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Book review "Between the Jaws of Hyenas" Reviewed by Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia

“Between the Jaws of Hyenas”
A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia (1876-1896)
Richard Caulk

Edited and with an introduction by Bahru Zewde Harrassowitze Verlag, Weisbaden, 2002

Tigrai Online March 22, 2013

This book is expansive in terms of volume – runs into 688 pages – as well as rich in data collected from various authors, historians, chroniclers, diplomatic exchange letters, archives, manuscripts, dissertations, theses, and scholarly papers. The author, no doubt, is detail-oriented although he does not follow the traditional chronology of events most historians employ as their methodology. On the contrary, Richard Caulk goes back and forth between dates in order to show the significance and relevance of some events, even at the risk of repeating himself over and over again.

Some of the Ethiopian names of people and places are spelled differently (e.g. Tegray, Mangasha, Menilek, Akkala Guzay etc) and for the sake of authenticity I will preserve Caulk’s spelling style, but in some instances I will use my own spelling method in order to suit current and official spellings of names.

Before I venture into reviewing the contents, substance, and overall presentation of the book, I like to give credit to Bahru Zewde who edited the book by also writing an introduction, and I can sense the difficulties Bahru encountered in putting the pieces of the chapters together that make up the corpus of the book. On page 11, for instance, Bahru states, “The problem of editing has been compounded not only by the size but also by the shape of the manuscript. To begin with there were many unconnected pages and stray or missing footnotes. Moreover, a number of the pages were marked by deletions and interpolations, hand written rather than typed and not infrequently flowing into the back of the page or into subsequent pages.”

My task of reviewing this book, thus, is by far easier than the challenges of Bahru Zewde and I will guide the reader through the various chapters (25 in all) and pages of the book by way of narrating and critiquing the overall diplomatic history of Ethiopia between 1876 and 1896. So that the reader gets the flavor of Caulk’s historical account, I will quote some important sentences that relay significant events in Ethiopian modern history and in this sense this review is going to depart from the conventional book reviews that are focused on the literary and documentary qualities as well as organization of any given book.

Given the time line, as indicated in the subtitle, this book is essentially about the vexed diplomatic relations of emperors Yohannes and Menelik mainly with European powers and the tremendous challenges they had encountered in the defense of Ethiopian independence and sovereignty from the menacing European imperial powers that have virtually occupied the entire continent of Africa, save Ethiopia, during the reigns of Yohannes and Menelik.

The title ‘between the jaws of hyenas’ refers to the British and Italians that, in some form or another, threatened the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia. By the time the European powers partitioned Africa into their respective colonies and sphere of influences in 1884, the British concluded the Adwa Treaty (also know as Hewett Treaty) with Yohannes and Ethiopia was entitled by the treaty to regain the Bogos and Massawa area of Mareb Mellash (present day Eritrea), but as we shall see later the British in fact had given the blessings and green light to the Italians to take over at least some part of Ethiopian territory.

The other two major actors that were involved in Ethiopian affairs during the complex drama of African colonization were the Russians and the French. However, for all intents and purposes, while the Russians were in favor of Ethiopian independence, the French, who were one of the competing imperial powers, pretended in supporting Ethiopia’s sovereignty but in actual fact they were playing a double standard and vacillating for the most part.

By Caulk’s account, it looks that Menelik was either bewildered by the amorphous political stances of the French or he must have had bestowed some trust to them. “Menelik had somewhat naively assumed,” says Bahru, “that the French would play a disinterested role and was disconcerted to discover that they had their own territorial ambitions.”

In the introduction to the Book that Bahru wrote, he succinctly captures the distinct roles Yohannes and Menelik played when the Italians encroached Ethiopia’s northern most territory: “The death of Yohannes meant the fall of the north, for he was ‘the linchpin for the defense of the northern highlands’…When he died at Matamma, the loss of the Marab Mellash, as Eritrea was then known, became almost inevitable. Menilek certainly seems to have come to acquiesce in it, although he made some effort to salvage what he considered essential parts throughout the 1890s.”

Chapter I discusses “Menilek II and the Diplomacy of Commerce: Prelude to an Imperial Foreign Policy,” and the focus is more on Menelik as a diplomatist. Thus, the author argues, “Menilek cannot be understood when regarded merely as a victor of Adwa masterfully balancing, to his own advantage, the ambitions of the European powers in the Horn and the Nile basin. Only from the later 1890s could he rely on the powers having sufficient in him to create a local balance of power by which he could promote his own concerns. Similarly, the menace of Italian invasion was a relatively late interlude in his career (1889-96). Earlier and for longer, Menilek had confronted official indifference. The virtuosity in political diplomacy, of the second half of his career had been prepared through long years of self-schooling. It is this period of apprenticeship and of groping to attract allies which forms the prelude to the defensive diplomacy by which he contented Italian imperialism from 1889, and to the balance of power diplomacy which followed Italian defeat at Adwa.”

Caulk further illuminates his argument by substantiating the political stances of Menelik shaped by circumstances. “Beset with difficulties in Shawa and with the struggle to impose his clients in Wallo, Menilek was unable to gain any material aid from Egypt and the European powers. He had as yet contrived no means of persuading them that they owed him any consideration.

Caulk also compares Menelik to Yohannes in regards to dominion control: “As Yohannes took hold of the central provinces and Gojjam between 1873 and 1875, Menilek was left to face north’s growing power alone. Denied in internal coalition, he had little choice of foreign allies. Shunned by Aden and by the French, he turned belatedly to the Khedive.”

Before Menelik consolidated as emperor of Ethiopia, in the face of “the Tegrean and their Goajjame and Wallo allies [who] marched into Shawa in early 1878”, his “foreign policy had achieved little for his defense.”  Despite his relatively weaker position in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, Menelik had diplomatically connected himself with the French. In 1880, for instance, he “sealed letters…accrediting another French trader, Louis August Bremond, as his envoy to France. He was to arrange for the use of Obock as the port of Shawa.”

