist attitude of his grandfather, Menilek, who had permitted the practice of smoking, hitherto banned by the Church, he tried to treat followers of the two country’s two main religions, Christianity and Islam, on a more or less equal footing. This was doubtless easier for him than for many members of the royal family, in that Wallo, his father’s homeland, was a province in which members of a single family often included members of both faiths. He was at the same time strongly opposed, like Emperor Yohannes before him, to foreign missionaries.
Iyasu actively attempted to accommodate both faiths. As a Christian, he attended Church services, founded the church of Madhane Alam at Qachane, in Addis Ababa, and inaugurated that of St George, also in the capital. On the other hand he also built a mosque, at Harar, and toured the Muslim provinces, where he consorted with Muslim chiefs, and too often, critics complained, with their nubile daughters.
These travels, though in the tradition of Ethiopia’s old rulers, weakened his already tenuous position by taking him away from the capital, which had by then, due to the coming of the telegraph and telephone, become the country’s real centre of political power. His visits to the Muslim periphery also displeased the country’s Christian establishment. The nobles of Shawa did not take kindly to the young man’s attitude and policies. They were particularly incensed when the prince, declaring that he could not become Emperor while his father Mika’el was only a Ras, promoted the latter to the title of Negus, or King, of Wallo and Tegray. This was resented in that it gave him precedence over all Menilek’s former courtiers, many of whom had previously regarded him, an Oromo and a convert from Islam, as their political and social inferior.
Notwithstanding growing opposition from both the Shawan nobility, and from the Church, Iyasu and his counselors continued Menilek’s reforming policies. They attempted to improve the system of land ownership and taxation, established a system of government auditing, abolished the traditional system by which plaintiffs and defenders were chained together, banned the traditional institution of lebeshay, or magical thief-catchers, and set up Addis Ababa’s first police force