By Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni
The following excerpt is taken from Dr. Mekuria Bulcha’s Article “Greater Addis Ababa in the Making: Stop Them, or Keep Quiet and Perish”
Most Amhara people of our generation might not know this. But, this is an eye witness account of William Harris, a British Diplomat in 1843, on the carnage of Sahle Sellasie predatory campaigns against the Oromo people in the present day Addis Ababa, Finfinnee with its original Afaan Oromo name.
Just take a moment, think if there is any difference with the current predatory campaign against the Oromo people by the current regime. Compare this with the eye witness accounts of Ermias Legesse “The Legacy of Meles Zenawi: Addis Ababa the Ownerless City” to learn how they are currently destroying our people. Just be human and imagine what you might feel if the one being killed and destroyed are your family and your community! #OromoProtests!
It is a must read for all Amhara and Tigrean youth who could read and understand English, just in case they may share our pain and agonize with us.
“Ethiopian history books tell us that the Amharic-speaking community of Menz started to expand from its mountain stronghold in the early eighteenth century to become the Abyssinian rulers of Shawa at the time of Sahle Sellasie (r.1813 to 1847). In 1843 Sahle Sellasie went on one of the predatory raids, he usually conducted twice and often three times a year, into the Tuulama Oromo territory bordering on kingdom of Shawa. Major W. C. Harris, who was sent on a diplomatic mission to Shawa leading a British delegation and followed Sahle Sellasie on several of his raiding expeditions against the Oromo during the 18 months he stayed in the country, reported what he witnessed in his book The Highlands of Aethiopia (1844, Vols. I-III). Harris depicted vividly what he saw while following Sahle Sellasie on his many raiding expeditions against the Oromo. One of these expeditions took place 180 years ago in December, 1843 against Finfinnee, a cluster of prosperous Oromo villages with rich farm lands and numerous life-giving springs and wooded valleys. The quotations in this paper are from Vol. II (p. 185-198) of Harris’ book. What he wrote was corroborated by Johann L. Krapf (Travels, Researches, and Missionary Labours, 1858, 1968) who was in Shawa during the same period. Harris saw Finfinnee from a hill as the Amhara forces descended on it. He called the vast and thickly populated plain lying at the foot of the Entotto hills “the very picture of peace and plenty.” He wrote,
“Hundreds of cattle grazed in tempting herds over the flowery meads [meadows]. Unconscious of danger, the unarmed husbandman [herdsman] pursued his peaceful occupation in the field; his wife and children carolled blithely over their ordinary household avocations; and the ascending sun shone bright on smiling valleys, which, long before his going down, were left tenanted [occupied] only by the wolf and the vulture.”
Harris noted that, after conferring for a while with an Orthodox priest acting as his father confessor, Sahle Sellasie ordered the expectant army to “carry fire and sword through the land.” What followed was exactly what the king ordered his forces to do.
“ Rolling on like the mighty waves of the ocean, down poured the Amhára host among the rich glades and rural hamlets, at the heels of the flying inhabitants—tramping underfoot the fields of the ripening corn, in parts half reaped, and sweeping before them the vast herds of cattle which grazed untended in every direction. When far beyond the range of vision, their destructive progress was still marked by the red flames that burst forth in turn from the thatched roofs of each village; and the havoc committed many miles to the right by the division of Abagáz Maretch, who was advancing parallel to the main body, and had been reinforced by the detachment under Ayto Shishigo, became equally manifest in numerous columns of white smoke, towering upwards to the azure firmament in rapid succession.”
Having indicated the utmost satisfaction expressed in Sahle Sellasie’s eyes while watching the progress of his forces who “poured impetuously down the steep side of the mountain and swept across the level plain,” the British envoy continues to describe the magnificent view over the country that was devoured by sword and fire. The “beautifully secluded valley of Finfinni, which, in addition to … high cultivation, and snug hamlets”, he wrote, “boast a large share of natural beauty. Meadows of the richest green turf, sparkling clear rivulets leaping down in sequestered cascades, with shady groves of the most magnificent juniper lining the slopes, and waving their moss-grown branches above cheerful groups of circular wigwams, surrounded by implements of agriculture, proclaimed a district which had long escaped the hand of wrath.” And as the troops “performed their bloody work” and the air became dark with the smoke coming from scores of burning Oromo villages,
“ The luckless inhabitants, taken quite by surprise, had barely time to abandon their property, and fly [flee] for their lives to the fastness of Entotto … The spear of the warrior searched every bush for the hunted foe. Women and girls were torn from their hiding to be hurried into helpless captivity Old men and young were indiscriminately slain and mutilated among the fields and groves; flocks and herds were driven off in triumph, and house after house was sacked and consigned to the flames … Whole groups and families were surrounded and speared within the walled courted yards, which were strewed with the bodies of the slain. [Those] who betook themselves to the open plain were pursued and hunted down like wild beasts; children of three and four years of age, who had been placed in the trees with the hope that they might escape observation, were included in the inexorable massacre, and pitilessly shot among the branches. In the course of two hours the division left the desolated valley laden with spoil, and carrying with them numbers of wailing females and mutilated orphan children, together with the barbarous trophies that had been stripped from the mangled bodies of their murdered victims.”
