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Articles in this series:
Series: Nineteenth Century
02. An Essay in Nineteenth Century Ethiopian History
We saw last week that Tewodros, from the very inception of his reign, sought the military unification of the Ethiopian empire. Being, as we saw, in a difficult position to import fire-arms, he soon conceived the ambitious plan of having them cast in Ethiopia itself.
With a view to improving his military equipment he accepted an offer by Samuel Gobat, the Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, in 1855 to send him a group of young craftsmen from the Chrischona missionary institute near Basle in Switzerland. These “missionary artisans”, as they were called, brought him gifts of religious books, for the most part in Amharic, but as he later acknowledged to his English courtier John Bell, “he would have been more pleased with a box of English gunpowder than, as he said, with books he already possessed”.
Tewodros nevertheless treated the missionary craftsmen kindly, established them near his capital, Dabra Tabor, at the village of Gafat, where they were joined by a number of other foreigners, several of them also artisans
“Make Me Cannon and Mortars!”
Not long after their arrival Tewodros ordered them to manufacture cannon and mortars for him. The missionaries were unskilled in this field, but had no option but to obey. One of them, Theophilus Waldmeier, a Swiss, recalls that they were in “great difficulty, and helpless vis-à-vis the moody king who sent us letter after letter asking whether our work had succeeded. Time after time we were obliged to give a negative answer, but the King’s patience was greater than ours; he comforted us and sent us word; ‘Begin again from the beginning’. This we did, but in vain”.
The craftsmen nevertheless persevered. “After unspeakable effort”, says Waldmeier, “we made a final attempt… and, behold, for the first time we were successful. All the Abyssinians of the area, who had for a long time laughed at our work, now came to share our joy and to congratulate us… The King was pleased beyond measure with our little piece of metal, kissed it and cried, ‘Now I am convinced that it is possible to make everything in Habesh. Now the art has been discovered God has at last revealed Himself. Praise and thanks be to Him for it’”.
By the early 1860s, Dufton reported that “all the Europeans” at Gafat were engaged in this work. One small mortar they had made was “a marvel”, “considering the manner in which it was made, for “the metal was melted in thirty crucibles, on fires in the ground, blown by hand-bellows of the most primitive description – consisting of a leather bag, the mouth of which is opened on being drawn up for the receipt of the air, and closed again when the air is to be driven by pressure through the clay tube conducting to the fire”.
“Working Like Slaves Night and Day”
By 1866, the craftsmen, Waldmeier says, were “working like slaves, night and day”. The Emperor soon afterwards asked them to cast a cannon capable of firing a thousand pound shell. “We were afraid to refuse and were afraid to obey”, the missionary recalls, “but God did not abandon us…. He let our work succeed”.
Tewodros’s interest in artillery, and the need to transport it, led him to become his country’s first road-builder. He began the construction of a rudimentary road network to link Dabra Tabor, with Gondar, Maqdala, and Gojjam. A foreign observer of this period, observing the traditional manner in which an Ethiopian ruler encouraged his men to toil on an enterprise to which he attached importance, recalls that “from early dawn to late at night” Tewodros was “hard at work” on the road: “with his own hands he removed stones, levelled the ground, or helped to fill up ravines. No one could leave so long as he was there himself; no one would think of eating, or of rest, while the Emperor showed the example and shared the hardships”.
Land Reform and Conflicts with the Church
Tewodros’s military policies also led him directly into land reform. Needing land for his troops, he envisaged the extensive expropriation of church land. This policy brought him into bitter conflict with the clergy, whom most previous rulers had always sought to woo, and made him unpopular among many of the faithful.
Dispute with the British Government
Military necessity also brought Tewodros into the dispute with the British Government, which was to lead him to ultimate ruin.
Tewodros, it may be recalled, had originally been on excellent terms with two Englishmen, John Bell, whom he had appointed Court Chamberlain, and British consul Plowden, whom he treated as an adviser. Both were killed in 1860, the former fighting by the Emperor’s side; the latter on a journey to the coast.
Plowden and his successor, Walter Cameron, had both strongly pressed Tewodros to renew the Treaty with Britain earlier concluded with Ras Ali in 1849. The Emperor had, however, demurred, as he felt that the presence of a British consul, flying the Union Jack, was unprecedented, and might infringe Ethiopian sovereignty. He preferred instead to despatch embassies of his own, to Britain, France, and, it is believed, Russia.
Letter to Queen Victoria
With this objective in mind Tewodros, on 29 October 1862, despatched two almost identical letters to Queen Victoria and Emperor Napoleon III of France. Couched in friendly terms they declared that previous emperors had “forgotten their Creator”, who had accordingly given their kingdom to the “Gallas”, i.e. Oromo Yejju dynasty, headed by Ras Ali, and the Turks, then in occupation the Red Sea coast. God, Tewodros claimed, had however “created” him, lifted him “out of the of the dust” and “restored” the empire to his rule. Having defeated Ras Ali’s dynasty he had ordered the Turks to leave the land of his ancestors, but they had refused: he was therefore going to fight them.
In this letter to Victoria, which was to have important repercussions, Tewodros went on to recall that Plowden and Bell had both told him that she was “a great Christian Queen ‘, who “loved Christians”, and that they could “establish friendship” with her. It was because they had said this that he had given them his “love”.
Doubtless remembering the previous treaty with Ras Ali, in which the British Government agreed to “receive and protect” any diplomatic representative that the ruler of Ethiopia might appoint, and assuming that it meant what it said, Tewodros went on in his letter to declare that the Turks at the coast were denying him passage by sea, and that he was therefore unable to despatch the ambassador he wished to send to England. He therefore asked where his envoy should send the gifts he wished to send, and appealed to Victoria to “stand by” him, “the Christian”, at a time when “the Muslim”, i.e. the Turks, threatened to attack him.
This letter, though largely general in character, served to support several very specific requests, which Tewodros had made to Cameron orally, namely that the British should (1) receive an embassy from Ethiopia; (2) enable his envoys to pass through hostile Turkish and Egyptian territory; (3) prevent the incursion of the Turkish fleet in neighbouring Red Sea waters; (4) help him purchase fire-arms; and (5) obtain an engineer to build roads.
Consul Cameron and the Letter
Tewodros requested Cameron to take the letter to England in person, but the consul chose instead to sent it by messenger. The latter also carried a cover letter in which Cameron assured the British Government that craftsmen Tewodros requested from Britain should have no fear of living in Ethiopia, for the missionaries already working for the king were “very liberally” treated.
The two letters reached London on 12 February 1863, but did not meet with the British Government’s approval were not considered of much importance. The British at that time were strong supporters of the Ottoman Empire, which they regarded as a potential ally against the Russians, then perceived as threatening Britain’s position in India. The Foreign Office had therefore no wish to become involved, on Ethiopia’s behalf, in a conflict with Turkey. No reply was therefore returned to the Emperor’s message, which the Foreign Office merely forwarded to the India Office, which then filed it away.
Cameron’s letter, for its part, was not answered until 22 April 1863, when the Foreign Secretary, Earl Russell, despatched an unsympathetic response. He declared that it was “not desirable for Her Majesty’s Agents to meddle in the affairs of Abyssinia”, and that Cameron should return to the port of Massawa, and remain there “until further orders” – in other words until what the Romanians call the “Easter of the Horses”.