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The Encyclopaedia Aethiopica under scrutiny

By Gregory Norris

The crowds kept pouring in until a multitude took shape. Above them stood this modern day Joshua who promised to uplift them from poverty. At long last, deliverance was at hand. The year was 1972 and Jamaicans had had enough. A decade after independence, standards of life had not only failed to improve, many felt they turned for the worse. The mood caught the airwaves. Top hits like “Everything Crash”, by The Ethiopians, got the ball rolling as early as 1968 and by the early seventies Delroy Wilson’s song “Better Must Come” hinted at a final, even desperate, attempt at remaining hopeful. There were reasons to be optimistic: the upcoming national election would pit the incumbent Hugh Shearer against a former trade unionist by the name of Michael Manley. His soaring popularity was not unlike Barack Obama’s meteoric rise. For one thing, there was his charisma and oratory skills, which his no-nonsense promise of Democratic Socialism made all the more appealing to the disenfranchised masses. It was Yes We Can with a sprinkle of Now Is The Time. But words were not enough, this much he knew. So the crowds were treated to a mesmerizing display: Manley would wave his wooden baton, at times like a stern headmaster, minutes later like frenzied prophet of Scripture.

His was no ordinary stick, at least not for the masses sweating in the stuffy heat. It was dubbed “The Rod of Correction” and sympathizers from his People’s National Party would sing its mystical properties. The fortunate were allowed to kneel under it, even kiss it. Such was its appeal that it earned Michael Manley the sobriquet of Joshua, who with one mighty strike would once and for all set things straight. The show went beyond carnival politics. As frontrunner opposition figure, Manley had flown to Ethiopia to visit his brother, an employee at the local UN headquarters. But he was keenly aware that a journey to this ancient African empire would boost his popularity beyond measure. In the Jubilee Palace of Addis Abeba he met with the Emperor Haile-Selassie, who recalled with him his 1966 visit to Jamaica. On that occasion, tens of thousands had turned out to receive the monarch at the airport and the crowds ran amuck wherever he went. Golden medallions were publicly awarded to the outcasts of the day: the fierce-looking Rastafarians who worshipped him as a divine figure. It was a staggering reversal of fortunes. Fresh in their memories were the words spoken on national radio by Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante in 1963, when he had called on citizens to “Bring all the Rastas dead or alive! If the jail can’t hold them we will dig trenches in Bogue cemetery and bury them.” As for his handpicked successor Donald Sangster, the Ethiopian emperor gave him not a medallion but a more practical gold-coated cigarette case. Sangster died of lung cancer twelve months later. Mystery was in the air.

When the audience was over in the palace of Addis Abeba, the opposition leader Michael Manley also received a gift from Haile-Selassie: a wooden staff from the Imperial Ethiopian Navy which back in Jamaica became the saintly Rod of Correction. The Ethiopian halo was such that as the polling day got closer, the Prime Minister Hugh Shearer decided he was not going to be outwitted, so he too made a flash trip to Ethiopia –but crucially failed to come back with any gift. Michael Manley was swept into power. The case of the Rod of Correction is an example of Ethiopia’s aura in the Americas –a 20th Century twist on the Prester John fables of medieval times.

At long last, scholars and those interested in this East African country can rely on a monumental categorization of the so-called Orbis Aethiopicus –the field of Ethiopia, the Horn of Africa to which it belongs and the greater regions with which it has been in contact –Jerusalem being a case in hand, as well as parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But because the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica (EAE) is a first of its kind, those responsible for coordinating and editing the five volumes have had to deal with the challenge of deciding who and what deserved an entry in the first place.

A clear-cut answer is tricky. From a historical perspective, the answer would consider any influential Ethiopian and any other prominent actor who had an impact on the country. In cultural terms, anyone who has made a worthy contribution to the country’s heritage, be they locals or foreigners, be they culture-makers or scholars engaged in its study. And so to the hundred and one corners of the Humanities, from archeology to linguistics, anthropology to geography –the list of topics piles up. Still for others, the sensitive issue of what constitutes “Ethiopian” can lead to discontent, as it seems inevitable that not everyone will be pleased in cases of modern nationalism redefining historical narratives.

