<< Back to all articles
Articles in this series:
Series: Innovation and Change
09. Emperor Yohannes, Conservative, but also Innovative
We saw last week how Emperors Tewodros and Yohannes were both, in identical or different ways, concerned with the question of modernisation. Now read on:”Do Not Wear Shoes!”
Emperor Yohannes’s dislike of European-sponsored innovation, the subject of last week’s article, was further manifested when two young Ethiopians, Mika’el Aragawi and Ageje Sachlu, who had been educated abroad by missionaries, arrived at his court, wearing shoes. He is reported to have dismissed them from his presence with the words, “If you appear again before me, come barefoot; we Ethiopians do not wear shoes; dress yourselves according to the custom of the land.”
The Dangers of Road-Building
Yohannes seems to have had little desire to follow in Tewodros’s footsteps as a road builder. The German traveller Gerhard Rohlfs sadly remarked that the latter Emperor was more interested in the construction of churches than means of communication. The Earl of Mayo likewise reported that the Emperor’s British adviser, John Kirkham, expressed regret that his royal master was not interested in road building, and preferred to “keep his money hoarded up.”
It should not be forgotten, however, that the danger of invasion by the Egyptians, and later by the Italians, was so great as to render the building of roads in some ways a dangerous enterprise. Improved communications at this time would in all probability have been of greater service to an invader than to the forces of defence, who were accustomed to travelling over difficult terrain. This, at least, was the view of Augustus B. Wylde, who, describing the road inland from Massawa, observes: “The Ethiopians chose not to improve it for political reasons,” and he adds, “I suppose they are right.”
There can be no denying that Ethiopia’s technical backwardness, then and later, was largely the result of war; that Ethiopia’s wars at this time were essentially defensive; and that the various invaders, European, Egyptian, and Dervish, were therefore responsible for the country’s lack of development.
The Amharic Bible
Emperor Yohannes was also less sympathetic than Tewodros to the innovation of the imported printed Amharic Bible. It is reported that Yohannes once said to the missionaries, “I am tired of your books.” On at least one occasion he is said to have given permission for them to be burnt.
European-Type Umbrellas: A Status Symbol!
European-type umbrellas, which made their debut at this time, evoked a curious response. They were accepted by the well-to-do with alacrity. The consequence was that they acquired the position of status symbols, with the result that they could only be used by persons of note. The common people, we are told, were at first forbidden from carrying them.
Fire-Arms and Military Training
Notwithstanding his conservative attitudes under discussion Yohannes was by no means averse to all innovations. On the contrary, he shared the traditional interest of Ethiopian rulers in importing fire-arms. He also endeavoured to open up a trade route to Assab, which the modern Italian writer Carlo Zaghi describes as “a road to import cannon-balls.”
Yohannes also employed the above-mentioned Englishman, John Kirkham, to train his army, in much the same way as Tewodros had used the services of another Englishman, John Bell, a decade or so earlier. The British traveller De Cosson, who visited the country at this time, notes that he was “not a little astonished” to hear the commands “present arms”, “shoulder arms”, “right and left turn”, and “quick march”, clearly pronounced by an Ethiopian lieutenant in English.
The training, however, was soon abandoned, like that of Tewodros before it, for the Ethiopian cadets rejected the discipline involved. De Cosson learnt from Kirkham that the latter had endeavoured to train 2,000 men: “But could not keep them steadily at drill for any length of time, as they said they would rather be put to death at once than work so hard.”
Foreign Military Advisers: Greek, French, Hungarian…
Despite his alleged dislike of foreigners, Yohannes also employed others in his army. They included a Swiss called Louis, and at least three Greeks, Solomonides, Nicholas and Ghiorgis. The Emperor also made use of the services of a Frenchman, Jean Baraglion, who was kept busy repairing his guns. He was in such demand that, like earlier foreigners in Ethiopia, he was not allowed to leave the country.
Yohannes also had an Hungarian armourer, called Andre, who made artificial limbs. He charged ten Maria Theresa thalers per limb, but was also received from his patients gifts of grain, honey and meat. It is said that when people first saw the limbs he had made they could not believe their eyes.