Menelik’s ambitions, however, would not be realized. On the contrary, as indicated on pp 28-29 of the book, “The French government was unable to avoid occupying Obock and the whole northwestern shore of the bay (occupation began in July-August 1884). In the meantime rivalry with the British, and the inconvenience of trading inland from Obock and the neighboring Afar ports (Tajura itself and Sagallo), drew the French around to the southeastern shore from 1887-8, to develop Djibouti among the Issa.”

Menelik also created diplomatic ties with the Italians, and as indicated in Chapter II of the book Antonelli had become the de facto “diplomatic representative of the Shawan court.” Meanwhile, Yohannes “first heard of the occupation of Massawa in 1885 and wrote a letter to Menelik and the latter understood that “the emperor was outraged.” Hence, Menelik proposed to Yohannes to mediate between the King of Kings and the Italians but “Yohannes replied that his good offices would not be needed…”

Yohannes, of course, was very suspicious of the Italians who had begun encroaching on Ethiopian territory and he was “quicker to see” the danger that “either the politicians in Rome or Menilek in Shawa” could not fathom. However, in Shawa, equally suspicious of foreigners was Empress Taytu, Menelik’s wife; interestingly, Yohannes had supporters within the Shawan court, “the pro-Tegrean party led by Taytu and the clergy.” “While it was not the most numerous faction in the Shewan court,” says Caulk, “it was the strongest, according to Antonelli, because of the umber of commanders expert soldiers from Tegre and the central provinces (collectively called Gondaré, though they might be from somewhere else in the North) who served Menilek but sympathized with Yohannes.”

In spite of the so-called “pro-Tegrean party,” Yohannes remained the sovereign supreme power and “by mid-October 1885, he ordered Menilek to tell the few Catholic missionaries he had allowed back in eastern Shewa since 1883 to depart” and by the end of February 1886 all missionaries, catholic and protestant alike had to leave.

Long before the occupation of Massawa, however, the English Gerald Portal, secretary of Cromer, explained that the Italians stepped in into Massawa with England’s blessings. At this point, Ras Alula, who would later confront and defeat the Italians two times, “received the Italian envoys, Vincenzo Ferrari and Dr. Ceasare Nerazzini, at Asmara where they assured him that the retrocession of Bogos as well as other right conferred on Ethiopia in June 1884 by the Ethio-Egyptian treaty negotiated by Hewett were recognized by the Italian government.”

Alula, like Yohannes was suspicious of the Italians and as a result “Menilek’s freedom to conduct his own foreign relations was called into question.” In the response to the sudden appearance of the Italians at the Massawa coast, Yohannes wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, warning her of the abuse of the Hewett Treaty, and when he got a response from the Queen on April 1885 through Harrison Smith, he sent a copy of the letter to Menelik.

Chapter III deals with the first Italo-Ethiopian war of 1887-89. Yohannes was determined to fight the Italians and Menelik would be forced to take sides in the defense of Ethiopia and military confrontation with the Italians. This perhaps was a major challenge to Menelik and his dilemma was clearly testified when he confided his Swiss advisor, Alfred Ilg as follows: “We were like two dogs ready for a fight, but who turn on a hyena if one comes along and tries to join us.” Menelik is referring to his rivalry with Yohannes and the metaphoric hyena could have inspired Richard Caulk to choose such a title to his book.

In any event, Yohannes, who was determined to confront the Italians (and he defeated them in 1885 and 1887) and who rejected Menelik’s initial proposal of mediation may have been compelled to reconsider his original dismissal and accept rather Menelik’s strategy.

According to Portal, however, Yoahnnes “would grant nothing entailing the cession of an inch of land.” “His return from Ashange preceded by only a few marches the northward march of Yohannes and his forces. By the time Portal reached the Italian lines on the mainland facing Massawa in the last week of December, reinforcements fro Shere in Western Tegre had joined Alula at Asmara and the whole of the emperor’s expeditionary force of some one hundred thousand was being deployed between Alula’s outpost at Ginda and Maqale, Yohannes’ capital in southeastern Tegre.”          

In the letter he wrote to Victoria, Yohannes clearly stated that he would make peace with the Italians so long they do not violate the territorial integrity of Ethiopia and this is how he put it: “The time to say ‘Be reconciled’, is when they [the Italians] are in their country as I am in mine and not when one has taken up the sword, loaded his guns and is leading an army.”

With his determination, thus, Yohannes sent more troops to reinforce Alula’s forces and he transferred his headquarters to Kudofelasi, between Marab and Asmara. “In the following weeks he was obliged to the edge of the escarpment and then down to Ghinda and the Aylät valley, just above Sähati in a futile attempt to draw the invader out into the open.”

While Yohannes made the necessary military preparations to combat the Italians, he was at the same time seeking the peaceful way if the Italians were willing to leave Ethiopian territory. Unfortunately, however, during this time, his personal problems and Ethiopia’s problems were compounded. His son, Araya Selassie, the husband of Menelik’s daughter Zawditu and who served as governor of Wollo died; his cousin Dabbab Araya defected to the Italians (by today’s parlance, he committed treason); Mahdist incursions had begun in earnest in Western Ethiopia; and northern Ethiopia was engulfed with what the author characterizes as “cattle disease introduced by stock brought to the coast from India to supply the Italian expedition.” Some historians argue that this was not simply “cattle disease” but Rinderpest deliberately introduced by the Italians so that they could decimate Ethiopian domestic animals and thereby incapacitate the relatively robust Ethiopian army.

While all the above problems occurred in the face of Italian threat, as per Caulk’s observations, the two subordinate kings, namely Menelik of Shawa and Teklehaimanot of Gojjam (who were rivals) may have conspired against Yohannes. Writing at the beginning of 1887, Traversi states, “When he [Menelik] wants something, the king is movingly kind but if he must keep a promise, even one which serves his interest, or do the least favor, he is deaf in both ears.” Traversi’s charge is supplemented by Gabra-Heywat Baykedagn, whom Caulk calls ‘Menilek’s most outspoken and intelligent Ethiopian critic,’ “accused him [Menelik] of rank opportunism.”

