Ethopia, The Unconquerable Land

Close to Europe was the continent of Africa, full of vaguely known possibilities. In 1850 it was a continent of black mystery; only Egypt and the coast were known. Here we have no space to tell the amazing story of the explorers and adventurers who first pierced the African darkness, and of the political agents, administrators, traders, settlers, and scientific men who followed in their track. Wonderful races of men like the pygmies, strange beasts like the okapi, marvellous fruits and flowers and insects, terrible diseases, astounding scenery of forest and mountains, enormous inland seas and gigantic rivers and cascades were revealed; a whole New World. Even remains, at Zimabawe, of some unrecorded and vanished civilisation, the southward enterprise of an early people, were discovered. Into this new world came the Europeans, and found the rifle already there in the hands of the Arab slave traders, and negro life in disorder.

But in 1900, in half a century, all Africa was mapped, explored, estimated, and divided between the European powers. Little heed was given to the welfare of the natives in this scramble. The Arab slaver was indeed curbed rather than expelled, but the greed for rubber, which was a wild product collected under compulsion by the natives in the Belgian Congo, a greed exacerbated by the clash of inexperienced European administrators with the native population, led to horrible atrocities. No European Power has perfectly clean hands in this matter.

We cannot tell here in any detail how Great Britain got possession of Egypt in 1883 and remained there in spite of the fact that Egypt was technically part of the Turkish Empire; nor how this scramble nearly led to war between France and Great Britain in 1898, when a certain Colonel Marchand, crossing Central Africa from the west coast, tried at Fashoda to seize the Upper Nile.

Nor can we tell how the British Government first let the Boers or Dutch settlers of the Orange River district and the Transvaal set up independent republics in the inland parts of South Africa, and then repented and annexed the Transvaal Republic in 1877; nor how the Transvaal Boers fought for freedom and won it after the battle of Majuba Hill (1881). Majuba Hill was made to rankle in the memory of the English people by a persistent press campaign. A war with both republics broke out in 1899, a three years’ war enormously costly to the British people, which ended at last in the surrender of the two republics.

Their period of subjugation was a brief one. In 1907, after the downfall of the imperialist government which had conquered them, the Liberals took the South African problem in hand, and these former republics became free and fairly willing associates with Cape Colony and Natal in a Confederation of all the states of South Africa under the British Crown.

In a quarter of a century the partition of Africa was completed. There remained unannexed three comparatively small countries: Liberia, a settlement of liberated negro slaves on the west coast; Morocco, under a Modern Sultan; and Abyssinia, a barbaric country with an ancient and peculiar form of Christianity, which had successfully maintained its independence against Italy at the Battle of Adowa in 1896.



Most people in England know by now where Abyssinia is. Six months ago they didn’t. A member of Parliament didn’t. He asked me vaguely about this place where all the trouble was—“Somewhere near Morocco,” he said.

“From Gibraltar to Addis Ababa is more than three thousand miles, as the crow flies,” I said.
He looked startled.
“But it’s in Africa, isn’t it?” he said.
“Has it ever occurred to you,” I answered, “that Africa’s a very big place ? ”
“It must be,” he said resignedly. “Would you mind drawing it on the back of this menu—with special reference to Abyssinia, I mean. I may have to talk about it soon, so I’d better get things straight.”

That evening before retiring I got out an atlas and was very relieved to find that so far as I could remember it my map on the menu had been within recognisable range of the facts. You see, I didn’t like to think of a British legislator getting one thousand miles wrong in his speeches because of my primitive cartography. Not that I expected international complications to result from such an error. I have long ago learned that the British Empire isn’t run by portly members of parliament but by slim young men in Whitehall with encyclopaedic knowledge and a nice taste in ties. They knew, I reflected, where Abyssinia was—had known for years. All this bother with Italy was no news to them. They’d seen it coming, they and their slim young predecessors, for the best part of half a century. They’d seen it coming and they would see it through.

