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Series: Innovation and Change
14. Monetary, Banking, and Educational Developments of Menilek’s Day
Difficulties with Menilek’s Currency
The issue of the Menilek currency, which was initiated in 1894, was especially difficult in view of the fact that even the Maria Theresa dollar – an innovation then already three-quarters of a century old – was still not circulating well. The British ethnographer Percy Powell-Cotton recorded at the turn of the century that it was often very difficult to get the old dollar accepted. Describing a journey from Addis Ababa to Asmara, he observed:
“Every piece offered is carefully scrutinised, two or three friends being often called in for their opinion. A new one, or one that is much worn or on which the ornaments of the neck, especially the points of the star, are not clear, is at once rejected. I have had as many as thirty of these coins refused out of fifty, but fortunately no two men agree as to what should be accepted and what not, so that when I reached Asmara there were only some 25 of the 1,500 that no one would look at.”
“Kind-Hearted Menilek Has Minted Coins for Me”
The story of the Menelik dollar is of particular interest in view of the difficulties encountered at the time of the introduction of the Maria Theresa dollar. A certain amount of popular enthusiasm for the new coins is, however, apparent from the following translations of Amharic poems from Gojam, collected, many years ago, by our friend Ato Alemayehu Mogos. They refer to the advantages of Menilek’s dollar over the amole, or salt bar, and the cartridge, both of which were traditionally used instead of money.
The first poem goes, in English translation, as follows:
I was greatly inconvenienced by the bulk and weight of the amole, But kind-hearted Menilek has now minted coins for me
To spare us the trouble of loading beasts of burden (with amoles) And to save us from the boastful pretensions of the ferenge (i.e. Europeans) Kind-hearted Menelik made his dollars for us.
The second poem runs as follows:
Go out of the market, you salt and bullets, Abba Dagnew (i.e. Menelik) has made the white man’s dollars. Dagnew, give us many of the dollars you have made, And let your servant be rich, and without need.
Notwithstanding the spirit embodied in such poems, Menilek’s currency seems to have met with considerable popular resistance. The Emperor was obliged to issue a proclamation, in 1895, in which he declared, “Let anyone who refuses this thaler (dollar) be taken by force and brought before us.”
Fourteen years later, in 1909, a similar decree was issued which prohibited people from the continued use of bullets instead of money, and imposed a fine of a dollar for every bullet used as currency.
Such decrees had little effect in overcoming public suspicion, or dislike, of the new currency. All evidence suggests that the Ethiopian public were now obstinately wedded to the Maria Theresa dollar, which, as we have seen, they had earlier only been accepted with great difficulty.
The limited success of the new coins may be seen from the fact that between 1894 and 1911 only one and a quarter million Menilek dollars were issued, whereas, in the same period the Vienna mint produced no less than 58 million Maria Theresa dollars, the majority of which are believed to have been exported to Ethiopia and Eritrea. The British banker MacGillivray, who visited Addis Ababa in 1905, states that only 5 per cent of the coins in the treasury were Menilek dollars.
The remaining 95 per cent, dear reader, were of course Maria Theresa thalers.
Bank Notes Not Accepted at the Customs or Post Office
Bank notes were issued, by the then Bank of Abyssinia, in 1914-1915. The French envoy and scholar Maurice De Coppet states that they were accepted neither at the Ethiopian Customs, nor at the Addis Ababa Post Office. Notes were in fact used mainly by Europeans in the capital, who found it inconvenient to employ dollars for large transactions. A sack of 500 of silver coins weighed a full 14 kilos.
The “Tallero Eritreo” Abandoned
The difficulties accompanying the introduction of Menilek’s currency were closely paralleled by those encountered by the Italians in Eritrea, where the Tallero Eritreo, a special coin issued for use in the Italian colony, (and adorned with the fine mustache of the King of Italy) was instituted in 1890. Notwithstanding Italian attempts to popularise the new coin, the public in large measure refused to accept it. People called it the “bad ” dollar in contradistinction to the “good” dollar of Maria Theresa. The Tallero was in fact such a failure that the Italians were soon obliged to suspend its production.
