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Series: Innovation and Change
18. Modernisation in the 1920s
We saw last week that the innovative policies inaugurated by Emperor Menilek were continued, to some extent, during the brief reign of his grandson, Lej Iyasu. Progress suffered, however, from the many power struggles of this period. These were only partially resolved when the prince was deposed, in 1916, and replaced by a system of dual government, with Menilek’s daughter as Empress, and Ras Makonnen’s son Tafari (the future Emperor Haile Sellassie) as Heir to the Throne, and, before long, Regent.
Tafari, who was largely concerned with foreign affairs, and in contact with most foreign visitors to the country, succeeded in convincing them that he was firmly committed to innovation. The Phelps Stobes mission, a visiting American educational group, for example declared him “among the first elements of hope.”
Though Empress Zawditu and most of the older nobles were reputedly opponents of rapid change, this period was characterised by a significant amount of innovation.
The League of Nations
On September 28, 1923, Tafari succeeded in gaining Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations. This was an important event in Ethiopia’s long history of foreign contacts. Membership of the international body enabled Tafari, in the 1920s, to withstand the pressures of the British and Italians, but was to prove almost useless at the time of fascist Italy’s inavasion in the following decade.
A State Visit to Palestine, Egypt – and Europe
In the summer of 1924 Tafari, undertook an important foreign tour, visiting Palestine, Egypt, France, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, ltaly, England, Switzerland and Greece. He was accompanied by the two most prominent Ethiopian chiefs of the day, Ras Hailu and Ras Kassa. The visit, which may be compared with Peter the Great’s to Western Europe some two hundred years earlier, did much to awaken Ethiopian society to the need to take the outside world seriously into account, as well as to adopt foreign inventions.
The visit, not surprisingly, intensified Tafari’s already considerable interest in innovation. Rosita Forbes, a British traveller of this time, quotes him as saying to her, very revealingly, “We need European progress because we are surrounded by it. That is at once a benefit and a misfortune. It will expedite our development, but we are afraid of being swamped by it.”
Good and Bad Influneces
Besides the political dangers from abroad, which were to culminate within a decade in Mussolini’s invasion, the Regent was faced, like earlier rulers, with the need to discriminate between the good and bad influence of the outside world. The British journalist George L. Steer, discussing this latter point a few years later, claimed that the “vulgarities of the west” came to the Regent, as to every African or Asian, “jumbled up with its refinements,” but that he was able to differentiate between them. “Early in his reign,” Steer goes on,”Europe came to him through the worst Europeans . . . but he was quick to sift them away.’
Ras Hailu, the hereditary ruler of Gojjam, was also much influenced by his foreign visit. He also revealed himself something of a wit. The story is told that in England he was received by King George V, who asked him, “Can you speak English?” Ras Hailu replied, through an interpreter, in the negative. “French?”, the King asked. “No!”, the Ras replied. “Arabic?” “No!”. ” Well, What do you speak ?”, said the King at last. The Ras retorted, “Can you speak Amharic?” “No,” said the King. “Galla?” “No. “Guraghe?” “No!”, “Well, sire,” said Ras Hailu, “I am glad to see that we are both equally ignorant!” Whereat, it is said, “the King laughed so loud and so long that the Queen came over to see what the matter could be.
Notwithstanding such language difficulties, Hailu obtained a fair understanding of the countries he visited, as may be seen by his observations to Rosita Forbes. She quotes him as saying, “Paris is for play, London for work . . . women buy clothes and jewels in Paris, but guns and boots come from London.” Turning to Egypt, he is said to have added, “You have done a great deal for Egypt… but you have not taught her to do anything for herself… It is not good for a country to be milk-fed by strangers.”
The Ras was particularly interested in introducing into Ethiopia the things he had seen on his travels. Tradition has it that, on returning to Gojjam, he enthusiastically described the modern inventions of the period, including the aeroplane, but that many of his listeners disbelieved him, whispering behind his back the word teqededu (“he lied”).