If you work in the British Foreign Office, or in four or five rival foreign offices for that matter, Addis Ababa is one of the places you may be sent to—and you pray that you may not. It’s not at the end of the earth. Not like Kashgar, for instance, which stands at the spot, beyond the Himalayas, where China, Russia, India, and Tibet come near to meeting; or the interior of Papua, where you may have to administer an area about as big as Wales with the aid of quinine, a rusty rifle and an unreliable compass; nor is it like some of those islands which have been described as pimples on the tail of eternity. There is a cinema there—in fact, two cinemas; there is what the Americans call a drug store—in fact, three of them; there’s a post-office, a race-course, a night club and a police-station; in fact it should be home from home.

Yet few outposts of empire are as strange as Addis Ababa. For all its civilisation it is not welcoming to the European. The men of the west are never at ease till they have conquered, and Ethiopia is an unconquered land.

Abyssinia, that ancient kingdom of the East, is as its name implies a country of notable chasms. But the name is actually a corruption of the Arab word ‘habesh,’ a mixture, and this also is a just term. Races are mingled strangely in Abyssinia, and many learned men have laboured in vain to disentangle them.

“An inland country of north-east Africa between five and fifteen degrees north of the equator with its western frontier the southern Sudan and its eastern border less than one hundred miles from the Red Sea....” That is a rough idea of Abyssinia. It is a huge inland plateau, all its approaches carved by centuries of terrific rain into fantastic gorges. All round the base of the plateau lie swamps and deserts. Some of this low-lying land is swamp at one time of the year and desert at another. In the centre of the plateau and guarding some of its approaches are numerous mountain peaks all very strange in shape, of which the highest are just under fourteen thousand feet in height and extremely inaccessible. Very few of the broad valleys among the peaks are less than seven thousand feet in elevation, and Lake Tsana which is close on fifty miles long is well over six thousand feet above sea level. The area of the whole country is about 150,000 square miles.

The climate of the uplands is bracing, alpine in its purity and charm. In the lowlands there is every disease devised by nature for making life difficult to beast and man. There are two seasons, the dry and the wet, ‘baga’ and ‘karamt.’ The rains begin in the middle of June and last till well into October. December and January are perhaps the perfect months. Then comes the dry season, broken only by the ‘little rains’ of February. On the rain which falls in Abyssinia the life and prosperity of all Egypt most certainly depend, for these rains feed the Blue Nile.

The Blue Nile emerges from the southern end of Lake Tsana and after flowing south-east for fifty miles curves to the west before turning northward. It carries with it the precious silt which gives matchless fertility to the Egyptian flooded plain.

East of Lake Tsana rises ‘Takkaze’ the river called ‘Terrible,’ which falls from eight thousand to two thousand feet along a huge crevasse which winds among the peaks. During the rains this river rises twenty feet with fearful suddenness. Travellers speak of the land through which it flows as wilder and more ghastly in aspect than any other in the world.

But the mountain valleys are beautiful in springtime. Roses, violets, cowslips and lavender are all to be found among the grasses, and masses of tulip line the lower edges of the hills. There are lilies, aloes, honeysuckle and orchids, and huge clumps of prickly broom.

In one day’s climb you can pass from the fever-haunted lowlands to this paradise, Tyrolean in its clear and vivid colourings. Often in the north the downlands are bare and it is only the lower slopes of the hills that are wooded, but farther south there is every kind of tree. Huge date palms are to be found amid laurel and juniper; there are giant sycamores, wild olive, mimosa, and gum trees, often hideously twisted; and at lower levels are massed acacias and similar plants; but most impressive of all is the yellow pine, valuable forests of which are found.

Lake Tsana is a sheet of water of great beauty, and the lands around its banks are known as the granary of Abyssinia, for here especially the wheat crops flourish. Some years ago specimens of this wheat were brought to England and were reported to be of first-rate milling quality. The other grains are barley, millet, maize and ‘teff.’ Teff, technically known as ‘Poa Abyssinica’, is a great favourite with all Abyssinians, and the spongy bread which they make from it, though curious in taste, is said to be extremely nourishing.

Not many people know that the coffee plant takes its name from Kaffa, in the south-west, a very prosperous province. It is here you can buy the best coffee in the world.

