Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
04. Developments in the Early Nineteenth Century
We saw last week that Ethiopia’s traditional self-sufficiency at first isolated it from the impact of the Industrial Revolution, which took place in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
The Ethiopian Import Picture: In the North
Ethiopian imports by the early nineteenth were, however, by no means negligible. A fair picture of early nineteenth century imports via the Red Sea port of Massawa, the main point of contact with the outside world for northern Ethiopia, may be obtained from the writings of the British traveller Henry Salt, who refers to the arrival at the port of European manufactures. These included embroidered velvets, French broadcloths, silks and satins, arms and ammunition, glassware and beads from Venice, lead in small quantities, block tin, copper and gold foil, as well as skins of many colours from Egypt, Indian textiles of every quality from fine muslin’s to coarse Surat cloth; raw cotton, small Persian carpets of a showy pattern and of low price, and raw silks from China.
In the Centre and South
The principal imports of central and southern Ethiopia, which passed via the Gulf of Aden ports of Tajura, Zeila and Berbera, were not dissimilar. They are given by the British envoy Cornwallis Harris as consisting, in the 1840s, mainly of Indian and Arabian textiles, pewter, zinc, copper and brass wire, beads and various other articles such as buttons, mirrors, trinkets, bottles, snuff and tobacco.
In the West
The imports of western Ethiopia, via Sudan to Gondar, were also, broadly speaking, of similar character. The German missionary J.L. Krapf writes of cotton, coloured cloth and beads, mirrors, razors, nails, drinking vessels, coffee cups and stibium.
Though it is impossible to obtain a quantitative picture of such imports they were undoubtedly considerable, as may be seen from the fairly detailed estimates available for Massawa. The Belgian official Edouard Blondeel quoted figures for 1840, which suggest that 528,660 pieces of different kinds of cloth were imported annually, while the French Scientific Mission of 1839-1843 stated that imports in 1842 numbered 551,295 pieces. Other imports ,according to Blondeel, included 300 packets of blue silk, 40,280 kilos of cotton thread, 2,000 pieces of Morocco leather, 1,422 kilos of old copper, 1,170 kilos of tin, 20,000 bottles, 270 cases of glassware, 16,400,000 glass beads, 14,400 razors, 6,690 kilos of kohl, or antimony, for the eyes, 669 kilos of cloves, and 35,600 kilos of tobacco. The French Scientific Mission figures are somewhat different, and include 5,000 packets of blue silk, 10,000 pieces of red Morocco leather, 150,000 kilos of cloves and 500,000 kilos of tobacco .
Imported cloth, which in the first part of the century was still overshadowed by local production, seems to have largely conformed to the traditional type. An interesting practice which resulted from the absence of fast locally made dyes was the unraveling of imported red or blue cloth. The thread was then used by local weavers to produce the telat, or coloured band, on the shamma, or toga, almost universally worn by the Ethiopian people. This practice of unravelling and then reweaving was in a sense a compromise between the desire for better colours and a reluctance to accept the innovation of coloured cloth which thus served only as raw material. A British naval man, Captain Wetherhead, writing in 1810, tells of a practice in Massawa where imported cotton was mixed with the local material before the two were woven together.
King Sahle Sellase of Shewa
Though essentially conservative in many respects, the Ethiopian rulers of the early nineteenth century, like their forebears, displayed considerable interest in innovation, in the military, but also to a lesser extent in the medical field, and, occasionally, in church and palace building.
King Sahle Sellase of Shewa (1813-1847) was by all accounts passionately interested in new techniques. He employed, we are told, large numbers of blacksmiths, weavers and gunsmiths at his palace. The German missionary Krapf states that the monarch was “so fond of artisans” that he often visited the workshops of the weavers, gun-makers and smiths. The French saint Simonians Combes and Tamisier so far as to observe, doubtless with exaggeration, that such workmen were “the most important men” Sahle Sellase’s court. The King, they add, “found time to devote himself to the industrial arts in which he is passionately interested. He liked to see work carried out under his very eyes; his palace was full of weavers, carpenters, masons and other workers engaged in making gunpowder, repairing rifles or working in gold, silver and ivory. His workshops likewise produced magnificent cloth, bracelets, swords, shields and arm guard. Sahle Sellase’s innovating interests, it will be perceived, had a military orientation reminiscent of that of earlier monarchs. Thus the traveller Schroff noted that the monarch’s “first intention seems to be directed to military reforms,” while the British ship’s surgeon Charles Johnston recalls that the King questioned him closely about the relative merits of gun-barrels, and adds “I had to describe how they were manufactured; what was the difference between plain and twisted; in what manner the grooves on the rifles were made; and whether long or short barrels were most economical for service. The French envoy, Rochet d’Hericourt, likewise relates that Sahle Sellase spoke to him of the manner of making cannon, rifles and swords. Combes and Tamisier tell a similar story. They record that on reaching the Shewan capital they were closely questioned by one of the King’s secretaries as to whether they could make rifles or gunpowder.
