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Yohannes IV of Ethiopia: A Political Biography

            Revised Edition, The Red Sea Press 2014

Authored by Zewde Gabre-Sellassie, PhD

Reviewed by Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD

 May 6, 2014


 Zewde Gabre-Sellassie’s book pioneered in fully exploring and documenting the political biography of Emperor Yohannes in detail and in depth. Other books on Yohannes include that of Bairu Tafla’s Chronicle of Yohannes IV: 1872-1889; Tekle Tsadiq Mekuria’s Atse Yohannes ‘na Ya Ethiopia Andinet (Emperor Yohannes and the Unity of Ethiopia); and Mamo Wudneh’s Yohannes (fiction in Amharic), not to mention numerous articles including mine entitled The Martyred King of Kings: Emperor Yohannes IV that I wrote in 2006 (www.africanidea.org/atse_yohannes.pdf)

The Red Sea Press posthumously published Yohannes IV of Ethiopia: A Political Biography, first put out by the Clarendon Press in 1975, now revised and updated by the author. The book is organized into thirteen chapters and supplemented by nine appendices that greatly enriched the respective chapters and more specifically the historical themes of the text, and this becomes handy for the casual reader as well as the scholar engaged in serious research.

The author’s immaculate presentation of Yohannes’ role in Ethiopian history in the context of the complex and real or imaginary political events of the last quarter of the 19th century, gives the book an edge in capturing the dramatic Ethiopian phenomena of the time in an enduring language. The book furthermore explores and discusses the complex diplomacy Yohannes engaged with now the British, now the Italians and the conflict he entered with the Egyptians, Italians, and the Mahdist Derbush of Sudan. The author also clearly and candidly delineates the challenges Yohannes faced from local princess like Gobeze, Menelik and Teklehaimanot.

As noted above, the book is essentially a political biography of Emperor Yohannes, but it also briefly touches upon the social background of Yohannes when he was still known as Kassa (his name at birth). Kassa or Kahsai and his elder brother Gugsa were temporarily residing at the court of Emperor Tewodros, and when they were about to depart to Tigray, the Emperor “confirmed Gugsa’s command over Enderta with the title of Dejazmach [highest ranking in the Ethiopian feudal-aristocratic hierarchy] and Kassa, the younger brother, was given the title of Balambaras [the lowest title]”. Following these appointments, thus, Kasa sought a rebel life and he chose Afar, Eastern Tigray, as his strategic area for his guerrilla operations; and during his stay in the Afar district, he married an Afar girl by he name Dato Halima, a sister of Yakume Sire Ali, chief of the Damohoita part of the Ab’ala tribe. He had converted Dato to Christianity and changed her name to Tibebe Sellassie.”

While Kassa was conducting operations in Eastern Tigray, the fate of Emperor Tewodros was about to be sealed sometime in the late 1867, following the English hostages at Maqdella and the British expeditionary forces led by General Napier, who came to rescue their incarcerated citizens at Tewodros’ court. Initially, Kassa was kind of hesitant to cooperate with the Napier forces, but upon learning of the two other princes, namely Gobeze (later Emperor Teklegiorgis) and Menelik, willing to cooperate with the British, and also anticipating the fall of Tewodros, he reconsidered to cooperate with the British but with reservations. “Kassa was the only one among the Ethiopian princesses,” says Dr. Zewde, “who, to his credit, raised such questions before offering his cooperation.” Based on one of Kassa’s subordinates, Mircha Worque, the author substantiates the ‘questions’ raised by Yohannes: “The operations against Tewodros should be successful, that the English should then leave the country as soon as possible, that they (the British) should not assist the Egyptian enemy and no consul should be appointed.” (p. 13)

Once Kassa (now Emperor Yohannes) ascended to power in 1872, his immediate top agenda was to reunite Ethiopia and iron out the doctrinal differences amongst the sects of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The author, thus, discusses Yohannes’ endeavors and his achievements during the formative period of his reign.

The predominant sect within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was the Tewahdo (Unitarian), followers of the Alexandrian doctrine that preached only Two Births of Christ (from the Father and the Virgin Mary). The Qibat (Unction) sect that evolved mainly in Gojjam argued, “the flesh had become divine in the womb of the virgin through Unction”. The third sect, known as Sost Lidet (Three Births), also known as Tsega and one that flourished in Shoa, attributed Unction only to the Word at the time of Baptism, when Christ attained a Third Birth.