The birds in Abyssinia are many and wonderful in colour, but their voices are unpleasing. The country was described by one writer as ‘abounding in unpleasant sounds.’ Certainly the jackals make a weird and nerve-racking noise. The lions, too, can give disconcerting roars. Elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, crocodile and leopard; zebra, giraffe, hartebeest and klipspringer are all to be found in districts which suit them. There are monkeys of various kinds; an amazing catalogue of birds of prey and game birds; while the civet cat which goes sneaking through the thickets at nightfall supplies the basis of many perfumes which ornamental women consider essential to their charms.

The human races that inhabit Abyssinia fall into three main classes—a Caucasian type much like the Bedouin, with oval face, keen nose, and lips which are well-formed and never curl up; the Gallas, who have large, well-built bodies, round faces, straight noses, and deeply-sunk but extremely bright eyes; and a third race whose hair is woolly and intensely curly and whose lips are thick. There are no negroes in Abyssinia except as slaves. Do not think of negroes; and do not bother about the scientific names. Remember the three types and you can’t go far wrong. Also remember, if this classification sounds too simple, that there are about fifty languages—and dialects besides.

The inhabitants of the province of Tigre to the north- east are perhaps the best looking. They are known as Amharic, and fall into group one. The Gallas, whose provinces are Sidamo, Jimma, Arussi, and Wallega, are a definite second group, but the Shoans, in the central province round about Addis Ababa are harder to place, for they have characteristics in common with the Gallas; still, they are predominantly Amharic in type. The third group are tribes inhabiting the coastal areas. They are primitive.

Two or three other races offer interesting problems. There are the Falashas, similar in many ways to the Amharic, and best classed with them; but definitely Jewish in character and faith. Then there are the Guragies —the coolie race, who work for their living in the capital till they have earned enough to purchase small farms. There are also the despised Shankallas—the word itself is a term of reproach, whose mental processes are less rapid than those of their neighbours and who form the labouring class. Summing up this strange tangle it is a fair generalisation to say that the Amharic tribes engage in war as a profession, the Gallas are peasants; and that the coastal tribes are primitive nomads.

Not all the Amharas are soldiers. Some of them trade, a few are not ashamed to go in for agriculture; there are various crafts such as weaving in which they are very successful; and a large number of them enter the priesthood. Yet, broadly speaking, the ideal life for the Amhara is to serve a feudal chief, accompany him on his expeditions and share the spoils. This means that he gets his keep and usually a fair-sized piece of land with slaves to do the work. If he is a good manager he may have a surplus with which to trade, but often the soldier type is content to get his immediate requirements from the soil and to neglect its possibilities of development.

As will be seen, the existence of this soldier class with a vested interest in war and an inherited disinclination to work presents an awkward social problem to a progressive minded ruler. But in spite of their warlike nature and queer streaks of insensitiveness, the Amharas are a very good stock and have splendid possibilities if they can be caught young. Their origins are a puzzle, but they are clearly a dominant race. They have come out on top in the end of every war they have fought for the last fifteen hundred years.

It is these Amharas who make such a bad impression upon Englishmen—who refuse to see that their instinctive reaction of dislike is that of one dominant race when faced with another. Actually they are not bad fellows at heart, their chief fault being that when you act as though you are superior to them they just don’t believe you. Treat them as equals and excellent relations are possible.

The principal cities of Abyssinia look amazingly beautiful when seen from the distant hills, for their white walls shine in the clear sunlight, entrancing splashes of brightness among the varied greens of the trees. But the impression of cleanliness and charm does not survive closer acquaintance. Hygiene is primitive in the extreme, and but for the scores of dogs that are natural scavengers existence would hardly be possible, for though the principal streets are fairly clean, appalling smells creep out from the by-ways. Addis Ababa, the capital, has a population of about 120,000—to which at the moment must be added about three hundred war correspondents and photographers. There is no other town as big as this, though Harar and Diredawa are probably growing more rapidly. Most of the provincial capitals have populations between five and ten thousand, but it must not be forgotten that at certain times of year there are markets during which there may be enormous influxes into some of these towns.

For the most part the towns are collections of mud huts, but this term does not necessarily mean that all the buildings are squalid. Some of the buildings have considerable dignity and point to a very definite native style of architecture which it is the policy of the Emperor to revive and extend.

