<< Back to all articles
Articles in this series:
003. Missionary Printing and Early Study Abroad
A second missionary printing effort was made in the following decade at Keren, then under Egyptian suzerainty. The French Lazarists installed a small press there in 1879, and began printing missionary works. These included a Psalter and Hymn Book, in Amharic; a Ge’ez-Amharic grammar, and several religious works. Among the latter were books on Christian Doctrine, the “Initiation of Christ”, a Life of Christ, and Spiritual Exercises, all four in Amharic; also one work in Tigrinya, and another in Ge’ez.
The press continued to operate after the Tripartite Treaty of 1884, between the Emperor Yohannes, Britain and Egypt, which restored to Ethiopia the Bogos province, in which Keren was situated. The establishment can thus be considered the first press to operate on Ethiopian territory. Subsequently, in 1888, the town fell to the Italians, after which the missionaries published announcements, in both Italian and Amharic, for the Italian military authorities. Some years later, around 1900, the press was transferred to the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
The Swedish Evangelical Mission
The Swedish Evangelical Mission had meanwhile founded their first printing establishment at Monkulo, near Massawa, in 1885, but also moved to Asmara, in 1895.
Three Other Presses at Massawa
The first secular press in Eritrea was the Italian Military Press at Massawa, which was set up shortly after the port’s occupation by the Italians in 1885. The press was imported from an Italian firm, which also supplied a seventeen-year-old printer, with six or seven assistants. Printing was entirely in Italian, and consisted mainly of government regulations, and circulars of the military authorities. A few books, however, were also produced.
The first commercial press in Massawa was established a few years later, in 1990. It was the Tipographia e Libreria Italiana, which was owned by an Italian business concern, A. Micheli and Co., and began publishing “L’Eritreo”, a weekly administrative newspaper, in November of the following year.
Another Italian press, set up almost immediately afterwards, was that of the “Corriere Eritreo”, which was founded in Massawa in 1891, and in the same year began issuing a weekly politico-commercial newspaper of that name.
Early Students Abroad
Very few Ethiopians were educated abroad until the last half of the nineteenth century. At last three foreign educated young men, two of them half-castes, nonetheless acquired prominence during the reign of Emperor Tewodros.
Spoke English and French “Fairly Well”
This Emperor’s principal interpreter was Mahadera Qal, who is reported to have spoken both English and French “fairly well.” His foreign education had begun in 1843, when he was taken to Paris by the French traveller, Theophile Lefebvre. The latter introduced him to the French Foreign Minister, M. Guizot, and to the Minister of Marine, Baron Mackau, both of whom became his patrons. The young Ethiopian was placed in a Jesuit establishment, the College Henri IV, where he remained for three years.
Finding that life there did not suit him, he later made contact with the British, who arranged for him to enter a Protestant College in Malta. He later went to England, where each week he visited his old friend Guizot, who was by then an exile, as a result of the French Revolution of 1848. Later, in 1852, Mahadera Qal travelled to Egypt, where he continued his studies with a certain Mr. Lieder in Cairo, and did not return to Ethiopia until 1856, immediately after the Emperor Tewodros’s coronation.
“Not a Single Englishman Would Have Escaped”
Mahadera Qal served Tewodros loyally throughout his reign, but was later quoted as saying that the Ethiopian monarch should not have stayed in Maqdala on the approach of the British, but should have taken to the country, and harassed the invaders, as Abdel Kader had done in Algeria. “Not a single Englishman,” he said, “would have escaped: everyone without exception would have found their grave in our country.”
Mahadera Qal subsequently passed into the service of Emperor Yohannes, for whom he conducted important business. General Gordon, the British governor-general of the Sudan, records that he found him a difficult man to deal with, and refers to him, in his memoirs, as “a great scamp”.
Mercha and Beru Warqe
A couple of foreign educated half-castes were also prominent during the reign of Tewodros, and later that of Yohannes. Mercha Warqe was the son of an Armenian goldsmith by an Ethiopian mother, and was educated at the Rev. Dr. Wilson’s Missionary Establishment at Bombay, India, and is reported to have spoken both English and Hindustani well.
