Ethiopia’s First Modern Ruler Tewodros II
When Emperor Tewodros II came to power in Ethiopia in 1855, the country had been fragmented for nearly a century. The central government had been abolished in 1769, and the country was divided into small kingdoms. In the country’s history, that time is known as the “Era of Princes and Wealthy Feudal Lords,” or Zemene Mesafint.
With an army he assembled, Tewodros conquered and reunified the splintered country. He took land from the princes and gave it to ordinary people. He paid his professional Soldiers so they would not have to plunder to survive. He tried to abolish slavery and build a system of educated, salaried judges and governors. He attempted to organize his country around his government, instead of around the church. He even tried to tax the church.
But Tewodros proved to be a far better military man than a ruler, and in the end, his irrational behavior and vindictiveness were his downfall.
He was born Kasa Haylu about 1820. Although he was not of noble birth, he was the son of a chief. Some years after his father died, he became an outlaw for a time. He proved to be skillful with horses and spears, with a particular gift for military strategy, and he gradually established himself as a leader. In 1853, he gained fame by defeating a larger military force led by four regional commanders. Two years after that, he was crowned emperor.
Tewodros wanted his military to be modern and well-armed, and he began recruiting Westerners to help him with weapons. He wrote a letter to Britain’s Queen Victoria, offering his friendship and asking for her support. When he got no response, he was insulted and angry, and began to believe that Britain was collaborating with the Turks to overthrow him. In 1864, he took his revenge by arresting a British official and missionaries from Europe. He threw them in prison, where they remained for years.
He was no diplomat. He rejected all British attempts to have the prisoners released, and when British negotiators arrived, he imprisoned them as well. In 1867, the British government ordered him to release the prisoners or face the consequences. He refused their demands, perhaps believing that a British invasion would force his rivals to unite behind him in facing down a common enemy.
The British, with 5,000 troops, faced Tewodros’ forces on April 10, 1868, in a valley in the northern part of the country. It was an unfair fight. The British forces had cannons and modern rifles, and Tewodros’ Soldiers had swords and primitive muskets. Twenty British Soldiers died, compared to the 2,200 Ethiopians slain. Two days later, when opposing forces charged his encampment, he killed himself.
Despite Tewodros’ inability to sustain peace, Ethiopians today regard him as the man who restored their country and was its first modern ruler. His ideas for good governance were ultimately adopted by many of his successors. He is revered as a hero, despite his flaws.