Yohannes in Quest of Foreign Craftsmen
Yohannes also shared his predecessor’s ambition of importing skilled craftsmen. He was moreover the first Ethiopian ruler to send to Europe a diplomatic mission composed of Ethiopians, and to appoint a permanent Consul abroad. The latter was an Englishman called Henry King, who was made Honorary Consul in London. In a letter written as early as 1870 Yohannes observed, “I should like that somebody would come out to me who might teach any arts of wisdom.”
The Emperor’s envoys were later quoted as stating that they were “very anxious to induce English Engineers and Artisans to go to Abyssinia.” They added that such craftsmen would be “well received,” and that the Ethiopians were also “anxious of obtaining the services of people clever at working mines,” for, though the country produced many minerals, “owing to their ignorance of the proper method of working the mines they get but little from them.”
This request, like that of Tewodros a few years earlier, fell on deaf ears.
The Greek Physician Parisis, and the Italian Builder Naretti
In the medical field Yohannes followed the practice of previous Ethiopian monarchs in entrusting his health to a foreigner, in this case a Greek physician, Dr. Parisis.
Yohannes likewise employed an Italian, Giacomo Naretti, to build him a very remarkable stone palace at Maqale, and in this way followed the old Ethiopian tradition of using foreigners for the erection of palaces.
An even more remarkable fact was that the Emperor’s desire for military reorganisation caused him to give his support to the idea of mechanical mills, though there is no evidence that these were in fact ever introduced. In 1870 he was nevertheless quoted by the French Consul, Munzinger, as declaring, “I wish to introduce mills instead of the army of women which encumbers us now and ruins the country.”
Ato Getahun Gasse, Yohannes, and the Breaking Down of Privileges
Yohannes was also responsible for a remarkable innovation in weakening the traditional system of privilege, which restricted to the nobility the killing of cattle, and the drinking of “taj”, or mead. The story is told, by the Ethiopian scholar Alaqa Lamma Haylu, that, during the reign of Yohannes, a certain farmer called Getahun Gasse, of Dabra Maqet, became rich, through farming, cattle rearing, and the production of honey. On one occasion he decided to hold a feast in honour of the nearby Church of St. Mary. He accordingly ordered that cattle should be slaughtered, and ‘taj” prepared, though he did not belong to a class entitled to do so. The peasants of the area were all invited, and there was much merriment. One of the feasters, however, later travelled to the Emperor’s court, at Dabra Tabor, and complained that Getahun had held a feast permitted only to noblemen.
Yohannes ordered Getahun to be apprehended, and brought before him. After the charge was stated, the defendant was allowed to reply. “I farm extensively”, he declared, “so I have much grain; since my forests are good for bees, I have plenty of honey; my land is large so I have many cows and oxen. I do not sell all my produce as I have enough money. If I store the grain it will be eaten by the “naqaz”, i.e. worms. The honey and butter will go bad, and the cattle will become to numerous for the land available. Considering all these facts I decided to hold a banquet in honour of the Church, for the priests and congregation, I have not killed cattle, or prepared “taj” for my own use!”
The nobles of Tegray were much opposed to Getahun’s pleading. “In the time of our fathers and grandfathers,” they said, “persons found with ‘taj’ in their houses were deprived of their land. Persons discovered sleeping on leather beds had their wealth taken away from them. People followed their masters from the lowlands to the highlands in order to win the privilege of wearing the `qamis’, or ceremonial shirt, and the right to kill cattle, and make “taj.” Many people have become rich through farming, and cattle rearing, and if they were all granted these privileges, no one would attend court any more. The law clearly specifies that the defendant is guilty. He should therefore be punished.”
Yohannes, however, was not satisfied by such arguments. His judgment was as follows:
“The defendant was not found stealing someone else’s money, or acting as a robber in the forest. If he is not left without oxen, with which to plough, it does not matter if he kills his own animals. Provided he is not left destitute there is no objection to his drinking his own honey. Moreover, what he has done, he has done in honour of St Mary. He is therefore not liable to any punishment, and from this time forth people may live as they wish.”
When the people heard this momentous decision, an innovation of some magnitude, they returned rejoicing to their country. The squires, and all who could afford to do so, prepared large quantities of “taj,” killed as many cattle as they wished, and there was great feasting in the land. Though not, of course, by the cattle!