Opinion

Abyssinia to Ethiopia: from Obfuscation to Confusion

By Tuji Jidda, Washington, D.C

For more than a century, scholars have been wallowing in big confusion regarding the name Abyssinia which later on became Ethiopia. In recent years, the name Abyssinia seems to be enjoying a revival of one form or another. For example coming across with businesses or political organizations named after Abyssinia names like Abyssinia Bank, Abyssinia Radio, Abyssinia Church, Abyssinia Airlines, Abyssinia Cement Factory, Abyssinia Band, Abyssinia/Habesha Restaurant, Habesha Supermarket, etc., has become very common.

Recently, I read an article dated October, 2009 on seemingly pro-EPRDF government website regarding a lawsuit over the alleged invention and use of the old name of ‘Abyssinia’ as trade mark. As explained below, practically the parties seem to be fighting on politically motivated discriminatory and racist name.

This clearly shows the renaissance of old name of Ethiopia that rekindles a new round of discussion and clarification of what is behind the nomenclature “Abyssinia.” In my view, misunderstandings arising from the use of these two very “historical” names often lead to fundamentally wrong analysis and interpretation of political problems.  It is this century old confusion that lie beneath the two names that forced me to deal with this sensitive issue.

Abyssinia in English, Habesha in Amharic and Habesh in Arabic- is a well-known “historical” country recognized by the neighboring countries, Arabs and Europeans. According to credible sources, the name Abyssinia is derived from the Arabic word ‘Habesh’, which means ‘mongrel’. I’m not sure if it has pejorative meaning at present time but it was something common to hear the expression “Habesh-Rabesh, Habesh-Hanish” in Arabic which means “Habesh-Garbage, Habesh-Snake”.

The newly created Federal arrangement in Ethiopia didn’t explicitly recognize the name and state of Abyssinia though the name Abyssinia and Abyssinian nationalism is reviving under disguise after EPRDF government’s administrative division of different ethnic groups of Abyssinia and non-Abyssinian Ethiopians under federal arrangement. Accordingly, the State of Abyssinia- includes ethnic Tigre and Amhara,   State of Oromia-includes the 12 mega regions of the Oromo, State of Somali, State of Afar, State Southern Nations and Nationalities people’s Region- SNNPR- I prefer to collectively call them Omonia named after people’s living alongside river Omo, State of Gambella, State of Benishangul-Gumuz, and the very tiny city State Harar with a population of 9,000 powerful Harari’s.

The “historical” Abyssinia country is located in present day North Ethiopia and Southern Eritrea-Hamasien, Akaleguzai & Sera’e. The highland Eritreans are typical Abyssinians though the used the Italian Latin phrase ‘Mare Erythraeum’ -Red See. Abyssinians are Semitic in origin and its major tribal regions comprise Tigre, Gondare and Gojjame, though there is some Cushitic’s like Lasta of Agaw. They have very complicated myths, weird culture and their own version of Christianity that can be characterized by backward superstition and miracles of local tribal saints. They refer their country as “Abyssinia: A Christian Island surrounded by enemy Islam and pagans”. It is Abyssinia that was a Christian Island. Ethiopia, however, never was a Christian Island. It is rather a country inhibited by large number of Muslims and traditional believers.

Abyssinia never had a unified government till late 19th century except one or more brigand like tribal chieftains in every tribes or king of Ambas or tribal regions. The people unfortunate exposure to continuous drought and famine due to shortage of rainfall, mountainous rocky landscape, endless war on tribal line and others, compels them to struggle for survival.

It is Kassa latter Tewodros of Gondare tribe who, for the first time in the history of Abyssinia, attempted to subjugate the other chiefs of Abyssinia -but never the present Ethiopia, under the banner of eliminating the neighboring Wello Islam Oromo from Christian Island, Abyssinia. He became ‘brigand Chief of Chiefs or King of Kings’ in 1855 assisted by British advisors and their modern weaponry. Up on his death, first the tribal chief of Tigre another Kassa- later Yohannes-(1875) in the name ‘crusader Christianizing the whole Abyssinia’ and then the isolated small tribal brigand chief of Shoa -Menelik (1889) became chief of chiefs of plunder under same banner of exterminating Oromo and Islam.

The following Famous Letter of Tewodros to Queen Victoria of England, if read between lines, ascertains what the name and politics of Abyssinia country looked like.

In the name of the father, of the son, and of the wholly ghost, one god in trinity, chosen by god, king of kings, Theodore of Abyssinia.

To her Majesty Victoria, Queen of England,

“I hope your majesty is in good health. By the power of god I am well. My fathers, the emperors, having forgotten the creator, he handed over their kingdom to the Gallas and the Turks. But god created me, lifted me out of the dust, and restored this empire to my rule. He endowed me with power and enabled me to stand in the place of my fathers. By this power I drove away the Gallas. As for the Turks I have told them to leave the land of my ancestors. They refuse. I am now going to wrestle with them.