Continuing with his description of the woes and destruction inflicted upon Finfinnee’s inhabitants who, as mentioned above, lived a peaceful and happy life just moments before the invaders descended on them, Harris wrote:
“The hoarse scream of the vulture as she wheeled in funeral circles over this appalling scene of carnage and devastation, mingled with the crackling of falling roofs and rafters from the consuming [burning] houses, alone disturbed the grave-like silence of the dreary and devoted spot, so lately resounding to the fiendish shouts and war whoops of the excited warriors, and to the un-pitied groans of their helpless captives … gloomy columns of smoke rising thick and dense to the darkened heavens, for miles in every direction, proclaimed that this recently so flourishing and beautiful location had in a few brief hours been utterly ruined, pillaged, and despoiled, as far as the means of ruthless and savage man could effect its destruction.”
After looting and destroying Finfinnee, the Amhara forces marched to Eekkaa (Yekkaa), today a suburb of Finfinnee/Addis Ababa. Harris noted that “the Abyssinian system of warfare consists in surprise, murder, and butchery, not in battle or fair conflict.” The reason for avoiding open engagement by Sahle Sellasie was in fact that the Oromo had repeatedly defeated him in battle. Taking the Eekkaa Oromo by surprise, his forces repeated their work of destruction they have already performed in Finfinnee. Harris wrote,
“ As the evening approached the scattered forces began to rendezvous around the state umbrellas, now unfurled, to which they were directed by the incessant beating of kettle-drums. Whilst the work of destruction still continued to rage on all sides, herd after herd of lowing beeves [cattle) pouring towards the royal standard, and each new foraging party brought with it fresh groups of captive women and girls, and the barbarous tokens of their prowess … The slaughter had been immense. Every desolated court-yard was crowded with the bodies of the slain—childhood and decrepit age fared alike; murderers, unconscious of the disgrace attaching to unmanly deeds, unblushingly heralded their shame, and detailing their deeds of cruelty, basked in the smiles of their savage and approving monarch … (emphasis mine).”
Night Life in the Predators Camp
Harris wrote that after fourteen hours of raiding, looting, killing and burning, the weary forces halted in the Eekkaa valley. The “horses and mules were … turned loose among the standing beans, and several thousand head of cattle [43,000, see Svein Ege, Class, State, and Power in Africa: A case Study of the Kingdom of Shawa, 1996] tired to death with the distance they had been driven from their … pastures, were, with infinite difficulty” collected in one secure spot. And “the King took his position for the night” contented with what he had achieved.
Major Harris’ description of life at Sahle Sellasie’s night camp reveals a telling contrast between the defeat and destruction of the Oromo on one hand, and victory and joy of their adversaries on the other. While reading what he narrates about the night, one almost ‘hears’ the sounds made by the displaced and agitated livestock, the screams of female captives calling for help or pleading that their captors leave them alone, the crying children who saw their parents killed during the day and now being dragged into slavery by their captors, the burning of their villages and homes surrounding Sahle Sellasie’s camping site, and the boastful fukara and qararto (war songs) of his Amhara forces. Harris wrote that,
“Loud whoops and yells, arising from every quarter of the wide valley, mingled with the incessant lowing kine [cattle], the bleating of sheep, the thrill neighing of the war-steed, and the occasional wailing of some captive maid, subjected to the brutality of her unfeeling possessor. Groups of grim warriors, their hands embroiled in the innocent blood of infancy, and their stern features lighted by the fitful flame, chuckling over the barbarous spoils they had won, vaunted their inhuman exploits, as they feasted greedily … Spears and bucklers gleamed brightly around hundreds of bale-fires, composed of rafters stripped from the surrounding houses; and the whole distant landscape, red from the lurid glare reflected by scores of crackling [burning] hamlets (emphasis mine).”
One may add that this happened, not only in Finfinnee or was committed only by Sahle Sellasie, but in numerous Oromo districts for many years after him leading to the genocide that killed half of the Oromo population at the end of the nineteenth century. Harris noted that Sahle Sellasie had carried out about 84 raids against his Oromo neighbours in every direction between 1813 and 1843.