For the most part, the contributions to the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica succeed in providing an open, inclusive and far-reaching account of this vast region and its place in the world. Languages and socio-cultural entries from a remote community in the Western lowlands to obscure chiefs and warriors of little-known Somali clans –and the great infinite that lies in between– all share space in this towering monument to Ethiopian studies.

That’s not to say, however, that all is well in academia land, since there are a number of absences in the EAE that call for a reflexion. These absences deserve criticism in as much as they undermine the overall magisterial scope of the Encyclopaedia, but also because of the possibility –however slight– that they are due to something more than a simple lapse. If forgotten under the thousands of entries and submissions, a future correction seems relatively straightforward, but if their omission follows a deliberate decision, then a deeper introspection is required.

In the EAE we find full entries for the likes of Roy Clive Abraham, a British Orientalist who took an interest in Amharic and Somali between the 1940’s and 1960’s. His entry makes it clear that his overall contribution to the field of linguistics was, at best, questionable, citing as an example his complete disregard for the Amharic script, among other limitations. His appearance in the Encyclopaedia is not without merit, in as much as he was a scholar who, for better or for worse, studied and wrote about things-Ethiopian, in this case the pivotal discipline of language. Yet given that his overall influence is somewhat limited, I cannot help but compare his inclusion with the omission of a few other writers of the same century for whom Ethiopia was also the cornerstone of their work. Their exclusion is even more striking given their considerable influence –their books were read, studied and recited by the thousands. I am referring to such Caribbeans as Rev. Fitz Balentine, Leonard Percival Howell and Robert Aathlyi Rogers, the latter a native of tiny Anguilla. These were not academics, far from it: they wrote fantastically bizarre and yet magically poetic books which earned a higher status for Ethiopia, and their cryptic epiphanies suggest some familiarity with Medieval Ethiopian esoteric along the lines of The Book of Mysteries of Heaven and Earth. Their Ethiopia was as much a biblically inspired pan-African concept as it was a bright spotlight on the modern Empire –after all, these were the post-Battle of Adwa years and the West Indies were electrified by this this East African nation’s prowess. In this regard their legacy was notable, and in matters related to the field of Ethiopian studies they deserve some recognition: after all, they opened to an ever wider public the link between an emerging pan-African interest in the Empire of Ethiopia and their own civil rights as African-Americans. The bond would strengthen even more during Mussolini’s invasion a decade or so later, when African-Americans petitioned Washington to be allowed to join the fight against Italy based on racial solidarity. And once the one plus one made two, the math could no longer be undone: Ethiopia’s prestige within the emerging post-colonial Africa would allow her to make a stance on the international scene as she had never before. A superficial look at the Ethiopian-inspired flags of many African countries bears witness to that trend.

It is academically misguided to assume that these Caribbean firebrands are removed from the field of Ethiopian history: titanic figures they were not, but they did contribute their bit as passionate propagandists. Their torch was passed on to the likes of Joseph Nathaniel Hibberts, also absent from the Encyclopaedia, whose Ministry of the Ethiopian Coptic Faith was devoutly bent on Ethiopian spirituality –he even had the Ethiopian version of the Teachings of the Apostles, or Didascalia, printed and distributed en masse, for his followers to study. From Ge’ez prayers to long-night vigils studying the works of Ethiopian saints in the alleyways of small town Jamaica, his peculiar evangelism was even acknowledged by the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the Americas, Laike-Maryam Mandefro. I will return to this missionary later.