“Mr. Plowden and my late Grand chamberlain, the Englishman bell, used to tell me that there is a great Christian Queen, who loves all Christians. When they said to me this: “we are able to make you known to her and to establish friendship between you,” then in those times I was very glad. I gave them my love, thinking that I had found your majesty’s goodwill.

“All men are subject to death, and my enemies, thinking to injure me, killed these friends. But by the power of god I have exterminated those enemies, not leaving one alive, though they were of my own family, that I may get, by the power of god, your friendship. I was prevented by Turks occupying the sea-coast from sending you an embassy when I was in difficulty. Consul Cameron arrived with a letter and presents of friendship. By the power of god I was very glad hearing of your welfare and being assured of you amity. I have received your presents and thank you much.

“I fear that if I send ambassadors with presents of amity by Consul Cameron, they may be arrested by the Turks. And now I wish that you may arrange for the safe passage of my ambassadors everywhere on the road. I wish to have an answer to this letter by Consul Cameron, and that he may conduct my embassy to England. See how Islam oppresses the Christian.”

The history of Abyssinia started taking another shape following Menelik’s devastating holocaust (conquest) of unrelated vast territories of Cushitic, Omotic and Nilotic people of the Horn region. By doing that, Menelik controlled fertile territories of, at least, five times larger than the size of Abyssinian proper. The massive booty gained, the unprecedented total enslavement and confiscation of the country relatively emboldened and somehow unified the Amhara Abyssinians, except the Tigrean. It is said that the already invented Abyssinian myths are consolidated during this time. After conquering what makes up at least 70 percent of the land mass of the present-day empire- areas primarily lying to the south of Abyssinia- Menelik signed boundary treaties with European colonial powers to form the present day Ethiopia and tried to adopt the name Ethiopia to give cohesion to the bogus history of the country.

Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, Menelik ??, elect of God, king of kings of Ethiopia

To our friend Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India.

Greetings!

We ask most especially for news of your precious health.

I wrote a letter to your Majesty dated 25 Meskerem 1883; but I do not know if it reached you.

The great English power being up to this day the friend of the Ethiopian empire and in recognition of your goodwill to her, we express to you our gratitude.

Seeing that we wish to acquaint the friendly powers of Europe in writing with the boundaries of Ethiopia, we hereby write to your Majesty in the same sense, and we are hopeful that you may bestow your benevolent consideration upon what follows:

Boundaries of Ethiopia:

In pointing out the exact boundaries of my empire as they exist today I signify my intention, if god graciously grants me life and strength, to re-establish the ancient frontiers of Ethiopia as far as Khartoum and Lake Nyanza (Lake Victoria), with all the Galla territories.

I have not the least intention of remaining a disinterested onlooker if powers from a distance come with the notion of dividing Africa between themselves, Ethiopia having been, during the course of quite fourteen centuries, an island inhabited by Christians in a see of pagans.

Just as almighty god has protected Ethiopia up to the present time, so also I am confident that he be her guardian today and will also add to her territory in the future, and I have no reason to contemplate that he will divide up Ethiopia amongst other powers.

Formerly the boundary of Ethiopia was the see. Because of lack of strength on our own part and because of the failure of other Christians to come to our aid, our frontier on the seaward side fell into the hands of the Muslims. Today we make no pretence of seeking to recover our seaward frontier by force; but we hope that the Christian powers, guided by our lord Jesus Christ, may yield us our frontiers on the sea, or that at least they may give us some points on the coast.

Done at Addis Ababa 14 Miazia 1883 (April 1891)

The legacy of Menelik’s military conquests, which took place a century ago, and the structure of the state built to incorporate the survivors of conquered peoples are the major underlying cause of many of Ethiopia’s problems today, including famines. Abyssinians assert that Menelik is a unifier, though he is short of the dream territories mentioned in him letter. The boundaries created as a result of Abyssinian military victories were no less arbitrary divisive than those created by competing European colonial powers in the rest of Africa; in the west, Anuak, Nuer, Berta and Komo were split between Ethiopia and present day Sudan; in the south, Oromo were split between Ethiopia and present day Kenya; in the east and southeast, Somali were split between Ethiopia, Kenya and present day Somalia and Djibouti; and in the northeast, Afars were split between Ethiopia and present day Djibouti; A number of other smaller groups were divided in the north, west and south. Also in the north Abyssinia itself were to be divided between present day Ethiopia and Eritrea. It should be noted that Abyssinian kings rule over Ethiopia but without either acceptance or recognition by non-Abyssinians.

