Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
03. Innovation, or Lack of It, in Medieval and Gondarine Times
We saw last week that Ethiopian society, confronted with the advent of the Jesuits, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, displayed little interest in copying their ways, as well as a strong hostility towards accepting their religion.
Missionaries Also Uninterested
It should at the same time be emphasised that the missionaries were also not interested in technological innovation as such. They restricted their interests almost exclusively to religion rather than secular things. They devoted much enthusiasm to proving the superiority of their own Church and faith over those which had been established in the country over a millennium earlier. They urged, for example, that only Sunday, not Saturday as well, should be celebrated as the Sabbath, that the dietary rules of Moses should be abandoned, that priests should not be allowed to marry, and that marriage by the laity should be indissoluble. The abundant literature produced by the Portuguese at this time is preoccupied with such matters, but contains no reference to any attempt to teach or popularize new techniques in agriculture or animal husbandry, industry or housing, no word of any effort to encourage tree preservation or afforestation, or to introduce a system of currency in place of the inconvenient “primitive money” then in use.
Such innovations as were attempted were of limited significance, and for the most part fell on stony ground. During the war with Gragn (1527-1541), for example, Christavao da Gama and his compatriots imported a number of cannon on wheels and constructed sledges to transport their artillery. The use of the wheel, however, was not introduced into the economy and the age-old reign of the mule, the donkey and the human porter remained undisturbed.
A Boat on Lake Tana
Half a century or so later one of the Portuguese built a timber boat for use on Lake Tana, the country’s biggest expanse of water, but the craft was scarcely used, let alone copied, Traditional boats continued to ply their course, without a competitor, as they had done from time immemorial.
The Jesuit, Pero Pais, won some fame as a builder, and is remembered for his two-story palace at Gorgora which, according to the Jesuit, Baltazar Tellez, “amazed all the Abyssines who came from the remotest Parts to behold it, and what most surprised them was to see an upper Floor … This Work gained the Fathers much Reputation, convincing the People that what they told them of the mighty Structures of Europe were true.”
The work of the Jesuits was, however, largely confined to the erection of a palace and a few churches, as well as to buildings for the missionaries, and did not extend to the dwellings of the ordinary people. One of the Jesuits, Melchior da Silva 26 is reported to have been content to dwell in the house of an ordinary Ethiopian peasant.
The Portuguese, we are told, brought t Emperor Susneyos a gilt bed from China; but though the sovereign was happy to sleep on it, the bed of ordinary Ethiopians remained unchanged.
Antiquities Going Back to Ancient Egypt
Ethiopia in some ways resembled an ethnological museum, the exhibits of which were preserved from century to century, as is evident from the fact that some of the items in use in modern times, such as the plough, the grinding stone, the head-rest and the reed boat, are remarkably similar to those used in ancient Egypt.
The result of the Portuguese contact, or more properly of contact with Indian craftsmen brought by the Portuguese, was for practical purposes visible in not more than three main sectors:
Firstly, in the very restricted field of castle building where their influence is by no means proven, and could not have been much more than an inspiration as most of the Portuguese had left before the construction work began. Secondly, in the use of mortar, which was never widespread and was soon forgotten.”
Thirdly, in a limited amount of bridge-building, which ceased after about a generation, one of the principal bridges, symbolically enough, being subsequently broken to prevent its use by invading armies from another province.
The establishment of the famous capital of Gondar around 1636 was none the less characterised by a period of innovation. The notable castles built by the Emperor Fasiladas (1632-1667) and subsequent monarchs were themselves symbolic of something new. The Scottish traveller James Bruce, for example, has an interesting passage in which he describes the manner in which the Emperor Iyasu II (1730-1735) utilised the services of Greeks and persons of Greek descent to ornament his castle. The Emperor, we are told, was charmed with the “multiplicity of works and workmen”, and ” even wrought with his own hand, and rejoiced at seeing the facility with which, by the use of a compass and a few straight lines, he could produce the figure of a star equally exact with any of his Greeks.
Iyasu the Great
The interest in innovation of the Gondarine rulers is apparent from the reports of De Maillet, the French Consul in Cairo, who reveals that the Emperor Iyasu I(1683-1706) had asked for “clever workmen to reestablish the arts,” notably a chief engineer, a cannon maker, an armourer, a glass-maker, a gardener, and a good doctor or surgeon, as well as several architects, masons, carpenters and locksmiths.
Iyasu’s interest in European medicine is further evident from the account of the French traveller Charles Poncet, who says that when he brought a medicine chest to Gondar the Emperor” informed himself exactly after what manner those remedies were prepared, and how they were to be applied ; what effects they produced ; for what distempers they were proper. He was not satisfied with only a verbal account of these things, but ordered it to be taken in writing.”
The Frenchman goes on to tell how Iyasu arranged for him to produce various types of medicine and visited him incognito to inspect the various operations.”
The above review of attitudes to innovation in the half millennium prior to the nineteenth century shows tendencies which will appear more clearly in the later period when more documentation is available.
The Nineteenth Century
Early Nineteenth century Ethiopia was in large measure an unchanging land in which generation after generation lived and died like their forefathers centuries earlier. In such circumstances the public at large was profoundly unconscious of the idea of change.
Donald Levine Sayeth
This is for example suggested by the researches of the modern American sociologist Donald Levine. Examining the concepts of the typical peasant he observed that time was “of little concern”. “When a man says he is going on a trip tomorrow”, he observes, -everyone assumes that he means he may be going on a trip a few days later. Many appointments are made, but few are kept.”
In so far as the concept of time existed, Levine argues that it was ” cyclical.” Thus the “years do not run on continuously, but follow the sequence Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – again and again and again. Each month, moreover, revolves about the same set of saints’ days – in contrast to the Catholic calendar, which has a different saint for each day of the year. The result is a triple system – of monthly cycles, annual cycles, and four-year cycles – issuing in a series of epicycles, in which the monthly rounds play themselves out within the larger circles of annual rounds.”
For practical purposes, Levine argues, “the general Amhara attitude is that the seasons come and go, people come and go, but there is not much new under the sun.” With a few notable exceptions the “essential feature” of Ethiopian history, according to the Levine thesis, was therefore its repetitiveness and lack of development. This point of view was clearly expressed by a dabtara, or cleric, whom he quotes as observing: “The people around here do not know much about historical figures, because our history was always the same old thing-one lord fighting another to get more power.”
Life in the nineteenth century was still remarkably self-sufficient. “Each man,” wrote the French travellers P.V, Ferret and J.G. Galinier, in the first half of the century, -makes his own clothes and furniture; each family constructs its own house, grinds its own mill, kills its own cattle and sheep, produces its own bread, oil, butter, wax, and other articles of consumption.”
“Nearly everything in the shape of household wants,” confirms the British traveller Augustus B. Wylde half a century later, “is furnished by the household themselves.” So static and self-sufficient an economy was in the nature of things highly irresponsive to the stimulus of changes in the outside world. The public at large, being accustomed to produce the greater part of its requirements at home was little affected by the impact of the Industrial Revolution, which had by then been launched, in Europe, and abroad.
It Would Be a Mistake, however…
It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that the Ethiopian economy was entirely insulated from foreign contact. A limited penetration of imported goods may be discerned, which carried with it a significant potentiality of change. As in former times the country was in fact dependent, as we shall see, on foreign sources for three main categories of goods: textiles, raw metal and manufactured articles.