The only railway in the country runs from the capital to Jibuti, the port of French Somaliland. It functions with much greater efficiency than most travellers expect, and but for the fact that the French authorities at Jibuti inflict innumerable delays and examinations upon intending travellers, there is little to complain of in the service. The heat is no fault of the Abyssinians and it is against this that most complaints are directed. Roads there are practically none, though in the dry season the tracks are for the most part quite easily negotiated by car—except when they climb the hills, which are often difficult going even to the hardy mules. Donkeys and camels are other standard means of transport. Pack horses are not common, since the horse is usually kept for the chase or for war. If a servant is driving a donkey over the hills and the beast dies he must bring back the tail to his master. This is accepted as proof that the donkey has not been secretly traded, for no one would purchase a tailless beast.

In the time of Menelek it took six days for the news of the victory at Adowa, in the north, to reach the capital. Relays of swift horses were used to cover the distance which is about three hundred and sixty miles in a straight line. It is doubtful if this time could be improved upon to-day for the journey, but news is also carried by telephone and telegraph. The line is, however, in constant peril from both natural and human forces, (wire makes fine bracelets) so that the service is not to be relied on.

The trade of Abyssinia is not great in volume and has increased very slowly though there have been big improvements in the last few years. The country is practically self-contained. Cotton cloth, crockery and cooking utensils, and guns are the principal imports, in return for which there is a steady export of coffee and hides. The natives are expert tanners. Ivory, spices, and civet —the strong, musky perfume obtained from the glands of the civet cat, are also traded. Currency difficulties are the chief barrier to commerce, however, for the Maria Theresa thaler or dollar (nominal value about one shilling and eightpence) is not readily exchangeable. Small bars of salt, cartridges, and sometimes bottles are used. Some travellers say that needles are the most portable form of value that you can take on a journey. One needle has been known to purchase six chicken.

Concerning needles an interesting story is told. A European who had adopted this device to overcome currency difficulties had given his needles to his servant who was in charge of commissariat purchases, but the boy found it very difficult to carry them. If he pinned them to his garments they had a way of scratching him. He had lost the packet in which they had been at first.

When he asked his employer how the ‘Frangi’—that is, foreigners, carried their needles he was told ‘in cushions.’ “In cushions?” he questioned, thinking he had not heard aright. “Yes, in cushions. The women give them to one another as presents....”

That evening the European overheard the servant talking to the rest. “When a Frangi hates another his wife makes a great cushion and fills it with needles. Then it is sent to the enemy as a gift. Ah, they are clever, the Frangi. Doubtless the points are dipped in deadly poison, too....”

Concerning law and order the most conflicting accounts are given. Some Europeans suggest that life is in constant danger. Others comment on the peaceable nature of the country except when there is a tribal feud. In the same breath we are told that the courts are so corrupt that it is impossible for any man to obtain justice and also that the Abyssinians are constantly invoking the law. They have been described as the most litigious race in the world. This contradiction probably results from the fact that judges accept gifts—the chiefs are usually the local judges. This is quite true, but it does not necessarily mean that they give unjust decisions in return for presents. Francis Bacon, the Lord Chief Justice of Queen Elizabeth’s day, took gifts, it will be remembered, but strenuously denied that they were bribes. The giving of presents is naturally interpreted by Europeans as clear evidence of corruption, but this is probably less true than has been supposed.

It is in the collection of taxes that the worst wrongs occur. The old principle of ten per cent is the general rule, but when requisition is made in kind there is every chance for the tax-gatherer to deal unjustly. When it is added that the system is in the hands of local governors and that they receive no pay, that the church owns about one-third of the land and collects its own taxes by a method of spiritual blackmail, and that the idiom for governing a province is in Amharic “to eat” it, the reason why few peasants produce much more than their immediate needs is obvious. Under Haile Selassie, however, there have been sweeping reforms.

Witchcraft is practised widely. Solomon and Christ are both thought to have been powerful wizards who used their gifts for good. This appears at first sight a very primitive belief, but it is hardly different in essence from the belief that Christ performed miracles to heal the sick. The Abyssinians are less different in thought from other Christian peoples than is usually stated. It is their way of expressing their beliefs which is strange rather than the beliefs themselves.