The Bank of Abyssinia
In 1905 Emperor Menilek founded the Bank of Abyssinia, as an affiliate of the National Bank of Egypt. The new institution was conceived as an instrument of innovation. In his first report, the first Governor, MacGillivray, declared:
“The Bank for the first few years of its existence will not be a Bank in the ordinary sense of the word. It will have to do many things unknown in banking. For example, if the Emperor wishes for 1,000,000 cartridges, he will naturally ask the Bank to get them for him, and if he thinks he is being cheated of his Customs receipts, he will expect the Bank to right things for him. In a word, the Bank must look after the Emperor’s financial interests.”
The Bank, however, could not make a rapid contribution to the country’s economic life as a whole, for it took time for the public to understand its workings. In 1908 the British envoy, Lord Hervey, reported, spitefully, that the general impression on the establishment of the bank seemed to be that it had been “created to lend money to all and sundry who might apply for it, such trifling considerations as collateral security or guarantees being ignored.”
Sophistication in banking matters developed only slowly. A quarter of a century later a British woman resident of Addis Ababa, Fan C. Dunckley, observed that the typical yokel believed that he always withdrew the identical dollar he paid in, that in fact when he paid in his dollar the Bank set it aside to be withdrawn by himself exclusively.
Innovation in Education
The Menelik era was also a period of innovation also in the fields of education and health. Missionaries had long been active in education, and had done good work in teaching their students various trades. The British traveller August B.Wylde, often a stern critic, nevertheless observed that Ethiopians cared so much for their religion that it was usually the “more worthless ones – people who were willing to change their faith the same as they would their clothes – who found their way to the mission stations.”
A statement worth pondering over!
Menilek, as his successor Emperor Haile Sellassie later declared, nevertheless recognised that the opening up of relations with foreign states had rendered the traditional system of Ethiopian education “insufficient and that it was necessary to bring it into line with theirs.”
Menilek appears also to have realised that development could not be achieved merely by the import of foreigners with special skills, as many of the earlier rulers had imagined, but necessitated the training of Ethiopians to do the work themselves.
Students Sent Abroad for Study
The first Ethiopian students to be sent abroad by Menilek for modern education left the country in 1894. Only three in number, they went to Switzerland, and later to Italy. Suspicion as to their lack of loyalty, during the subsequent Italian invasion of 1895-1896, may well have discredited the idea of study in Catholic Western Europe. A further five students, however, went shortly afterwards to Russia, a country which was preferred on account of its Orthodox faith and monarchical institutions.
This early band of foreign educated Ethiopians included at least two notable innovators. Afewerk Gabre Yesus, who was educated in Switzerland, and later Italy, became, as we shall see, a strong advocate of modernisation. Takla Hawaryat, who was educated in Russia and patronised by Princess Volkonsky, granddaughter of the Decembrist of that name, subsequently emerged as one of the more important modernisers of the Tafari Makonnen regency period.
The foreign educated, however, also included other innovators, among them Tessema Eshete, who had studied in Germany.
The Menilek II School, Ethiopia’s first government school, was established in 1908, a French community school having been set up in the previous year. To avoid the conservative objection that the country’s religion might be undermined by the teaching of foreigners of another faith, Coptic teachers were imported from Egypt for the Menilek school. According to the modern Ethiopian scholar, our friend Dr Haile Gabriel Dagne, one of the most strenuous opponents of foreign-type education was Abuna Matheos, the Egyptian head of the Church, who was thus placated by handing over education to his fellow Copts.
Most of the pupils were children of the nobility, many of them brought up at the Palace, whose attitudes the Emperor wished to modernise. These pupils, as Emperor Haile Sellassie later observed, were “under strict orders” to attend their lessons.
Did Ignorance Make Cannon and Aeroplanes?
The excitement with which the opening of these schools was greeted by at least one enlightened Ethiopian of the time may be seen from an anonymous essay. Its author, who blends references to cannon and aeroplanes with allusions to the Bible, declared that “the construction of schools is more important than anything else.” He goes on to argue that:
“learning means the foundation of civilisation, of wealth, of honour, of purity, of good character. If we examine the history of former times we will ascertain that a learned man is more honoured than an unlettered one. Our evidence for this is the Holy Bible.”
Turning, more practically, to modern, times he concludes, by asking:
“Do you think it is ignorance which has constructed for man’s advantage, cannon, aeroplanes, telegraphs, railways, submarine … No !
“Now, why should we be the last of all in introducing knowledge in our midst, and what is it that prevents us from sending our children to school?”
Good questions, dear anonymous essayist!