<< Back to all articles
Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
08. From Tewodros to Yohannes
We saw last week that Tewodros, anxious to obtain foreign craftsmen from the British Government, succeeded in getting some employed, and sent as far as the port of Massawa. The Emperor’s continued imprisonment of the British however, led to a break-down of friendly relations. Now read on:
The Craftsmen Return to Britain
Because of this break-down the British Government arranged for the craftsmen at Massawa to sail home on May 11, 1867, and plans were soon made to send an expedition against Theodore to force him to his knees.
The Emperor’s desire for craftsmen, however, continued until the last minute. It is not without significance that his final letter, written on the eve of his death, to the British Commander, Sir Robert Napier, when he thought that he had reconciled himself with the British, contained the pathetic words: “Now that we are friends you must not leave me without artisans, as I am a lover of the mechanical arts.”
Innovations Not Only on Matters Military
Tewodros’s interest in innovation, it may be noted, was not only confined to matters military. It can be seen in at least two other fields: the sending of messages in written form, and the acceptance of the Bible in Amharic.
Traditionally, it had been the practice for Ethiopian rulers to send their commands almost entirely by word of mouth. However, as early as June, 1855, the British Consul, Walter Plowden, reported that Tewodros had “begun to substitute letters for verbal messages.”
As far as the Bible was concerned, it had in Ethiopia always been read in Ge’ez, the classical and religious language of the country, and not in Amharic, the vernacular. Abuna Salama, the head of the Church, is said to have been much opposed to the appearance of the Amharic translation produced by European missionaries. According to Canton, the historian of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the prelate “would not touch a copy in Amharic, a profane tongue”. Tewodros, on the other hand, was quite enthusiastic about the translation. The Protestant missionary Martin Flad states that the monarch, referring to the Ge’ez version, once exclaimed, “Why do you bring such books which nobody understands ? The translation is much better.”
Tewodros seems to have also encouraged the local translation of the Bible. One volume of an Amharic translation of the Gospels, produced under his auspices, is to be seen in the British Library – part of the loot seized at Maqdala by the British expedition of 1867-8.
Vaccination, a Box Organ, and a Grinding Mill
Despite such interest in innovation, Tewodros does not seem to have been nearly so enamored of inventions outside the military field. Plowden spoke to him, in June 1856, about vaccination, but, though the ruler replied that he would be “happy” to see it introduced, no concrete steps were in fact taken. This may, however, have been because the vaccines of that time could not survive transportation through hot places, such as Massawa or Matamma.
Later, when the British Consul, Cameron, gave him a box organ, Tewodros is said to have remarked, “What’s the good of you Europeans bringing me these nonsensical things?” This, curiously, was an observation later echoed by Menilek a generation later. Dufton, who reports Tewodros’s remark, aptly comments that one or two small fieldpieces, some stands of arms, a few barrels of gunpowder, or a quantity of percussion caps would have pleased the sovereign more.
On another occasion the Egyptian ecclesiastic, Abuna Salama, produced a mill for grinding corn, but the Emperor, who viewed the cleric with an unfavourable eye, is said to have exclaimed, “This invention is bad. If machines are used to grind grain, what shall we do with the arms of the women ?”
When Plowden proposed, on behalf of the British Government, that a British Consulate be established in Ethiopia, Tewodros replied, in June, 1855, “I cannot consent to a Consulate, as I find in the history of our institutions no such thing.” Two years later, in April, 1857, the monarch reverted to the same argument, exclaiming, “I will not receive a Consul – an institution foreign to the institutions of my nation.”
Such incidents and remarks must, however, be at least partially discounted by the fact that Cameron and Abuna Salama had both, on entirely different grounds, incurred Tewodros’s displeasure. There is moreover reason to suppose in the case of the proposed Consulate that it might have restricted, or led in due course, to a restriction on the Emperor’s sovereignty.
An Essentially Conservative Society
Theodore’s reign, it may be concluded, witnessed a number of serious attempts at innovation, almost entirely in the military or semi-military sphere. Though the Emperor’s spirit and determination may have served as example to later rulers, such as Menilek and Takla Haymanot, his achievements were cut short by his untimely death, so that his experiments failed to take root in what was in his day a still essentially conservative society.
If it had not been for British lack of cooperation, and the subsequent Napier expedition, it is quite possible that Tewodros might have achieved the innovations for which he yearned.