On returning to Ethiopia he founded a school for 70 boys, with the help of funds from Bombay, but soon gave it up when these ran out. He also served as an interpreter to visiting diplomatic missions, and acquired some international publicity, when he was sent by Yohannes on a two-man mission to England
Mercha’s brother, Berru, also known as Berru of Walqayet, was born around 1832. While still a youngster he went to England, where he spent three years in the house of a Norfolk clergyman. Fully conversant with both English and Arabic, he acted as interpreter for both Tewodros and Yohannes, and was well known to most foreign visitors to Ethiopia of the time.
Foreign Educated at the Time of Tewodros
Increased contacts between Ethiopia and the outside world during, and immediately after. the reign of Tewodros subsequently resulted in a limited amount of study abroad. Several young Ethiopians travelled to Europe in this period. One of the first was the Emperor’s son, Alemayehu, born 1860, who was taken to England by the British at the close of the Maqdala campaign, and was later buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor.
A handful of youngsters were also taken abroad by Protestant missionaries. One of the latter, Theophilus Waldmeier, reported in 1869 that there were then eight Ethiopian boys in two missionary schools in Jerusalem, and several more at the Chrischona missionary institute in Switzerland and other schools in that country, a total of a little over a dozen.
The Ethiopian students at Chrischona included a small group of Falashas, or Beta Esra’el, who had been converted to Christianity. They comprised Mika’el Aragawi of Dambeya, Agaje Sachlu, Hailu Wassan, Gabru Dasta, and two brothers from Assoso, Semani and Sambatu Danyel. There were also two non-Falashas, Debtera Walda Sellassie of Hamasen, and W. Schimper, the half-caste son of the German botanist of that name.
The ex-Falasha students, most of whom had earlier been at Bishop Gobat’s school at Jerusalem, were looked after at the expense of an Englishwoman, Mrs. E. Potts, of Hoole Hall, Chester, while the others were supported by a Bishop. All were more or less under the guardianship of the German Protestant missionary Martin Flad, who, before their arrival in Switzerland, taught them German at his home at Kornall in South Germany.
The best known of these students was Mikael Aragawi. who was brought up by Mrs Flad from the early age of three. On completing his education, in 1878, he was stationed at Kobela-Jenda, near Assoso, to run a school for Falashas. In 1885 he returned to Europe, where he assisted Flad with a new Amharic version of the Bible.
Several stories about Aragawi’s journey to Europe were told by his friend and teacher Flad. On reaching Alexandria, in Egypt, he met, it is said, a Chrischona brother, who arranged to pay his fare to Trieste. Aragawi was so happy that he treated himself to a drive in a two-horse carriage. The Arab driver asked him where he should take him. The young Ethiopian replied, “Straight on”, and repeated this instruction whenever he was asked his destination. After they had driven a good distance out of town. the driver stopped. and asked the passenger if he was mad. “No,” came the answer, “turn back and take me back to where we started.” He got out he handed the driver a couple of francs. “Sir, it is not two, but ten francs that I must receive,” said the driver. Aragawi was obliged to pay, but, characteristically, had such a bad conscience that he fasted for four days, taking only coffee and potato salad.
On reaching Ulm, in Germany, he was too late to catch his train for Kornall, where Flad resided. Almost penniless, he lay down on a bench in the waiting room. The watchman wanted to drive him out, but Aragawi said: “I am an Abyssinian going to visit my father in Kornall. I know no one here, so please let me sleep here.” The watchman agreed, and locked him in the room. In the morning the official returned, woke him up, and told him that the train for Stuttgart was about to leave. Out of thankfulness Aragawi paid for him to have a cup of coffee, and gave him a lecture all about Ethiopia, the Mission to the Jews and “the Good Lord Jesus”..
Arriving in due course at Kornall in his Ethiopian dress the he was taken for a Carnival Fool, it being Throve Tuesday, the day when the Germans all wore fancy dress.
Later in the year, he went to England to visit Mrs. Potts, who had financed the ex-Falasha’s education. Aragawi slept on the floor, instead of on the comfortable bed provided for him, for he wished to remain tough so as to be able to continue his missionary work.
After visiting the sights of London, including the Tower and the Crystal Palace, he went to the British and Foreign Bible Society bookstore, where the Bible was available in some 300 languages, he exclaimed, “Of all the beautiful and splendid things I have seen in London, the Bible House is the most beautiful and wonderful!”