Emperors Tewodros II, Yohannes IV, Menilik II, and the Myth of Colonialism
IV. Emperor Yohannes IV [Kassa Mirtcha]
A. Emperor Tewodros II and the British Expeditionary Force
The one item every Mehale Sefari never forgets to mention to counter any criticism of Menilik because of his treasonous activities of selling Ethiopian territory, or for his cruelty, or immorality et cetera is that single incident that Emperor Yohannes IV in 1868, as a young man, had collaborated with the British against Emperor Tewodros. The falsification of history and the effort to degrade Emperor Yohannes, in order to enhance the deeds of Menilik, was the primary focus of the Mehale Sefaris to this day. They write as if Kassa, as he was then known before he became Emperor Yohannes IV, acted as on-hand guide to the British Expedition Force. [Yohannes met with Napier only three times although he had several meetings with representatives of Napier.] They allege that Yohannes was responsible for the downfall of Tewodros.
The facts are far more complex than what the propagandist are stating. The greatest enemy and the immediate cause of the downfall of Tewodros was Tewodros himself first and foremost.
To this day, Emperor Tewodros is considered a great hero by many Ethiopian elites, students, and the general public due to the distorted association of Tewodros with the emotionally charged concept of Ethiopian unity. I do recall how we, as students, both in high school and at the University (HSIU) used to go into some form of frenzy when ever an aspiring student leader mentioned the name of Tewodros. Almost every Ethiopian student from ninth grade up knew the tragic history of Tewodros. Tewodros was perceived as symbol of courage and Ethiopia’s independence. I am all in support of having national symbols that would elevate our sense of who we are as a people and a nation. However, in regard with Tewodros, I have reconsidered my views about that leader. I have pointed out at the very beginning of this essay that we have to be very careful with our symbols lest our symbols take over the course of our discourse and lead us into discord among ourselves rather than helping us cement unity and cohesive relationships among all Ethiopians. Thus, I was very apprehensive by the possibility of ruffling more feathers by my reassessment of Emperor Tewodros II. Nevertheless no sound foundation of nationalism can be built on shifting sand. We need to seek truth and drink from its bitter-sweet content to quench our parched thirst for truthful history and national unity.
After reviewing books, articles, and reports by prisoners of Tewodros, commanders and soldiers who participated in the Napier Expedition [Blanc, Napier, Rassam], and Ethiopian historians, I have reassessed my views on Tewodros. I regret to report that I do not hold Emperor Tewodros II in high regard at all. In fact, I consider him as one of the worst leaders Ethiopia ever had, even worse than Mengistu Hailemariam in his cruelty, brutality, corruption, and violence. If Tewodros were alive today, he would have been tried for genocide and crime against humanity under the Genocide Convention. Tewodros was truly a very destructive man; he committed some of the worst crimes against tens of thousands of innocent Ethiopians. When I consider some of Tewodros’s punishments inflicted on helpless prisoners, I even wonder about his sanity. He burned down urban centers such as Gondar, Debre Tabor et cetera for no military reason; he despoiled farms, and at times burned fields ready for harvest thereby starving whole regions; he murdered without discrimination tens of thousands of people in Gojjam, Shoa, Lasta/Wollo, Gondar, Tygrei et cetera. He humiliated Church Fathers and the institution of Ethiopian Christianity. He breached the sanctity of hospitality to diplomats and foreign visitors by imprisoning foreigners and official representatives of a friendly government. And as result of his cruel, erratic, and irrational behavior, he caused us all to be humiliated by the incursion into the very heart of the Empire by a foreign power, the Napier Expedition.
One must not gloss-over the extreme hatred Tewodros had toward Oromos that amounted to a form of racism beyond what one may consider chauvinistic views of ethnic identity. Rather than building a unitary form of an imperialistic structure of government that had always been the aims of most Ethiopian Emperors before him, Tewodros seemed to have an unrealistic desire for a homogenous Ethiopian Empire. Such an idea was far from what Ethiopian reality showed to any observer interested in Ethiopian government. Tewodros was a very conflicted person. I do not believe he understood what was meant by a unitarian Ethiopian Empire. This view is supported by the intolerance Tewodros displayed even on mundane events where people innocently deviated from his orders. He was in the true sense of the word a dictator of limited abilities to work with others.
Even judging by his individual personal conduct, especially after the death of his first wife, Tewabech, he turned out to be a drunkard, never sober after four in the afternoon, and a womanizer with houseful of women victims who had to submit to his desire. The list of his misdeeds is long and shameful. His judgments were irrational and arbitrary, often given impulsively without many reflections. He displayed in his daily interactions even with people fully dedicated to serving him with the worst form of absolute tyranny. I am at a loss to justify all these years of adulation by me or most Ethiopian former students of HSIU. We must have been hypnotized or suffered some mass illusion, which must have distorted our rationality to have thought of such a brutal, uncouth, and barbaric man as our adored leader and symbol of Ethiopian unity. The one redeeming quality Tewodros had was his crude notion of the restoration of Ethiopia to its past Imperial glory.
