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Series: Dr Pankhurst
Visit to the Cannon of Tewodros
High up on a plateau in the S. Wollo area of Ethiopia sits an ageing bronze cannon, unmarked by any sign or engraving. This cannon is an enduring symbol of the reign of the Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.
The 13th of April 1999 marked the 131st anniversary of the suicide of that Emperor, who killed himself to escape capture by an invading British force of 32,000.
Tewodros was a remarkable man, most accurately described as the “Peter the Great of Ethiopia.” He was the first emperor in relatively modern times to reunite the country of Ethiopia, which spent over 100 years up to the middle of the 19th century as an empire divided amongst feudal chieftains. During the years that Tewodros ruled as emperor, 1855-1868, he not only reunited Ethiopia, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to bring it into the 19th century (See Bahru Zewde’s History of Modern Ethiopia, or the many articles of Dr. Richard Pankhurst published in the Addis Tribune and available on the INTERNET for a fuller account of the reign of Tewodros).
The Trip to See the ‘Cannon’
Emperor Tewodros was smitten by the British, and hated the ‘Turks’. He invited missionaries to come to Ethiopia, but really sought weapons from the British, and invited Queen Victoria to join him in a religious crusade to capture Jerusalem from the Turks. She sent him the missionaries and a set of pistols, but declined further assistance. Miffed, Tewodros took the missionaries captive, and set the artisans amongst them the task of building him a cannon. They succeeded in a way, producing a mortar rather than a cannon after a number of unsuccessful attempts.
The Protestant missionaries were mainly Swiss artisans, who combined the ability to do something useful with people with attracting them to the church. This approach had already been developed, witness Dr. Livingstones’ use of his medical knowledge to convert the pagans in Africa, and of course is still a mainstay of missionary work to this day. The Swiss artisans had a variety of skills, including metallurgy, which lent themselves to a degree to cannon making. Probably the closest thing they had done to making cannons was to fashion a few bronze bells.
It is a bit difficult to figure out how enthusiastic the missionaries were to make this cannon, actually a mortar. They were probably worried, because by this time Tewodros was becoming increasingly erratic and vicious.
This bronze cannon is the best symbol of Tewodros quixotic rule of Ethiopia. And amazingly, the mortar– named Sebastopol– still lies on the Makdella plateau, probably in much the same position as it was left in 1868. It is greened by oxidation, but sill totally intact and in impressive shape. It sits partly buried in the soil of the plateau, surrounded by a small and makeshift traditional brush fence. There is no other marking of the cannon. It is nevertheless an impressive, if not awe inspiring, reminder of the incredible history of Tewodros.
We arrived the night of the 25th of February, 1998, only a few weeks before the 130th anniversary of the British capture of Makdella. I was accompanied by some of our fine Ethiopian staff in Save the Children, Berhanu and Retta, as well as the driver for my project, Tesfu.
We arrived after 5:30 at night, shortly before dusk, and my capable colleagues quickly sorted out a small local hotel to stay at, and sent out feelers for someone to rent mules and guide us to the fortress. The hotel was typical for small Woreda towns in remote areas – pretty basic. Tenta town does not have the luxury of electricity or running water.
The hotel has a series of rooms in a low row building, each with a bed, a rickety chair, and a bedpan. The blankets and pillows are questionable, which makes the use of a sleeping bag advisable for those who prefer not to wake up with a lot of flea or other bug bites. There was a whiskey bottle full of water in the room, but I refrain from drinking strange water, although much of the water in the highlands is from springs and wonderfully fresh and clean. If you have a good light to supplement the candle provided by the house, some bottled water, you’re not fussy about your bed, and you have no strong aversion to the use of a bedpan then it is quite comfortable. Washing is a complicated and not very private business which I preferred to leave until our return to civilization.
After settling into our rooms, we perched for a beer on the small porch of the hotel until our local agents, mostly small boys, had returned with news of mules and guides. We agreed to meet the guide at a restaurant in another part of town, and drove off to it. We discussed the trip over tibbs (small chunks of goat meat) and Kayewot (spicy meat) as we were only just in advance of the pre-Easter or Feseka fasting time, during which you almost only get vegetarian fasting food. Our helpful guide duly arrived. Most of the haggling took place in Amharic, so I was blessedly free from the, at times, heated discussion. I quietly chewed tibbs, which is a very good consumer of time, and nursed a beer. It is lovely that beer and bottled water are almost universally available in Ethiopia.
There was a long discussion, after which I was able to get the gist of it. The tour guide wanted to charge 70 birr for the rental of each mule, then guiding on top of this. According to my colleagues this was outrageous. Considering that our surveys in the area show that daily labour rates for a person are only about 3 birr, and that the total cost of a mule is only 1000 birr, I had to agree that they were trying us on a bit. Ferengi prices are always many times local prices. After vigorous argument my colleagues got the mule driver down to 35 birr, and left his guiding price negotiable.
We agreed to meet at 6 AM and retired fairly early. Considering the accommodation, I slept okay. At about dawn, 5:30 AM or so, we were up and managed to have some eggs rustled up at the hotel. By 6:15 we were ready to go. Then we waited for an hour. Our guide arrived, and we walked through town with some mules, planning to collect more mules before the departure point for Makdella.
I had spent some time in the previous discussions trying to determine how long the trip would take. This can be a frustrating experience, to say the least. We were required back in Dessie the same day as the trip, which as I said above is a four hour drive. I had taken the trouble to do the arithmetic, which indicated that if we wanted to be back by Dessie around dusk (say 7 PM) we should leave Tenta by 3 PM which meant that if we left at 6 AM we would have 9 hours to complete the trek. I had been confidently informed that the trip took anywhere from 5 to 10 hours, which didn’t give me a great sense of certainty. I tended to believe the larger number from my past experience of time estimates by Ethiopians, so 9 hours was the smallest amount of time I felt confident with setting aside for the trip. By the time we started it was 8 AM and our timing was finished before we started. I decided to grin and bear it, as there was nothing to be done and I was relieved to finally get away on the trip.
I rode on a mule, helpfully named in Amharic ‘mule’, which was a bit uncomfortable on the traditional wooden saddle. I would walk for a while after two hour riding shifts.
At last, we arrived to our destination and finally seeing the cannon was great. Although the mule ride and walk to the plateau is fairly spectacular, it was also quite long and became tedious. There were plenty of people along the way, and therefore an endless exchange of ‘dena nachu’ greetings. Everyone was extremely friendly and accommodating, except for the police in Tenta who resented the lost opportunity to accompany us (based on the preposterous notion that it was dangerous for a Ferengi out there).
Getting to the Cannon
To get to the cannon you must have some time and a certain amount of perseverance. The jump off point for the mule ride (or walk if you prefer) is the Woreda capital town of Tenta in S. Wollo. To get there you drive from the Zonal capital of Dessie to the west (just ask directions) along the only road which penetrates most of the S. Wollo area. The road can be rough in parts, although it has been much improved by recent work, and is still extremely difficult in the rainy season (from late June to end of September). I visited the cannon in February, which is dry and easy. From the town of Tenta, which is about four hours drive from Dessie, you must take mules or walk 18 km. on up and down terrain to reach the cannon (and of course 18 km. back again). A new road which connects from Debre Libanos north of Addis to Aksta in S. Wollo, then on to Tenta and up to Lalibela is under construction and is optimistically scheduled to open by the end of 1999. This road is also known as the ‘Victory Road’, as it follows the route taken by the EPRDF, the current government of Ethiopia, in their successful offensive against the ‘Derg’, the previous government.