Articles in this series:
005. Missionary and Some Early Foreign Educated Students
We saw last week that a number of young Ethiopians went abroad for study abroad, in the nineteenth century, some, but by no means all, under missionary auspices. Now read on:
One of several young Ethiopians educated by Protestant missionaries, in the second half of the nineteenth century, was, as we saw last week, Mikael Aragawi, a Falasha convert to Christianity, who had studied at Chrischona in Switzerland.
Mikeal Aragawi, though deeply was not exclusively interested in matters theological. He was, it is said, also much concerned with the material things of this world. His “admiration of all things European, and particularly British,” according to his teacher Martin Flad, was “unbounded.” One day, while standing in one of the finest London streets, he is said to have exclaimed, “Why are we Abyssinians in this world, dirty Africans that we are, so proud? Europeans live in the vestibule of Heaven, and we in the vestibule of Hell!”
Despite such negative views about his own motherland, he duly returned to Ethiopia, in 1885, and became actively involved in missionary work, and teaching. This did not of course lead to the building of any fine roads such as he had so admired in London!
Later, in 1893 he paid a third visit to Europe, and was at around this time appointed head the Protestant Mission to the Jews.
In 1923-4, Mikael Aragawi again travelled to Europe, and spent a year at the Flad’s home at St. Legier sur Vevey, in Switzerland. There he revised Blattengeta Heruy Walda Sellase’s manuscript of the Four Gospels and Acts, which was eventually incorporated in Emperor Haile Sellassie’s Bible. He died, in his native land, in 1931.
Samani Danyel, who was another converted Falasha educated at Chrischona, felt close to the European missionaries whom Emperor Tewodros had imprisoned. He accordingly went to the Red Sea coast to volunteer to serve with the British expedition of 1867-8, been dispatched to effect their liberation.
While at Massawa, he met Joseph Halevy, the Jewish French scholar of Ethiopian affairs, who kindly gave him some financial assistance. On the following day, however, Samani decided to return the money on the grounds that Halevy was a Jew. The latter refused to take back the gold, whereupon Samani impetuously threw it into the Red Sea, exclaiming, “I will not sell my Saviour!”
Later, on completing his studies at Chrischona, he founded a mission school at Assoso, with the help of his friend Agaje in 1874. It did not, however, last long, for both teachers died in 1878 or 1879, the latter at least of smallpox, which those days, before modern vaccination, was very prevalent.
Perhaps the most important of the Protestant missionary educated boys of this time was Gabru Desta, a Christian youth from Bagemder, who, though never a Falashas, had been brought up with the Protestant mission to the Falashas.
After the battle of Magdala, in 1868, his missionary friends took him to Bishop Gobat’s school in Jerusalem, for which reason he was often spoken of as Gabru Gobat. Subsequently, in 1873, he travelled to Basle, in Switzerland, where he stayed until 1878. On completing his studies he returned to Gobat’s school, this time as a teacher, and later joined a group of missionaries stationed at Zanzibar. He was for a time attached to the British Keith Falconer medical mission in Aden. During his stay there, he arranged for the return to Ethiopia of a number of Ethiopian slaves, two of whose names, Telesa and Negero, are still remembered.
Hearing of the Italian Occupation of Massawa
On subsequently hearing of the Italian occupation of Massawa, in 1885, Gabru, more patriotic perhaps than some of the other missionary-educated, determined to return home to assist Emperor Yohannes in the period of difficulty ahead. “The Emperor,” we , are told, nevertheless regarded him “somewhat coldly”. This was largely because of his strong distrust of missionaries, He even for a time suspected Gabru of being an agent of the Italians. The young man, however, finally won the confidence of the monarch, and was charged by the latter with several important missions.
On the death of the Emperor, in 1889, Gabru, who was by then known as Alaqa, on account of his prominence in church affairs, went to Harar, where he distributed Scriptures on behalf of the British and Foreign Bible Society. Ras Makonnen, the local governor, soon afterwards appointed him chief of the city’s police.
The Ras was much pleased by Dasta’s extraordinary capacity for work, which he extolled to Emperor Menilek. The latter was so impressed that he summoned Gabru to Addis Ababa, where he made use of his services for many years.
Gabru was later appointed Kantiba, or Mayor, of Gondar, in 1898, and entrusted with the delicate task of negotiating with the Sudanese Mahdists. He also assisted in the return of Ethiopian prisoners whom the latter had taken, and later, in 1901, represented Emperor Menilek in London, at the Coronation of King Edward VII.