To have been left out in favour of Roy Clive Abraham or Ludovico de Varthema –an Italian who barely set foot in the country and wrote only a few pages about it– is unfortunate. In all truth, none of the mentioned West Indians ever set foot in the country, although this didn’t stop them from using Ethiopia as a conceptual narrative for their own philosophical mission. In this regard, they are the tropical equivalents of the acclaimed Samuel Johnson, author of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia –who despite never visiting Ethiopia is indeed awarded a much justified entry.

The issue of a consistent criteria is further evident in the entry of Nikolai Ashinov, a Russian cossack whose adventures in the Red Sea coast went hand in hand with the failed plans for a Russian colony in what is now Djibouti. His entry contrasts with the omission of Eloi Pino, the French-Catalan merchant who around the same time actually established a remote trading post which would soon grow into the port and ville of Djibouti, and henceforth the modern Republic. It seems the unlucky Russian has beaten the successful Frenchman to the post of early founder of Djibouti, or so indicates the who’s who of the Encyclopaedia.

I turn to another case, that of Raffaele Alfiere. The Encyclopaedia presents him as one of many foreigners who was swallowed into Abyssinian highlands by the twists and turns of military fate, and from where he rose to positions of relative notoriety –in his case, as physician to Emperor Menelik II and sometime traveller of the Nile. Such a character rightfully claims a foothold in the Encyclopaedia, but not so Captain John Robinson, who barely gets a passing line with no entry of his own. His omission borders on the scandalous. For one thing, he was the chief founder of the Ethiopian Air Force –no small institution in the country. His pedigree was considerable: the first black pilot in the United States, the founder of the first non-segregated aviation school in the Americas, and a pilot for Ethiopia during the Italian invasion. Nevermind his military contributions –his airforce standing at three civilian planes, he led important reconnaissance missions of the advancing Fascist army, at great risk, and was personal courier to Emperor Haile-Selassie. He achieved national acclaim back home, with particular uproar in Chicago and Harlem, only to return after liberation in order to train the first ever batch of Ethiopian pilots –and die in the process, the result of an accident. He rests in peace in Gullele cemetery, Addis Abeba. His achievements include detailed aeronautical surveys of the country. Given the long list of European travelers who have been granted a place in the Encyclopaedia, it is all the more striking that an African-American of his standing should be relegated to a sentence with no entry of his own.

In similar vein, we find an entry for Orazio Antinori, whose high claims are a few trips around the Red Sea as a keen naturalist and, later, having received a plot of land from the Ethiopian government, where he opened a geographical station and where he eventually died. Once again, his entry is certainly deserved, but stands in poor contrast to the absence of Arnold Josiah Ford: the Barbadian rabbi of an African-American Jewish community who penned the highly significant Ethiopian Universal Anthem of Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, an anthem with few rivals in pan-African symbolism. His relation to Ethiopia goes a lot further: he was the first leader of an African-American organization bent on settling colonialists in Ethiopia, for which he too obtained a land-grant. Once in Ethiopia, he established close –and sometimes difficult– relations with Abyssinian aristocrats and the Beta Israel Jews of the country. He died in Addis Abeba just before the Italian invasion. Nonetheless, his wife Mignon Ford established the prestigious Princess Zenebe-Worq Girl’s School in Addis Ababa, and would carry the torch of Caribbean solidarity as a prominent educator in Ethiopia. Both husband and wife do not appear in the Encyclopaedia –surely not for of lack of credentials.

In fairness, some notable West Indians are mentioned, such as David Abner Talbot, the Guyanese advisor to Emperor Haile-Selassie and chief editor of The Ethiopian Herald, or the Guadelopean doctor Joseph Vitalien, another close hand to Emperor Menelik II. This raises an uncomfortable question: did they surpass a particular threshold of influence to deserve an entry in the Encyclopaedia, and if so, is the same threshold applied to Europeans and African-Americans alike? After all, there seem to be many entries dedicated to Europeans with considerably less dazzling roles than the Fords or Captain John Robinson, for instance.

