Articles in this series:
3. Printing Developments and Increased Study Abroad during Tafari Makonnen’s regent
We saw last week that Ethiopian education advanced significantly in the 1920s, and that the then ruler, the Regent, Ras Tafari Makonnen, identified himself passionately with the idea of its modernisation.
We must now turn to parallel – and no less important – developments in the field of printing.
Before doing so, however, let us take one last glimpse at the Regent’s educational ideas, as expressed at the Menilek School’s prize-giving on 6 August 6, 1928.
This speech, which provides a context for printing and other developments of the period, was memorable in that it referred to the possibility of establishing an Ethiopian University. In this address he declared:
“Although the Greatness of Ethiopia and the history of all her achievements may be found fully recorded in the books of many learned men, I constantly revert in my speeches to this theme of her past history, to show how the dissensions that arose within the country in former times pulled her backwards and prevented her regular breathing; now, however, though the education of her children, her voice is beginning to grow stronger, and she is regaining her breath satisfactorily. Her history is being revealed in her deeds; and glimmers of light may already be seen.”
Addressing the students, staff, and invited dignitaries, he continued:
“The reason why I have summoned you to assemble here today is that you may witness the approach of the time when this light of Ethiopia will be clearly revealed, and that by considering what is being done each day you may become sharers of our joy. The following circumstances provide a proof that the revelation of Ethiopia’s light is approaching.
“At the time when the Menilek II School was first opened, the number of pupils was very small: and even those were sons of the nobility who were being brought up by the Emperor in the palace, and were under strict orders to attend. Now, however, the number of boys educated at the Menilek II School has reached four hundred, and they have come of their own accord, from various towns and rural districts, yearning for knowledge and seeking education.
“After a farmer has sown the seed in his field, he observes simply that it has sprouted and grown: he does not know how much it has grown each day, how much it has added to its height. But, as he inspects his field each morning and evening, he finds the seed has progressed from a shoot to a flower, and from a flower to a fruit: great then is the farmer’s joy. So, when we see these boys who are pupils at the Menilek II School. learning, diligently year by year, growing in knowledge, and increasing in numbers, our hearts overflow at the thought of their becoming a great pride to their country Ethiopia.
A University for Advanced Studies
“Such of these boys who prove to have learnt with diligence, and to excel in their studies, it is my full intention to send abroad for a university education. I hope, however, that for future generations of students there will, before very long, be established a University for Advanced Studies, here in their own land of Ethiopia.”
The Regent’s Printing Press
Important steps were also taken, in this period, to improve Ethiopia’s supply of reading material.
In 1923, Ras Tafari founded a printing press, known at the time as the Regent’s Press. It was referred to in Amharic as “Ya Ityopya Mangest Alga Warash Ya Leul Ras Tafari Mahtameya Bet”, i.e. the Ethiopian Government Printing Press of the Crown Prince Ras Tafari.
Gabra Krestos, of Aksum
The printing press was situated on the Regent’s own land, and most of the equipment was imported from Germany. The press employed an all-Ethiopian staff of 30 men. They worked under the supervision of Gabra Kristos Takla Haymanot, a native of Aksum, who had been educated at the Swedish mission at Asmara for which he gained the ability to translate into Swedish..
This press was soon given the name “Berhanena Salam”, literally “Light and Peace”, and before long was printing both newspapers and books. The latter were produced on equipment imported front England. There was also a lithographic department for the production of blocks. Taken, all in all, the press was described by the British author C.F. Rey as “remarkable achievement on the part of the Regent, and one due entirely to his own initiative”.
Berhanena Salam Newspaper
In 1923 the Regent founded a weekly newspaper, “Berhanena Salam”, which was printed on the press of the said name, and was edited by the aforesaid Gabra Kristos. The publication was important in that it reflected the reformist ideas of Ras Tafari and many reformers in the then Ethiopian Government.
In the following year the Greek, A.E. Kavadia, or Kavadias, mentioned in a previous article, resumed publication of his Amharic newspaper “Aymero”. It was printed on the Government press, which still operated, more or less in competition to that of the Regent.