“Translate a mixture of Norman England, Renascence Italy, and the France of Louis XIV into eastern terms and you have a fair idea of Abyssinia from the social point of view,” said an Egyptian scholar recently. “It is arrogance on the part of Europe,” he continued, “to think of herself as so far ahead of these people. The history of the last few years in Italy, Germany, Austria, and Spain—to name no other countries, is full of hideous crimes, much worse in nature than the light-hearted callousness of the Abyssinian.”

One of the strangest mysteries of Abyssinia is the way in which the werewolf legend persists. Here is an account written by my father of an incident which he himself saw.
“It often happens in Abyssinia that people seem possessed by an evil spirit. This they call ‘Boudah.’ I witnessed these wonderful and dark occurrences many times, but will relate one instance only—and even in this case I must not describe all the terrible and disgusting details.

One evening when I was in my house at Gaffat a woman began to cry fearfully and run up and down on her hands and feet like a wild beast, quite unconscious of what she was doing. The onlookers said to me ‘This is Boudah—and if it is not driven out of her she will die.’ A large crowd gathered round the woman and many means of helping her were tried, but all in vain. She did not cease to howl and roar in a most terrible voice of great power.

At length a man was called, a blacksmith by profession, of whom it was said that he was in secret communication with the evil spirit. He called the woman, who obeyed him at once. He took her hand and dropped the juice of the white onion or garlic into her nose. Then he said to her, addressing the evil spirit within her: ‘Why didst thou possess this woman?’
‘Because it was permitted to me.’
‘What is thy name?’
‘My name is Gebroo.’
‘Where is thy country?’
‘My country is Godjam.’
‘Of how many people hast thou taken possession?’ ‘Of forty people, both men and women.’
‘I now command thee to leave this woman.’
‘I will leave her on one condition.’
‘What is that condition?’
‘I want to eat the flesh of a donkey.’
‘Very well,’ said the blacksmith—‘that thou shalt have.’ So a donkey was brought which had a wounded back, rubbed sore through carrying heavy loads; its back was quite sore and full of matter. On receiving permission from the exorciser the woman flung herself upon the donkey sinking her teeth into the exposed flesh which she bit out of the poor creature’s back; and though the donkey struggled and kicked and ran off she did not fall but clung as if she was nailed to the animal’s back.

At length the man called the woman back to him and said to the evil spirit: ‘Well, art thou satisfied now?’ ‘Not yet,’ was the reply.
‘What more dost thou want?’
A disgusting mixture was asked for. This was prepared and placed in hiding, great care being taken that the woman should not see where.

‘Now go and look for your drink,’ said the blacksmith. At once the woman began to run about in widening circles just like an animal, but suddenly she went straight to the place where the drink was hidden. She drank the whole potful to the last drop. Then she came back to the blacksmith who said: ‘Now pick up this stone.’ It was a stone so large that I am sure she would not have been able to have moved it in her natural condition, but she picked it up with ease and set it upon her head. Then, at a word of command she turned like a wheel so that the stone spun off. It fell one way and she the other. Both stone and woman lay motionless on the ground.

‘Take her away now to her bed,’ said the blacksmith —‘for the Boudah has left her.’
The poor woman slept for about ten hours, then awoke and went back to her work and did not know anything of what had happened. I only state the facts, and leave the rest to my reader.”

There is a glimpse of a terrible darknesss. It is well to note the likeness of the story to certain incidents recorded in the New Testament. The use of garlic is also interesting. All who have a taste for horrors know that this leaf is widely believed to keep off the evil powers of vampires and other such creatures.

Abyssinian magic is a study in itself. From the lebasha, who enters into a trance to smell out thieves and trace the stolen goods, to the wizard who casts a death spell upon a mouse and sends it to the house of your enemy for an inclusive fee of anything up to thirty dollars, there can be found almost every variety of what some call hocus-pocus—and some do not. Love potions are a flourishing trade and so is fortune telling, for the Abyssinian women are no wiser than many of their sisters in western lands, so that whoever talks to them of the secrets of love and marriage can usually fleece them with impunity.