Interestingly, Caulk discusses Menelik’s dealings with the Italians. For instance, he says, Menelik dispatched a telegram to Antonelli when he was at Massawa and “proposed Shawan alliance on condition that Italy obtained territory.” Furthermore, Caulk says, “How much Menilek had expected to have to pay for his alliance in mid-1888 remains unclear. The secret treaty of October 1887 had promised that Italy would seek no annexation in its war with Yohannes. But Menilek’s attempt to mediate had revealed to him that Italy required territorial compensation for Dogali.”

The Italian officials including the then Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, Baldissera, and Antonelli were hiding their territorial ambitions to Menelik except in some instances where they have indicated they needed a “cooler place” [Aylät] to station their troops. In this regard, Caulk’s observations are interesting: “If indeed Menilek was under the illusion that Aylät or Ginda midway between the sea and Asmara was all he would have to cede, he had much miscalculated the course of Italian imperialism under Francesco Crispi.”

“To test Menilek, apparently,” states Caulk, “Yohannes called him to come for a further campaign against the Mahdists. Menilek made excuses saying he had to send his soldiers west to stop the Sudanese there and citing the loss of transport animals suffered in previous service to the emperor.”

Whether it is due to Menelik’s hesitation and miscalculation or due to the unfortunate death of Yohannes at Matamma, the future Eritrea, as Italy’s first colony would be forged, and that is what Chapter IV of the book deals with.

Chapter IV of the book essentially covers Alula’s response to Italy’s encroachment on Ethiopian’s terriroty; power rivalry within Hamassien (Marab Mellash) and how Yohannes recruited Wolde-Michael Solomon and how the latter marched on Bogos on behalf of Yohannes and how his forces returned intact; the role of Ras Sebhat and civil war in Tigray; the loss of Marab Mellash and why Menelik did not recognize it until 1900.

Yohannes wrote a letter to Abu Anja, the commander of the Mahdist forces at Matamma on 25 December 1888 and this was the message he tried to convey to him: “Now if I advance into your country and kill the poor and if you come into my country and kill the poor and the helpless what advantage will it be [?]…Let us both unite against our common enemies, the Europeans. If these conquer me, they will not spare you.”

In regards to the role of Ras Sebhat in the politics of the last quarter of the 19th century Ethiopia, Caulk says, “Among the commanders who survived the Battle of Matamma was Shum Agame Sebhat Aregawi, who played a pivotal role thereafter in the struggle between Menilek, Mangasha, and the Italians to create parties loyal to them in Tegray. He was the grandson of the most popular of the province’s upstart leaders, Subagadis Wäldu (more properly, Suba Gadis, d. 1831). During the dangerous retreat across the Täkazzé from Matamma, Ras Alula gave Sebhat charge of the rear guard. The family biography describes how he defeated the Mahdist forces which pursued Alula and Yohannes’s heir, Mangasha, and was then transferred to the van to protect the heir from the equally serious menace of rebels in Dambiya.”

Chapter V discusses important themes that illustrate historical events as they unfolded: The author’s perspective on Menelik’s version and the chronicler’s distortion of history;

How Menelik ceded large part of Hamssien; contrasting political positions vis-à-vis the colonizers and how Menelik lost what Yohannes and Alula defended; the very day Yohannes died Menelik reopened negotiations with the Antonelli; the role of Yosef Neguse in translating the Treaty of Wechale; Ethiopian sovereignty over Debre Bizen; Zula as port of Ethiopia even before the rise of Aksum; Italians looking for any allies to destroy Alula and Alula’s stratagem – his proposal to Antonelli and the latter’s caution. 

Caulk seems to capture the intricacy of Ethiopian politics following the death of Yohannes and attempts to redeem historical distortion as he put it: “Menilek’s chronicler is writing official history when he portrays Menilek as being taken by surprise by the Italian advance to the escarpment at Asmara and then across Hamasén and the two other most northerly, Christian highland provinces, Akkalä Guzay and Särayé, to the middle Marab from august 1889 to January 1890. “Weren’t we friends before?” Menilek is made to exclaim. “Why then have you taken lands which do not belong to you? What brought you into this territory which is mine and not yours? Now, leave it!”

“The chronicler’s version of how northern Ethiopia was partitioned is a distorted one,” notes Caulk and he further argues, “It pretends that only when Menilek reached Tegray in February-March 1890 did the Italians ask for “a cooler place [than Massawa], and that it was at that time that Menilek first made any territorial concessions. In fact, he had already surrendered his right as Yohannes’s successor to the territory from the coast to Asmara. While Menilek and Pietro Antonelli were in Wechale in Wallo in the first days of May 1889, the new emperor ceded large parts of Hamasén adjacent strips of Akkäla Guzay, to the south of the district of Asmara. He also ceded that part of the coast frequented by northern traders as well as Käran with all the territory towards the Sudan recovered by Yohannes by the Hewett Treaty of 1884. The chronicler leaves us to infer the extent of Menilek’s acquiescence by citing only Särayé and Akkäla Guzay as being assigned in March 1890 to Dajjazmach Mäshäsha Warqe, the deputy Menilek appointed for Adwa and the lands beyond the Marab and the Balasa once he had arrived in Tegray.”

One other challenge that Caulk brought against Meneilk’s chronicler has yet to do with the emperor’s relaxed attitude toward the Italians when they grabbed most of Marab Mellash. “In the reconstruction Menilek circulated in Europe just after Adwa, he adhered more closely to events than his chronicler does. Menilek places his acquiescence in Italian demands for advancing their frontier away from the narrow, coastal lowlands, where Yohannes and Alula had contained them, in the period before he and Antonelli had signed the Treaty of Wechale. Indeed, by agreeing at Wechale to an Italian advance to the escarpment, Menilek gave the Italians, on paper at least, the avenue for further annexations. Civil war, even before Yohannes’s death, however, had already invited the intervention.”

