Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1991.

Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, editors.


The Reestablishment of the Ethiopian Monarchy

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Gonder state consisted of the northern and central highlands and the lower elevations immediately adjacent to them. This area was only nominally a monarchy, as rival nobles fought for the military title of Ras (roughly, marshal; literally, head in Amharic) or the highest of all non royal titles, Ras bitwoded , that combined supreme military command with the duties of first minister at court. These nobles often were able to enthrone and depose princes who carried the empty title of negusa nagast.

The major peoples who made up the Ethiopian state were the Amhara and the Tigray, both Semitic speakers, and Cushiticspeaking peoples such as the Oromo and those groups speaking Agew languages, many of whom were Christian by the early 1800s. In some cases, their conversion had been accompanied by their assimilation into Amhara culture or, less often, Tigray culture; in other cases, they had become Christian but had retained their languages. The state’s largest ethnic group was the Oromo, but the Oromo were neither politically nor culturally unified. Some were Christian, spoke Amharic, and had intermarried with the Amhara. Other Christian Oromo retained their language, although their modes of life and social structure had changed extensively from those of their pastoral kin. At the eastern edge of the highlands, many had converted to Islam, especially in the area of the former sultanates of Ifat and Adal. The Oromo people, whether or not Christian and Amhara in culture, played important political roles in the Zemene Mesafint–often as allies of Amhara aspirants to power but sometimes as Rases and Kingmakers in their own right.

Meanwhile, to the south of the kingdom, segments of the Oromo population–cultivators and suppliers of goods exportable to the Red Sea coast and beyond–had developed kingdoms of their own, no doubt stimulated in part by the examples of the Amhara to the north and the Sidama kingdoms to the south. The seventeenth through nineteenth century was a period not only of migration but also of integration, as groups borrowed usable techniques and institutions from each other. In the south, too, Islam had made substantial inroads. Many Oromo chieftains found Islam a useful tool in the process of centralization as well as in the building of trade networks.

By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, external factors once more affected the highlands and adjacent areas, at least in part because trade among the Red Sea states was being revived. Egypt made incursions along the coast and sought at various times to control the Red Sea ports. Europeans, chiefly British and French, showed interest in the Horn of Africa. The competition for trade, differences over how to respond to Egypt’s activities, and the readier availability of modern arms were important factors in the conflicts of the period.

In the mid-nineteenth century, a major figure in Gonder was Kasa Haylu, son of a lesser noble from Qwara, a district on the border with Sudan. Beginning about 1840, Kasa alternated between life as a brigand and life as a soldier of fortune for various nobles, including Ras Ali, a Christian of Oromo origin who dominated the court in Gonder. Kasa became sufficiently effective as an army commander to be offered the governorship of a minor province. He also married Ali’s daughter, Tawabech. Nevertheless, Kasa eventually rebelled against Ali, occupied Gonder in 1847, and compelled Ali to recognize him as chief of the western frontier area. In 1848 he attacked the Egyptians in Sudan; however, he suffered a crushing defeat, which taught him to respect modern firepower. Kasa then agreed to a reconciliation with Ali, whom he served until 1852, when he again revolted. The following year, he defeated Ali’s army and burned his capital, Debre Tabor. In 1854 he assumed the title negus (king), and in February 1855 the head of the church crowned him Tewodros II.