One of the most interesting but confusing tactics Abyssinian devised to obfuscate the atrocities committed while at the same time getting legitimacy over the newly confiscated country and people was fabricating history, presenting their myths as history, using diplomatic verbiage and changing their name of Semitic Abyssinia to Cushitic Ethiopia. With political developments in subsequent years they grossly denied the history, culture, language, identity etc of vast enslaved survivors of Menelik’s Holocaust.

The most important myths Abyssinians used as ideological weapon to subjugate the overwhelmingly majority non-Abyssinians and confuse local as well as foreign historians are the following:

  • That it is only 500 years since Oromo migrated and settled in the fertile Abyssinia/Ethiopia lands and that they are some how granted permanent residence status or citizenship. So people who don’t have rich history of 3000 years like that of Abyssinian they can’t claim equal right.
  • Abyssinians are related to Jesus Christ by blood through Solomonic dynasty and that the blessing given to holly land Israel was transferred to Abyssinia-‘Ethiopia’ after the former crucified Jesus Christ. As a result, Abyssinian are ‘chosen race’ that they should be the master of conquered Oromo and other tribes of the present Ethiopia.
  • The myth that the true Arc of Covenant is hidden in Abyssinia.
  • Abay River is equivalent to Blue Nile: that even though Dhedhessa and other great rivers of the south are much bigger than Abay, they all should be considered as tributary Rivers as Tana (Gion) is wholly water.

Accordingly, the superficially convincing and yet more confusing name they wanted to   adopt was the historical Christian Cushitic Nubian Ethiopia- present day Sudan- located from 1st cataract-South of Aswan to 6th cataract-Khartoum along side the Blue Nile River. Dubious enough, this name changes was harmonized with the corrupt Abyssinian version of Christianity. For e.g. they claimed as if one of the smaller tributaries of River Dedessa, River Abay, is same as the historical Blue Nile. In addition, the collapse of Nubian empire, the conversion of Christian Nubian Ethiopia to Islam and their eventual disclaim of both names of Nubian and Ethiopia in favor of The Sudan paved the way for smooth takeover by Abyssinia of the unrelated people’s name with their history.

Based on the objective and tactics mentioned, subsequent Abyssinian governments, in collaboration with the highly politicized Abyssinian church, pushed to change the Abyssinia name to Biblical Ethiopia. It should be noted that the Hebrew bible call Nubian as Cush while the Greece bible refers Nubians as ethiope. The land of Cush—the son of Biblical Ham—is generally considered to be in the vicinity of the Ancient cities of Meroë and Napata, located in present-day Sudan. Back to pre-Christian era, the Biblical verse that Ethiopia will stretch its hands to God refers to today’s Sudan territory of Cushitic Nubians, not Semites- Abyssinia. It is interesting if one Google and see the difference between Abyssinia Ethiopia and Nubian Ethiopia in Roman Catholic website www.newadvent.org.

After initially imposing Abyssinia name on non-Abyssinians, special diplomatic effort was made by Teferi Mekonen- later Emperor H. Sillasie- to abandon both Abyssinian and Southern country’s names at all in favor of Ethiopia. Then minority Abyssinian rulers denied the existence of other dehumanized people including their history, culture, etc and promoted the policy of ‘swallowing majority non-Abyssinians’. For e.g. the first paragraph the Official Property Decree promulgated by the so called Ethiopian brigand government of Naftagna-Melkegna dated October 24th, 1928 explicitly states that “the right of freedom from confiscation has existed in the Christian Abyssinian provinces of the North-namely the provinces of Tigre, Gondar, Gojjam and proper Shoa.” The whole situation can be characterized as a ‘dragon stuck while swallowing a buffalo!’

Most importantly, the following all inclusive Memorandum of Department of State regarding the official name of Ethiopia explains the whole situation of the historical genocide committed. Source: Documents on Ethiopian Politics, Volume 2- The consolidation of Power of Haile Selassie, 1920-1929, page 32-33.

DEPARTMENT OF STATE

DIVISION OF PUBLICATIONS

October 18, 1926.

Index Bureau

Received OCT 27, 1926

A-C:

“The following information with reference to the names Abyssinia and Ethiopia is given in response to your telephone request last Saturday:

Ethiopia is the name which is preferred by the Government and people of the country. Mr. R. P. Skinner, in his Paris dispatch No. 766 of September 23, 1925 (123 SK3 /246) wrote as follows:

“In this connection, I respectfully suggest that it would be more strictly correct to abandon the use of the word Abyssinia in favor of Ethiopia. The government of the country considers Ethiopia to be its proper name. And it is under this name that our treaty appears in the official volume of Treaties, Conventions and International Acts. And in the body of the treaty Ethiopia alone is mentioned from time to time. I believe that it would be gratifying to the existing government of Ethiopia if the use of the word Abyssinia could be dropped.”