With this new reevaluation and perspective in place on the life and deeds of Tewodros, any discussion on the alleged collaboration of Kassa Mirtcha or anyone else becomes more of an academic exercise than of substantive and useful understanding of an incident that after all resulted in benefits to the people of Ethiopia. Thus the alleged betrayal of Kassa Mirtcha must be examined with fresh insight for I have found from such records there were far more “blameworthy” leaders such as Gobeze, Menilik, Mestewat, Workit et cetera than Kassa for the “downfall” of Tewodros. Moreover, I believe Tewodros himself was the worst enemy to Tewodros more than anybody else.
At any rate, each of the leaders who were in some way involved with the British Expedition against Tewodros had justifiable reason for rebelling against Tewodros. Gobeze was more than justified to go after Tewodros because Tewodros had brutally mutilated and hanged his father. In case of Workit, she has every reason to move against Tewodros because Tewodros had her son mutilated and thrown of a cliff to die in pain and great suffering along several of his imprisoned relations. That was in addition to the devastation suffered by Wolloies in Tewodros’s earlier campaigns. Menilik of course was brought out of Shoa as part of the hostages of the Shoan aristocracy that included Ras Darge Sahle Selassie. Kassa did not have direct grievance against Tewodros, but had claims of the Ethiopian Crown through his mother.
Henry Blanc, who was one of the freed prisoners from Meqdella, summed up his views at that time on the rebellious leaders as follows: “Gobeze and Menilek, had both in view to themselves rulers of Abyssinia, by the possession of Magdalla… All wanted Mr. Rassam, not merely to help them, but to give them the mountain.” [Blanc, 271-272] Kassa was such a remote character that the prisoner Henry Blanc did not mention him as a possible contender and participant in the power maneuvering of the time.
B. “Yefukiker Bet Sayizega Adere”
Emperor Tewodros, simply put, did not know how to be an “Emperor” of Ethiopia. He lost control of his Empire long before the controversy with the British Empire started. In the period 1865-68, Shoa with Bezabih had gone its own rebellious way, Wollo was in a civil rebellion with Mestawat and Workit fighting over inherited power, Tygrei has driven out Blata Baraie, Tewodro’s representative, Semien was in virtual free-fall with sons and relations of the dead Wobie fighting off any central authority. Gojjam was another area where Tewodros’s men did not have any control of the local aspirants who were feuding among themselves for control. The nation was in virtual rebellion and out of control. Tewodros who had commanded over one hundred fifty thousand soldiers routinely on fields of battles had less than ten thousand when he left Debra Tabor to Meqdella on 9 October 1867. Among all that chaos, one can easily discern three distinct powerful centers of attraction where soldiers and courtiers were gravitating to in opposition to or in anticipation of the downfall of Tewodros. The most prominent point of attraction was Wagshum Gobeze with over sixty thousand soldiers (60,000), followed by Menilik with about twenty thousand (20,000) and Kassa with less than ten thousand (10,000) followers with different dynamics and problems. One must not underestimate the crucial role played by Mestawat and Workit of Wollo in the power structure of Ethiopia of the period.
The British Expeditionary Force of thirty two thousand (32,000) [twelve thousand (12,000) well trained professional soldiers and support staff of another twenty thousand (20,000)] under a seasoned Commander, Robert Napier, was a formidable force, indeed. [Svern Rubenson puts the figure at forty two thousand.] The British soldiers were issued the most modern rifles of the time, breech-loading Snyders accompanied with forty four (44) field artilleries, with as many elephants, and countless rounds of ammunition; they were no laughing matter. It is to be recalled that Britain with one third of such a force had subdued areas three four times larger than Ethiopia. Even then the Napier expedition was fearful of the great warriors of Ethiopia; all they wanted to carry out was a face saving expedition of a surgical operation to free prisoners taken hostages by Tewodros in one of his irrational decisions and pull out as quickly, thereby serving the Ethiopian leaders waiting in the wings to take over a convenient service. Everyone was to gain something: Britain, its prestige; Ethiopian leaders, getting rid of a troublesome brutal leader.
The Expedition was very forcefully opposed in the British Parliament and by the public judging by the newspaper articles of the time. One good example for such opposition was a lengthy article by David Urquhart of 1867 titled “The Abyssinian War: The Contingency of Failure.” Ethiopians were well known in Europe as a formidable force, a match to any ambitious European attack. It would be interesting to carry out at depth research in this area to find more about the British public’s view of Ethiopia in the 1860-1868 period and afterward.
It was such an expeditionary force that made its way from Massawa down to Maqdella, a journey of over four hundred miles. After crossing over no-mans land of the wasteland of Afar Coastal territory of about fifty miles inland to the mountain ranges of the Rift Valley, the first quarter of the journey was through a territory recently controlled by Kassa. It is in this sense that the Mehale Sefaris blame Kassa for not fighting the British Expeditionary incursion and even accusing him for leading the British to the very citadel of Emperor Tewodros who was holding British diplomats and citizens as hostages. The fact of the matter is that it was far more complex and the situation was not really that cut-and-dry. What is clear is the fact that at that time Kassa was not in any position to oppose the British forces, and he was over three hundred miles away from Maqdella or wherever Tewodros was at any given time at that time. He was in the process of consolidating his own power for the control of good portion of Tygrei. Kassa had limited number of front-loading old rifles, with no field artillery, and very limited number of soldiers probably less than eight thousand (8,000). In other words Kassa had no weapon and no “army” as yet to fight any force let alone the finest colonial strike force of the British Empire.