Under the supervision and instruction of Emperor Yohannes, the sects ultimately resolved their differences at the Council of Boru Meda in May 1878 in favor of the Tewahdo sect. Following the resolution of doctrinal differences, in an attempt to ‘strengthen the Orthodox Tewahdo Church’ and “stimulate the evangelization process and facilitate the spread of church education, “Yohannes built several churches in Tigray, Begemdir, Wollo, Shoa, and Gojjam.”

After the Council of Boru Meda, Yohannes “issued a proclamation stating the rationale for the conversion of Muslims throughout the greater Wollo area.” The Emperor claimed that all Wollo was Christian until Grań came and compelled the people to abandon their Christian religion and embrace Islam instead. However, a more compelling reason for Yohannes’ proclamation, I gather, was “influenced by the successive Egyptian invasions of 1875 and 1876 and the fact that a state of hostility had persisted between Egypt and Ethiopia until the Hewett Treaty in 1884. It was basically motivated by strategic and political considerations focusing on Wollo” (p. 27)

However, some historians have misunderstood Yohannes’ policy of religious conversion because they perceived him as fanatic as I have tried to critically examine and clarify in my debut book, Ethiopia: The Political Economy of Transition. Dejazmach Zewde, to his credit, succinctly explains why the Emperor wanted to issue the Proclamation in the first place: “One must not overlook,” Dejach Zewde says, “Yohannes’ instruction to Menelik and Ras Adal (later King Teklehaimanot) of Gojjam ‘not to treat Muslims too harshly, less the Copts in Egypt suffer reprisal’.” (p. 30)

There is no doubt that Yohannes was in favor of Ethiopian Muslims embracing Christianity, and he was also in favor of the Holy City of Askum to be free of Muslims but he did not support the idea of congregating Muslims at Addi Gwatsiya, a ghetto-like area for the followers of Islam. On the contrary, he granted them land in Mekelle, not far from his palace and in many other cities such as Koda and Mai Kumel near Aksum; Edaga Malka in Naeder, and Addi Dahno in Shire; Addi Agam in Awger; Hatsiba in Enda Abba Tsahma; Addi Tegemes in Zengui; Begié Ella in Segli; Addi Zeamere in Enticho; Enda Abba Qendi in Enda Chewa, and Negash in Kilte Awlaélo. (p. 31)

In regards to the Falasha or Béte Israel, Yohannes adopted a tolerant policy toward their religion although he would have wished them converted to Christianity. When attempts were made by the local chiefs to convert the Falasha, the latter under the leadership of Abba Mehari from Dembia, Wolkayt, and Semien went to Yohannes’ palace to appeal and the Emperor is believed to have said, “They should not be compelled to adopt our religion.”

One important contribution of this book is the fact that Dejach Zewde documented Yohannes’ contributions and achievements that other historians ignored or belittled. In an attempt to introduce modern technology, medicine, and crafts into Ethiopia, Emperor Yohannes recruited foreign experts in many fields and invited them to come to Ethiopia. Among the many foreign experts, J. C. Kirkham was hired to train professional Ethiopian army; the Greek physician Nicholas Parisis was assigned to take care of health matters; among craftsmen employed in Yohannes’ court were the Italian builder Giacomo Naretti, the French mechanic René, and the Hungarian gunsmith André.

The author also pointed out “Yohannes was desperately in need of professional experts. He even wrote to Memehir Wolde Semaét, the Abbot of the Ethiopian monastery in Jerusalem, to identify and send a sound botanist with all the different seeds from abroad as well as a medical doctor – whom he will pay and accord them all the comfort that they deserve.” (p. 34) One missing link that is not mentioned by the author is that Yohannes, in an effort to demonstrate and encourage his people accept modern medicine, he was the first to be vaccinated in public.

With respect to Yohannes’ policy on the general welfare of the Ethiopian people, it is most instructive to quote what he issued in regards to slavery: “This was demonstrated by the warning he sent to Menelik that he would send troops to protect the Guraghes if Menelik could not protect them from seasonal raids which were afflicting the population.” Yohannes got first hand information of the enslavement not only of the Guraghe, but also of the Oromo and other Southern Ethiopian peoples, from an ex-slave Guraghe who managed to escape and find himself at the court of the Emperor in Mekelle.

Other major contribution of Yohannes was the introduction of flourmills and supply depots in order to relieve the peasants from supplying provisions to the massive fighting forces of the Emperor.

