The Country and its People


At this stage some description of the country and its people may not come amiss to the general reader to serve as a background to the story of the life of its remarkable ruler. So much has changed in the life of the town dweller in Addis Ababa in the short space of the Emperor’s own life that it is difficult to visualize the simplicity and comparative lack of material comfort in which he grew up and passed the early days of his public life.

Yet the life of the countryside has changed little—the climate, the seasons, the vastness and beauty of the mountain scenery, the hardship of travel on foot or by mule in the heat of the coastal plains or lowland valley, these remain the same as they have been for many centuries, and it may serve to give some idea of the activities and, at many times, the rigours of his early years. A friendly visit to our English farm, some thirty miles from the capital, in 1925, entailed a six o’clock start by mule over the mountain barrier of Entotto—10,000 feet above sea level—a gallop over the plains on a spirited Arab stallion, to accomplish the journey in four or five hours; the afternoon was spent in a tour, still on horseback, extending some three or four miles; and the Regent rode back by the same route and in the same way next day. That visit was for friendship and pleasure; but it was only one of many other journeys undertaken under less pleasant conditions and for less friendly purposes.

The plateau which constitutes by far the greater part of Ethiopia stands embattled by its great escarpment east, north, and south in the midst of the low country—desert on three sides; and on the west, where there is a gentler, more sloping descent from the high country, lies the hot humid Nile basin. The whole empire, with its federated territory of Eritrea—the size of Germany and France together—covers over 400,000 square miles, of which a great part is uncultivatable desert. Narrowing at its northern extremity to a strip only a few miles wide, where the western edge of the Rift Valley nears the coast of the Red Sea the desert widens out farther south to include the Danakil and Aussa country. This lies to the north of the railway which runs along the hills which form a spur of the Eastern Escarpment. South of these again lies the great stretch of the Ogaden—now lately restored to Ethiopian control—arid plains sloping slowly to the sea, over which the Somali tribes have wandered for centuries with their flocks and herds of camels.

Still farther south the Boran country spreads out north of the Kenya frontier.

The plateau country stands one compact solid block, scarred by the deep ravines of the three great river systems. One spur only extends from the main block eastward toward the Somaliland frontier and on the last ridges of this stands the town of Harar, capital of the province of that name, and for the last fifty years bound by special ties of loyalty and affection to the royal family. The railway, which lies thirty miles north of the town, runs along the foot-hills until, crossing the Hawash river where it debouches on to the plains of the Danakil country, it climbs up the western rim of the Rift Valley. Where the volcanic lava flow from Mt Fautalle spreads over the plain it works its way up the 6,000-foot escarpment, past the crater lakes of the Bishoftu hills, to emerge into the 8,ooo-foot level of Addis Ababa itself. The city lies encircled by the same circular ridge of the Entoto hills over which the car road to the Blue Nile and the north now winds its way—a road holding memories of the Emperor’s return to his capital in May 1941.

The traveller of to-day who reaches Addis Ababa by plane from any direction, for the airport outside the town is now the centre of a network of routes, has little idea of the difficulties that had to be overcome in the old days by whatever route the early adventurer, soldier or trader, entered.

In florid style Major Cornwallis describes the type of desert country across which his caravan worked its way towards Sahle Selassie’s capital of Ankober.

A suffocating Pandemonium where no zephyr fanned the fevered skin; where the furnace-like vapour exhaled almost choking respiration, created an indomitable thirst, and not the smallest shade or shelter existed. Each weary hour brought a grievous accession, but no alleviation, to the fearful torments.1

Any overland approach to the plateau must then be made through regions of intense heat, whether over the dry scorching sands of the desert or through the sweltering heat of the Nile tributary valleys. So grew the idea in old days that Ethiopia was a land of tropical heat; but the popular idea of the climate was neither flattering nor true. Although the whole country is only a few degrees north of the equator, on the upland plateaus with an average height of 8,000 feet the air is perpetually cool, even at midday, and the nights can be bitterly cold. From September to May the mornings are like a fresh day in June in England, only in the rainy season between June and September do the clouds sweep over the hills in a fine Scotch mist that can be quite as cold and penetrating as its counterpart in the British Isles. The sun at midday is hot but one cannot sit without a jersey in the shade. Nine months of the year are comparatively dry—too dry for sensitive skins—but the months between June and September are those of the ‘big rains,’ which are more or less heavy every day, and which fill spring and ditch and dike and river in an extraordinarily short time.

The feast of ‘Maskal,’ or the Finding of the True Cross, which comes at the end of September, coincides with the end of the rains, and usually there is no heavy rain after that date. Rivers and streams fall from raging torrents to fordable streams. Crops are harvested: the hay is cut, barley in November, wheat in December, tef (fine millet from which the bread is usually made) in January. With the advent of ‘small rains’ in February (though they are not completely regular) the hard dry ground is softened again, enough to allow the primitive plough to work. Thus in the normal year the climate provides ideal conditions for successful but not too exacting agriculture.

While on the plateau itself this temperate climate prevails, in the deep valleys cut by the three great rivers and their tributaries the heat is tropical and the humidity considerable. Within a few miles one can pass from the ice of the upland stream and cutting winds of the plateau to the heat of the African jungle with its palms and tree ferns, to take a dip in the warmth of the river pools, whose water flows down to the Blue Nile. These great chasms in the volcanic crust of the plateau are from two to four thousand feet deep, and climate and animal and vegetable life are as different as if one had stepped into another continent.

The geography of the country has naturally moulded its history; and the diversity of the land itself, with its burning deserts, its complex mountain ranges and river chasms, its variety of temperature and climate, has helped to produce the same diversity among its inhabitants. It has endowed them with qualities of vigour and self-reliance, of independence and self-assertion, and at the same time the corresponding drawbacks of lack of cohesion and co-operation, of over-confidence and arrogance.