And so to diplomacy, where the relations between Ethiopia and an array of nations are superbly summarized. Relations with Italy and France, Portugal and Egypt, the Vatican and the United States, India and Japan, even with Iran. I feel sorry for Cuba, out in the cold despite having established the most palpable military ties with Ethiopia in recent history. It’s almost as if the thousands of Cubans who risked their life fighting on Ethiopian soil have been forgotten, and how their contribution shaped the very end of the Somalia-Ethiopia War of 1978. In truth, the Encyclopaedia’s initial aim was stay clear from events after 1974, but a cursory glance at many of its entries reveals how this has been applied with generous flexibility. A notable example would be the inclusion of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, whose career began around 1974. A question of status, perhaps, but we also find references to minor archeological surveys from the 1990’s in Lebanese monasteries, for instance. All things considered, I do wonder how Switzerland managed to outshine this Caribbean island in terms of engagements with Ethiopia.

It was not the first time Cubans had signed up for Ethiopia’s cause. The island had already been a hotbed of Garveyism in the 1920’s. Unfortunately, Marcus Garvey’s UNIA suffered dearly during the 1930’s –economic depression, leadership controversies– and the need for a pan-Africanist militant association was left in limbo. Soon, however, came news of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and in came the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) –founded by the exiled Emperor Haile-Selassie himself and managed by his cousin Malaku Bayen. It tried to steer the dozens of pro-Ethiopia groups in the Americas under one centralized umbrella, and in this sense many dissafected Garveyites rallied to the EWF. It must have seemed a natural continuation of an interrupted aspiration. Such was the buzz that unauthorized branches sprang up around Caribbean, from Cuba to Jamaica, only to be officially incorporated later. That such an organization would not be considered for the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica warrants attention: it was Ethiopian founded, Ethiopian aimed, and at least partially Ethiopian driven. It’s legacy is the famous land grant in Shashamane, but that is only a small testimony to a much broader and dynamic movement.

Which brings us to the world of maps. Perhaps it is time to reconsider where the scope of the Orbis Aethiopicus ends. Despite some inevitable grumbles, it is common understanding that Eritrea should be included, and so too other neighbouring countries whose history and current populations often overlap: the Sudans, Yemen, Kenya and Djibouti, of course, as well as Somalia. It is in the Somali web that the entry selection once again gets tangled. Indeed, a commendable array of things-Somali are presented, with particular praise to detail in clans and linguistics. In EAE’s defence, one could argue that not all its topics can be covered in their volumes –this would be more appropriate for an equally fascinating future Encyclopaedia Somalica. If we accept this line of thought, then surely relatively obscure figures who do appear, such as Adam Kawsan (I am surprised to learn that he was the chief cultivator of the Somali Garri tribe in the 19th Century) could give way to more influential entries like Shire Jama Ahmed –perhaps one of the most important Somali linguists, born in Wardeer, Ethiopia (see Historical Dictionary of Somalia, New Edition, Mohammed Haji Mukhatar). His proposal for a Latin script in spelling Somali was officially adopted as the national writing in 1971. Another absent Somali with an obvious connection to Ethiopia is Mohammed Abdillahi Ogsadey –an unrivalled business tycoon who was for decades the richest man in Ethiopia; he is also remembered for being the first African to export its coffee to the international market.

On the other hand, the selection of worldwide Ethiopian footprints which have been recorded in the Encyclopaedia seems all the more random when we consider such inclusions as Tesfa-Tsion (nicknamed Peter the Indian) but such omissions as Abu al-Misk Kafur or Malik Ambar. Make no mistake, Tesfa-Tsion was an esteemed character in the corridors of the Vatican, but little is known about him before he left his native Ethiopia. He is therefore remembered by the Encyclopaedia in consideration for his achievements in the Holy See around the 16th Century. Of course, had this priest left his mark in India itself, he would have probably been forgotten. Ask Malik Ambar, the Ethiopian-born leader of the Ahmednagar Sultanate in 16th Century India. Rising from imported slave-soldier to ruling Regent, he founded a new capital city in Aurangabad and distinguished himself as an able military commander, a keen politician and a cutting-edge urbanist –he is credited with establishing the city’s notable canal system. The omissions of Malik Ambar and the Ethiopian World Federation seem indicative. When an Ethiopian storm gathers abroad, the real question is where the thunder claps. I am left in little doubt that had these deeds taken place in more northern latitudes they would have been granted a page or two in the Encyclopaedia. After all, there’s no shortage of historians and published works on them.