Yohannes also introduced a unique style of governance hitherto unknown in Ethiopian history by appointing regional kings to administer their own provinces as autonomous political entities. In effect, he introduced a semi-federal system under a monarchy and truly presided over Ethiopia as the king of kings in the literal sense of the term. Dejach Zewde believes that Yohannes’ style of governance and power sharing may have undermined “his own authority, but it contributed greatly in accelerating the process of reunification of the Ethiopian Empire.” (p. 41) Yohannes, however, did not simply compromise his authority; he was well aware of the contending princesses like Menelik, Teklehaimanot, and Gobeze who had ambitions to become kings and who were pandering with outside forces, which is not unique to Ethiopians and which was a universal norm during the incipient stage in the formation of nation-states. He also had misgivings on the behavior of his subordinates and he had no choice but to deal with them by appeasing and at times punishing them in order not to give a chance to European imperial powers take over Ethiopia at a time when they almost partitioned the whole continent.  In regards to Egyptian, Italian, and Mahdist enemies, however, he was not ready too mollifying them, let alone negotiates Ethiopian territory. He combined diplomacy with firm determination to challenge and/or confront foreign enemies at the battleground.   

In my article on Yohannes (mentioned above), I stated, “After Emperor Tewodros, Emperor Yohannes IV is another great visionary whose person is characterized by unparalleled altruism, incomparable sense of justice and humanist principle at its core. By his utmost commitment to his people and his country and his indefatigable patriotism, Yohannes makes every Ethiopian a dwarf-thinking animal.”

When I wrote the above statement on Yohannes in 2006, I was not trying to elevate the martyred emperor to sainthood by embellishing words; on the contrary, I was making a reflection of a selfless human being with exceptional sense of sacrifice for his people and his country. This is a man who forgave his erstwhile enemies including Dejach Gabre-Michael of Tsraé who was responsible for the death of his own mother, Weizero Silas Dimtsu. In a similar vein, Dejach Zewde portrays Yohannes as follows: “Throughout his reign Yohannes demonstrated selfless devotion to the defense of the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian Empire against successive waves of external aggression by Egyptians, Italians, and Mahdist Sudan…his devotion to his country and people culminated in the supreme sacrifice of his life at the border of his empire, in the Battle of Metema.” (p. 42)

What I have put so far in the above is a summary and synthesis of the book, which I hope will enable the reader to easily grasp the essence of the leitmotif, that is, the political biography of one of the remarkable emperors of modern Ethiopia. In writing this book, Dr Zewde made a great contribution to Ethiopian historiography and political discourse of the late nineteenth century Ethiopia, and as Edward Ullendorff aptly put it in the Preface to the first edition of the book, “Yohannes IV alone was not hitherto had serious and sustained scholarly attention, and this lacuna has now been most worthily filled by Dejazmach Dr. Zewde Gabre Sellassie’s present study.”

The book, no doubt is extremely rich in the overall documentation of historical narratives of Emperor Yohannes and while Chapter One is the Introduction itself, Chapter Two discusses the ‘historical perspective’; Chapter Three covers the struggle for power by the principal princesses in the post-Tewodros period; Chapter Four discusses and deals with the Ethiopian-Egyptian conflict, the Battle of Gundet (1875) and Battle of Guraé (1876), and the victory of Ethiopians. Although things have changed dramatically between now and then, Chapter Four – if read between lines – may very well depict the current Egyptian ambitions in their futile attempt to control the waters of the Nile. Chapters Five to Seven are essentially focused on the reunification of Ethiopia, the Hewett or Adwa Treaty, the expansion to the peripheral regions like Harar. Yohannes encouraged Menelik (then King of Shoa) to recapture Harar (the word ‘recapture’ is Yohannes’s own term to imply that Harar was part of historic Ethiopia) and the Southeastern territories lost to outsiders.

Chapter Nine is about the ‘first encroachment of the Italians’ and the relations of the latter with Ethiopians in the context of Ras Alula’s victory over Italian forces in 1885 and 1887 at Saati and Dogali respectively.  While Chapter Twelve deals with the Battle of Metema, which the author calls ‘The Crucial Decision’, Chapter Thirteen is the concluding part of the Book.

Most of the text in the book is easy to read and there is indeed a smooth flow between chapters, but unfortunately Dejach Zewde left some Italian references without translating them into English and readers could have difficulty understanding them. For instance, on page 222 a certain Mancini is quoted stating in Italian on the significance of the strategy of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean in the Italian territorial ambitions in Africa. I will roughly translate it as shown below so that some readers could get the gist of the text:

Perche non-volete riconoscere che nel mar Rosso, il piu viccino al Mediterraneo, passiamo torvare la chiave di quest’ ultimo, la via che ci riconduce ad una efficace tutela contro ogni nuovo turbamento del suo equlibrio

Why not want to admit that the Red Sea is close to the Mediterranean; we find the key to the latter and the track that takes us back to an effective protection against any new disturbance of the equilibrium.    