These features of character true of centuries of her history are equally true of Ethiopia to-day. There are over thirty languages, exclusive of dialects, spoken among all the peoples of the empire; and though the Government is trying by its educational policy of one language of instruction to unify this medley of peoples, there are of course many other differences of tradition, religion, and custom which will long preserve their local independence.

We may, however, consider four main divisions of the people, of which the first, the Amharas, were the dominant race, whose language Amharic is rapidly becoming universal, as that of the Emperor and his court. Their Christian religion has marked them out through the centuries as distinct from all other African peoples, and is indeed the cause of much of their strange history. They inhabit the northern provinces of the empire: Tigre, Amhara, Gojjam, and part of Shoa, an area equal to about one-third of the country.

To the south and west of this Amhara bloc live the Gallas, invaders from the south who overran the country during the sixteenth century and settled in it, only to be reconquered themselves in successive wars, and finally incorporated in the empire by Menelek. They had by then extended towards the north, driving a wedge between the Amhara and the Danakil. Their powerful king, Negus Mikhail, was one of the chief generals in both King John’s army against the dervishes and Menelek’s army at the battle of Adowa. But, though in origin and language a distinct racial type, there is no political cohesion among the Gallas. During the past five hundred years indeed the forces of both war and peace have been welding Galla and Amhara into a unity which comprises all the people of the highlands, who are agriculturists by nature and by circumstance; and it would now be difficult to draw any separate line, whether political or geographical, to separate them.

Among other inhabitants of the highlands must be mentioned the Guragies; the strongest physically among the different tribes who live south-west of the capital, they come up for long periods to do the hardest manual labour and are often employed as gardeners and woodmen. They have a special skill in the preparation of ground for forestry and are then employed when the eucalyptus forest is ready for timber, in cutting and carting. Sir Charles Rey in his book on Abyssinia2 advances the interesting theory that these people, living by themselves in a small district between the road to Jimma and the great lakes, are the descendants of a colony of European slaves, planted there by Egyptians in far off times to work the copper mines which existed there. They speak their own language and are partly Mohammedans; but in the war of 1935-6 they fought well for the empire against the Italians.

Another group must be mentioned—the distinction again being one of religion as well as of race. The Falasha or Ethiopian Jews live in the district round the highest mountains of Ethiopia which lies north-west of Lake Tsana. Numerically small, their prowess at one time as fighters was considerable, and they even seized and held the throne for a period. They still practise the Jewish religion with all its rites and ceremonies, and some of their own as well, but it is interesting to note that they know no Hebrew, and that their scriptures are in the Geez language of the Ethiopian Church. They are manual workers, chiefly smiths and workers in iron, and they live in their own communities; though they come from the north they can be found all over the country. They look upon themselves as Jewish exiles, and a return to the Promised Land is part of their religion; but they are believed to be non-Semitic in origin, though the name Falasha means exile, and they are of different extraction from the other peoples of the plateau, being probably of Cushite descent.

The third large class comprises the desert people of the east, the Danakil, and of the south-east, the many tribes of the Somali. Entirely different in origin, features, customs, and habits of daily life from the peoples of the plateau, these nomads pursue their own way unheeded and unchecked. Both men and women, with their spare and graceful figures, are quite unlike their more sturdy and stouter compatriots of the plateau. Their camel caravans may often be seen from the railway lurching through the stony deserts of Gildessa, the lank forms of the Somali tribesmen plodding beside them; the Somali women with their print dresses and scarlet wraps, bent under their burdens, but stepping out, as only nomad women can do, to cover the miles that stretch between one camping ground and the next. It seems inconceivable that human beings can live their life out in such a waste country and under a burning sky. The tents are made of camels’ hair fabric stretched on a wicker-work frame and everything rolls up easily, to make a cumbrous yet not a heavy load. It was the friction over the water rights of these people that set the spark, rigorously fanned by Italians, to the Italo-Ethiopian war.

The population of these regions is of course very sparse, and the Somalis’ northern neighbours the Danakil are, except in the Bati market or on the Assab road, far less visible and accessible. One may occasionally see a warrior, leaning on his spear, naked save for the girdle at his waist, contemplating the train as it lumbers by—perhaps reckoning the number of spear heads to a length of rail, for depredations on the railway line for this purpose have often been reported. Their country is divided into districts ruled over by their Sultans, and their yearly tribute is remitted regularly to the government treasury.

There remains one great group of peoples. Conveniently called ‘Shankalla,’ they are the real blacks of the warmer lulls and valleys in western Ethiopia that slope down from the plateau country into the White Nile basin. They are people of innumerable different tribes—speaking different and little known-tongues, devoid of political purpose or unity, the prey, through their paganism, ignorance, and lack of co-operation, of the more closely confederated highland tribes; and possessed of a docility and also, perhaps as a result of centuries of slave raiding, of an apathy that is hard to awaken to action. They not only failed to combine but they carried on their own quarrels regardless of their danger, raiding for cattle and slaves among themselves, and laying themselves open as an easy prey to the slave trader. For the bribe of a few rifles he would acquire the victims he desired, and then move on to the next tribe to carry on the same business.

Here then are the varied constituents of the Ethiopian Empire, named not inaptly by the Arabs who came into contact with them ‘the medley,’ and as far back as the Old Testament the ‘mingling of the peoples.’ Over them all the great Menelek established his authority, so that even now to swear ‘by Menelek’ is to pledge an oath. He conquered them, converted them, and combined them into an empire. Who would answer the challenge to govern this empire when its founder died and his successor betrayed his trust?

1 Abyssinia Described, pp. 18, 19.
2 Sir Charles Rey: Unconquered Abyssinia.

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