Emperor Tewodros was abandoned by troops from his vassal lords from Wollo, Shoa, Begemder, Gojjam, and Tygrei long before the British Expedition Force showed up at Massawa. It is to be recalled Kassa succeeded his father as Shum (Governor) of Temben in 1863 about three years before the British Expedition. And there was Wagshum Gobeze, Kassa’s Brother-in-Law, with far more formidable organization, military, and precedent in terms of succession to the Ethiopian Throne, since he was already the overlord of Lasta and Tygrei. By Napier’s informed estimate, Gobeze was commanding over sixty thousand (60,000) soldiers. He also had at least the momentary support of the Wubie’s Semien vassals including Wubie’s sons who could have as many followers. It is to be recalled that Kassa met Emperor Tewodros only once in 1865 when he was raised to the rank of Balambaras, a relatively minor position. After 1865 Kassa formed allegiance with Gobeze to counter the claims of Wubie’s descendants of Semien who had helped Ras Dori to capture Ras Sebagadis [Kassa’s Great-Uncle] and executed in 1831, and for that collaboration had been installed to govern Tygrei as a reward.
Thus, Kassa really started his political career as a lieutenant in Gobezes Army and was installed further as the overlord of Tygrei after Gobeze won against Tewodros representative in Tygrei. By 1865 Kassa rebelled against Gobeze and installed himself as the overlord of Tygrei with very many challengers including descendants of Ras Wubie of Semien. Although Kassa forged his own destiny by associating himself with Gobeze, he was first installed as Balambaras by Tewodros, as stated above the only time he met the Emperor as a young man. This limited contact with Tewodros contrasts sharply with that of Menilik who grew up in the Court of Tewodros. [I will develop on this theme later.]
Other than the fact that Kassa followed the usual route of the tradition of succession to one subsection of Tygrei, he was not in any significant Imperial Ethiopian government structure. His power was purely in a local government structure in Tygrei. He was a leader aspiring to restore power to his family, who were legitimate successors to the Ethiopian Throne that was usurped by Mesafints and ultimately Tewodros.
As we all have read from history books and heard oral tradition, Tewodros was abandoned by most of his soldiers and followers. He fought with valor and courage in the great tradition of Emperors such as Amde Tsion, Sertse Dingle, Gelawdewos et cetera against the British Expeditionary Force. He committed suicide rather than being captured by the British. Kassa and his soldiers did not participate in that fight. They were not anywhere near the area. They were over three hundred miles from Maqdella at the time Tewodros was besieged at that formidable fortress and committed suicide. Blaming Kassa for the demise of Tewodros is simply foolish. Kassa was in fact the least important leader in the development of the event that lead to the death of Tewodros compared to Gobeze, Workit, and Menilik.
It is alleged by the Mehale Sefaris that Kassa had arranged with the British that once they had their citizens and other hostages freed that they would leave the country immediately leaving their weapons to Kassa. However, how much weapon was left behind is questionable since what is reported by Napier is a gift by Napier at his departure “by presenting him [Kassa] with six mortars, six howitzers, as well as 850 muskets and a goodly supply of ammunition.” The British Commander and his officers were very much impressed with the discipline and character of Kassa compared to Menilik and Gobeze. The British expeditionary force left promptly Ethiopia. However, the British soldiers did loot numerous Ethiopian historical documents and other treasured items and took those items with them to England. The point being the British did not alienate even a square inch of Ethiopian Territory; they barely survived with their lives.
There is a world of difference between the activities of a young man trying to climb up the ladder of power using a situation to his advantage that did not in any way endanger the freedom and territorial integrity of Ethiopia, compared to the activities of Menilik who was already a King, a fully grown man at the time when he betrayed Yohannes negotiating and signing agreements behind Yohannes’s back with Italy, and later as Emperor selling out huge Ethiopian territory and abandoning his own people into the hands of a brutal colonizer. In short, what young Kassa is accused of doing, which often left Mehale Sefaris foaming from the mouth in frenzy of hate, is “allowing” the British expeditionary force to pass through his part of the Ethiopian territory. He had ample reason to wish Tewodros’s destruction with whom he was getting ready to fight. Kassa had a legitimate reason to challenge Tewodros who was a usurper. And the Mesafintes, from whom Tewodros snatched power, had executed Kassa’s Great-Uncle Sebagadis. Kassa was the legitimate son of Dejazmatch Mirtcha Wolde Kidane and Woizero Silas and descendant of Lebne Dingle’s son on his mother’s side.
We being susceptible to all kinds of romanticized fantasies of Twentieth Century morality, we are not comfortable with Kassa, but his activity was far less than the type of treason and betrayal of Ethiopia by Menilik. The reason I gave this subsection an Ethiopian proverb as heading is to illustrate the point that the primary concern of the contenders was not the presence of a foreign power as a threat to Ethiopia’s independence, but how best each could position himself to be able to take advantage of the British presence in order to outmaneuver the others. I think the Ethiopian leaders knew that there was no chance that the British Force would survive the coordinated attack of the Ethiopians if the British Force decided to occupy Ethiopia and remain as a colonial power. Thus their attention was focused on getting rid of Tewodros who had committed so much atrocities and proceed to the ascendance of a new Emperor.