The Newspaper Situation in 1925
The Ethiopian newspaper situation in 1926 was discussed by Rey. He reports that there were then three weekly newspapers printed in Addis Ababa, namely “Aymero” and “Berhanena Salam” in Amharic, and the old “Courier d’Ethiopie” in French.
According to Rey “Aymero” was “a reactionary” newspaper, published in opposition to the Regent’s paper “Berhanena Salam”. The latter, it may be added, carried under its title piece a couple of lines in Amharic and French, stating that “His Imperial Highness, Tafari Makonnen, Heir to the Throne of Ethiopia, being profoundly desirous to see light and peace reign in his country, had wished that this publication should be called‘Light and Peace.”
Good principles, these, on any showing!
An interesting incident in the history of the “Berhanena Salam” newspaper occurred in March 1927, when a warning of Italian colonial ambitious against Ethiopia, which had first appeared in a French Anti-fascist and Left-wing publication “Le Proletaire”, was republished in the Amharic paper. The French article, which had been brought from Europe by the Ethiopian scholar Abba Jerome, was translated into Amharic by another Ethiopian man of letters, Professor Tamrat. The Italian Legation at once protested, and Gabra Kristos was in consequence nominally dismissed as editor. His name was removed from the front of the paper from the issue of March 24 onwards, but he continued in fact to serve in his old capacity.
“Berhanena Salam” was in its day a popular paper. Stephen Gaselee, the British historian of pre-war Ethiopian printing, states that the newspaper in 1929 had a circulation of 500 copies as against “Aymero”’s 200. A few years later the Greek writer Adrien Zervos stated that the “Courier d’Ethiopie” sold about 700 copies a week.
Official Decrees, Text-books, and Literary Works
Other significant developments of this period include the printing, at the Ras Tafari press, of several official decrees and documents, which were first printed at the press in 1924. Other publications included a couple of Ge’ez religious texts with Amharic translations in 1923, and propaganda books, such as “La Ityopya Lijjoch Massabiya” and “Ya Lib Asab”, which blended together advocacy of modernisation and national consciousness. Several Amharic text books for schools were also printed at around this time.
The earliest mathematics text book was “La Ityopya Lijjoch ya Quatrenna ya Hisab Mamamarya”, which was written by a notable foreign-educated Ethiopian, Mikael Berru, who was at the time employed as an interpreter at the Italian Legation in Addis Ababa.
The main writers of the period, whose works were printed at the “Berhanena Salam” Printing Press, were, however, Blattengeta Heruy Walda Sellase, who produced a Dictionary of Biography, Kantiba Gabru, an Amharic grammar, and Gabra Kristos, a mathematics primer. On the technical side mention may also be made of the Russian-educated Takla Hawaryat, who produced an agricultural manual.
Growing contact with Europe was symbolised by the publication, at about this time, of a volume of advice for travellers to that continent.
Such publications show that the country was well on the way to modernisation.
The Regent, meanwhile, was sending a number of the most promising students for study abroad, some of them at his own expense. Though the idea of education abroad was not, as we have seen, new, this initiative was of great importance. Old people recall that the slave trade and the otherwise unusual character of long separation from one’s family and friends caused many people, including Empress Zawditu, to be strongly opposed to seeing their children disappear into strange and unknown countries inhabited only by foreigners of a different religion. The idea of study abroad was, however, beginning to gain acceptance.
By 1924, it was reported by the Phelps Stokes mission that some twenty-five Ethiopian youths were studying in Europe and America. A decade later, at the time of the Wal Wal incident of 1934, there were forty students abroad, according to Mrs Christine Sandford, an English woman herself deeply interested in Ethiopian education. These are figures for Ethiopian Government students, and do not include those despatched by foreign religious, or missionary organisations.
Ethiopian students, at this time, were to be found in several parts of Europe (including France, Italy, Britain, Belgium, and Spain) and North America, as well as in Egypt and Lebanon.
Students going abroad in the twenties and early thirties included a number who later rose to important positions of state, or who assisted in the development of the government machine in more humble but no less valuable capacity. Few, however, attained ministerial status prior to the Italian invasion, for such positions were at that time largely held by members of the older, non-foreign-educated generation.