Kantiba Gabru’s importance was so great that the French Legation, which disliked his British affiliations, is said to have conspired actively against him. A British report for 1902 noted that Gabru had “suffered confiscation of his property and was imprisoned for several years owing to French intrigues against him on account of his English sympathies.”
Gabru nevertheless turned this period to good advantage by engaging in literary and scholastic pursuits. He subsequently became interpreter to the German Legation, where his knowledge of German proved useful, and represented Ethiopia at the coronation of King George V, in 1911.
After World War I, he was chosen by the Ethiopian Government to visit London and Washington to congratulate the Allies on their victory.
On the promulgation of Emperor Haile Sellassie’s first Constitution, in 1931, he was appointed Vice-President of the Senate. Later again, after the Italian fascist capture of Addis Ababa half a decade later, he made his way to Gore, where attempts were being made to organise guerrilla resistance to the invader. Captured by the enemy, he was taken to the Prison Island of Asinara, but was later freed, and lived on to a ripe old age. He died in 1950 .
“Come Barefoot… We Ethiopians Do Not Wear Shoes”
The early Ethiopian returnees from study abroad were often regarded by their compatriots, including the nobility, with a critical eye.
Martin Flad recalls that when his friends, and former students, Mikael Aragawi and Agaje, were called to the presence of Emperor Yohannes IV, the latter was displeased that they had adopted the European fashion of wearing shoes. “If you appear again before me,” he is reported to have said, “come barefoot: we Ethiopians do not wear shoes”.
While the Protestants were trying to convert the Falashas to Christianity, one French Jew, the above-mentioned scholar Halevy, so to speak fought back. He too took a young Ethiopian student abroad: Alaqa Danyel, a Falasha, who followed a course in Rabbinical studies in Egypt, and was notable in being the first non-Christianised Falasha to study outside the country.
Roman Catholic Education
Roman Catholic missionaries, in this period, were also active in taking young Ethiopians abroad. The renowned Italian Lazzarist missionary, Monseigineur Giustino De Jacobis, took no less than 23 young men to Rome as early as 1841. A further 18 students, mostly Gallas, or Oromos, were installed, around 1869, in a Capuchin institution, the St. Michel College at Marseilles. In 1872 four students who could not stand the French weather were, however, repatriated. They included Yosef, who subsequently became prominent as Emperor Menilek’s interpreter.
A British Plan, Which Failed
A decade and a half after the British expedition against Emperor Tewodros, its former commander, Robert Napier, wrote to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville, on 2 January 1884. He declared that it would assist British relations with Ethiopia if “a modest number of young Abyssinians” could be taken abroad for education, “possibly in Bombay or Madras”, in India.
The British Foreign Office, however, seems to been unwilling to envisage expenditure of the funds required. It was nevertheless subsequently agreed that one young Ethiopian should be entrusted to the care of an English clergyman, the Rev. J. E. P. Bartleet, of Norfolk, who was willing to provide him with board, lodging, and tuition for the monthly sum of 10 pounds Sterling. Treasury permission was also obtained for the young man to be given a set of clothes to be purchased from the Army and Navy Stores
“You are Nothing but a Russian Pig”
Another early foreign sponsor of Ethiopian study abroad was the Russian adventurer, Nicholas Ashinoff, who took two young Ethiopians, a boy and a girl, with him to Russia. His idea, which was connected with his ambition of arranging an alliance between the two countries, was to have the boy educated in a monastery and the girl in a nunnery. The outcome of the project, like much connected with Ashinoff, seems shrouded in mystery. The educational project was, however, probably not very successful, as the boy is said to have been very stubborn and headstrong. He complained that his instructors failed to recognise his merit, and he therefore flew into violent tempers. To quieten him the Russian Foreign Minister on one occasion arranged for a Russian monk to take him for a drive in a St. Petersburg tram, but this was reportedly not fully a success. The British Ambassador in St. Petersburg, in a Foreign Office dispatch, quotes the Russian Foreign Minister as reporting that the journey involved an unpleasant incident. While the youngster and his companion were travelling in the vehicle “a respectable Russian citizen turned round to his neighbour, and said, `That is a negro,’ upon which the young Abyssinian, who is only 12 years old, flew at the burgher’s throat, and explained in excellent Russian, ‘You call me a negro, but you yourself are nothing but a Russian pig’, at which His Excellency chuckled a good deal.”