However, we can still appreciate how very different Kassa’s activities were from those of Menilik’s outright treason–selling Ethiopian territory for local power gain, money, and weapon. At any rate, Kassa after he was Crowned as Emperor Yohannes, more than atoned for his youthful activities in trying to climb the ladder of power by becoming the greatest defender of Ethiopia’s territorial integrity and the most valiant champion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. Other than Emperors Tewodros and Gelawdewos, Yohannes was the only other Ethiopian Emperor to die on a battle field fighting for his faith and country. [There were others such as Emperors Ze Dingl, Yacob et cetera who died in local fights. ]
C. Yohannes the Heroic and the Compassionate
As far as I am concerned, Ethiopia had never seen the likes of Emperor Yohannes IV for valor, foresight and statesmanship, generosity, and commitment to the Faith. It is to the great credit of Yohannes and his devotion to the Ethiopian Church that created such long lasting harmony among a contentious and divided Ethiopian Church of his time. It is his great leadership at the conference held at Boru Meda that set the practical guidance and the theological ideology that allowed successive generations of the Faithful to worship and glorify in harmony within a single Ethiopian Mother Church, God and the Christ, along with Saint Mary to this day thereby avoiding a division of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church between the Tewahdo and Tsega schisms.
Emperor Yohannes devoted all of his energy to restore Ethiopia to her old glory, trying to recover all of her lost territories both in the Western frontiers and the Red Sea Coastal territories. The following are the four major battles fought by Emperor Yohannes IV and his illustrious Commander, Ras Alula in defense of Ethiopia.
1. Gundet, 16 November 1875 against Egypt
2. Gura , 8-9 March 1876 against Egypt
3. Dogali, 26 January 1887 against Italy
4. Gallabat/Metema, 12 March 1889 against the Mahdist where Yohannes died in battle.
And in each instance of battle as indicated herein, Ethiopian independence was preserved. No Ethiopian territory was ever lost or sold under the reign of Yohannes IV. Yohannes was brave in battle and merciful to those whom he vanquished. He was always magnanimous to those who fought bravely against him, treating them with dignity and at times restoring them to their leadership position. He was much admired by brave warriors whom he had won over from the very start of his career as Balambaras to the very last as Emperor.
Yohannes was the most merciful Emperor Ethiopia ever had. He was kind to his enemies to a fault. As he was consolidating his power in Tygrei, Yohannes fought several battles with formidable enemies, and after winning the battle he never, not a single time, executed a captured enemy commander. In fact, he restored a few of them after a brief detention to their old posts and glory. After he became Emperor of Ethiopia, Yohannes forgave and reconciled with Menilik when he could have as easily crushed him into oblivion. He even tried to form a familial relationship with Menilik by having his young son Araya marry Menilik’s daughter Zewditu. By contrast, Menilik executed and burned the very first commander, Bezabih, whom he fought and captured, to become king of Shoa. In fact his own chief of staff Ato Nadow protested the atrocity that was being committed by Menilik’s men on fallen adversaries. [There are revisionist accounts that allege the burning of Bezabih was an accident due to Bezabih’s cloth catching fire from bullets at his execution.]
The Mehale Sefaris at times have attempted to create a mythical devastation by Yohannes of Gojjam. The reality on the ground of that incident, in fact, speaks volumes on the generosity and magnanimity of Yohannes; he spared Gojjam and forgave Tekle Haymanot for conspiring with Menilik against his Majesty. Yohannes had understood the pain and suffering of Tekle Hymanot losing a daughter and his great generals slaughtered by the Mahdis and was willing to forgive him of his treason. Yohannes inspired greatness even in his contenders. For example, his rival Dejazmatch Baria Gabre chose to fight along with him and died at an advanced age of over seventy fighting off the Mahdist insurrection defending Yohannes’s Corps. There are numerous oral traditions that tell us the humility almost frugal life Yohannes lead in his private life. On occasions he had wanted to become a monk but was persuaded by elders and Fathers of the Ethiopian Church that he had a mission and God’s order to discharge his duties as Emperor. Some other had alleged that Yohannes had, in fact, under gone the ceremony of being covered by shroud, renouncing the world et cetera of the process of becoming a monk.
There is no question that next to Emperor Zra Yacob, Emperor Yohannes was the most devoted and faithful servant of the Church of Ethiopia. He established great holdings and churches throughout his reign. Even at a time he was a struggling contender with limited means he devoted almost all of his personal fortune to buy land and built a church and sanctuary for Ethiopian pilgrims who traveled to the Holy City of Jerusalem. It is his foundational holding that Ethiopian pilgrims visit when they travel to Jerusalem to this day. His fear of God, humility, and sense of justice, and above all his sense of duty is unmatched by any Ethiopian Emperor or leader ever. It is his sense of duty to his people that led him back to when he was halfway coming to Shoa to punish Menilik for his treason when to decide to go back to face the Mahdists because he was informed that the Mahdists were going to attack Gondar and destroy Churches and massacre Christians as they had done earlier.