Chapter VI is entitled ‘Menilek’s First Year as Emperor: The Aftermath of Wechale and it presents in some detail important political events and political personas. Above all, it discusses how Menelik and Ras Mekonnen were disappointed by the British; Menelik and Mekonnen’s desire to have the entire area of Harar between Berbera and the Bay of Tajura formerly administered by Egypt; the Russians in Ethiopia, particularly Mashcov and Achinov and their plan to establish a trading post at the Bay of Tajura at Sagallo; Assab and Massawa to be open to the arms trade treaty; how Afewrok Gabra-Iyasus, the author of Dagmawi Menilek, challenged Ras Mekonnen after he learned that Ethiopia had become a protectorate; Menelik in Tigray; Alaqa Takla Iyasus, author of Tarika Nagast on Menelik’s exemplar role of positive attitude towards manual labor; Abba Jifar and Menelik; the historian Atsme Giorgis; how Ras Alula saved Ras Mangasha; Assafa Zawde on Ras Sebhat (Ya Ras Sebhat Tarik); Bahta Hagos and Ras Sebhat’s contention over the Muna; the case of Dayr as-Sultan, Ethiopian Monastery in Jerusalem.

According to Caulk, Mekonnen “continued by listing the disappointment and misunderstanding that both he as governor of Harar and Menilek had suffered in trying to get British cooperation.” “The British were right to thinking,” says Richard Caulk, “that the promise of Italy’s diplomatic support had emboldened Mekonnen and Menilek into desiring to have the whole of what had been the Egyptian province of Harar between Berbera and the Bay of Tajura.”

It is also interesting to note how Afewrok Gabra-Iyasus confronted Ras Mekonnen on the issue of Ethiopia’s sovereignty and independence and this is how Caulk puts Afewrok’s blunt assertion: He “says that when he read in the newspaper (in October 1889) that the Treaty of Wechale had made Ethiopia a protectorate, he asked Mekonnen, ‘why has such a terrible thing which is harmful to Ethiopia been done?’”       

What makes Caulk’s book interesting, among other things, is that he referenced many Ethiopian chroniclers and historians, one of whom is Alaka Takla-Iyasus. Following less cultivation and poor harvest and subsequent starvation, “Alaqa Takla-Iyasus, a chronicler of the provincial dynasty of Gojjam, states that Menilek example himself hoeing, did change the attitude of the professional soldiers and their commanders about this sort of manual labor.”

Another chronicler by the name Atseme Giorgis testifies how Menelik’s northward expedition was precipitated the defeat of one of his subordinates. He “justifies the inopportune exertion by explaining the news of the defeat of Menilek’s candidate Dajjazmach Seyoum Gabra-Kidan by Ras Alula at Adwa occasioned the mobilization.”

Yet, another chronicler, Assafa Zawde documented how the Italians armed Seyoum Gabrakidan and how he defeated Abba Fatan Baryaw, “a kinsman of Sebhat’s and a partisan of Mangasha’s. Abba Fatan was driven out of his lands to Adwa. Seyoum then made pact with Sebhat who had a truce with Tadla of Ayba when this old enemy deserted Mangasha.”

The civil war in Tigray clearly must have had, by default, contributed to the loss of Marab Mellash in the same vein as Menelik gave territorial concessions to the Italians. But, even in the midst of the civil war notables like Ras Sebhat have defended Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In one instance, for example, Sebhat rejected Bahta Hago’s claim of Muna as his borderline.     

One interesting anecdote mentioned in the last part of Chapter VI is the case of the controversial Dayr as-Sultan and Cualk puts it, “Taytu had commissioned him [Mekonnen] to buy land for hospice she wish to build for Ethiopia’s pilgrims and for the monks driven by the Copts from Dayr as-Sultan, the monastery near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which Saladin [Salah al-Din] had given the Ethiopians in the twelfth century. For a generation and more before 1889, appeals to the patriarch in Cairo, to Turkish authorities in Palestine and British consular agents in Jerusalem had been to no avail in rectifying the injustice.”

Chapter VII is about the French connection and Leon Chevneux’s arrival in Shawa in the first days of October 1890; his caravan of fast-firing Hotchkiss Steel mountain guns was held up in the lowlands by trouble with the Afar drivers. He had brought fifteen canons, each with two hundred shells…All the French guns were displayed outside the entrance to Minilek’s reception hall at Addis Ababa in order to impress Sultan Abba Jifar, when he arrived with Jimma’s annual tribute and other visitors.

In regards to the French missioners at Harar, Caulk tells us that they “did help keep the court abreast. Sometime before Antonelli’s return, according to Atseme Giorgis ‘Abuna Yacob [viz., Taurin], as well as some Frenchmen who were friends of Ethiopia, wrote admonishing Menilek: ‘Why do you debase your honored country and sell it?’ They also translated for him Article 17 so that the emperor wept for his mistake. But Empress Taytu comforted him saying, ‘No agreement shall hereafter be concluded without my knowledge for you are easily deceived.’”  

“A further voice of warning,” says Caulk “was added by the arrival in Addis Ababa sometime in 1890 of a Greek, Christos Papadopoulos, who had gone to Harar in the last year of the Egyptian occupation and stayed on under Mekonnen to organize and direct a provincial police force of 300 Somali. From 1890, he worked for the emperor himself, rising to the rank of dajjazmach before his death in 1930. …He claimed later in life to have altered Menilek to the danger of Article 17, as indicated in L’Empire d’Ethiopia by A. Zervos.

Given the above admonitions, thus, Menelik’s “fear of Italy’s intention to cut him off from the sea as well as to isolate him diplomatically from Europe was well justified. News from Pestalozza’s mission was enough to act against the danger of encirclement. Three days after sealing the letter to president Carnot, he wrote again to Victoria appealing for the Zeila route to be kept free as an access to the sea. Reminding her that this was the preferred route for the commerce of all southern Ethiopia, he asked the British to help him extend Ethiopian control over it when Ras Mekonnen should be received at Aden.”

