Articles in this series:
Series: Dynastic Marriages
Ethiopia’s Half-Falasha Emperor Ya’qob
Readers will recall that Emperor Sarsa Dengel had four sons by his Beta Esra’el, or Falasha consort (or concubine) Emabet Harago. Now read on.
After Za-Maryam’s death (mentioned in last week’s issue), the aging Emperor Sarsa Dengel informed the great lords that he had once more resolved to give the empire to his nephew Za-Dengel.That at least is what the Jesuit Pero Paes claims, apparently on the basis of information received from the monarch’s son-in-law Ras Atenatwos.
The Emperor Nearing His End
The imperial courtiers, however, preferred the Falasha Harago’s younger son Ya’qob, who was then but seven years old. They favoured the latter, Paes explains, because they wanted a young emperor, whom they would be able to manipulate. (This consideration of course often played an important role in Ethiopian politics). The nobles accordingly said to Sarsa Dengel that Za-Dengel was too rigid in his views, and criticised him in various other unspecified ways. The Emperor, nearing his end, and doubtless wearied by continued discussion of the succession issue, finally declared that they should settle the matter as they thought best.
After Sarsa Dengel’s death in 1597, the lords and members of the royal family duly assembled, and agreed among themselves to make Ya’qob emperor. To forestall any opposition from Za-Dengel, thus once again ousted from the succession, they seized him before he heard of his uncle’s demise. They then took him as a prisoner to the island of Deq on Lake Tana, whence he was later transferred to a place of detention on one of the mountains of Gojjam, which was impossible of access without a rope.
Ya’qob Brought to the Throne
It was in the above manner, according to Pero Paes, the confident of Ras Atenatwos, one of the principal actors in the story, that the half-Falasha prince Ya’qob was brought to the throne, and his rival Za-Dengel banished to remote areas from which he could not threaten this political arrangement.
Bruce’s Different Story
A different story of these events was provided almost two centuries later by the Scottish travller James Bruce, who, very characteristically, fails to cite any source for his statements, which, as far as we can tell, are not based on any known written source. He ignores Sarsa Dengel’s reported earlier choice of Harago’s first son Za-Maryam as his heir, and begins the succession story with her second son Ya’qob. He claims, contrary to Paes, that it was Ya’qob whom the old Emperor originally favoured, and that the latter accordingly began treating him as the “heir-apparent”, which “everybody” in Ethiopia thought was “but natural and pardonable from the affection of a father”.
Bruce goes on to claim that Sarsa Dengel, realising that his death was approaching, then changed his mind over the succession, for his “interest and love of his country seemed to overcome even ties of blood”: he accordingly began to favour his nephew Za-Dengel. The Emperor, according to the Scotsman, therefore called his state council around his bed, and, in his last words, declared.
“As I am sensible that I am at the point of death, next to the care of my soul, I am anxious for the welfare of my kingdom. My first idea was to appoint Jacob [Ya’qob] my son to be successor; and I had done so unless for his youth, and it is probable neither you nor I could have cause to repent it. Considering, however, the state of my kingdom, I prefer its interest to the private affection I bear my son; and do, therefore, hereby appoint Za Denghel my nephew to succeed me, and be your king; and recommend him to you as fit for war, ripe in years, exemplary in the practice of every virtue, and as deserving of the crown by his good qualities, as he is by his near relation to the royal family.
Bruce concludes his account by claiming that, as soon as Sarsa Dengel was dead, the royal family reversed the succession. “The very reasons the dying king had given them, why Za Denghel was fitted to reign, were those”, he says, “for which they were determined to reject him; as they, after so long a reign … were perfectly weary of being kept in their duty, and desired nothing more than an infant king and a long minority: this they found in Jacob”.
Bruce’s version, which, we would insist, was not based on any known written source, has tended to be generally accepted, and is for example uncritically reproduced by the early twentieth century British historian of Ethiopia, Sir Wallis Budge.
Germa Beshah and Merid Wolde Aregay
The Scotsman’s account has, however, implicitly been rejected by two modern Ethiopian scholars, Girma Beshah and Merid Wolde Aregay, both fully conversant with Portuguese sources. Following Paes, they declare that the dying Emperor Sarsa Dengel was “persuaded” by the courtiers to leave the throne to his seven year old son Ya’qob, and that this was therefore not a unilateral decision made by the nobles after his death, as Bruce suggests.
Whatever the actual details of the succession struggle the main point was that, with the enthronement of Ya’qob, kingship, as so often in Ethiopian history, was once more vested in an infant, whom the nobles, because of his tender age, hoped to be able to control, and manipulate, for many years to come.
Ya’qob, whose capital was at Qoga, east of Lake Tana, reigned, according to the royal chronicle, for seven years. Not long after his accession, Ras Atenatwos, the husband of one of Sarsa Dengel’s daughters by Maryam Sena, and governor of Begemider province, came to the capital, and established himself as the young Emperor’s “tutor”, or in effect his master.
Freed from Tutelage, with a Gurage Adviser
In the sixth year of his reign Ya’qob, however, succeeded in freeing himself from this tutorage. He fought an armed battle with Atenatwos, defeated him, and later replaced him as his political mentor by another lord, a Gurage chief called Ras Za-Sellase. Yaqob’s relations with the latter, however, soon deteriorated. The young Emperor then lost the support of the army, which rebelled. The soldiers, condemning him as a foolish child, interested only in his games, joined Za-Sellase in deposing him.
The Emperor Accused of Sundry Crimes
Ya’qob at around this time was accused of various other crimes. These included adultery, betraying the Christian religion, breaking a cross on the church of Beta Iyasus, and consulting cow’s fat, like the “Gallas” (or Oromos), for purposes of prophecy. In view of his mother’s Falasha background the three latter charges, unsubstantiated and probably false as they were, are not without interest.
After his overthrow the young Emperor was taken to Enarya province in the south-west of the empire where he was kept as a prisoner. He was replaced as Emperor by Sarsa Dengel’s nephew Za-Dengel, who was at last given the throne which his uncle had, as we have seen, apparently earlier wished to grant him.
The reign of Za-Dengel’s was, however, but a short one. In the course of a rebellion not long after his accession he died, or was killed, in October 1606, reportedly on account of a horse accident, for , the chronicle says, “he did not know the art of riding, but only poetry and hymns”.
The death of Za-Dengel, like that of so many other Ethiopian rulers, was followed by much political confusion, in the course of which the Gurage chief Za-Sellase is said by the chronicle to have “held the realm in his hands”. Realising the need for the speedy appointment a new Emperor , however, he decided on restoring Ya’qob to the throne.
The young half-Falasha ex-Emperor, by then about fifteen years’ old, was accordingly recalled from Enarya, and again placed on the throne. To consolidate his power he effected a dynastic marriage with the daughter of the ruler of Hadeya, long an important source of gold, but, according to Almeida, had no time to carry out the wedding ceremony.