As an excellent example of Yohannes’s singular heroic effort, which sharply contrasts with the treasonous agreements Menilik entered with the Italian and British Governments throughout his reign, I have attached here below a Treaty entered between Emperor Yohannes, Khedive of Egypt, and the Queen of Britain, at Adowa on the 3rd of June 1884 (27 Genbot 1876) [Evidence: Two]. What is tragic is when Yohannes as Emperor was trying to build Ethiopia by a) obligating the Kehdieve to facilitate the appointment of Abuns, b) by opening the Port of Massawa, and c) by having Kessela and the Bogos (see Articles I, II, and IV), huge territories, back to Ethiopia, Menilik, a mere king at that, was undermining Yohannes’s effort. Menilik in secret was making his own secret negotiation and treasonous arrangement with Italy with a concession of Ethiopia’s vital interest and territory of Assab by an agreement of 21 May 1883 [ratified by Menilik in January of 1884] and endorsing Hanafari of Awssa arrangement with Italy’s Antonelli [see Evidence: Three, Articles 8-13; and Evidence: Four]. What Menilik was getting in return was weapon, which he was stockpiling in anticipation of challenging Yohannes for the Ethiopian Throne. If that is not one despicable act of treason, show me what treason is.
There was no threat whatsoever by any colonial power that was forcing Menilik at that time in 1883 to pursue his repeated acts of treason while Emperor Yohannes was engaged in a life and death struggle against foreign aggression and to clear the Ethiopian territory [the present “Eritrea”] from the intrusion and occupation by Egyptian/Turks and Italian armies. It was Menilik’s own insatiable greed for power that lead him to court the Italians behind Yohannes’s back to enter into an agreement whereby he would support their colonial ambition as long as they recognize him as King of Shoa and what ever he succeeded to add in the South. Historians have pointed out that Menilik had no interest in keeping Eritrea or Tygrea as part of Ethiopia. His main interest was to expand the frontier of Shoa. This same pattern of giving up Ethiopian Territory and interest was repeated on much monumental scale after the death of Yohannes, leading to the Battle of Adowa and followed by further concessions of Ethiopian Territory to Italy.
V.The Myth of European Colonialism
A. European Ambition, International Law, and Ethiopia
Yohannes came into power at the time when the colonial ambition of Europeans was in its last stage of the exhausted and overstretched old European Empires. After the 1860s contrary to the assumption of a number of Ethiopians there was no red hot colonial military expedition of the type that was true at the turn of the 19th Century. What we had was an exhausted old Empire with younger nations like Italy coming into statehood with new ambitions. People also seem to forget that a couple of generation earlier, Europe was devastated with the Napoleonic War where hundred of thousands of English, French, German, Russian, Spanish soldiers were killed not to mention the economic devastation that Europe suffered. However, it was also a period of great economic revival with new methods of farming and cattle breeding being implemented, as well as the change of energy source from water and gravity driven industrial system to a steaming (pardon the pun) industrial process.
The control of the Guild system, for example in Britain and France was also giving in to industrialization process, new source of wealth and power was coming into its own: modern capitalism. In other words, what I am saying is that there were a number of forces at work during the period of “colonialism” of the 19th Century that it will be a mistake to simply jump into a conclusion that the “Colonial” powers could at leisure walk into a territory and claim sovereignty. Thus, this tendency that a number Ethiopians or Africans in general fall into picturing a gargantuan monolithic Colonial European power swaggering without any restraint either from their own national policies or resistance from targeted communities is misleading. We need to carry out closer examination of such assumptions even if we have to go against the grain.
Even the most formidable colonial power of the time, the British, were not able to mount a full-fledged military campaign to free their diplomats from imprisonment at Meqdella. They had to use the help of local rebel leaders in order to carry out the Napier Expedition. Without the fact of having a rival leader with an ambition to become an Emperor of Ethiopia, the Napier Expedition would probably have failed or would not have been undertaken. Britain of the time was fully engaged and stretched to its limits through out the world managing its world wide dominion. Neither could Britain spare any further economic nor manpower to launch a military attack on national level against the Empire of Ethiopia. One can read the record and history of the acrimonious debate in Parliament to realize how unpopular military operations were considered in England and elsewhere in Europe, and as a result of war-exhaustion, and being engaged elsewhere, Britain did not pursue any meaningful colonial design on Ethiopia in subsequent years. A number of Ethiopians interested in Ethiopian history seem to suffer from, judging by the types of essays we write, our one-dimensional pursuit of what we assume to be “the” fact(s) of European colonizers overzealous effort to colonize Ethiopia. Whether it is individual life story, political processes, or the history of an event or the narration of an event, I believe there is more to an event when considered from some other trajectory.
Ethiopia was perceived by Ethiopian leaders (historians followed suite) as a Christian island in a sea of Islamic nations. Moreover, even before Christianity, Ethiopia was a singular, well organized, and dominant regional power. Since over 85% of the Nile water that finally reached the Mediterranean Sea originated from the highlands of Ethiopia, Egypt has always tried to control or destroy Ethiopia in order to ensure that nothing happens to the free flow of the bounty of the Blue Nile, the life blood of Egypt and the Sudan. One manner of control Egypt exercised over Ethiopia was through the appointment of Abuns, the head of the Ethiopian Church.