Chapter VIII is entitled “Rupture: Antonelli’s last Mission to Shawa”, and this Italian envoy, at long last, came up with a very curious proposal that seemingly would suit the Ethiopian interest. “On 23 December 1890, Antonelli proposed that both texts of Article 17 be abrogated and that the Italian government announce to the powers that it had never assumed a protectorate. In return, Menilek was to promise in writing not to accept, if he ever so wishes, the protection of any power other than Italy and to charge the Italian government to guarantee the rights of Ethiopia vis-à-vis third parties. This new agreement was to be notified to the powers in order to make it possible for Italy to represent him with them.”

However, it looks that Menelik was not satisfied with the response to Antonelli’s proposal and for being blamed on Article 17. “Antonelli brought back his letter and the frontier memorandum translated on 3 Januray 1891. Menilek was sitting at the veranda outside the principal reception hall placidly discussing with Salimbeni what sort of mechanical plough could be brought from Italy. At the end of the first paragraph of Antonelli’s letter, he burst into a rage. ‘The king became furious’, Salimbeni noted in his diary, because Antonelli had said Article 17 was mistranslated by Menilek’s interpreter.”

Chapter IX titled “In Defiance of Colonialism: Wider Frontiers”, begins with ‘Menilek’s circular of 1891’ apparently sent to the leaders of European powers including the Kaiser of Germany, the Tsar of Russia, Victoria of Britain, Umberto of Italy, and Carnot of France. Meanwhile, “when Gabrél Walda-Gobana had translated Antonelli’s draft with Salimbeni’ help, Menelik thought the boundaries too skimpy in the west and south. He asked Antonelli to include Lakes Turkana and Stephanie. At this point the Italians drew back lest Menilek infringe upon what Rome accepted as the British sphere.” Menelik also wanted to know what the northern Ethiopian frontier would look like in light of colonial powers encirclement and “on 3 January 1891, he asked Antonelli to bring some maps when they discussed the Ethio-Eritrean frontier so that he could see what the country towards Kassala and Khartoum looked like. Over the next three or four days Antonelli was forced to bargain for a revision of the treaty frontier. He presented Menilek with an intermediary line clearly marked on maps.”     

Whether Antonelli submits marked borders on maps to Menelik or even the Italians agree to respect the Hewett Treaty of 1884 or not, however, would become meaningless given the determination of the Italians to find a place in the African sun and this would be supplemented by Ethiopia’s tacit approval to the Italian plan. In fact, “the agreement of February 1891 had incorporated adjustments in Eritrea’s favor. It also reflected Menilek’s persistent whittling away at the demands of the Massawa command. The result was an intermediate line which had bulged inland from Arafali to Mangabo, four hours south-south east of the coast and astride one of the routes up to Sanafé on the escarpment of Akkala Guzay. …Perhaps Menilek hoped that moderation in describing a colonial frontier which existed only on paper (after all, the Italians and their African allies had been on the middle Marab since the beginning of 1890) would deprive Italian circles of support by the new government in Rome and forestall the charge that other European powers ought not to trust him.”

In the Circular of 1891, mentioned above, Menelik in fact claimed Matamma, Gallabat, and even Gedarf to be part of Ethiopia and in the south eastern part he claimed that the Dir Somali clans of the Habr Awal between Harar and Berbera as Ethiopian subject, while ironically he lost the Marab Mellash. In the end, Menelik had no choice but to compete with the European colonial powers in preserving the rest of Ethiopia that is without Marab Mellash and further expands its borders.

Chapter X is about the hyenas, Italy and France, and the title of this chapter in fact is the title of the Book, and in this chapter we explore diplomatic missions to Moscow and Rome. Interestingly this chapter begins with a very impressive remark of Ras Mekonnen in regards to the colonial ambitions of the imperial European powers and how they could have affected Ethiopia. He says, “The West Europeans in their desire for new land have encircled us…crossed our borders to deprive us of our independence and are causing us trouble.”

Once more, Menelik dispatched circular in March 1892 to the emperors of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia and also to Queen Victoria. In this circular, Menelik “repeated once again the argument that the Treaty of Wechale had no purpose beyond strengthening friendship between two sovereigns and that the text of Article 17 used by Italy in claiming otherwise was faulty. Menilek reminded his correspondents that an independent state ‘asks protection of no one.’”

Chapter X also discusses various issues surrounding Ethiopia’s debt and Mekonnen’s insistence in eliminating 90,000 Lire (in today’s parlance, this would be ‘debt forgiveness’); loan agreement and Menelik depositing the unspent balance of the loan; Menelik’s wish to mint a new Ethiopian coin and for Ethiopia’s admission to the Universal Postal Union; Menelik’s announcement of the expiration of the Treaty of Wechale in 1894; and last but list, Menelik’s attempt to fight corruption. Along with this themes is also mentioned the plot against Menelik and the death sentence against the coup makers. The verdict was based on the Ethiopian Fetha Nagast  (literally, ‘justice of the kings’ but it could be called ‘law of the kings’ as well), but Caulk made a mistake in saying that the Fetha Nagast was written based on Roman codes. On the contrary, the Fetha Nagast is a legacy of the ancient Aksumite code of Quame Hig (fixed legislation).

Chapter XI entitled ‘The Taking of sides, 1893-1894’, examines the continued diplomatic efforts of Ethiopian leaders and the letters they have dispatched to the European powers, and as always, in this chapter too, we meet an Ethiopian intellectual by the name Alaqa Gabru Dasta who served Menelik as a translator. It is not surprising that Ethiopia had plethora of chroniclers and many historians as well as interpreters, because it was in the tradition of Ethiopian emperors to commission a chronicler and hence document history as it unfolds, although sometimes these royal “spokesmen” could falter and/or exaggerate the outcome of events. 

