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Series: Innovation and Change
06. Emperor Tewodros as Innovator: Cannon and Roads
Ethiopia’s first great innovating monarch was, it is generally agreed, Emperor Tewodros, or Theodore II (1855-1868). The British writer Clements Markham referred to him as no less than the “most remarkable man” of nineteenth century Africa. Likening him to Peter the Great of Russia, he added: “They were both born kings of men, both endowed with military genius, both lovers of the mechanical arts; both possessed of dauntless courage.”
The Strategico-Military Field
Tewodros’s innovating genius, though remarkable for its intensity and determination, was nonetheless largely restricted, like the modernising interests of previous rulers, to the strategico-military field. His innovations were thus mainly in such matters as the reorganisation of the army, the casting of cannon, the construction of carriages upon which to transport these weapons, the building of roads for such wheeled artillery and so forth.
Almost the first evidence of Tewodros’s innovating interest is be found in a report for July 25, 1853, by the British Consul, Walter Plowden. It states that Tewodros (still at that time known as Kasa) had, “with the assistance of some Turks, in a degree disciplined his army.”
In a subsequent report of July 9 of the following year Plowden stated that Kasa had “taught his soldiers some discipline”.
In yet another report, dated June 25, 1855, the good consul explained that Tewodros had adopted the practice of paying his troops, in an effort to eradicate the traditional system whereby soldiers were expected to requisition, or loot, whatever they needed from the population at large. “In the common soldiers,” Plowden says, “he has effected a great reform, by paying them, and ordering them to purchase their food, but in no way to harass and plunder the peasant as before.”
The Emperor’s object was nothing less than the replacement of old time levies by a regular army with a single national loyalty, fixed salaries and equipment based almost exclusively on fire-arms. In his effort to build up such an army, Plowden says, the Emperor “created generals in place of feudal chieftains more proud of their own birth than of their monarch”, and “organised a new nobility, a legion of honour dependent on himself, and chosen specially for their daring and fidelity.” In this way, Plowden declares, the ambitious monarch “began the arduous task of breaking the power of the great feudal chiefs – a task achieved in Europe only during the reigns of many consecutive Kings.”
The Emperor, according to the British traveller Henry Dufton, was also “much in favour of adopting European discipline.” For that reason, while still a minor chief, he had employed a certain Dominico, who was half Italian and half Greek, to assist him in military matters.
Later, on becoming Emperor, Tewodros placed a thousand men under the command of his English adviser, John Bell, who was ordered to train them. At this point, however, the traditional conservatism of the society asserted itself, for the soldiers, we are told, expressed such discontent at the discipline expected of them – “Left, Right, Left, Right”, etc. – that the scheme had to be abandoned, though the resolute Emperor later supervised part of the training himself.
Tewodros’s attempts at manufacturing cannon were even more remarkable. Debtera Zaneb, one of the two main Ethiopian chroniclers of the reign, tells the story that as early as 1853 Theodore tried to make a cannon by boring a tree trunk and reinforcing it with iron. Though the result was, as might be expected, a failure, the attempt was by no means insignificant, particularly in view of later events.
In 1855, the year of his coronation, Tewodros received a letter from the Protestant Bishop of Jerusalem, Samuel Gobat, a Swiss, offering to send him a group of young missionaries, who had received technical training at the Chrischona Institute near Basle, in Switzerland. The monarch’s reply was characteristic. He declared that Gobat’s letter “pleases me, and I wish him to send me three artisans, namely, a gunmaker, a palace builder and a book printer.”
The Missionaries Arrive
In due course a party of missionaries arrived. They brought Tewodros gifts of religious books, but, as he later acknowledged to his English friend, John Bell, he “would have been more pleased with a box of English gunpowder than, as he said, with books he already possessed.” He nonetheless treated the party kindly, and established them at Gafat, a hill not far from his capital at Debra Tabor. Dufton records: “Things went smoothly for some time until one day orders came from His Majesty to the effect that he wished them to commence the construction of mortars and bombshells. The order came upon them like the bursting of a bomb itself, for none of them had ever had an idea that they would have been required to undertake work of that description. They, of course, demurred, informing the King that, not having learnt the founding of cannon, they were totally unprepared to enter an engagement of that description . . .”
Tewodros, being unable to import arms because of the Turkish blockade at Massawa, nevertheless insisted on his request, and imprisoned the missionaries’ servants until their masters consented to carry out his will.
Promised to Try
“In their perplexity,” Dufton continues, “they could not do otherwise than promise to try. Only one of them, Herr Moritz [a man of Polish origin], could be said to have the slightest acquaintance with the work at all, and his knowledge only extended to the formation of the mould; the clay to be used in the construction of the firebricks; the formation of the furnace; the proportion of the metals, and the making of the fuse being equally unknown to him as to the rest. However, by putting their heads together, and seeking information from books, they eventually managed to turn out something. What? A mass of vitreous matter formed by the melting of the fine sand of the bricks; the metal refused to flow. Their only resource was to try again; and away they went over the country to seek better fire-brick clay, and now another venture was made. The result was a flow of metal that came pouring out in a molten stream now, and all hearts are hopeful that at last the object is gained; but alas! the metal had stopped, and the mould was only half full. They tried again. To the inexpressible joy of these persevering men, and to the intense joy of the King himself, their wishes are accomplished, and Debra Tabor for the first time saw the balls soaring up into the air and bursting with a loud crash which made the hills resound with a hundred echoes.”
The difficulties involved in this kind of technological innovation may be seen from the fact that Tewodros’s craftsmen melted their metal in thirty or so crucibles, using hand bellows of the most primitive traditional type consisting only of skins. Because of the low repute with which manual work was traditionally regarded by Amharas, most of the operations were entrusted to Falashas and Oromos, many of whom were accustomed to handicraft work in some ways similar to that in hand. Several hundred Ethiopians were in due course trained to the work, which was, of course, largely outside their experience, and there was even an idea of sending some of them abroad for study in England or France.
The largest of the guns produced at Tewodros’s command was called “Sebastopol”, after the then recent great battle in the Crimean War. The weapon was capable of firing a 1,000 pound shell. “Sebastapol” was said to weigh at least 70 tons, and, according to the British envoy Rassam, required as many as 500 people to pull it uphill. “It was unquestionably a wonderful piece of ordnance for its size”, he says, “and more wonderful still was the workmanship of his Majesty’s European artisans, who had no experience of casting cannon.”
The Emperor subsequently declared that the day of its casting was one of the happiest of his life. His subjects, however, did not necessarily fully share his enthusiasm. Flad asserts that the missionaries were “much hated” by the Ethiopians, who complained that the King was spending so much money on copper, zinc and tools.
Tewodros’s road building, as already suggested, was essentially conceived of in military terms. It was none the less of wider importance, as the construction of roads in Ethiopia was traditionally almost unknown. The work, as in the case of the cannon-making, was largely based on improvisation. Opposition to innovation, and the age-old dislike of manual labour, were both broken down by the Emperor’s boundless energy and determination.
The French pseudo-traveller, Emile Jonveaux, who claims to have visited Theodore at this time, found him, “clothed very simply”, working with pick-axe and hammer, like the lowest of his workmen, to encourage them by his example. “From early dawn to late at night,” writes one of his sometime prisoners, Henry Blanc, “Theodore was himself at work; with his own hands he removed the stones, leveled the ground, or helped to fill up small ravines. No one could leave so long as he was there himself, no one would think of eating, drinking, or of rest while the Emperor showed the example and shared the hardships.”