Greeks, Armenians, and Egyptians
This preoccupation with firearms was so general in early nineteenth century Ethiopia that foreigners, Greeks, Armenians, and Egyptians, could be found as gun makers or repairers in all the more important centres. Other foreigners were also used in one or other aspect of warfare. Thus Ras Walde Sellase of Tigray employed two Englishmen, Coffin and Pearce, in importing firearms, while his successor, Dejazmach Webe, commissioned a third Englishman, John Bell, as a kind of general.
Besides the military interest in innovations, which constitutes a recurrent theme of these articles, early nineteenth century Ethiopia displayed a certain though limited willingness to utilise foreign medical skills. Visiting travellers, diplomats and sportsmen were invariably expected to treat diseases in the areas they visited, and many Ethiopian rulers made use of foreign doctors. This acceptance of the new is the more significant in that Ethiopia possessed a fairly sophisticated body of knowledge of medicine and surgery. Resident foreigners engaged in medicine in this period included an English surgeon, Charles Johnston, in Shewa, and an Armenian called Gorgorios in Tigray, who was reputed to know an excellent specific for venereal diseases.
A certain amount of innovation can also be seen at this time in palace and church building as manifested by the employment of foreign craftsmen. Thus Sahle Sellase employed a Greek called Demetrius to build a two-story palace at Angolala, while in Tigray Dejazmach Webe employed two Germans, Eichinger and Schimper, in church building. The former built the church of Cherkos at Addegrat, while the latter put up a number of buildings for the chief, including a stone church at Debra Egzi.
Webe and Sahle Sellase’ successor, King Besha Worrid, like so many of the rulers of earlier centuries, both attempted to attract craftsmen from abroad and negotiated with the British Government on this matter in 1849. On March 3, the British Consul, Walter Plowden, forwarded to London a letter he had received from Webe which declared:
“If you can find me five or three workmen if possible at Massowah, if not by sending to your country, builders or masons, bring them for me ; if they wish for lands or appointments I will give them plenty; if they wish for wages I will give them wages and take care of them.”
Plowden’s advice to the British Foreign Secretary, the redoubtable Lord Palmerston, was that this request should be met by the dispatch of an architect, a bridge-builder, a carpenter and four assistants, but the matter was shelved by Palmerston on account of the difficulties and expenses involved.
A similar request for European workmen was received from King Besha Worrid at almost the same time. On May 21 the British representative in Cairo forwarded Palmerston a letter of greeting to Queen Victoria from the King. The messenger who brought the epistle carried a request that the Queen would send the King “persons who can make a crown, and make cannons, and paint pictures, and build palaces.
This appeal for assistance was also destined to be rejected. Rather than refusing outright, Palmerston chose to gave the King a history lesson. He wrote back declaring:
“Her Majesty commands me to explain to you that the distance between England and your country is great, and the journey occupies much time and, moreover, the workmen in her dominions are at present much employed.”
Sahle Sellase’s interest in foreign craftsmen did not extend to all foreigners. The Protestant missionary Krapf was informed by the sovereign in 1839, for example, that “he did not need spiritual teachers so much as doctors, masons, smiths, etc. “The missionaries therefore laboured under considerable difficulties, and were later excluded from the country. In 1843, S P. Haines, the British Political Agent in Aden reported that the king had “interdicted the return of the missionaries,” and added: “The cause of the King of Showa interdicting missionaries from entering his territory, is owing to the power of the Priesthood there, who considered the Reverend Gentlemen have interfered with the religion of their forefathers.” Krapf himself subscribed to this view, and exclaims with irritation: “It was mainly the bigoted priests and monks who tried to inspire the King with a distrust of foreigners. The priests were angry with me especially, because they thought that I had induced the King to allow the admission of the English and their presents.”