According to Caulk, “Alaqa Gabru Dasta [was] a celebrated grammarian from Gondar and the one mission-trained Ethiopian in the empeor’s service whose enthusiasm for things European was matched by mastery of English. Gabru had worked for the Swedish Lutheran mission at Munkullu, opposite Massawa island, and in Zanzibar…On March 19, 1893, with Gabru translating, Makonnen dictated a statement on Ethiopia’s territorial claims and foreign policy for Swayne to copy down. Gabru read back Swayne’s notes to the ras who approved them and asked the captain to publish them in Britain…Since Tewodros’s day, the Ethiopians had wanted to recover a seaport, Swayne was told, and they had begun to recall that ones the empire’s frontiers had stretched to the Yemen, the Sudan, and the Equatorial lakes. Makonnen told him that Ethiopia needed control over one of the ports – Massawa, Djibouti, or Zeila – through which its trade passed, that they would have one of these or find an alternative on the Indian ocean; and that, therefore, they wished to absorb all the Somali until they reached the sea…Now that the African coast-line is being divided among the Europeans the Africans are entitled to their share…”

At one point, Menelik had become very disturbed by the disregard of the colonial forces to Ethiopia’s interests and is believed to have exclaimed, “It is futile for outsiders to hope for any kind of justice from Europe.” “He told Ilg immediately after the audience of August: [The powers] will always be set against us.” Meanwhile, the French diplomat Lagarde, wanted to reassure the Ethiopian leaders by saying (or pretending) that only France and Russia were Ethiopia’s allies and that France’s loan to Ethiopia was interest free. Furthermore, “In reminding Makonnen of France’s territorial ambitions, Lagarde’s emissary reiterated the argument that France alone could hinder the Italians, and that they, with the support of Britain and the Triple Alliance [Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy] intended to swallow the whole of Ethiopia.”

There is no doubt that Menelik was frustrated by the intrigue and menace of the European powers and even wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of his disappointments with the colonial powers in spite of his cooperation with them. But he seemed to have more faith on the French and the Russians. “On his return back from Zway, Menilek met secretly with Makonnen and Lagarde’s agent. ‘The independence of Ethiopia having lasted uninterrupted from the time of our fathers,’ he wrote to President Carnot on 12 January 1894, ‘I am convinced that it will continue and I shall strive to defend it and am gratified that the French government recognizes it.’ He welcomed the news of the visit to France of the Russian fleet: ‘Moscow being a long time friend of ours, we were glad to see the friendship of your two countries grow stronger.’”

Beyond diplomacy and the complex politics of the times, Menelik was still interested to develop the railway line from Djibouti to Addis, which was halted midway at Dire Dawa. The Ethiopian Railway Company had already been established beginning 9 March 1894 and its plan was to construct railway lines that would connect Djibouti, Harar, Entoto, Kafa, and the White Nile. Just three months after this railway networking plan, to Menelik’s gratification, Ras Mangash would submit to him: “On 2 June 1894, the great procession of Tegrean lords and their escorts entered the capital where vast preparations had been made to entertain them. Precautions had been taken also. Spies sent to observe the passage of the Tegreans into Shawa reported how many men Mangasha was leading. Menilek ordered twice that number (viz. 12,000) to parade before the palace. All foreign arms-traders in Addis Ababa had to surrender their stocks lest they sell them to the northerners. The rank and file of Mangasha’s retinue were assigned separate banqueting tents to avoid the brawls with the southerners which had marred the joint campaigns of Menilek and Yohannes.”

Managsha’s submission to Menelik, of course, was calculated; it is only after he learned that he no longer get support from the Italians and confronted by the pro and anti-Shawa hegemony in Tigray, that he decided to go to Shawa, but even then “the Tegreans had demanded he [Menelik] force the Italians to uphold the Hewett Treaty negotiated by Yohannes IV; he answered that much of the Marab Mellash remained Ethiopian.”

Other important themes discussed in this chapter are: Menelik’s imposition upon Mangasha to surrender to Taytu all of Tsallamti; the abundance of coffee and how grain became cheaper in late June 1894; Mekonnen’s denunciation of European powers and his claim that the Somali coast and all Oromo are subjects of the Emperor; when the Italians failed to Menelik’s denunciation of the Treaty of Wechale, Ras Alula proposed that the emperor makes Colonel Piano a hostage, who was his POW during the Battle of Dogali; Menelik bestowed some cash to Alula and the latter recognized that the Emperor was “the only man who could restore order”; Hanfari petitioned Menelik on Assal salines; Ras Michael, Abarra Kassa of Tsezega, and Ras Alula to participate in the campaign of Walayta.

It is important to note what Menelik and other Ethiopian leaders found in Walayta during the campaign and what stunned them. As per the chronicles, “Menilek also wished to restore the churches founded in Walayta in the fifteenth century before Tona’s so called Tegrean dynasty, of which he was the seventeenth ruler, had detached the country from the pre-Oromo Enarya, a tributary state of Christian Ethiopia until c. 1700. The chronicler accuses the king of Walyata of trying to instigate rebellion during the rains of 1894 in the lands of recent conquest. By 1894 these areas surrounded his tantalizing prosperous and densely populated principality. On succeeding his grandfather in 1890, Kawo Tona Gaga married a daughter of the Shawan tributary, Abba Jifar of Jimma, but refused to pay tribute his predecessor, being more of a diplomat than a warrior, had voluntarily paid to Menilek.”

Menelik and Yosef Negusé’s observations of Wolayta are testimonies to the fact that Wolayta was highly developed in comparison to other parts of Ethiopia. “Walamo is a very fine country,” Yosef Negusé wrote to Ilg of the expedition. He spoke slightingly of the kingdom’s size but was much impressed with quantities livestock and grain the invaders had found and the great number of the population. Likewise, in writing to Capucci of his success, Menilek marveled that although Walayta was no bigger than old Shawa, it seemed to have more people than in all the territory between Addis Ababa and Massawa. Moreover, Caulk notes, “the residual Christian practices of the Walayta – fasting in Lent and in August and, in late September, of the feast of the Discovery of the True Cross impressed Yosef Negusé. Menilek also was intrigued by stories of Christians farther south that spoke Amharic and still had churches. 

With respect to Menelik’s southern expedition, Caulk argues, “Without the annexation by which Menilek’s generation so greatly enlarged the size and resources of the Christian empire, Ethiopia, like the Mahdist state, would have succumbed in its entirety to the European partition.” I am in accord with Caulk’s reasoning, but more importantly, it seems to me, the survival of Ethiopia’s independence must be attributed to state organization (even if the Ethiopian state was not so centralized and strong at this juncture) and the ability to mobilize fighting forces hierarchically structured and also to Ethiopia’s possession of millions of guns in the second half and last quarter of the 19th century. Without guns and the fighting ability of the Ethiopians, Ethiopia would have become a very easy pray to the European powers.

