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Articles in this series:
Series: Trade and Business
02. Trade in Ethiopia in Modern Times
The Maria Theresa Thaler, or Dollar
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed the arrival in Ethiopia of an Austrian coin: the Maria Theresa thaler, or dollar. This remarkable silver coin, which was called after Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, and was minted in Vienna, gained an extensive circulation throughout the Middle East, including Ethiopia. Its coming helped to equalise the disequilibrium between Ethiopian exports, which were substantially greater than the country’s imports.
Queen Maria Theresa died in 1780, and all Maria Theresa thalers minted thereafter bore that date.
The thaler also constituted a valuable source of silver, for it was melted down for the manufacture of jewellery, as well as that of crosses and other ecclesiastical objects.
The thaler was likewise used as a weight, use in the weighing of such valuable articles as gold, as well as in medicine.
Go to the IES Museum!
Visitors to Addis Ababa wishing to see such silverware, and other Ethiopian treasures, should make their way to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Ethnological Museum and Art Gallery, situated in the main University campus, at Siddest Kilo. The museum is open at week-ends, but closed on Mondays.
Maria Theresa coins, which, unlike salt, cloth and other articles of “primitive money”, could easily be buried, were often so buried, and thus used as a way of saving.
The Founding of Addis Ababa
Ethiopian trade and business were transformed by the founding, around 1887, by Emperor Menilek, of a new Ethiopian capital: Addis Ababa. This settlement, which was situated almost in the centre of the Ethiopian realm, became the site, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, of many important innovations.
The establishment of the city was followed, in 1892, by Menilek’s reform of the system of land taxation, and by the introduction of the Australian eucalyptus tree – which solved what had previously been an acute shortage of timber and firewood.
A National Currency
Not long afterwards, in 1894, steps were taken to issue the country’s first currency since Aksumite times, as well as Ethiopia’s first postage stamps, after which the country joined the International Postal Union, in 1908.
The year 1894 also witnessed Menilek’s granting of a first concession for the construction of a railway to the Gulf of Aden port of Jibuti. Work on the project began two years later, after which the line reached the railway town of Dire Dawa in 1902, and the vicinity of Addis Ababa in 1915.
The Jibuti Railway
The coming of the railway, led, as may be imagined, to a considerable expansion of trade. Commercial developments of this period included, among many other things, the advent of corrugated iron roofing, which arrived around 1902, and was soon to dominate the capital’s housing. The railway also resulted in a great expansion of coffee exports, which before long accounted for over 50 per cent by value of total exports.
The first Ethiopian students to go abroad for study at Government expence left for Europe at about this time. The first batch went to Tsarist Russia, and others to neutral Switzerland, though many others later went to Egypt, Lebanon, France and elsewhere.
The construction of the first modern roads, from Addis Ababa to Addis Alam and from Harar to Dire Dawa, the installation of the earliest Ethiopian telephone-telegraph system, and the founding of the country’s first Amharic newspaper, likewise date from the first half decade of the twentieth century.
The Bank of Abyssinia
No less important was the establishment, in 1905, of Ethiopia’s first bank, the Bank of Abyssinia, which ten years later began issuing paper money – today a collectors’ item almost impossible to find!
Modernisation also witnessed the naming of Menilek’s first Cabinet, the founding of the first Ethiopian Government hotel, the Etege Hotel, and the coming of the first two motor cars, all in 1907; the establishment of the country’s first modern school, the Menilek School, in 1908; the capital’s first hospital, the Menilek Hospital, in 1910; and Ethiopia’s first state printing press, in 1911
Such modernisation, which, it goes without saying, had a profound influence on Ethiopia’s trade and business, was continued after Menilek’s death in 1913.
Most of this development took place during the reign of Empress Zawditu, and the Regency of Ras Tafari Makonnen (the future Emperor Haile Sellassie), as well as the latter’s subsequent reign as Emperor.
This period witnessed the general expansion of roads, schools, and hospitals, as well as the coming to Addis Ababa of the first aeroplane, in 1929; and the establishment of first Ethiopian radio in 1933. One of the first ‘planes, christened Tsehai after the Emperor’s daughter of that name, is currently in Italy, it is hoped awaiting repatriation.
A new currency was also inaugurated.
The Fascist Invasion – and Liberation
The Italian Fascist invasion, of 3 October 1935, which lies outside the scope of this article, was followed by the country’s Liberation in 1941.
The ensuing period witnessed many important developments of profound importance to trade. These included the establishment of Ethiopian Airlines, the country’s first domestic airline, several factories, and insurance corporations, the enactment of the country’s first commercial code and other codes, besides a great expansion of roads, telephone and telegraph services, schools, hospitals, etc.
There was also a great expansion of banking, including the founding of Addis Ababa Bank, the country’s first private bank; the inauguration of a new, and more widely accepted, national currency, and the final withdrawal of the Maria Theresa thaler.
ECA and OAU
This period likewise witnessed Ethiopia’s increasing involvement in the African continent, with the establishment in Addis Ababa of the headquarters of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in 1958, and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in 1963.: Both landmarks in the emergence of independent Africa!
The last decade has moreover witnessed the coming to Ethiopia of the computer, and increasing Ethiopian access to the Web (on which, dear reader, you can now read the Addis Tribune!) – a great improvement, we must admit. on the above-mentioned “silent trade” of Aksumite times!