During the 19th Century, European colonial effort had focused on the East African countries partly due to the legend of the fabulous wealth of the land of Pester John, but most importantly the effort was to control the trade and sea routes between Europe, Africa, and the Middle and the Far East. The Colonial process was firmly articulated by the Vienna Congress of 1814-15 that took place after the defeat of Napoleon. Europe was reoriented and reconstituted. The new emerging European nations like Belgium, Germany, and Italy [much later since it became a unified state in 1860] were seeking a share of colonies in competition with the more established older colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, and Holland, nations that had already several beachheads in Africa and elsewhere.
B. Colonialism and International Treaties As a matter of well established principle of customary law, municipal or international, fraud, duress, or coercion could be raised as a legitimate challenge to an agreement by the defrauded or coerced party. For example, the principle against coercion is codified in Articles 51 and 52 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Thus, one may be tempted, as a blind statement, to assert that all colonial treaties are invalid because there is a kind of extra-legal presumption that all colonial activities are by nature constitutive of force and coercion. However, such approach is a very simplistic understanding of international law, political process, history, and international relations. It does not take great genius to recognize the defects of international law and its torturous way of development. The real effort of intelligent people is in discerning even within such defective system acts that are of purely private matter or where exchange for consideration had occurred and where the interest of the public had been preempted as a matter of domestic law or practice.
Moreover, such universal fact of the injustice of colonization should not blind us from examining even within such defective system particular acts of betrayal and treason, greed for money, and the insane ambition for power by individuals such as Menilik and other African Chiefs and tribal leaders. There is also the principle of estoppels that would freeze any such claim of breach or deprivation of a preexisting right where such a right was invoked to secure some other rights or benefits for the principal. Ultimately, we cannot escape the principle of uti possidetis which is lurking in the background, throwing a particularly difficult problem to overcome, and casting its long shadow of history from the experience of Latin American countries through the independence of African countries and their union (OAU) and subsequent Resolution of 1964, even if we succeeded to quash the Boundary Commissions Decision on issues of fraud/coercion, corruption, and the violation of fundamental rights of Ethiopian citizens (jus cogens). The Boundary Commission understanding the pitfall of using that principle used the less troublesome route of solely basing its decision on the Algiers Agreement of 2000.
One rhetorical argument overemphasized by my detractor is that since colonialism is a coercive process, all international agreements and relations during the period of “colonialism” are to be considered as signed under coercion (duress), thus not valid. The problem with that kind of rhetorical argument has to do with a hidden underlying fallacy. Let me put it in a form of a rhetorical question. Has there ever been a time in human history when all nations had equal influences and equal bargaining positions? Such approach is tantamount to saying human beings are defective creatures; therefore, what ever they do must also be defective and thus invalid. The problem mainly with all such argumentation has to do with the second part of the syllogism. For one, it does not allow of shades and compromises, the “give and take” that takes place in life underlying the first part of the syllogism. There is also the more disturbing fundamental assumption that casts human beings in the social Darwinian’s understanding of life pegged intractably on opposition and confrontation with no room for complementarities and cooperation. In short, with that type of logical reductio ad absurdum, we cannot proceed far in the real world.
It is always enlightening to withhold judgment until all the relevant facts are in. This may come as a great surprise to most of you as it did to me the first time I read the controversial 1986 Decision of the International Court of Justice some fifteen years ago. In that one decision, no less than an ad hoc judge of the International Court of Justice wrote as part of his opinion giving “colonialism” a totally different ennobling role in Africa. Judge Luchaire wrote in his separate opinion: “On the one hand, it would be wrong to ignore a certain opinion—which like all opinions, whether one shares them or not, is deserving of some respect—to the effect that independence is not the opposite of colonization but rather its crowning achievement, especially in case where it has been obtained, without fighting, from an administrating authority which has facilitated the cultural, economic, social and political progress of the inhabitants, such progress being fundamental to any genuine independence.” [Burkina Faso v. Mali Boundary Dispute, (separate opinion of Judge Luchaire) ICJ Report 1986, 652]. In other words, colonialism is considered a beneficial process that brought about enlightenment, education, and higher realization of human potential in parts of Africa. I am not endorsing the views of Judge Luchaire at all, nor am I reducing such a complex subject, as my detractor did, and lump every treaty signed even by treasonous leaders as signed under coercion.
C. The Myth of the Threat of Colonialism
The recent orchestrated effort of the Mehale Sefaris, aspiring intellectuals, ambitious politicians, die-hard chauvinists, and opportunist brainless business Webmasters to redefine the meaning of Ethiopianness by using Emperor Menilik as a yardstick and standard defies both logic and history. What has been oozing out from the orifices of such new brand of historians cum political scientists is nothing less than the blackmailing of Ethiopians by demanding that for anyone to be considered an Ethiopian must foremost accept that Menilik as the greatest, most brave, most intelligent, most generous, et cetera, et cetera Ethiopian leader. The facts are very different than what those people want them to be. Menilik was anything but heroic, patriotic, generous et cetera. In the last two months I have read articles posted in Websites that are some of the most convoluted revisionist writing in the history of Ethiopia.
