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Series: Innovation and Change
05. Some Conservative Attitudes of the Past
The conservative character of traditional Ethiopian life, which we are considering in these articles, found expression in the opposition of the Ethiopian Church to the use of tobacco and coffee.
“Enemies of the Church”
Tobacco and coffee might have been expected to have spread widely in the Christian areas of the country, as in the other provinces, had not the priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church taken resolute action to prevent it. Though a theological case was developed against both tobacco and coffee the underlying reason for their opposition would appear to be the essentially conservative one that their use had first been adopted by either Muslims or “animists”, i.e. “pagans” as they used to be termed. The basic reason, as the French scholar A. Caquot put it, was that both articles “belonged to the enemies of the monophysite church.”
In the nature of things the Christian areas of the country were the most isolated. Innovations coming from abroad therefore tended to reach non-Christian lands, before those inhabited by Christians. The latter could therefore dismiss almost anything new on the ground that it had been accepted by others, and was therefore alien to their own culture. This was so to speak a built-in institution of conservatism.
“The Plant of Setatira”
Christian antagonism to smoking is manifested in a Ge’ez manuscript of uncertain date entitled the “Dersana Raguel”, or Homily in Honour of the Archangel Raguel. It refers to tobacco by the mysterious term “plant of Setatira.” The document, as Caquot says,
“makes vigorous protest against the adoption of pagan practices by the Christians of Ethiopia. The most abominable of these practices, the one whose condemnation recurs on almost every page of the text, is the use of tobacco, without doubt because this practice belonged also to the enemies of the monophysite church.”
“Poisoned by the Devil”
The document presents its opposition to tobacco in pseudo- historical terms, by telling of a prophecy supposedly made by the Archangel Raguel to King Lebna Dengel when the latter was confronted by the invasion of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim, now better known as Gragn, or the Left-Handed. The text claims that the Archangel called tobacco “more impure than hyena’s flesh “, as well as a plant “poisoned by the devil.”
Raguel was also supposed to have prophesised victory for the rulers of Ethiopia, but to have warned them that the gravest possible danger would result from any compromise with tobacco. He supposedly declared that if the rulers of the country were “lovers of the plant of Setatira” they would be “prevented from triumphing” over their enemies. “Instead our God will cut them to pieces at the least pretext”, by placing in the hand of the enemy “the sword of malediction”. And the text continues:
“If the King [i.e. Lebna Dengel] does not renounce smoking the plant of Setatira the priests of Ethiopia will be exterminated by war and famine, his kingdom will not be soon restored, and he will not lack tribulation among the priests and princes in every land . . .”
On the other hand:
“if the King excludes from the Church those who love the plant of Setatira his kingdom will be restored and he will govern the whole world, not only Ethiopia, but also Egypt and Rome.”
A great prophecy this, on any showing!
“A Demon responsible”
Another manuscript, apparently written at the same time, also contains a critique of tobacco. This document, entitled “History of Gragn and of the Gallas”, claims that a demon was responsible for popularising the practice of smoking among what it terms the Gallas, i.e. the Oromos in modern parlance, and added that the practice incited pride, debauchery and idolatry in all who adopted it.
Lebna Dengel and his subjects, according to this text, subsequently learnt the custom of smoking from the Gallas, i.e. Oromos, with the result that the King became “inordinately proud”, even going to the extent of praying for a war so that he could have enemies to defeat. The Echage, or chief of the monks, was reportedly very worried. However, a group of Egyptian and other foreign Christians (damn them!) declared that, though they had abandoned idolatry in their own country, they nonetheless permitted smoking.
Fortified by this information Lebna Dengel is said to have ordered that any priest prohibiting the use of tobacco should be punished. When they heard this, it is claimed, “all the priests began to smoke”. One monk of Debra Metmaq was even supposed to have taken tobacco while celebrating Mass, but, the text asserts, was thereupon struck dead as a punishment for this offense. (A punishment he obviously much deserved!)
“Growing on the Grave of Arius”
Traditional condemnation of the use of tobacco, which, as we see it, was very largely conservative in character, was deeply ingrained in Ethiopian society. The late nineteenth century French traveller Jules Borelli came across the legend that smoking was forbidden because the plant had grown on the tomb of Arius.
