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Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
07. Tewodros, as Innovator: Cannon, Roads, Boats – and Foreign Craftsmen
We saw last week that Tewodros was not only a cannonmaker, but also a road-builder. Now read on:
The strategic significance of Tewodros’s roads is apparent from the chronicle of Alaqa Walda Maryam, which contains several revealing passages. It records that when the Emperor’s big locally-made cannon was carried to Chachaho, some 60 miles south of Gafat, it became necessary to undertake considerable blasting of the road to enable it to proceed. The quaint, but detailed, description of these operations given in the chronicle is indicative of the surprise with which they were regarded by the traditionally-minded Ethiopian author. “They broke down the hillocks,” he writes, “and levelled them like the plain; then they bored holes in one to three places in the great stones on the road, so that you could put your finger in, and filled them up with powder of the English that they call in Amharic, in Shoa, dahera [i.e. gunpowder]; then setting a match the stone was broken up, and when it was made level like a plain they continued their march, and went on making the whole road in this way.”
Ethiopia’s First Modern Road
Ethiopia’s first modern road, built by Tewodros, with help from the Protestant missionaries, impressed all observers. Captain Hozier, who called it “a grand feat of rude engineering,” declares:
“rocks had been hurled aside or blasted through at an immense expense of labour and of time; the gradient was uniform but very steep.”
Markham’s comment is not dissimilar: the road, he said, was: “a most remarkable work – a monument of dogged and unconquerable resolution . . . From early dawn until dark the Europeans were obliged to be in attendance on this extraordinary man, whose resolute determination to overcome all obstacles never failed him. Well might the German missionary exclaim, ‘He had indeed an iron perseverance !’”
A Grass-Green Hay Cart
Tewodros’s desire to innovate in the transport field caused the Ethiopian people to see things never before witnessed in their history. Foreign travellers for example describe a grass-green hay cart which was designed and constructed at the Emperor’s command by the German missionary Mayer, and was pulled far and wide by four mules. Flad says that the people regarded it with wonder, but that their surprise declined when it had to be taken to pieces because of lack of roads and bridges for it to run on.
And A Great Boat on Lake Tana
No less fantastic to the traditionally-oriented was Tewodros’s efforts to build a fleet of boats on Lake Tana. He asked his foreign craftsmen to start boat-building, but they replied that they lacked the necessary skill. “Seeing that everyone seemed reluctant to help him,” records Blanc, “he went to work himself; he made an immense flat-bottomed bulrush boat of great thickness, and to propel it made two large wheels worked by hand: in fact he had invented a paddle steamer, only the locomotive agent was deficient. We saw it several times on the water; the wheels were rather high up and it required at least a hundred men on it to make them dip sufficiently.”
This account is confirmed by the British envoy Hormuzd Rassam. He records that for nearly a month in April, 1866, “Theodore was engaged in building what he called an imitation of a steamer. Two large boats, 60 ft. long and 20 ft. wide, midships, with wooden decks, and a couple of wheels affixed to the sides of each, to be turned by a handle like that attached to a common grindstone, were accordingly constructed; but although nearly 100 men were taken on board, the wheels were only immersed about 4 in. The day they were launched he invited the members of the Mission to witness the experiment, and the vessel in which he had embarked moved so rapidly after the bulrushes had got well soaked, which made it subside deeper into the water, that he seemed frantic with joy, whilst the natives looked on with admiring wonder. He did not take us with him on the trial ship, because, as he sent to tell us, he feared the ship might sink so deep that we should get wet. He proceeded to try how the vessel would behave against the wind, and on rounding the peninsula encountered a strong breeze, which soon convinced him of the futility of his attempt. The incongruous materials of which the boat was constructed, one elastic and the other the opposite – no effort having been made to ensure an equal pressure upon them from without – began to give way after a little tossing, and his Majesty deemed it prudent to return as speedily as possible to the smooth water of the bay. From that time he appears to have abandoned all idea of building a royal navy.”