Chapter XII is on “Renewed War, 1894-1896” obviously is about the eve of the second major Italian-Ethiopian wars which will take place at Adwa on March 1 1896, but the events that precipitated this war are first addressed in this chapter. For instance, in spite of Treaty of Wechale that allowed the Italians to control Hamassien and the Segeneyti area of Akele Guzai, the Italians illegally occupied the entire Marab Mellash between 1889 and 1890. The Italians, of course, will encounter stiff resistance by Ethiopians from proper Ethiopia and by some Eritreans in their new colony. Bhata Hagos, for instance, is one determined resistance leader who fought the Italians following the Italian land grab especially of lands that is owned collectively by the people. “On 14 December 1894, Baratieri was still at Karan to supervise the disposition of the colonies small garrison for the defense of the frontier with the Sudan which he had enlarged. At Saganayti, as usual, Bhata, his son Gabra-Madhan and Bahata’s surviving brother, Sengal, went to take coffee with the Italian resident. They threw Sanguinetti to the floor and bound him. His secretary-cum-interpreter, Gabra-Egziabher, and the two Italians telegraphists were also arrested and the telegraph line was cut. “God will punish you; Italy is great,” Sanguinetti is said to have warned; “Ethiopia is greater still,” Bahta reportedly retorted.

Gabra-Egziabher recounted Bahta’s mobilization tactics and how he was addressing the plight of the people in light of the Italian colonial masters, and of the many assertions in words and in edict that Bahta said and/or stated, the following are what Gabra-Egziabher remembers: “The Italian curse us, seize our land; I want o free you…let us drive the Italians and be our own masters.” “I have freed you from that government which has come from overseas to despoil you, to take your lands, to prevent you from farming your rest without paying taxes [and] which prohibits your from cutting firewood in the forest.”

But of all Bahta's statements that are ubiquitous and are cemented in Eritrean oral tradition are the letter he wrote to his brother Sengal: “Oh my brother, Sengal, don’t be silly! Once a white snake has bitten you, you won’t find any cure for it.” Baratieri retold same content of Bahta’s letter to his brother but with a different version: “You can recover from the bite of a black snake, but from the white snake’s bite you will never get better.”

Before the Italians consolidated their colonial authority over Eritrea, there were many but sporadic rebellions against the Italians, some initiated by the people of Marab Mellash and others conducted jointly with their Tigrayan allies. For instance, “the battle of 13 January [1894] ended with the fall of night. Mangasha’s forces had withstood surprise attack. Their counterattack had ended in a costly standoff for the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the Tegrayans and their Eritrean allies blocked the route towards Asmara and much outnumbered the now besieged defenders of Kowatit [Koatit]. The defense of the colony depended upon a small army pinned down by attackers three times its number and positioned between Baratieri and Asmara.”

On February 1, 1895, thus Crispi ordered the invasion of Tigray and Baratieri was emboldened by Crispi’s authorization and was eager “for a blow in Tegray which would shatter Eritrea’s mighty neighbor to the south permanently.”   

Other important themes included in this chapter are: Menelik warned Chefneux not to speak of any sort of protectorate; by end of 1895, 300,000 Remington cartridges arrived at Harar for Ethiopia – Ethiopia entered literally arms race with the Europeans as testified by Wasane Marqos; France to recognize Ethiopia’s independence and Menelik reiterated that he would accept protection; France, Russia, and Switzerland isolated for supporting Ethiopia’s admissions to the Universal Postal Union; Baratieri invaded Agame and the majority of Adwa’s population deserted the town; Dejjazmach Fanta of Faras Mai submitted to the Italians on March 7, 1895; Adwa, Mekelle, Addigrat, and Kassala were connected by telegraph.

Chapter XIII is entitled ‘Adwa’ and begins with a subtitle ‘Into Battle’. In this chapter the prelude to the Battle Adwa, that is, Amba Alage and the siege of Mekelle are discussed. When General Arimondi set off for Amba Alage, Ras Sebhat and Dajjazamach Ali of Enda Mahoni [Makoni] were imprisoned at the very top of the mountain of Amba Alage and by this time Menelik knew that southern Tigray was overrun by the Italians on November 1895 and he made necessary preparations and mobilization for northward movement. At the Battle of Amba Alage, the Ethiopians won the day at the sacrifice of hundreds of vanguard fighters, but “the Italian artillery fell to the Ethiopians. Amba Alage had been overrun; one lieutenant was captured; all but three of the other officers were dead and Ethiopians pursued the Italo-Eritrean forces toward Makalle.”

In regards to the sacrifice the Ethiopians made at Amba Alage, this is how Caulk puts it: “The chronicler reserved the highest praise for the common soldiers’ tenacity, their cohesion, and their gallantry. The battle cost the advance corps 276 dead and 349 wounded, according to the preliminary count carried out for the emperor.”

With respect to the price the Italians have paid at Amba Alage it was acknowledged that ‘the shock to morale was on the invaders side’. “It is a new Dogali”, General Guiseppe Ellena, a noted artillerist at the ministry of war, told the French military attaché when giving him the news of Toselli’s death.”    “

In this chapter, it is important to note the Ethiopian resolve to defeat the Italians and even the notables and ordinary spies they thought they could serve their interest betrayed the latter. For instance, Ras Sebhat would eventually fight the Italians on his turf and join Menelik and the Ethiopian patriots at Adwa. Moreover, “Galliano discovered that one of the Tegrayan informants through whom he sent messages to Addigrat spied for Makonnen. The man would not divulge what he learned about the emperor’s movements on his clandestine visits to the main Ethiopian camp and was shot on 23 December. Already two askari had been executed along with their two supposed accomplices on charge of espionage.”

