By Jeff Provine
Tewodros II was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1855 until his death in 1868. His rule is often placed as the beginning of modern Ethiopia as he brought an end to the decentralized Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes) and restored centralised control to the country. In his struggle to re-establish a cohesive Ethiopian state, he attacked de facto independent regions, sought to establish the principle that governors and judges must be salaried appointees, and established a professional standing army, rather than depending on local lords to provide soldiers for his expeditions. He introduced the collection of books in the form of a library, tax codes and a centralized political system with respective administrative districts. He also attempted to reform the Church and impose a tax on church lands.
But the latter was vastly unpopular, as indeed were a lot of his reforms and as such he was almost constantly fighting rebellions, which he put down brutally, routinely massacring prisoners. By 1862, having lost battles against both Ottoman Egypt and the Muslim people to his south his position was deeply precarious with the majority of his newly united empire not heeding his commands. His own army was poorly equipped and armed with mostly outdated guns, some merely matchlocks thanks to Ethiopia's isolation during the Era of Princes, something that the Egyptians had made obvious in their battles against him. And the artillery situation was even worse, the prize mortar of his army famously misfired and buried itself before combat even began. In response Tewodros asked the British Consul in Ethiopia, Captain Charles Duncan Cameron, to carry a letter to Queen Victoria requesting skilled workers to come to teach his subjects how to produce firearms, and other technical skills, hoping she as a fellow Christian Monarch would aid him against his Muslim enemies.
The letter never reached Victoria, it bounced around the foreign office before being filed away in India. When Tewodros didn't get a response, he fell into a rage and took a number of British diplomats as Hostages. In 1868, the British Army invaded Ethiopia in order to free those hostages. Their General, Robert Napier, bought only 13,000 soldiers, though he had also gathered 26,000 camp followers and over 40,000 animals to support his army due to the British operating so far from their closest base in Yemen. Upon arriving in Ethiopia, the British quickly found local allies and won the support of all the major figures in the Empire apart from Tewodros himself, most of whom were recently conquered and already rebelling. The Emperor’s own Army disintegrated as rumours of the invasion led to defections. What little was left of his army, somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 men, were ordered to attack the British upon their approach but they were poorly armed and so quickly repulsed with heavy casualties in exchange for only two deaths on the British side. Tewodros killed himself, the British burned down his city, freed their hostages and departed. It was up his successors to truly re-establish a cohesive Ethiopian state.
But well what if the UK had actually said yes and bought Tewodros the help he asked for? One take on that scenario is below.
In 1866, Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia (known in English as “Theodore II”) handed a letter to the British Consul, Captain Charles Duncan Cameron. It was an appeal to Queen Victoria, a “fellow Christian Monarch,” requesting skilled workers to aid in modernization of his empire, a culture that had existed for millennia and traced its rulers’ lineage back to King Solomon of Israel. Tewodros had reunified warring local princes into a coherent nation, but he faced constant rebellion largely in part to his own chaotic ruthlessness, which had only grown since the death of his wife in 1858. In a particularly bad mood the day he dispatched Cameron with the letter, he forced Cameron to take a vow to deliver it to the queen herself.
Cameron received different suggestions from the British Foreign Office, telling him to leave the letter with them and perform an investigation of the east African slave trade. Due to his oath, however, Cameron was forced to honour the request and appealed until he was returned to London. After some weeks, Victoria received the letter. Although the Foreign Office had concerns about investing resources in an unstable leader, especially one so near the valuable cotton regions of the Nile, the manufacturers of Britain saw it as an opportunity to gain a foothold in an area that was largely outside of European control outside of the new French port at Djibouti.
Cameron arrived in Ethiopia with a contingent of engineers and surveyors. Ethiopia was found to have a rich supply of coal, creating not only a local resource for fuel but also eagerness to purchase British-made engines. The first locomotive arrived in 1868 to much fanfare, as ordered by Tewodros, as it trekked on newly built rails from the Gulf of Aden. As transport became available, the area became wealthy through exports of cash crops such as coffee and worked to install more local factories.
In 1873, Tewodros died from illness likely brought by increased interaction with travellers, though many historians speculate the illness could have been helped along by poisoning. His son Alemayehu was placed on the throne at only twelve years old. Rivalries began as to who would serve as regent, and ultimately Araya Selassie Yohannes won out with his distinctions as general. Through Yohannes, Ethiopia expanded its borders and won a war against Egypt, itself attempting to build a modernized empire in the region. Yohannes also established the balance of Ethiopia’s many religions, working to create a largely secular government with a strong judicial system, as well as campaigning against the cultural stigma of manufacturing as opposed to agriculture.
Alemayehu came of age in 1879, and his reign would be one of consistent growth as well as growing pains. The Mahdist War in Sudan raged for nearly a decade and could have gone much longer if not for the Ethiopian industrial base and troop-transport capabilities. By the end, Egypt was a British de facto protectorate, Ethiopia controlled the south, and an Italian colony ran through the north connecting Libya and Eritrea. The Italo-Ethiopian War of 1896 shocked Europe as a sweeping Ethiopian victory drove the Italian forces back to the Libyan Desert. Ethiopia again expanded its borders to control Eritrea, and international balking led to threats by Alemayehu that he might take Italian Somaliland as well. It mirrored the Russo-Japanese War a few years later as a show of a rapidly industrialized nation defeating European ambitions.
In World War I, Ethiopia joined longtime allies Britain and France against the Ottoman Empire. Following the war, they continued as a regional power, working alongside Ibn Saud during the defeat of the traditionalist Ikhwan. This caused upheaval among the Muslim parts of the Ethiopian Empire, a rebellion in the eastern part of the nation that nearly became a civil war. Both Mussolini and Hitler offered European interference, but both were refused due to the history with Italian colonialism and Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Largely sitting out the Second World War to sort out internal affairs, Ethiopia returned as a major regional power and contributing to decolonization efforts. Through the latter twentieth century, it became a world influencer with its many industrial sectors along the Suez Canal trade route.