In order to set the record straight and to stop further distortion and lies, I have added this brief overview of European history relevant to the period of Menilik. The European colonial powers as we can easily identify during the period of colonialism were Belgium, Britain, France, Germany (limited to the 20th Century), Italy (since the 1870s), Portugal, Russia, and Spain. The most active and relevant colonial powers in connection with Ethiopian history of the Nineteenth Century are Britain, France, and Italy. If we simply develop a simple timeline for all four nations, we will be able to evaluate if there was any particular danger to Ethiopian independence and sovereignty at any time in the Nineteenth Century.
We hear both serious and charlatan historians as well as political scientists, cafe-room intellectuals making reference or asserting outright, as did my detractor and his supporters, that the fear of colonialism was the one fact that had affected the decision of Menilik to cede Ethiopian territories and abandon Ethiopian subjects into colonial bondage. This has been the all encompassing reason that is thrown to silence any questioning of the activities of Menilik since the time he became King of Shoa 1868-1889 and Emperor of Ethiopia 1889-1913.
When I examined this myth of “colonial threat” to Ethiopia what I found was a lot of assumptions and excuses, or thinly disguised apologist account of the actions of Menilik and others. Italy was not even a nation until 1860; Garibaldi and his followers fashioned the State of Italy launching their effort from Palermo, Sicily. Incidentally, Crispi, who was the Prime Minister of the Italian Government responsible for the Military incursion into Ethiopia leading to the Battle of Adowa, was one of the founders of Italy as special aid to Garibaldi. The only European nation with colonial ambition and design on Ethiopia was Italy.
1. Great Britain
By the time Yohannes IV came to power Britain was an old but most powerful colonial state with its domain stretching through out the World. In other words, what this meant was that its forces were fully deployed and engaged to their limits. There was no overriding desire to acquire an additional and especially difficult colony to the Empire. This was absolutely made clear by the British withdrawal promptly from Ethiopia after fielding no less than thirty two thousand men to free its diplomats from Maqdalla. In the past, the British had conquered subcontinents with less. What at times seems to elude our understanding, but European colonizers had understood far better is the difficulty of subjugating a tenacious and courageous people who have never known a foreign master through out their history of thousands of years. Especially when we consider the rugged Ethiopian terrain (a logistic nightmare to any European general), and Ethiopia being a vast well populated nation, it is clear why one would hesitate to attack Ethiopia then. Only Ethiopians could handle such tremendous difficulties.
At the time of the defeat of Italy at Adowa by Menilik, Britain was following what was known as the “Splendid Isolation” of the 1890s. The main aim of the British Government since the 1870s had been that of maintaining “the balance of power” not allowing any one European country or group of countries becoming powerful. In the 1890s that policy was most pronounced and identified with Lord Salisbury who was Prime Minister during that Period. In other words, not only Britain on its own was not in any position to move to colonize Ethiopia, but would not have allowed any other country to do so. Britain’s support in case of Italy to begin with was a strategic move [due to Menilik’s flirtation with France] but not a matter of policy, thus Britain would have scrapped the whole support it had for Italy without adverse effect to Ethiopia had Menilik insisted on such outcome when he had all the cards after the Battle of Adowa. It is a fact that Britain did turn down Italy’s appeal for help to counter Ethiopia’s military win at Adowa. Rather than taking advantage of the great victory at Adowa, Menilik once again chose to look after his own selfish interest of saving his Throne from imagined contenders of the people of Tygrei, Hamassien, Akale Guzi et cetera.
What Menilik feared most was the Tygrean descendants of Yohannes and their supporters with the possibility of the added forces from newly incorporated “Eritrea” to Ethiopia if Italy was completely pushed out. The traditional leaders from Hamassien, Akale Guzi, Serei et cetera warriors already intermarried and having bonded even under Italian occupation with their counterparts in Tygrei proper would have made minced meat of Menilik in a flash of time; Menilik with his unpopularity in Gojjam, Wollo, Gondar, and even with Oromos had little chance of surviving as King of Shoa let alone that of Ethiopia with a concerted effort of a new block of power that would be inevitable in formation up in the North. Begemder, Wollo, and Gojjam will follow suite in no time and Shoa would face one more time a far more formidable force than either Tewodros or Yohannes. Faced with such possibility, Menilik, thus, once again he chose to save his own skin at the cost of the long term welfare of the people of Ethiopia.
Menilik needed Italy to stay as an occupation force in Eritrea for sometime in order to reign in, or oppress potential “Eritrean” challengers from forming alliance with their counterparts in Tygrei and claim autonomy, the crown, or anything else. If we are kindly disposed to Menilik we may say that he was bidding for time in order to stabilize his leadership first and later mount a strong campaign to reclaim all of the territory occupied by Italy. At least by reading the Convention he entered with Italy in 1900 Article II we can surmise the arrangement is a temporary one. It is stipulated in Article II that “[t]he Italian Government binds itself not to cede or sell to any other Power the territory comprised between the line Tomat, Todluc, Mareb-Mai, Ambessa-Mai, Feccia-Mai Maretta-Mai, Ha-Mahio, Piano galline Faraone, and the line Tomat, Todluc, Mareb, Belesa, Muna, left by His Majesty Menelek II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, to Italy.” [Evidence: Seven] [Emphasis added]
France was in far worse position than Britain to put up any colonial challenge against Ethiopia during the crucial period in 1870s and later after the Battle of Adowa in the 1890s. Within a couple of years after Menilik became King of Shoa the Franco-Prussian (German) War of 1870-71 devastated France with a costly defeat with a loss of over one hundred fifty thousand soldiers and the giving up as compensation to Germany Alsace and Lorraine in addition to paying the equivalent of billions of dollars worth of compensation in gold et cetera. What we have is a demoralized France with the fall of the Second Republic.