A Motor Car in Gojjam
Ras Hailu was determined to have a motor car in Gojjam. The British consul R.E. Cheesman relates that the chief ran his own car at Debra Markos, but, because of the difficulties of transport, it had been necessary for the machine to be brought there in pieces by mule. The vehicle moreover could only be used within the confines of the town. Baum, another taveller of this time, says that the Ras was full of questions about ploughs and tractors, while, according to the British merchant Rey, the chief was “contemplating the execution of a number of enterprises which we should describe as public works; such as a large mill for crushing the grain used in Debra Markos, for which the water will have to be brought several miles.” The Ras, he adds, was “a keen trader” and had bought a “lot of property” in Addis Ababa, which he let as shops, stores and a hotel; he also imported a number of motor-cars, which his agents hired to the general public”.
This period witnessed a number of important innovations in various spheres of economic and social life. In the field of transport and communications opposition to the extension of the railway beyond Akaki was overcome, the line being at last brought to Addis Ababa in 1917. Characteristic of the dislike of trains manifested by the traditional mind is Rey’s statement that Fitawrari Hapta Giyorgis, Empress Zawditu’s Minister of War, boasted of never having seen the railway, far less of having used it.
A few years later, however, in 1922, the Regent set up a Public Works Department. Rey reported that year that the Regent had “taken in hand’ the question of road making in the capital, and that “many miles of good macadamised roads” had already come into existence.
Import of Motor Cars
After their visit to Europe the Regent, Ras Hailu, and Ras Kassa all three brought back a number of motor cars, the presence of which naturally increased the desire for road improvements. Traffic police were soon afterwards introduced. In the next few years work was initiated on a road from Addis Ababa to Jimma, and another in the Gambela area in the far west of the country. The number of cars in this period increased considerably. Christine Sandford, a British resident of the time, states that scarcely more than one or two cars would be seen in the streets in 1925, but that by 1930 several hundreds were in daily use. According to the Greek author Zenvos, 746 vehicles of various kinds had been imported between 1919 and 1935, by which date the number of cars registered in use was 526, including 80 taxis. The public was by this time much more accustomed to the sight of the motor car which in the early days was sometimes stoned by the unsophisticated, who referred to it as meto beila, a corruption of automobile, but literally a thing which “ate a hundred” people.
The advent of the aeroplane was delayed for a decade or so, reportedly because of opposition from Empress Zawditu and Fitawrari Hapta Giyorgis to so novel an innovation, apparently because the latter feared that its advent would endanger his country’s historic independence. Rey writing in 1922, stated that:
“while I was in Addis an effort was made by an enterprising Frenchman to bring two aeroplanes into the country; by some mistake of the Customs (who couldn’t classify them for duty under any existing tariff heading) they got up in truck as far as Addis, but there they remained. They were never allowed to be unpacked, and for weeks they lay rotting in open trucks under the tropical sun, until at last the diabolical instruments were returned ingloriously to the coast.”
Rey sums up the then conservative attitude by saying that Fitawrari Hapte Giyorgis, and the other conservatives, regarded `planes “as childish toys, or as an affront to the Almighty by endeavouring to extend the powers of man beyond those granted him by Providence, or as a devilish device of the Frangi [i.e. European] to spy out the land from abroad and so facilitate ultimate foreign conquest.”
In the summer of 1929, however, the Regent succeeded in obtaining the first `planes from Europe – two each from France and Germany and one from ltaly. Bartleet, a British resident of the time, recalls that when the first plane arrived, on August 15, members of the public “just gaped with amazement, the general feeling amongst them being aptly put into words by one whom I heard say, What does God think of that machine up in his sky.”
Though at first outside the comprehension of the multitude the `plane was destined to be of major importance in Ethiopia, where the difficulties of ordinary communication gave it an even greater advantage over other forms of transport than in most countries.The military significance of aviation was soon also proved. First by the Government’s defeat of Ras Gugsa of Gojjam on March 31, 1930, later by the ltalian invasion of 1935 when an Ethiopian poet exclaimed:
We would not have failed to defend our country, Had not they entered by the gates of Heaven which we did not know of.
The element of surprise is apparent also in a couplet of Gojjam, recalled by Alemayehu Mogos, in which an Ethiopian, on seeing an ltalian plane, for the first time,says:
You who fly like angels, Please answer the cry of the poor.
One of the early Ethiopian `planes, called Tsehai, after Emperor Haile Sellassie’s daughter, is currently in the Italian Aviation Museum. Now that the issue of the return of the Aksum obelisk in Rome is resolved, we are waiting to see whether the Italian Government will have the dedency to return this `plane to Ethiopia, as should be done in accordance with the Italian Peace Treaty of 1947: vediamo!