The Vision Of Ras Makonnen

Ras Makonnen was the one man whom Menelek trusted implicitly and who shared the innermost secrets of his mind. He was a brave and skilful general and no act of barbarity was ever recorded against him; he was a clever, distinguished and, on occasion, subtle negotiator, but there was never the least question as to his honesty; he had a passion for machinery, a gift for mathematics, and a mind of scientific cast, yet he was a deeply religious man, for though science had enabled him to cast out superstition from his thoughts, it had never blinded him to spiritual considerations.

He was of rather more than middle height, perfectly proportioned, and athletic of stride. His regular and very handsome features showed no dominant racial characteristic. It was as though all that was best in the racial material available in Ethiopia had been blended in the pure lines and frank expression of the face. His crisp hair, though intensely curly, was of astonishing fineness, and the short well-trimmed beard, though neat and precise, was never pointed, having a kindly and reassuring bushiness, a sort of countryman’s candour. In dignity of carriage and expression he moved among the diplomats of the first years of the twentieth century like some trusted survival of Queen Victoria’s day.

Many Europeans who knew him have testified to his charm of manner, which came from an inner sincerity and was far more than a mere surface graciousness. He was popular in Rome, was received with royal honours in Paris, and in London made many friends both in government and intellectual circles (which two worlds doubtless overlap!) in the course of his necessarily brief stay.

Like so many other ambassadors he sensed in Britain a solidity of power unlike anything he had experienced elsewhere; and though he was fortunate in his personal relationships with English people he never lost the feeling that such power, however justly used, was to be feared. Many times he said to Menelek, “I trust the British and yet I fear them. I have studied their history. In the end they always win.”

Perhaps his most incisive and revealing remark concerning the English nation was an epigram, which went something like this: “Your Englishman’s like a great cat. You stroke him and he purrs very happily. But don’t try to pick him up—he scratches!”

It must be pointed out that the cat is held in much greater honour in the East than in the West, so there was nothing in the least insulting in the comparison. Nor did he .mean to suggest any feminine characteristics. Cats as the East knows them are extremely masculine and marauding animals.

“He was the first Ethiopian general to make his men clean their guns,” said an English officer who knew him well. “He would often clean his himself to set an example. You could see by the way he handled each part and the care with which he reassembled them that anything mechanical was fascinating to him.”

When he was in London he spent many of his happiest hours in Woolwich Arsenal, where the intricate machinery enthralled him, but he always shook his head sorrowfully over the increasing power of the lethal weapons which the European races were perfecting. When told that a gun had a range of twelve miles he said, “What a weapon for cowards!”

His most celebrated campaign was against the Italians, but from the military standpoint the most striking proof of his genius as a leader came when he was sent to deal with Hajji Muhammad, the Somali Sheik of Ogaden, usually referred to as the “Mad Mullah.” Learning that this “terror of the south” was marching on Harar with a force which some estimates placed at ten and others at twenty thousand, Ras Makonnen showed complete unconcern. Calling in his colleague, the genial General Benti, whom he knew could be trusted to carry out orders, he arranged for a flank attack on the advancing hordes. This was completely successful. At Jijiga in the April of 1900 the Mullah’s forces received a crushing defeat, but so great was his personal influence that before the year was out he had rallied his tribesmen and was advancing again.

This time Ras Makonnen did not wait for the advance, but taking the leadership of his army made a forced march into the heart of the Ogaden provinces to defeat the Mullah on his own ground. It is difficult to be sure how many men the Sheik Hajji had collected, but it is certain that they outnumbered the Abyssinians by about three to one. Ras Makonnen had only five thousand men, but they were picked fighters, and he always preferred to fight with a small and reliable force rather than with a large but ill-disciplined body. In his first battle he cut straight through the Somalis and slew seven or eight thousand of them. Then he returned to deal with the detachments which his bold move had cut off from their main body and their inspiring chief. But by the time he had dealt with these, the Mullah’s troops were again on the move, having rallied on the Somali border, and Ras Makonnen was forced to appeal to Menelek for aid. Menelek at once sent ten thousand men to reinforce the Ethiopian army, and with these the Mad Mullah was so decisively routed that he never crossed into Menelek’s territories again, though after the Emperor’s death, as will be related, he was actually for a while in alliance with the Abyssinians against the combined forces of France, Italy, and Britain, whose territories he harassed continuously until his death.

Ras Makonnen was a devoted father and had a large family. Tafari, his son, was one of twenty-two children, his claim to the throne depending on the fact that his mother was niece of Menelek. Makonnen would have wished to have been able to superintend the education of this clever son of his in whose veins the blood of Menelek flowed, but his duties were many. When he was not fighting he was either called to Addis Ababa to advise the Emperor or sent to represent him in negotiations with Europeans. These missions at length took him to Europe, as has been told. But even in the intervals of the many services which he so loyally and punctiliously rendered to his monarch he had little leisure to return to his own capital at Harar and deal with family affairs.

After the rebellion of Mangasha in the north of Tigre which failed owing to the fact that his men deserted when they learned that the great Ras Makonnen, the “breath of Menelek,” was marching against them, the whole of that province had been added to Makonnen’s area of jurisdiction. There were often local insurrections, and instead of putting them down ruthlessly, killing on the spot every man caught with arms, Ras Makonnen tried hard to adopt a judicial attitude and to fix responsibility.