Emperor Yohannes (1872-1889) , to whom we now must turn, was in many ways more conservative than his predecessor, but by no means wholly so, for he too was interested in a degree of innovation. Modernisation during his reign was, however, seriously circumscribed by major foreign invasions, by the Egyptians in the 1870s, and later, in the 1880, by the Dervishes, and the Italians.
The conservative side of Yohannes, which was in some instances fully justified, may be illustrated in such varied directions as his attitude to foreign missionaries, tobacco smoking, European dress, imported Bibles, and to some extent road building.
Dislike of Foreign Missionaries
The Emperor’s dislike of European missionaries was apparently more marked than that of any other Ethiopian ruler of modern times. The story is told by the Italian traveller Gustavo Bianchi that on the arrival of a party of Swedish missionaries Yohannes asked them, “Are there Jews in your country ?” “Yes, Your Majesty,” the visitors replied. “And through what country did you pass to reach mine?, ” he asked. “We went through Egyptian territory”, they responded. “Then why,” he exclaimed, “did you not stay in your own country or in Egypt to baptise the people there ? We have no need of this here.”
Yohannes reverted to more or less the same argument in a conversation with the English traveller William Winstanley. To the latter the Emperor remarked that the British, with all their commitments in Egypt, would be better occupied in inculcating Christianity in that Muslim country than in Ethiopia, which had already been converted to Christianity over a millennium earlier. “Foreigners,” he declared, “I cannot say I love or trust, but I owe much to the English and your Queen (Victoria) is, I know, a sincere Christian. Why do foreign nations come here Christianizing Christians? They make trouble in my country, and are not wanted. Are there no men who are pagans to be converted? In the history of my nation, the preachers of foreign religions have filled a bloody and disastrous page. We are Christians like yourselves, with different forms: you represent a Mussulman government, and I find western nations profess a great interest in Egypt. Why do not your western missionaries convert these, your friends, to Christianity ?”
Good questions these, dear reader, you must admit!
Attitude to Muslim Egypt
Holding such dislike of missionaries of similar faith, it is not surprising that Yohannes should have refused to have any contact with Muslim Egypt. The missionary Flad relates that the Egyptian Khedive Ismail had entrusted him with a message to the Emperor, to which the latter had proudly, if not so diplomatically, replied:
“Tell the Viceroy of Egypt, I am a Christian and do not desire friendship with a Moslem. My country’s boundary is Jerusalem, and as soon as I am master of Abyssinia and have conquered all my enemies I will conquer Egypt and Jerusalem.”
Tewodros could have spoken no more forcefully!
Attitude to Smoking
The antagonism of Yohannes to smoking, which can be traced back to the later 1860’s, before his Coronation, may have been intensified by the fact that the custom was probably on the increase, on account of growing contacts with countries where the practice was common.
Under the influence of the priests Yohannes forbade his subjects from either smoking or taking snuff. According to British reports he decreed that a person indulging in either vice would be beaten, on the first offense, and that repetition of it would result in amputation of the mouth, in the case of smoking, and of the nose in that of persons taking snuff.
These punishments, according to the Greek Consul Mitsakis, were proclaimed to underline the Emperor’s abhorrence of tobacco, but were not in fact carried out. The German botanist Wilhelm Schimper, who was also an eye-witness, agrees that the said punishments were not actually enforced.
The lenience which lay behind the Emperor’s edict is confirmed by the British traveller Augustus B. Wylde. He declares that “on some four or five occasions men caught smoking and snuffing in or near the precincts of the royal palaces… had their lips and nose scarified so as, until the slight wound was healed, they could not use tobacco.”
An element of toleration may also be seen from the fact, likewise recorded by Wylde, that Yohannes never prohibited Europeans from using tobacco, and “repeatedly told them that if they wished to smoke in his presence they might.” The same observer relates that a nobleman of Adwa, Lij Mertcha, on one occasion actually took out his silver snuffbox at court, and “was going to help himself, quite forgetting he was in the King’s presence. His Majesty said, ‘Not before me, Ledj Mertcha, whatever you may do before others,’ and the box went back into his pocket very quickly.” Wylde appears to recognise that change was in the air for he concludes that Yohannes could no more prevent people from indulging in tobacco when out of his presence than he could stop them eating or drinking.