For his own part, however, Borelli believed that the real reason for the prohibition was that smoking was practiced by the Gallas, i.e. Oromos, during their tribal assemblies which sometimes preceded political disturbance.
Borelli’s twentieth century compatriot, the ethnographer Marcel Griaule, later picked up an entirely different tradition. It held that there was a widespread belief that the plant should be pulled up, because when Christ was crucified it was the only living thing that did not wither, in shame.
Opposition to tobacco in the first part of the nineteenth century was in fact widely established throughout the Ethiopian highlands. Hatred of the plant was expressed not only by the Christian population, but also by the Falashas, who, according to the German missionary Martin Flad, were “strictly forbidden” from smoking, and could not enter their temples if they took snuff.
Opposition to Coffee Drinking
Opposition to the drinking of coffee was also very intense in many parts of Ethiopia, particularly in Shoa, which lay on the borders of lands inhabited by coffee drinking peoples. The German missionary J.L. Krapf, reporting in the 1840’s, stated that the priests would not allow the drinking of this beverage. He claimed that this was partly because the beverage was drunk by the Gallas, or Oromos, in their non-Christian festivities, and partly “in opposition to the Mohammedans.” The British envoy Cornwallis Harris likewise observed that the cultivation of coffee trees was “strictly interdicted” to Christians, as “savouring too strongly” of the Muslims. Another British traveller of this time, Douglas Graham, notes that he and a party of his compatriots were “considered Muslims” because of their practice of drinking coffee and smoking tobacco.
The element of conservatism, which we are discussing in these articles, also found expression, historically, in a certain initial reluctance on the part of Shoa Amharas to adopt Oromo or Gurage, items of diet. Thus the above cited “Amharic History of Gragn and of the Gallas” whose author, as we have seen, was most conservative, arguing that the qencha of the Oromos, i.e. a kind of mash made of boiled barley and butter, when eaten by the Amharas, led to “pride, debauchery and idolatory”, in exactly the same way as did the smoking of tobacco. The same document also included an indictment of what it regarded as other “Galla practices”, such as the chewing of the narcotic chat, the anointing of persons with blood, and the decoration of horses with amulets.
The conservatism of this period is, however, apparent in areas of activity which cannot be explained in terms of fear, distrust, or dislike, of neighbours.
There is abundant evidence to show that many early nineteenth century Ethiopians for example maintained a very conservative attitude to the sword. Importers were in general in agreement that this weapon could only be assured of a ready sale if it was of the traditional type, i.e. curved and without a hilt. Swords differing from the norm, the traders learnt to their cost, were by no means popular, and found virtually no sale at all.
Amoles, Salt bars, or Maria Theresa Dollars
No less revealing, perhaps, was the popular attitude to money, the embodiment of wealth. Notwithstanding the inconveniences of such items of “primitive money”, as the “amole”, or bar of salt, the introduction of the Maria Theresa dollar in the early nineteenth century was a most difficult affair.
When the British traveller Henry Salt visited Antalo, the capital of Tigray, in 1805, he tried to obtain some dollars with the aid of credit, but was told by the ruler, Ras Walde Sellassie, that Antalo was a town of:
“cattle, bread and honey; why do you want money? There is none to be had here . . . everything that you may want, you shall have, till you are safe at Massawa.”
A generation or so later it is recorded that a chieftain of Shoa offered a horse for sale. The price agreed upon was two hundred pieces of salt. So many pieces not being readily available the purchaser sent the equivalent in dollars, whereupon the chief replied, in most conservative terms, “I have kept your silver because you have sent it; but in future when I sell you a horse, I shall expect you to pay me in salt.”
Behind these stories lies the considerable suspicion with which the Maria Theresa dollar was regarded, in large measure at least because it was new. Foreign travellers of the early nineteenth century are unanimous in declaring that the Ethiopian public would only accept the new currency after the most minute scrutiny, particularly of the ornament on the queen’s effigy. The English surgeon Charles Johnston for example states that when a dollar was offered in payment it would be “at first well scrubbed with the fingers, then spat upon, followed by a good rub in the hair, and very probably, after all, the coin is handed back with a sagacious shake of the head, as much as to say, ‘I am not going to be done in that way.’”