The strange thing about the marriage laws of Abyssinia is the way in which they favour women. There are roughly speaking four sorts of marriage, though in certain provinces strange local customs prevail. The least binding type of union is the contract for a year, by which a man guarantees to feed a woman, dress her in accordance with his rank, and make her a handsome present. When the contract expires she has no further claim on him—though if he is in arrears with his promised money he cannot cast her off and may have to accept her as his legal wife for life. Although this may seem a cold-blooded type of arrangement, it is accepted and involves no social stigma, while to make the contract properly binding it must be blessed by a priest.

A slightly more binding form of ceremony is the trial marriage—an agreement conferring full marital status upon the woman but limited to two or three years. In the third type no time limit is mentioned, but divorce is quite easy, provided that proper financial arrangements can be arrived at.

The fourth type of marriage is so binding that not many women care to submit to it; but even this solemn union can be ended if the man becomes a serious criminal, goes mad, suffers from fits, or shames his wife publicly by preferring other women to her.

All of which legal possibilities seem to show that there is a far more rational attitude towards matrimony in Abyssinia than in Great Britain. At least you will never, in Abyssinia, find yourself in a state of what Mr. Herbert so admirably described as ‘Holy Deadlock.’

It is very noticeable that a woman who has a proper business sense where marriage is concerned can, by driving a series of shrewd bargains with successive husbands, emerge still young enough to enjoy life, with a comfortable endowment. Sometimes such women form an attachment with a handsome young slave.

Some observers have stated that the moral standards of Abyssinia in these matters are low. The answer is that while the actual conduct of men and women compares quite favourably with western conditions, the frankness and logic of the arrangements expose to view much that exists, though well hidden, in civilised lands.

It remains to discuss the hidden riches of Abyssinia for which the European nations have been quarrelling. This is difficult ground, for all the experts disagree. Some say that there are rich veins of gold in the mountains and point as proof to the existence of alluvial gold in certain rivers, notable in the Dadessa, which joins the Blue Nile at the point where that river turns northward. The Galla tribes are some of them said to be very skilful at sifting out this gold, but it would appear that their returns are not very high. The hills from which the Dadessa flows appear quite promising but so far there is no record of anything approaching a paying reef being found. Platinum, though, has been found and can be made to pay. So far only three per cent of the world’s output comes from Abyssinia and the ores discovered have presented many difficulties; but careful and systematic search of the hills may lead to the discovery of sensational wealth. Many shrewd men are of this opinion; others claim that anything really worth while in the way of metallic resources would surely have been unearthed by now did it exist. Between these schools of thought the future will judge.

The belief in large reefs of gold goes back to Egyptian times. The legend of King Solomon’s Mines has also some connection with Ethiopia. Owing to the many centuries during which the gold must have been sought for there are some people who think that the reefs may have been found and worked out. This may be true of gold but it can hardly be true of the deposits of oil which are confidently believed to exist by really expert observers. These authorities base their argument on the fact that it is highly probable from geological observation that the Iraq oilfields continue at a great depth in a westerly direction and come near to the surface again in Abyssinia. Certain configurations of landscape in the south-west are held to point strongly to oil. On the other hand the elusive nature of this liquid mineral is so well known that only when the first gusher spouts madly over the amazed Wollo Gallas will the matter be finally proved.

But even if the mineral wealth should prove scanty—and the present writer has a very well founded belief that it will not—the land has vast agricultural possibilities. Grain grows splendidly; the prospects of dairy farming are excellent; livestock thrive already, and with systematic irrigation of their pastures could be multiplied tenfold. The coffee crop, which is already fetching better prices as the result of the publicity given to the country by the war, may soon be a source of great revenue; while cotton of the finest type could be cultivated on a grand scale if the waters of the land were controlled for the use of man.

If, with the coming of better times, the world demand for food and raw materials increases, Abyssinia will be able to play an important part in meeting that demand. Critics who point to the present limited exports should remember that since Haile Selassie came to the throne world consumption has gone steadily downwards, so that only by the cleverest organisation has any increase of production been made to pay at all. Given a peaceful ten years after the present invasion has been dealt with, the Emperor may well astonish the world.

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March 9, 2021