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Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
02. The Eucalyptus Tree, and Ethiopia’s First Modern Schools and Hospitals
We saw last week that Menilek, mainly after his victory at the battle of Adwa in 1896, began Ethiopia’s modernisation. Now read on:
Another important development of this period was the introduction, by whom is uncertain, of the Australian eucalyptus tree. Some of the first plants were reportedly planted by Menilek’s French adviser, Casimir Mondon-Vidailhet, in 1894 or 1895. The tree grew so fast that it was soon extensively cultivated in Addis Ababa. Some landowners planted large eucalyptus forests on their estates, and thereby solved the capital’s hitherto serious shortage of both timber and fire-wood. The eucalyptus tree was, however, a thirsty plant, which dried up rivers and wells, and, by restricting grass cover, increased soil erosion.
Of Crucial Importance for Addis Ababa
The coming of the eucalyptus was of crucial importance in the history of Addis Ababa. The town’s shortage of wood had been so acute that Menilek, in 1900, had actually envisaged abandoning the capital in favour of a settlement 55 kilometres to the west, which Taytu named Addis Alam, literally New World. The eucalyptus tree, however, grew so fast that the Emperor, in the following year, abandoned the plan to transfer the capital. The move had in any case been strongly opposed by most of the foreign legations, as well as by some of the nobles. Both had invested heavily in Addis Ababa buildings, and were reluctant to see them abandoned. Almost the only support for the Addis Alam project came, curiously, from Italy, which, wishing to please the monarch, went so far as to erect a Legation at the new site.
The Russian Red Cross Hospital
The country’s first modern hospital meanwhile was set up in 1896, immediately after the battle of Adwa, by a Russian Red Cross mission. It had been despatched, by the slow-moving authorities in St Petersburg, to treat Ethiopians wounded in the fighting, but, arriving after the conclusion of hostilities, established itself in the capital instead.
The First Roads
The first years of the twentieth century, the period of peace, that is, after the battle of Adwa, witnessed the construction of Ethiopia’s first two modern roads. One, built with the help of Italian engineers, linked Addis Ababa with Addis Alam. The other, constructed, with the assistance of French technicians working on the railway, ran from the old emporium of Harar to the new railway town of Dire Dawa. A shipping service, linking Gambla on the Baro river, a tributary of the Nile in west, with Khartoum in Sudan, came into existence shortly afterwards, in 1907.
The Bank of Abyssinia
During the next few years, the last of Menilek’s reign, a succession of modern establishments came into existence. The first, set up by imperial charter in 1905, was the Bank of Abyssinia. An affiliate of the British-owned National Bank of Egypt, it was run largely under the supervision of British staff. The Bank of Abyssinia was engaged in most ordinary aspects of banking, but also handled most of the Emperor’s commercial affairs, which were largely undifferentiated from those of the Ethiopian state. The bank was also responsible for the issue of the country’s currency, including the issue of paper money, inaugurated in 1914-15.
The Etege Hotel
The country’s first government hotel, founded by Empress Taytu, and known as the Etege, literally Queen, was established in 1907. It was such a novelty that Menilek’s chronicler, drawing a distinction with the free hospitality traditionally afforded at state banquets and those of the nobility, found it necessary to explain that guests had to pay for what they consumed.
The Copts, and the Menilek School
The first modern school, the Menilek II School, which taught in French, was founded by the Emperor in 1908. Having to contend with Church opposition to Western ideas, he entrusted it, and three others in the provinces, at Harar, Ankobar and Das, to Egyptian Coptic teachers, to whom the local priesthood, and their Egyptian Coptic head, Abuna Matewos, could raise no objection. Earlier, with Ilg’s help, Menilek had despatched three youngsters in 1894 for study in Switzerland. Others were later sent to Russia, which was selected as an Orthodox Christian country, like Ethiopia, with strong monarchical traditions.
The Menilek Hospital
The first Ethiopian Government hospital, the Menilek II, was established in 1910, with the assistance of several foreign doctors. Some of them, including several German specialists, had come to treat the Emperor, who was then mortally ill. The establishment was located on the site of the earlier Russian Red Cross hospital, which had ceased functioning a few years earlier.
The Newspaper “Aymro”
A State printing press was set up in 1911. It was used for the publication of the first real Amharic newspaper, “Aymro”, as well as various decrees and other official documents.
Several small-scale industrial enterprises were likewise established at this time, among them a hydro-electric plant and a cartridge factory, both at Aqaqi, and saw-mills in the Managasha forest, west of Addis Ababa.
“Water Worships Menilek”
Another innovation was a water pipe, which ran from the Entotto mountains, above the town, to the palace compound. The latter was situated on elevated ground, so that the water had to travel upwards for part of its journey. This at first created considerable amazement, and caused a poet to exclaim that “even water worshipped Menilek”.
Getting to Work on Time
A large clock, one metre square, was later installed above one of the palace buildings. It was visible from afar, and chimed every hour, thus, it is reported, enabling the citizens, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to go to work on time.
A New, and More Commercialised Way of Life
The early years of the century also coincided with the expansion of Addis Ababa. The city, after the coming of the railway, grew rapidly, and developed an increasingly commercialised way of life. Innovations included stone buildings, which replaced wattle and daub huts; corrugated iron roofing, which replaced thatch; and mechanical grain grinding-mills, which replaced pestles and mortars worked by hand. Among other developments mentioned may be made of the setting up of bakeries, for the manufacture of European-type loaves, which were beginning to be eaten instead of, or as well as, enjera, the traditional Ethiopian-type bread; the sale of enjara, which had formerly been made only at home for family use; butchers’ shops, for a population which had hitherto slaughtered its own livestock; hotels, restaurants, and drinking houses, for paying customers, who had previously eaten and drunk at home, or in other people’s houses as non-paying guests; and commercial, in many cases open-air, tailors’ shops, instead of traditional hand sewing. These shops often made use of Singer sewing machines, imported from the United States, and acquired by the tailors on very convenient hire-purchase terms.