Religious entries were up for grabs too, and competition must have been fierce. Lazarists and other Western missionaries of only limited scope have been far more successful at securing an entry than a few remarkable Ethiopian Orthodox missionaries abroad. This would explain the absence the Abuna Athanasius (born Gebre-Yesus Meshesha) and Abuna Yesehaq (born Laike-Maryam Mandefro). As pioneering representatives of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the Western Hemisphere, they established churches in places as far apart as New York, Bermuda and Guyana. In fairness, their peer is indeed granted an entry in the Encyclopaedia: the highly acclaimed Abuna Samuel (born Gebre-Egziabeher Degu), who almost single-handedly cleared the path for what would ten years later materialize into the Caribbean tour of Emperor Haile-Selassie and the opening of the Medhane Alem Church in Arouca, Trinidad. He pioneered, and championed, the connection between black Africans and the Ethiopian church, promoting a pan-Africanist orientation in his sermons that struck a cord with thousands. He successfully built on that unshakable association with Ethiopia, as passed on from Marcus Garvey’s UNIA to Malaku Bayen’s EWF and then to the establishment of the Orthodox church in the Americas. It is a pity than none of this is mentioned in the Encyclopaedia. Again I insist: had these events taken place in other continents, I suspect they would have been seen in a more positive light. As for his successor, the Abuna Yesehaq, he can easily claim to have been one of the most mediatically prolific representatives of the Ethiopian church abroad. If biased is too strong a word, how else do we consider that the likes of Giuseppe Sapeto (an unremarkable Lazarist missionary, amateur diplomat and part-time traveller with a taste for carnal pleasures) have been granted an entry over these Ethiopian evangelists?

For a historically in-looking institution like the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, their expansion in the Americas stands as a monumental achievement, and the fact that they managed to baptize locals in their thousands only adds to their credit. Other Ethiopian priests abroad –in Egypt, for instance– have also been forgotten, such as Abdelmesih al-Habashi (born Gebre-Tsadik), whose legacy is such that a written tribute has been published by the Saint Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Monastery. If anything, an entry is deserved for all, whatsoever their reputation and creed.

It is obvious that the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica is a work in progress and that these shortcomings give faith to this very human entreprise, where perfection is an illusion. But try we must. The Encyclopaedia’s hundreds of contributors have already shown mastery and proficiency in their respective entries. In this regard it is my sincere desire that any future editions will consider that West Indian spiritualists fuelled by Ethiopian visions are part of Ethiopian studies –however partial and removed. There are those who will disagree, arguing that Ethiopian fevers from a Caribbean island do not warrant an entry in the EAE, but rather in its West Indian equivalent. They are not altogether wrong, in the same way that Samuel Johnson belongs chiefly to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but that doesn’t invalidate his claim to the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, either.

Above all, it is a question of impartial consistency: if we are going to include prominent Somalis with a relation to the core topic of Ethiopia, then we include all of them, not just some. The same goes for religious missionaries, local or foreign. If the dilemma is where we draw the line, then surely it is academically more useful to err on the side of generosity. Wherever and in whichever field an Ethiopian left an imprint, they belong to the pages of the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica. The same goes for foreigners: if their works involved Ethiopia, they should also be acknowledged.

The 5 volume Encyclopaedia Aethiopica can be ordered from Harrassowitz Verlag Publishing House. http://www1.uni-hamburg.de/EAE/

Ed’s Note: the opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Addis Standard magazine and web

Cover Photo: Michael Minley Provided by the author

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