This led to long enquiries, and did little good; for the spared men showed no gratitude. The reason for this was that they could not understand why they had not been killed, so foreign to their minds was the idea of impartial justice. If they were allowed to go free with a fine and a warning then it must be that some magic had bewitched the mind of the Ras, unless it was that he feared the revenge of their relatives. Dealing with these wild hill-men by methods of justice and mercy might well have seemed a hopeless task; for the slightest relenting was always interpreted as weakness and led to more troubles. Nevertheless Ras Makonnen, who had learned from European missionaries to respect the ideal of justice above all others, persevered. When it was pointed out to him that he was wasting time and that his spared enemies merely despised him, he would say: “All that I know. But we must make a beginning. The great Solomon was a just king. Justice is the most important rule of life. God will judge us as we have judged.”

It sickened Ras Makonnen to be compelled to hang twenty deluded wretches who had been deceived by some plausible chieftain into joining his rebel forces. Even the rebel chieftain himself, if he was an able man with any good in him at bottom, could be sure of right treatment from Makonnen were he to submit. Ras Mangasha, for example, was a good soldier, and though he several times tried to throw off the control of Menelek, nevertheless fought bravely against the Italians. When he was compelled to surrender in 1899 it was to a great extent the influence of Ras Makonnen that resulted in his life being spared. The rebel chief appeared before the Emperor at a great court held at Boro Myeda, near the famous fort of Magdala. He, and his companion, Ras Sebat, each with a stone upon his head (which is the old Amharic custom) made humble submission and their lives were spared.

“He is too good a fighter to waste,” said Makonnen to Menelek—speaking of Ras Mangasha. “We may need him again before long.”

The next year Mangasha’s son rebelled, but this time Ras Makonnen was not long in the field against the insurgents, for his duties led him to the south where there was trouble with the Mullah. The chief to whom the task of putting down the Tigre revolt, which was one of several in that area, was entrusted, adopted a Cromwellian policy. The rebels were hanged without mercy. After three months of this there was peace for three years, and Ras Mangasha lived so to redeem his reputation that many spoke of him as Menelek’s heir.

It does credit to Menelek that when the enemies of Ras Makonnen contrasted the efficiency of his successor with the mistaken leniency to the Emperor’s enemies which he had shown, the Emperor refused to listen, saying that he would hear no word against the greatest soldier and wisest chieftain in the land.

Tafari Makonnen was devoted to his father but saw too little of him. Nevertheless much of the father’s character was passed on to his son—his love of learning, his instinctive wish to do justice. Ras Makonnen had himself received instruction from the priests of the Catholic Mission at Harar and knew them to be capable teachers. He was content to place his son in their hands. It is a curious and unexplained fact that conversion from the Coptic faith to that of Rome is a great rarity. Makonnen had no fear of this. The priests made no attempt to proselytise the young boy entrusted to their care, instilling rather the general principles of Christian charity than the particular tenets of their Church. In this they were wise, for Tafari’s active mind with its eager love of country would have been quick to resent any tampering with his faith in the Church of Ethiopia. He responded readily, however, to the ideal of religious toleration and when in later years he was destined to fight the Mohammedans he fought them only as rebels and did not think of the conflict as a religious war.

Comparisons between father and son are instructive. The love of machinery displayed by Ras Makonnen developed in young Tafari into a love of abstract science, while the boy inherited in even more striking degree the love of books which had always characterised his father.

It is told of Ras Makonnen that once in London when he was shown a beautiful copy of the great Ethiopian classic, The Miracles of the Virgin Mary, he knelt down and pressed the heavy volume against his brow, praying the while for the Blessing of Mary and all her Angels. The sincerity of the act, the evident devotion of the chieftain and his trust in the holy faith of his land made a deep impression on the few people who witnessed the scene. Makonnen would have been proud to think that not least among the services which his son was to render to Ethiopia was the translation and careful editing of many of the sacred books which the monasteries guard.

Ras Makonnen died, worn out some say by his exertions, but the vision of a new Ethiopia which had always been before his eyes lived on in the mind of his son. Ethiopia must set her house in order and learn from the West all that was good. There must be less bloodshed, more cohesion, for powerful foes would soon be pressing from without. There must be an end of barbaric punishments, then an end of all the abuses which accompanied slavery; lastly an end of slavery itself. Menelek, for all his faults, had made a beginning. Unity had been achieved. The next step was to make use of this newly found unity for the betterment of all the land.

Makonnen died, little of his dream realised. And when Menelek died, it seemed that what little advance had been won towards modernisation was lost in the confusion which followed. But within the brain of Tafari Makonnen his father’s vision did not fade. When all hope seemed useless, when civilisation outside of Ethiopia seemed almost lost sight of in widespread and terrible war and civilising forces within her borders were fighting with their backs to the wall, the seed which Makonnen had sowed flowered unexpectedly but with brilliance in the person of Ras Tafari, who amid many perils, and with enemies both open and secret surrounding him, founded a new order of life in his country, and brought Ethiopia forward to take her place once more in the history of the world.

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April 17, 2021