Sahle Sellasie returned to Finfinnee and Eekkaa for the second time in 1843 because those who survived the first onslaught refused to submit or pay tributes to him. Harris wrote “The survivors of Ekka and Finfinni tribes, believing the fatal storm to be expended, had already returned with the residue of their flocks and herds, and were actively engaged in restoring their dilapidated habitations, when the Amhara hordes again burst over their valley, slew six hundred souls, and captured all the remaining cattle.” This time the predators looted 6000 head of cattle (Ege, 1996). Sahle Sellasie was not able to bring Finfinnee under his control. He died in 1847 and was succeeded by his son Haile Melekot, who continued with the predatory raids against the Oromo until his death in 1855.
Amhara Conquest and Occupation in the Mid-1880s and Oromo Eviction
In 1865, Menelik, the son of Haile Melekot, became the ruler of Shawa. Sahle Sellasie could repeatedly raid but not able to occupy Finfinnee. Though equipped with firearms, his forces were not capable to defend themselves against the famous Oromo cavalry on a permanent basis. But, Menelik was able to do what Sahle Sellasie failed to accomplish. He was, not only able to raid the Oromo territories, but also occupy them permanently. He was assisted by modern weapons he could amass in exchange for booties he collected in his numerous raids against the Oromo and other peoples in the southern regions what is today Ethiopia, and the revenues he collected from the slave trade with Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. The possession of modern weapons in large quantities enabled him, not only to defeat the Oromo, but outbid his northern rivals for the Abyssinian throne as well as to compete, as the only Africa ruler, with European states in the colonial scramble for Africa. Unlike his European counterparts, who ruled their colonies from their metropolises in Europe, Menelik moved his capital to Finfinnee in the middle of his newly built empire.
As he started expansion into Oromo territory, Menelik first built his capital in 1881 on the Entotto ranges overlooking the magnificent plains and valleys of Finfinnee. Entotto was chosen as a strategic site defensible against the surrounding Oromo who were not yet subjugated. By mid 1880s, the subjugation of the Oromo in this area was completed, and Menelik was able to descend from Entotto, build his capital over the ruins of villages and farms in Finfinnee in 1887, and renamed it Addis Ababa. Tens of thousands of Oromos were evicted as Menelik granted their land to the nobility and their soldiers, and as the city expanded over the years. Many of the uprooted moved to the south within their country and some migrated to west.
The loss of Finfinnee was documented about 120 years ago in an Oromo poem titled: “No More Standing on Entotto” by an anonymous author just after occupation.
Caffee gad ilaalun haafe,
Finfinnee loon geessani,
hora obaasuun hafe
Tullu Daalatti irratt
Yaa’iin Gullallee hafee
qoraan cabsuun hin hafee
Hurufa Bombi irratti,
jabbilee yaasuun hafee
Bara jarri dhufani,
Loon keenyaas ni dhumani
Edda Mashashan dhufee
No more standing on Intottoo,
to look on meadows blow,
No more taking cattle to Finfinnee,
to water at the mineral springs.
No more gathering on Daalattii,
where the Gullallee assembly used to meet
No more going beyond Gafarsaa,
to chop firewood.
No more pasturing calves,
on the meadows of Hurufa Bombi.
The year the enemy came
our cattle were consumed.
Since Mashasha came,
freedom has vanished.
(Source: Wolde Yohannes Warqineh and Gammachu Malkaa: Oromiyaa: Yetedebeqew yegif Tarik, 1994)
It was Dajazmach Mashasha Seyfu, one of the grandsons of Sahle Sellassie who, on behalf of his cousin Menelik II, occupied the Finfinnee and the adjacent Oromo territory in the late 1870s. The destruction inflicted by Mashasha was more severe than that which was caused by his grandfather Negus Sahle Sellasie in 1843 described above. The Amhara occupation of Finfinnee and Oromo uprooting became permanent. The author of the poem laments the occupation of his homeland and suppression of its social institution, political and military institution—Gadaa, and the destruction of economic production and the natural environment of Finfinnee by the occupiers. The conquerors also went on to change the identity of the place: they renamed it Addis Ababa, and built a city using Oromo sweat and blood. And from Addis Ababa, the rest of Oromoland and the Ethiopian Empire was colonised, controlled, oppressed and exploited for more than 100 years.”
If you could not do anything meaningful to help and stand with the Oromo people, just pray for the Oromo people for God to raise one Moses to end this misery once and for all!