The Ethiopians: A History

Richard Pankhurst

Blackwell 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
A narrative history focused on politics, The Ethiopians makes an excellent introduction to the fascinating past of Ethiopia. The first chapter covers geography and human origins and the second runs all the way down to the twelfth century, covering Aksum and the origins of Ethiopian Christianity; it is not till historical sources become more plentiful in the thirteenth century that the narrative picks up steam. When The Ethiopians does touch on archaeology and social history, it tends to be descriptive of monuments or specific groups rather than more broadly integrative; this may be to avoid overlap with Pankhurst's separate Social History of Ethiopia.

After the Zagwe dynasty (1137 to 1270), best known for its rock-hewn churches at Lalibala, came the so-called "Solomonic restoration" and a shift to Shawa. The Shawan capitals were "mobile cities", but emperors such as Amda Seyon could mobilise resources for wars with the lowland Muslim states. Sources for the period include works in Ge'ez such as the early fourteenth century chronicle Kebra Nagast ("Glory of Kings") and accounts by European travellers. Factors of ongoing importance included access to weapons through Red Sea ports, the dependence of the Ethiopian church on the Egyptian Coptic Church for the appointment of its leaders, and the migration of the Oromo from the south.

The sixteenth century saw conflict with the Muslim emirate of Adal, culminating in Ahmad ibn Ibrahim's conquest of most the Ethiopian highlands, which was ended only with the aid of a 400-strong Portuguese expedition. Other key events included the arrival of the Jesuits and the Ottoman seizure of the Red Sea port of Massawa. There was a Jesuit-inspired Roman Catholic interlude from 1622 to 1632, but imposition of Catholicism from above failed in the face of popular opposition. The later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw the rise and fall of Gondar. There was then a long period during which the empire had little more than notional control over many areas, with regional powers such as Tegray almost completely independent.

In the second half of the nineteenth century three key figures from different regions claimed the title of emperor and attempted unification and centralisation. Relationships with the colonial powers — Italy, Britain, and France — were now of critical importance. Tewodros became embroiled in a dispute with the British, who attacked and sacked his headquarters Maqdala in 1868, following which he committed suicide. The reign of Yohannes saw the seizure of Massawa by the Italians and conflict with Mahdists in the Sudan. Menilek defeated the Italians at the battle of Adwa, but that only brought temporary advantage in long-running negotiations and disputes over the border with Italian Eritrea. This period saw the founding and growth of Addis Ababa and steady modernization; the latter really took off under Iyasu and the reformer Ras Tafari, who became emperor Haile Selassie in 1930.

Fascist Italy attacked and occupied Ethiopia in 1936 (in the process committing extensive war crimes, the perpetrators of which were never brought to justice). The international response demonstrated the impotence of the League of Nations and the pusillanimity of the British and French (who, as with Spain, instituted a one-sided arms blockade). After the entry of Italy into the Second World War, Ethiopia was liberated in a rapid campaign in 1941, but subsequent relations with the British were uneasy, with some areas were only returned to full Ethiopian control in 1954. After the war Ethiopia allied itself with the United States and took a leading role within the Organisation of African Unity, but internal unrest persisted. The 1974 Revolution produced a troubled socialist regime that lasted to the fall of Mangestu in 1991, where Pankhurst's account stops.

September 2001

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%T The Ethiopians
%S A History
%A Pankhurst, Richard
%I Blackwell
%D 2001
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0631224939
%P xiv,299pp