After Amba Alage, gwobaz-ayahu (literally, ‘I have seen a brave man’) became a popular term to honor the gallant Ethiopian fighters and more so to depict or use as a nickname to the Fitewrari (vanguard). Because of these gallantries, thus, the Ethiopians have again pursued the Italians from Ednda Iyasus towards Edaga Hamus and Addigrat and by January 4 1896, Menelik’s’s army was Cheleqot, former capital of Endarta. One of the famous vanguards, of course was Dejjach Balcha (then Bajerwond) and it was reported,  “he had fired straight down the mouth of one of the enemies guns and shattered it.”       

Interestingly but perhaps sadly, Caulk also noted the exchange of insults between the Ethiopian and Eritrean fighters at Amba Alage: “During the night of 9/10 January, Taytu’s men repulsed more than one Italo-Eritrean sortie from the fort. One of the main Italian survivors quotes the insults exchanged between the Eritrean sentries and empress’s men at the near of the two streams. The askari ridiculed the shabby poverty of the imperial soldiery and their lack of good pay. Taytu’s soldiers taunted Eritreans asking them if they were afraid to come out in the open. Reminding them of Amba Alage they bragged that that they were on their way to Massawa.”

By January 14 1896 the Italian forces had begun retreating from Enda Iyasus to Addigrat and by January 25 Meneilk’s forces camped at Abreha Atsbeha, but despite the retreat of the Italians and their demoralized banda forces, Ethiopians did not relax their guard although they wanted to negotiate for peace as an option on condition if the Italians return to their frontier.

In the middle of all this, Ras Sebhat and Dajjach Hagos Tafari, as noted above, deserted the Italians on February 13 1896: “Sebhat and Hagos Tafari declared they would rather die with men of their own faith and for their own king, rather than for a foreign power.” They said, “We do not want to attack our country with people from overseas who are strangers to us.”     

With the above resolve, thus, “Sebhat’s men opened fire from heights negligently left unoccupied by the Italian officers. Surprise and the Ethiopian rapid maneuver to envelop put the Italians and their allies to flight after a brief fight leaving the two lieutenants dead.” Captain Moccagatta tried to reinforce the Italian forces by rushing some detachments not knowing that they were entering into a deadly Ethiopian ambush by Sebhat’s forces. On the Italian side 97 were dead and 28 wounded and 40 were unaccounted for; on the Ethiopian side 50 were dead, but the Sebhat’s forces also captured 20 Italians.

In this part of the chapter what I found interesting is the degree of sophistication Ethiopians employed in the assignment of spies (or double agents as had been the case in most instances). The fist spie messenger of Sebhat is believed to have betrayed and the Ras cursed him, but his ashkar (servant), “Gabra-Heywat Tamere, went instead taking letters sewn in his shoes to Ras Alula and Menilek. At the Ethiopian camp this second, willing servant was recognized. Dajjazmach Tadala Araya Abba Guban, who knows him to be Sebhat’s follower, happened to be on guard for Alula. He had Gabra-Heywat bound and turned over to Alula who also recognized Gabra-Heywat. Alula ordered him under guard over night. On the morrow, he interrogated him asking what business besides spying he had. Having learned that he had an important message for the emperor, Alula took him at night to the emperor’s enclosure. There the letters were brought out. Replies welcoming Sebhat were sewn back into the soles of Gabra-Heywat’s shoes. It was put that a spy had escaped. To convince the Italians who had learned of this agent’s arrest, shots were fired as if to halt a fugitive. Those he and his master wished to dupe congratulated Gabra-Heywat like a hero on his return.

Once Sebhat was welcomed and joined the Ethiopian camp, Menelik honored him but his immediate task was to convince the emperor not to fall into the Baratier’s trap. He told him, “Their traditions also recall his promise to fight from the rear in Agame blocking enemy transport trains. This, Sebhat argued, would force Baratieri to leave his prepared positions and advance to fight on ground not of his choosing. Therefore it is good to have some patience.”

In the midst of all the battles and skirmishes and on the eve of the Battle of Adwa, the proud Ethiopians were very confident that they will win the war, and this is how Yosef Neguse put it in his letter to Mondon on February 1896: “Could it be that having received 4,000 [sic.] soldiers from Italy, General [?] believed he had empowered us and reached the Congo? It is most doubtful he will ever make his way back to the Red Sea.”  

Following Sebhat’s advice and the Italian advance, Menelik sent Mekonnen, Gabayahu, Fitewrari Takale, Liqe Maquas Adenew, and Ras Mnagasha to the Marab. “They were under orders to secure Addi Qwala, 75 kilometers north of Adwa and commanding heights across the Marab, in preparation for the emperor crossing the river into Saraye with the bulk of the army.”              

On the evening of 29 February 1896, the regular watch along the Ethiopian lines fell to Ras Mangasha and a Tegrayan spy by the name Awalom had accomplished a marvelous job into misleading the Italians. He told the Italians that Menelik’s “men had gone raid for grain over the weekend, Menilek would be caught nearly alone in Adwa.” “I have brought the Italians to you through treachery,” Makonnen’s biographer quotes the spy, Awalom, telling Menilek early on Sunday, 1 March 1896, while Makonnen was at church with the rest of the court. Awalom, the biographer says, “went from one side to the other squeezing out secrets”, and was paid by both.

The Battle of Aiwa began at about 5 am in the morning on Sunday March 1, 1896; at 9:30 in the morning the fighting at Abba Grime reached its highest point and the fighting was intensified by about 10:45 am; by early afternoon the Italians overwhelmed by the Ethiopians had begun retreat and flight. Fighting at Mariam Shewito sealed the final victory for Ethiopia.

The rest of the chapters of the book deal with the ‘quest for peace’ and ‘the end of the war and new beginnings’ and Caulk has documented them very well as if to invite curious readers reexamine the entire diplomatic history of Ethiopia and how the country was literary entrapped between the European hyenas. It is worth reading the book and I recommend it very highly not only for curious readers but also for professionals in the academia as well as historians and students of history who could immensely benefit from the rich historiography of the book.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2013 Dr Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for constructive and educational feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org

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