The Third Republic of France did not fare much better either. The Third Republic which finally was able to acquire overseas territories after having settled its 1875 Constitutional crisis was not in any position to challenge either Britain or Germany. It tried to get out of the political box it was put into by signing the Franco-Russian Agreement thereby creating some form of counterweight to Britain. The history of the period leading up to the First World War is a complex one with all kinds of turns. France had started by 1890 to expand forcefully its colonial occupation from West Africa across the Sahara to the Horn of Africa and beyond. The point that is important for our discussion here is that France was in fact on friendly terms with Ethiopia as part of its strategy to counter balance Britain’s support of Italy. It even supplied weapon to Menilik in preparation for a show down with Italy/Britain that resulted in the famous victory for Ethiopia at the Battle of Adowa. However, France’s activities elsewhere in Africa should not be seen as alarming to Ethiopia. The possible threat of France to Ethiopian independence is neutralized by British interest and its strategic policy of balance of power. Thus, there was no real danger of Ethiopia being colonized by France. More importantly there has never been any documentary evidence to support the existence of such plan on the part of France.
It is absolutely clear that the involvement of France has nothing to do with the alleged genius or international political savvy of Menilik. France was interested in Ethiopia not as a partner but as a pawn to be played against Britain and Italy for France’s own effort to get out of the political dead-end it found itself boxed in since the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The political game that was being played out in Europe had no room to any player from outside of Europe as a strategy partner. Whether Menilik or the Khedive of Egypt, both were mere pawns. The exaggeration of recent articles of the importance and genius of Menilik manipulating European leaders is wishful thinking, simply put. The political game of the period was the “balance of power” with a constantly shifting and reformation of new alliances in between the colonial powers of old and those aspiring into the ranks.
The truth does not diminish us. The more palatable reason why the European colonizers, except the novice government of Italy, did not try to colonize Ethiopia had to do with their having studied closely Ethiopian history, its tenacious free people who never had been subjugated by a foreign master, its military readiness, its difficult terrain, its marginal wealth, its Orthodox and austere Christian Church et cetera and wisely judged that going after Ethiopia as a whole was not a viable alternative. However, Italy being “the new kid on the block” or as we say “Ye gib chikul quend yineksal” did not understand such fine points, and did not even understand that it was being used as a pawn by Britain in the European political chess game. Italy jumped head long to carve out a colony in East Africa–a grand but foolish vision.
To this day, no matter how hard I have tried, I did not find a single government policy paper, serious report, serious news article, or book et cetera urging Britain or France to colonize Ethiopia. There were some wayward adventurers such as the Emissary of Louis Philippe, Charles E. X. Rochet, who visited Ethiopia during the time of Sahle Selassie, who wrote about creating a great empire in East Africa. There was also the banner political slogan “From Dakar to Djibouti” to counter the British similar political banner “From Cairo to Cape Town.” These slogans were simply reflections of the ambitions of enterprising individuals such as Cecil Rhode. We cannot base serious discussion on the fleeting ambitions of individuals expressed in eye catching slogans their fantasy of empire building.
3. Belgium, Spain, Russia, and Germany
Belgium like Italy was a late comer to the institution of colonialism though one may argue that as part of the Netherlands, Belgium was also one of the old colonial powers of Europe maybe even more powerful at one period than Britain and the equal of Spain. Nevertheless, in the Nineteenth Century Belgium adopted a policy of neutrality. This is not in anyway to undermine the atrocity committed by the administrators of the Belgian Congo held as the private property of Leopold II. In connection with Ethiopia, Belgium had no design whatsoever on Ethiopia. In fact much later, Belgium opposed Italy’s war against Ethiopia.
Germany, Spain, and Russia like Belgium had certain interest in Ethiopia not of the Colonial kind, but a cultural one. In case of Spain the interest was far deeper and profound than mere curiosity and goes a long way back to the Fifteenth Century. In other words for Europeans, Ethiopia was a known civilization, a Christian nation with ancient history, and with formidable military capacity. They knew it will not be easy adventure to go up against Ethiopia. They knew that Ethiopian Emperors can field over a hundred thousand soldiers as a matter of course any time. Such capacity showed great logistic ability and coherence. European colonizers knew also how deep and universal the Orthodox Christian Church (they identified it as Coptic) was in the lives of Ethiopians. They knew also that Ethiopians have fought back with great courage and survived the might of the Ottoman Empire whereas by contrast many European nations were defeated and conquered by the Turks. No colonial Power will risk going against such formidable nation and people as Ethiopia and Ethiopians were unless you are a foolish new country like Italy.
For European colonizers Ethiopia is like the “Roadrunner,” very hard to catch, and even if you succeeded to do so, what you get is a mouthful of feather, tough skin, mussels, and bones–not some plum turkey breast. Thus, except for the foolish ambition of an upstart nation of Italy, there was no threat to Ethiopia of colonization by any other European country. I mean none whatsoever!!