Before I conclude, I like to include two important ubiquitous quotations, one uttered by Emperor Yohannes in rallying the Ethiopian people and mobilizing his forces against Italian incursion, and the other stated by the magnanimous and charismatic Empress Taitu in telling the truth and in defending Ethiopian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the Saati campaign against Italians, “Emperor Yohannes tried to bolster the morale of his army with a characteristic proclamation”: “Hear my countrymen, my nobles, my soldiers, and my people. Your government orders you to march towards Massawa for a war…March forward and do not remain behind. Oh sons of Ethiopia bear in mind that Ethiopia is primarily your mother, secondly your crown, thirdly your wife, fourthly your child, and fifthly your grave. Hence, when you march, you must realize that you will be defending your country, which corresponds to the love of a mother, the glory of a crown, the kindness of a wife, the joy of a child, and the charity of a grave.” (p. 289)

And as noted earlier, Yohannes was not ready to cede a piece of land to the Italians and Empress Taitu beautifully depicts this character of the Emperor when she challenged her own husband, and this is what she said: “How is it that King Yohannes never wished to cede a hand’s breath of land, beat the Italians, beat the Egyptians, and for this was killed, and you, after such an example, wish to sell your country? What will history has to say about you?” (p. 322)     

I personally have great admiration and respect for Emperor Yohannes, and as noted above I have dedicated an article to the martyred king of kings, but I was saddened to come across some denigrating remarks against Yohannes made by some Diaspora Ethiopians. Unlike these marauding ethnocentric chauvinists who portrayed Atse Yohannes as a fool (e.g. Ambassador Emiru Zeleke) and an emotionally-driven or angry leader for going to Metema (e.g. Getachew Haile), I have extended the respect he deserves as I have done to Emperors Tewodros, Menelik, Haile Selassie, and even Lij Eyasu who was unfairly judged by the powers that be in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Interested readers can still make reference to my articles written in 2006 on Emperors Tewodros and Menelik, entitled The Great Unifier: Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia and Emeye Menelik Abba Dagnew: Emperor of Ethiopia (www.africanidea.org/emperor_tewdros.pdf and www.africanidea.org/Emeye.pdf).

Unlike some elements who have no regard for their history and respect for their leaders, I have enjoyed the company of hundreds and upon hundreds of Ethiopians who have read my articles and my books, and I like to use this opportunity to mention one Ethiopian who loves his country and who, to his credit, reconstructed the Menelik palace at Ankober that was destroyed by the Italian Fascists. His name is Ato Terrefe Raswork and he gave me the following feedback when I wrote the article on Emperor Menelik: “I read your article on the above subject [Emeye Menelik] with great interest. I think your article is well balanced and reflects the actual historical facts, as most people understood them. I think it is important for Ethiopians to look back on our history not only with fairness but most importantly make judgment, if one has to do so, within the then current realities. Thank you for a good historical presentation, which I consider a useful contribution to revisiting our history…”       

We must indeed look back and examine the rich Ethiopian history and learn lessons from it, and for this apparent reason Dejach Zewde’s book plays a major role in enabling Ethiopians to study the complicated political history of Ethiopia of the mid to late 19th century. More importantly, when we retrospectively explore the history of Ethiopia, our inquiry must be reflective, objective, critical, and balanced. As scholars and students of history, we have an obligation to tell the tale as is, without exaggeration or distortion. I say this, particularly to address the current trend among some Ethiopians in the Diaspora who at best seem to suffer from lack of compatibility of relevant historical knowledge, or at worst exhibit propensity of outright cynicism. Our responsibility should be to elevate above narrow sentiments and transcend the ills of chauvinism and narrow nationalism and promote the primacy of the Ethiopian nation-state in all its facets!

I also like to be candid and frank to the reader this time, and this would be the first time ever I wanted to make public my genealogical and genetic connection to Atse Yohannes. Emperor Yohannes is the son of his father Shum Tembien Mirach and his mother Weizero Silas who is the daughter of Dejach Dimtsu of Enderta and Embeytey (Weizero) Tabotu of Agame. Weizero Tabotu is the sister of Dejazmach Sibagadis Woldu, my great great-grandfather who died in 1831. The genealogical equation is pretty simple and abundantly clear: Sibagadis is the great uncle of Emperor Yohannes by his mother side.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2014. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org