The suggestion that the name Ethiopia be adopted for official use by the Government was approved by Mr. Dulles of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs and was adopted by the United States Geographic Board February 3, 1926.

Ethiopia is the term employed not only in the two Treaties of 1903 and 1914, between the United States and that country, but also in the treaties between great Britain and Ethiopia and it is so listed in the “Foreign Office List and Diplomatic and Consular Year Book, great Britain”, 1924, page 48. it also appear as Ethiopia in the ratifications of the Universal Postal Convention signed at Madrid November 30, 1920 (British State Papers, 116, 1922, page 776) as also in the “Dictionaire des Bureau de poste, publi?e par le Bureau International de l?union postale universalle (1909)”.

The name of the country in the language of the country, Amharic, is, translated Ityopya.

The objection of the people of the country to the term “Abyssinia” arises from the fact that the Arabic word “Habesha”, from which it is derived means “confusion”, and that it has come to connote, as the Arabs use it with reference to “Abyssinia”, “mongrel” (strange mixture).

Admittedly the term Abyssinia is much more widely used. It is used in Hertslet’s Commercial Treaties, volume 30, 1924. it is also used by the League of Nations in the documents referring to the admission of  “Abyssinia” to the League of Nations, although the texts refers to “Queen of the kings of Ethiopia” and to the “Crown Prince of Ethiopia”.

“Abyssinia” (officially Ethiopia” appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encyclopedia Americana.”

DP:SWB:EAB:SS

Despite the rigorous efforts exerted by Teferi, official quest to change the name of the newly formed country from Abyssinia to Ethiopia didn’t get international recognition up until the establishment of the United Nation in 1948.  The League of Nations admitted the controversial Ethiopian membership to the League not as Ethiopia but as Abyssinia. The Italian abandoned both names during their five years occupation, let alone accepting the name change to Ethiopia instead of Abyssinia. They simply called it Italian East Africa.

Evidences and facts show that, by any means of imagination, the biblical name Cushitic Ethiopia has no relation with Semitic state of Abyssinia except being neighbors. Strictly speaking, Ethiopia belongs to the direct geographical descendent of ancient country Nubians or the Sudan both historically and Biblically, but not to Abyssinia or even the present day Ethiopia. The fact that the Sudan preferred the Arabic name Al-Sudan over Ethiopia, means the black people, for what ever reasons, resulted in the confusion of the two countries people with their history. This link provides additional clear picture regarding the cause and effect of the confusion.

The arguments presented and other facts lead one to the following clear understanding regarding the confusion over the names of Abyssinia and Ethiopia:-

  • First of all, it is absolutely unacceptable, historically false, and politically malignant for the state of Abyssinia to abandon its name and insist on using the bogus-name of ‘Ethiopia’. Abyssinia is just one state of Ethiopia.
  • It is also historical crime to present Abyssinia as synonymous old name of Ethiopia. No more use of obfuscation diplomatic verbiage. They should use the only to refer Abyssinian- Northern Ethiopia, but no whole Ethiopia.
  • The Semitic Tigre and the Amharas of Gondar, Gojjam and Shoa of Ankobar are real Abyssinian by race and Ethiopian by Nationality. Highland Eritreans are also Abyssinian by race but Eritrean by Nationality.
  • Unofficial use of such a controversial political name, in one way or other- as if it is interchangeable with Ethiopia- have negative connotation as it promotes hidden racism and discriminatory nationalism.
  • Oromo, Somali, Afar, Kambata, Hadiya, Sidama, Walayta, Kaffa Anuak, Nuer, and others are Ethiopians but can’t be Abyssinians. Therefore, calling and these people as Abyssinia inheriting their history, culture, and the like is not only improper, but also implies exercising the double meaning of slave-master bullying tactics.
  • The name Cushitic Ethiopia is more related to Cushitic Oromo, Somali, Afar, Kambata, Hadiya, Sidama, Agaw etc than to Semitic Abyssinians.
  • If Abyssinians want to reclaim and revive the old name, it would be appropriate if used overtly.
  • If one couldn’t agree on such simple and yet basic framework issues, it would be practically impossible to negotiate on the major political problems of the country.

To sum it up, it is becoming clearer from time to time that the century old tactics of obfuscating the names Abyssinia and Ethiopia is not working. The days of superficially mentioning non-Abyssinians in the introductory pages of everything and systematically excluding them from the main body of history should come to an end without any negotiation or precondition.  In other words, the old political tactic of promoting only Abyssinia under the disguise of bogus Ethiopia is no longer tolerable.  Systematically changing the ‘Christian Island Abyssinia’ to ‘Christian Island Ethiopia” simply transforms the issue from obfuscation to confusion.

The writer can be reached at www.oceonia@yahoo.com

* Note that the author has edited the article to include some illustrations.

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