Many of Tewodros’s other reforms were less in the nature of innovations than of attempts to restore old institutions, which had disappeared during what he regarded as an earlier period of decadence. Thus, besides attempting to re-establish the traditional powers of the Emperor, which had declined during the reign of the masafint, or princes, he endeavoured to suppress the slave trade, and to discourage polygamy and concubinage. According to Plowden, he also began “to reform even the dress of Abyssinia, all about his person wearing loose flowing trousers, and upper – and undervests”, instead of “the half-naked costume introduced by the Gallas,” i.e. by the Oromo Yajju dynasty, which he had ousted.
Tewodros, like many of his predecessors, was most anxious to attract foreign craftsmen to his country. This was recognised by Consul Plowden as early as July 25, 1853, when he reported to the British Foreign Office that Kasa, i.e. the future Emperor, appeared “disposed to encourage strangers.” Two days later the Consul added that the chief had shown in his reception of Europeans that “he values them and their arts far more highly than any other Abyssinian chief has lately been disposed to do.”
Though Theodore, as we have seen, made considerable use of missionaries, who served him in casting cannon and building roads, he later appealed on several occasions to the British Government to send him proper professional craftsmen. On November 2, 1862, for example the British Consul, Cameron, urged his Government to send the Emperor “medical men and an engineer,” and argued that they would be “highly appreciated and retained.” Not long afterwards Emperor Napoleon Ill of France sent the Ethiopian ruler a French physician, by name Legard.
The question of craftsmen came up again a few years later in 1856. The Swiss missionary Theophilus Waldmeier quotes Tewodros as making the revealing, if over-critical, declaration that his compatriots were “uncultivated, uneducated and in all things stupid, wild, blind and like donkeys.” On April 17, he wrote a letter to the British envoy, Hormuzd Rassam, which re-echoed the requests of earlier rulers. In it he declared:
“My Desire is…”
“My desire is that you should send to Her Majesty the Queen and obtain for me a man who can make cannons and muskets, and one who can smelt iron, and an instructor of artillery. I want these people to come here with their instruments and everything necessary for their work, and then they shall teach us and return. By the power of God, forward this request to England.”
On the following day Rassam reported that the Emperor had spoken “about obtaining for him two or three men who could teach his people to make cannons, muskets and shot, and how to melt iron; also an instructor of artillery.”
Martin Flad Almost Succeeds
Later in the year Martin Flad, one of the missionaries, was sent by Tewodros to England with instructions to engage two gunsmiths, an artillery officer, an iron founder, one or two boat-builders, and a cart and wheelwright. The missionary was also given a letter from the sovereign which stated:
“I send Mr. Flad to Europe because I am in want of skilful artists. All those workmen who would like to come to my country, rejoicing in their coming, I shall receive them with great honour, and give them good pay for their services. If they wish to remain in my country, I shall make them most happy. But, if they after having teached my people their arts for some years, wish to return to their country, I shall, through the power of God, give them a splendid pay, and with great honour I shall send them back to their country.”
Flad’s mission reached the very brink of success. The workmen were engaged, with the help of the British Government, and set sail for Massawa, only to be detained at the port because Tewodros’s detention of Cameron, Rassam and the missionaries had by then caused the British Government to lose confidence in his intentions.
Undeterred by this failure he continued to clamour for foreign workmen. On January 5, 1867, he wrote again to Rassam appealing in Biblical vein for Queen Victoria to help him, as King Hiram of Tyre had helped Solomon in building the Temple.
“Now,” he wrote, “in order to prove the good relationship between me and yourself, let it be shown by your writing and getting the skilful artisans and Mr. Flad to come, via Matamma. This will be a sign of friendship . . . Even Solomon, the son of David, the great King, God’s created being and slave, when he wished to build the Temple in Jerusalem, was perplexed (about finding skilful artisans). Falling at the feet of Hiram of Tyre, he begged him for carpenters and skilful artisans, who assisted him in building the Temple… As Solomon fell at the feet of Hiram, so I, under God, fall at the feet of the Queen, and her Government, and her friends. I wish you to get them (the skilful artisans) via Matamma, in order that they may teach me wisdom, and show me clever arts. When this is done, I shall make you glad, and send you away, by the power of God.”
Rassam forwarded this request to London, but gave it as his own view, and that of his fellow captives, that “the sooner the crisis comes the better for us.”
These words meant the beginning of the Maqdala war.