The Other Abyssinians


What brought me to this project?

My parents are both Black Americans, one descended from the initial African diaspora, while the other is descended of Cape Verdean immigrants of a later African diaspora. Growing up, I saw the diversity of blackness, which my experiences as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Atlanta, expanded As an African descended history major, I wanted to know more about African history but was looking for positive events in the modern period. I was raised in the 1980s, where all we heard about starving kids in Ethiopia, civil wars in Nigeria and disease. You can learn a great deal from failures and tragedy, but I felt (and still feel) that too much of the outside focus is on African tragedies and failures. I wanted to tell a story of African success, and Ethiopia was the only nation that was able to fend off colonial aggression, winning the battle of Adwa in 1896. After finding this out, I was puzzled, how could this African nation defeat a European one? Why didn’t other African societies also prevail? What makes Ethiopia distinct? The Battle of Adwa, where the newly created Imperial army of Ethiopia defeated the Italian colonial forces on the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia, was not significantly different from other late 19th century battles, outside of the outcome. In my initial readings, this group that I never heard of kept coming up, the Oromo. At Adwa, they had a significant presence at all levels. As generals, soldiers and a major part of the cavalry, which is according to Menilek was the reason why they won. But this is the only aspect of Oromo experiences in Ethiopia, some Oromo groups were conquered by the victor at Adwa, Menilek, and, yet, many of them chose to fight and die for their conquerors. While other Oromo groups have resisted what they perceive as Amhara domination. 

Why? As I kept researching, I found the answer, an elastic and inclusive community called the Habäsha (corrupted to the better-known term Abyssinian) that has been incorporating the diversity of the Ethiopian highlands over the last several centuries, from the Amhara to the Tigrinyans to the Gafat, to the Gurage, to the Agaw to the Oromo. To go back to my earlier questions, this (Habäsha) community is the answer to all of them and the reason why Ethiopia was able to defend itself: unlike many African nations, the Habäsha were neversignificant colonial collaborators. As Menilek once said, every spy that the Italians thought they had was actually in my employ. It is this community that makes Ethiopia distinct and a model for how one can create and unify a nation. Initially, I saw Ethiopia in ethnic terms, but the sources, especially the indigenous ones, lack ethnic frameworks to understand identity. Place, religion, class and family ties are much more important than ethnicity. I remember my frustration when I found what I believed to be a gold mine in terms of figuring out which Ethiopian notables were Oromo. Belaténgéta Mahtämä Sellasé Wäldä Mäsqäl’s Che Below contains a series of biographies of all the notables in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I translated some of the biographies of the figures that I knew to be Oromo, but there was nothing ethnic in these biographies. The only identifying element that was present was the province of birth, for the most part they were of the same class and could speak Amharic, occasionally conversions are mentioned, but these biographies are silent on ethnicity. The Oromo are everywhere in Ethiopia, so knowing where someone was born is little help in identifying their ethnic identity. This frustration led to an epiphany, while ethnicity is important now, it was not in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because it would have been utilized in the indigenous sources as a marker for identity.   

I have spent several years researching, writing, rewriting my book not to tell an ethnic story, but to chronicle the integration of various groups in Ethiopia during the 19th century that resulted in a unified state that ushered Ethiopia into its modern age. Fast forward a century and Ethiopia appoints a half Muslim Oromo, half Amhara Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, practicing Western Evangelical Christianity as Prime Minister and later that year he wins the Nobel Peace Prize for his work increasing political freedoms in Ethiopia, opening up the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia and freeing political prisoners of previous regimes. My book, The Other Abyssinians, shows that the diversity of Ethiopian political culture and the possibility of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed exist because of the integrating elements of the Habäsha community. This text highlights how cultural practices derived from all of the groups in Ethiopia created this community. For example, marriage as an institution has been utilized to separate people, by making it illegal to marry outside one’s race. In Ethiopia, this institution was used to bring groups together for centuries. Key figures in this book are both products and architects of these unions. On the cover of the book, Menilek is at the center, but on either side are young boys, both are his grandsons via marriage alliances with Oromo figures, Ras (later Nägus, (King)) Mikaél and Ras Gobäna. These boys were intended to be the next leaders of Ethiopia. Lej. (a title given to young noblemen, he is also referred to as Abeto (uncrowned emperor) Iyasu was made heir, while the other boy died young, several years before Menilek passed away. 

Thus, instead of seeing the appointment of Abiy as Prime Minister as continuing this tradition, many people both inside and outside Ethiopia have remarked that his administration was a break from Ethiopian tradition. While it was a break from Meles Zenawi’s ethnic federalist state and Haylämariam Mängistu’s Marxist regime, it is completely in line with the state that Menilek created. In this incredibly divided world, Ethiopia’s embracing of its diverse communities is something that we all can emulate at the local, national and global scales in the hopes of accomplishing something as great as the Ethiopians in 1896. Looking ahead, my next project will apply this framework to the equally inclusive and diverse black communities in America and will examine the ways in which African or Caribbean born and their descendants become Black Americans.  

The Other Abyssinians


£90.00 / $110.00,
January 2020
Rochester Studies in African History and the Diaspora
University of Rochester Press



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Brian J. Yates is an Associate Professor of History at Saint Joseph’s University.