The Reign of Menelik II, 1889-1913

Ethiopia Table of Contents

By 1900 Menelik had succeeded in establishing control over much of present-day Ethiopia and had, in part at least, gained recognition from the European colonial powers of the boundaries of his empire. Although in many respects a traditionalist, he introduced several significant changes. His decision in the late 1880s to locate the royal encampment at Addis Ababa ("New Flower") in southern Shewa led to the gradual rise of a genuine urban center and a permanent capital in the 1890s, a development that facilitated the introduction of new ideas and technology. The capital's location symbolized the empire's southern reorientation, a move that further irritated Menelik's Tigrayan opponents and some Amhara of the more northerly provinces who resented Shewan hegemony. Menelik also authorized a French company to build a railroad, not completed until 1917, that eventually would link Addis Ababa and Djibouti.

Menelik embarked on a program of military conquest that more than doubled the size of his domain. Enjoying superior firepower, his forces overran the Kembata and Welamo regions in the southern highlands. Also subdued were the Kefa and other Oromo- and Omotic-speaking peoples.

Expanding south, Menelik introduced a system of land rights considerably modified from that prevailing in the AmharaTigray highlands. These changes had significant implications for the ordinary cultivator in the south and ultimately were to generate quite different responses there to the land reform programs that would follow the revolution of 1974. In the central and northern highlands, despite regional variations, most peasants had substantial inheritable (broadly, rist) rights in land. In addition to holding rights of this kind, the nobility held or were assigned certain economic rights in the land, called gult rights, which entitled them to a portion of the produce of the land in which others held rist rights and to certain services from the rist holders. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church also held land of its own and gult rights in land to which peasants held rist rights. In the south, all land theoretically belonged to the emperor. He in turn allocated land rights to those he appointed to office and to his soldiers. The rights allocated by the king were more extensive than the gult rights prevailing in the north and left most of the indigenous peoples as tenants, with far fewer rights than Amhara and Tigray peasants. Thus, the new landowners in the south were aliens and remained largely so.

At the same time that Menelik was extending his empire, European colonial powers were showing an interest in the territories surrounding Ethiopia. Menelik considered the Italians a formidable challenge and negotiated the Treaty of Wuchale with them in 1889. Among its terms were those permitting the Italians to establish their first toehold on the edge of the northern highlands and from which they subsequently sought to expand into Tigray. Disagreements over the contents of the treaty eventually induced Menelik to renounce it and repay in full a loan Italy had granted as a condition. Thereafter, relations with Italy were further strained as a result of the establishment of Eritrea as a colony and Italy's penetration of the Somali territories.

Italian ambitions were encouraged by British actions in 1891, when, hoping to stabilize the region in the face of the Mahdist threat in Sudan, Britain agreed with the Italian government that Ethiopia should fall within the Italian sphere of influence. France, however, encouraged Menelik to oppose the Italian threat by delineating the projected boundaries of his empire. Anxious to advance French economic interests through the construction of a railroad from Addis Ababa to the city of Djibouti in French Somaliland, France accordingly reduced the size of its territorial claims there and recognized Ethiopian sovereignty in the area.

Italian-Ethiopian relations reached a low point in 1895, when Ras Mengesha of Tigray, hitherto reluctant to recognize the Shewan emperor's claims, was threatened by the Italians and asked for the support of Menelik. In late 1895, Italian forces invaded Tigray. However, Menelik completely routed them in early 1896 as they approached the Tigrayan capital, Adwa. This victory brought Ethiopia new prestige as well as general recognition of its sovereign status by the European powers. Besides confirming the annulment of the Treaty of Wuchale, the peace agreement ending the conflict also entailed Italian recognition of Ethiopian independence; in return, Menelik permitted the Italians to retain their colony of Eritrea.

In addition to attempts on the part of Britain, France, and Italy to gain influence within the empire, Menelik was troubled by intrigues originating in Russia, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. But, showing a great capacity to play one power off against another, the emperor was able to avoid making any substantial concessions. Moreover, while pursuing his own territorial designs, Menelik joined with France in 1898 to penetrate Sudan at Fashoda and then cooperated with British forces in British Somaliland between 1900 and 1904 to put down a rebellion in the Ogaden by Somali leader Muhammad Abdullah Hassan. By 1908 the colonial powers had recognized Ethiopia's borders except for those with Italian Somaliland.

After Menelik suffered a disabling stroke in May 1906, his personal control over the empire weakened. Apparently responding to that weakness and seeking to avoid an outbreak of conflict in the area, Britain, France, and Italy signed the Tripartite Treaty, which declared that the common purpose of the three powers was to maintain the political status quo and to respect each other's interests. Britain's interest, it was recognized, lay around Lake Tana and the headwaters of the Abay (Blue Nile). Italy's chief interest was in linking Eritrea with Italian Somaliland. France's interest was the territory to be traversed by the railroad from Addis Ababa to Djibouti in French Somaliland.

Apparently recognizing that his political strength was ebbing, Menelik established a Council of Ministers in late 1907 to assist in the management of state affairs. The foremost aspirants to the throne, Ras Mekonnen and Ras Mengesha, had died in 1906. In June 1908, the emperor designated his thirteen-year-old nephew, Lij Iyasu, son of Ras Mikael of Welo, as his successor. After suffering another stroke in late 1908, the emperor appointed Ras Tessema as regent. These developments ushered in a decade of political uncertainty. The great nobles, some with foreign financial support, engaged in intrigues anticipating a time of troubles as well as of opportunity upon Menelik's death.

Empress Taytu, who had borne no children, was heavily involved in court politics on behalf of her kin and friends, most of whom lived in the northern provinces and included persons who either had claims of their own to the throne or were resentful of Shewan hegemony. However, by 1910 her efforts had been thwarted by the Shewan nobles; thereafter, the empress withdrew from political activity.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress