Articles in this series:
Series: Late Nineteenth Century
02. The Reign of Emperor Yohannes IV
We saw last week how Emperor Yohannes IV succeeded in defeating Egyptian incursions into Ethiopia, but, as we shall now see, faced an even greater threat from other enemies.
The British Occupation of Egypt, and the Mahdist Revolution in Sudan
In Egypt meanwhile the military revolt of Ahmad `Urabi in 1881 led directly in the following years to the British occupation of that country, as well as of Egyptian-occupied Sudan. This coincided with the spectacular rise in Sudan of its Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. His rebellion was so successful that the British, who had become responsible for the country on account of their occupation of Egypt in the previous year, decided in 1883 that it would have to be fully evacuated of Egyptian and British troops.
This evacuation was of direct relevance to Ethiopia. The Mahadists had by then isolated a number of towns with Egyptian garrisons and European inhabitants in the neighboring western Sudan. The British, reluctant to undertake a major expedition, which would inevitably have been much more arduous than that to Maqdala, decided that the isolated soldiers and civilians could most easily, and inexpensively, be carried out by the Ethiopians. This seemed particularly appropriate in view of Britain’s earlier cordial relations with Yohannes, who was moreover indebted to the British for their gift of arms at the time of the Napier expedition.
A British naval officer, Rear-Admiral Sir William Hewett, was accordingly dispatched to negotiate with the Ethiopian monarch. Yohannes received him courteously, agreed to assist, but stipulated (1) that the territories which the Egyptian had then recently occupied in the Bogos area on his western frontier, i.e. around Karan, should be restored to Ethiopian rule; and (2) that he should be given control of Massawa. His first demand was accepted, but as far as the port was concerned the British promised him only free transit, “under British protection”, for Ethiopian goods, including arms and ammunition. A tripartite treaty embodying these points, and, according to its preamble, binding not only the then reigning monarchs but also their heirs and successors, was duly signed by Britain, British-occupied Egypt, and Ethiopia, at Adwa on 3 June 1884. In accordance with it the Emperor’s dynamic military leader, Ras Alula, relieved six garrison towns in Sudan, the only ones from which the isolated soldiers were able to escape.
The Coming of the Italians
The value of the 1884 agreement to Ethiopia was, however, short-lived, for on 3 February 1885, only eight months after its conclusion, the Italians seized Massawa. This action was taken with the support of the British Government, which favored Italian expansion in the area as a way of curbing that a France. The Italian officer responsible for the occupation, Rear-Admiral Pietro Caimi, issued a proclamation to the port’s inhabitants announcing that his action had been taken in agreement with the British and Egyptian Governments and promised, “No obstacle shall be put by me on your trade”. Such friendly protestations were, however, before long abandoned, for as soon as the Italians were in a position to do so they seized the coast adjacent to Massawa, and instituted a blockade to stop the supply of arms of Yohannes. Italian troops then advanced into the interior as far as Sa’ati an Wi’a, both around 30 kilometers inland from the sea.
Ras Alula protested against this unwarranted Italian penetration, but the invaders replied by strengthening their fortifications in the newly occupied areas. They also sent in more troops, which were intercepted and virtually all annihilated by Ras Alula at Dogali on 26 January 1887 – the “massacre” of Dogali, as it came to be known in Italy. The Italians then evacuated Sa’ati and Wi’a, and declared a blockade on all ships bringing supplies for Ethiopia.
The British traveller Augustus B. Wylde, commenting on British policy at this time, observed:
`Look at our behaviour to King Johannes from any point of view and it will not show one ray of honesty and to my mind it is one of the worst bits of business we have been guilty of in Africa…. England made use of King Johannes as long as he was of any service, and then threw him over to the tender mercies of Italy, who went to Massawah under our auspices with the intention of taking territory that belonged to our ally, and allowed them to destroy all the promises England had solemnly made to King Johannes after he had faithfully carried out his part of the agreement. The fact is not known to the British public, and I wish it was not true for our credit’s sake, but unfortunately it is, and it reads like one of he vilest bits of treachery that has been perpetrated in Africa or in India in the eighteenth century.’
War between the Italians and Yohannes now seemed imminent, but the former, wishing to obtain their objectives without resort to fighting, persuaded the British in mediate. A British diplomat, Sir Gerald Portal, was accordingly sent to the Emperor to ask him to agree to an Italian occupation of the coastal strip, including Sa’ati and Wi’a, as well as the Bogos area, which the Egyptians, it will be recalled, had ceded to him three years earlier. When these terms were read out to him, he proudly replied, “I can do nothing with all this. By the treaty made by Admiral Hewett, all the country evacuated by the Egyptians on my frontier was ceded to me at the instigation of England, and now you have come to ask me to give it up again”, Much incensed that Britain should have asked him to depart from the 1884 treaty, he wrote to Queen Victoria, protesting that if she wished to make peace for him it should be when the Italians were in their country, and the Ethiopians in theirs.
Faced with the threat from Italy, the Emperor strengthened his defences by transferring there his garrison stationed at Qallabat on the Sudan frontier. Finding the border thus unguarded, the Mahdists broke in at that point. Yohannes has hastened to Qallabat to repel them, but at the close of a victorious battle at Matamma on 9 March 1889 was mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet. News of his death created great confusion in northern Ethiopia. This was intensified by the outbreak of a serious outbreak of cattle disease, which was followed by a famine of unprecedented proportions.
During this period of difficulty the Italians succeeded in advancing much further inland than they had been able to do previously. By the end of 1889 they had thus occupied a sizeable stretch of the northern Ethiopian plateau. This enabled them to establish their colony of Eritrea which came into formal existence on 1 January 1890. Their advance, Wylde Subsequently noted, “was unopposed, and once they had made good their foothold on the upper plateau and fortified themselves, no Abyssinian force could drive them out”.
Yohannes, unlike his predecessor Tewodros, was more of a conservative rather than a moderniser. He was moreover so involved in successive struggles to resist foreign invaders, Egyptian, Italian and Dervish, that he had little time, or opportunity, for technological innovation. He nevertheless succeeded, where Tewodros had failed, in sending envoys abroad on important diplomatic missions abroad, even though the lack of European response was such that his initiatives earned him little advantage. He was at the same time the first Ethiopian ruler ever to appoint a foreign consul, a certain Samuel King, who served as his representative in London.
The reign of Yohannes also witnessed several important innovations. In the medical field mercury preparations for the treatment of syphilis at about this time came into extensive use, at least in the towns. Yohannes was moreover the first ruler of his country to have a foreign physician at his court, a Greek doctor, Nicholas Parisis, and the first to be inoculated with modern-style smallpox vaccine, which was beginning to replace traditional Ethiopian-Type inoculation. His military victories over the Egyptians likewise resulted in the advent, and extensive distribution, of numerous breech-loading rifles, as well as some modern artillery.