Ethiopia: Dr. Tsegaye Ararssa’s Caucasian Menelik, and the Trivialization of Adwa

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by Tedla Woldeyohannes*

I have encountered some puzzling claims made by Dr. Tsegaye Ararssa about Emperor Menelik II, and the meaning and significance of the battle of Adwa. One of the claims I discuss in this piece is not made by Dr. Tsegaye himself, but his interpretation and the application of the alleged claim is what perplexed me and hence prompted me to look for evidence whether the claim is true. The claim I am talking about is about Emperor Menelik II, that Emperor Menelik had reportedly said that he was not a Negro or black; rather, he had reportedly said that he was a Caucasian or white. I offer a fuller context for this claim below.  The second extremely puzzling claim is made by Tsegaye himself about the meaning and significance of the victory at the battle of Adwa, especially for black people, which he trivializes.Menelik African Hero

I have decided to engage these extremely puzzling claims in response to Tsegaye’s invitation to discuss these issues in public. As far as I can tell, Tsegaye has explicitly offered his views on this topic on his Facebook posts. I have no reason to believe that he has no intention for his views to be engaged in public other than on Facebook. Hence, one of my reasons to engage these claims is to bring these issues to a wider public than a discussion on Facebook since these views are publicly expressed and promoted by Tsegaye, who as an Oromo public intellectual,  wants a national conversation on these topics. On his March 2, 2016 Facebook post, “The Peoples’ Adwa”, Tsegaye writes, “In fact, I encourage a deeper public conversation on the matter. Yes, a deeper national conversation that is long overdue.” A caveat: In engaging these ideas or claims, I do not claim that I’m a historian; nor does Tsegaye have an expertise in history. I encourage trained historians to join the conversation, to weigh in to evaluate the claims and the arguments presented in my piece, and hopefully, Tsegaye’s response to this piece, as well.

Did Menelik Really Identify Himself as a Caucasian?

Here is the fuller context for the reported claim that Menelik denied that he was a Negro, or black, and instead, he claimed that he was a Caucasian, or white. The story involves a Haitian, Benito Sylvain, who was a Haitian Pan-Africanist. In his book Abyssinia Today (1903), Robert Skinner, an American diplomatic mission, writes about Sylvain’s visit and conversation with Menelik after the victory of the battle of Adwa as follows: “I must relate in this connection an incident several times recalled to us in the country in regard to Mr. Benito Sylvain. Mr. Sylvain is a highly educated young Haitian of wealthy parentage—a full-blooded negro as a matter course. Mr. Sylvain conceived the happy idea some years ago of seeking the Emperor Menelik, in order to secure His Majesty’s adhesion to a programme for the general amelioration of the negro race. To Mr. Benito Sylvain it especially seemed appropriate that the greatest black man in the world should become the honorary president of his projected society.” Skinner goes on to add, “The Emperor  is said to have listened with great patience the exposition of this idea, and then, WITH THAT FINE, DRY HUMOR, CHARACTERISTIC OF HIM, he replied: “Yours is a most excellent idea, my young friend. The negro should be uplifted. I applauded your theory, and I wish you the greatest possible success. But in coming to me to take the leadership, you are knocking at the wrong door, so to speak. You know, I am not a negro at all: I am a Caucasian.” (AbyssiniaToday, 130-131). [Emphasis mine]

Before I present Tsegaye’s view on the above quotation, let me add Skinner’s description of Ethiopians. Skinner writes, “While the tint of the pure Ethiopian varies between light olive-green and intense black, he does not regard himself as a negro, and, for that matter, possesses none of the striking negroid characteristics save that of colour. In thickness of skull, facial formation, shape of the foot, and notably of the heel, the Ethiopian is quite unlike the negro. Seven distinct shades are recognised by students of the Abyssinian complexion, and personal vanity is most highly flattered by possession of the lighter tints of the skin. (Abyssinia Today, 130).

Now here is Tsegaye’s view on the reported claim about Menelik, “I am not a negro at all: I am a Caucasian.” Tsegaye writes, “He [Menelik] claimed to be white. He clearly said he is NOT BLACK. He said he is a Caucasian (white). In other words, he viewed himself as some kind of ‘honorary whiteman’. Interestingly, he said this to a delegation of black Americans who came to his home to celebrate him as a black hero. He refused to accept his blackness.” [Posted on March 1, 2016 at 8:13am]. He adds, “To claim that Emperor Menelik II fought a black war is a distortion of history. It’s an insult to any self-respecting black person. What he did was fight an imperial war that happens to be between a white European and a black African empire (the latter of whom didn’t even identify as black or African). [In the same post].

Now let us examine Tsegaye’s view in light of what Skinner wrote about the conversation between Sylvain and Menelik by asking some questions that need answers before one concludes, as Tsegaye seems to have done, that Menelik did actually believe that he was white. Here are a series of questions for Tsegaye that he needs to answer to conclude from Skinner’s reported claim that Menelik denied that he was black, and claimed that he was white. (1) Did Menelik *actually* say in English “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian”? (2) If yes, what do you think was his understanding of the terms “Negro” and “Caucasian”? (3) Did Menelik actually speak in English with Benito Sylvain? Note that the reported claim comes to us via the medium of English.[1] (4)  While relying on a translator, what Amharic words equivalent to “Negro” and “Caucasian” could Menelik use? (5) Was Menelik directly asked this question: are you a Negro? (6) Do you believe that Menelik had the same understanding like us about the two terms, “Negro” and “Caucasian”? (7) Ethiopians are black, despite the fact that many of us dispute it. But do you know any Ethiopian who ever claimed that he/she is a Caucasian, literally claiming to belong to the white race?[2] (8) Don’t we have a term to call darker skinned Ethiopians in Amharic? (9) Don’t we use the terms in Amharic to call lighter skinned and darker skinned *friends* as terms of endearment, as well as in derogatory sense for *others*? (10) Does the term bariya (ባሪያ), the derogatory sense, in Amharic for darker skinned Ethiopians, have the same meaning as “Negro” for Sylvain or African-Americans? (11) If an Ethiopian in America asked by an African-American, are you a negro, and responded  by saying, no, but I am  black, would this Ethiopian be denying his/her being black? (12) Is affirming one’s blackness merely based on a skin color enough to grasp the meaning of Negro and to identify oneself as a Negro? (13) Does an Ethiopian, born and raised in Ethiopia, truly understand the meaning of the term “Negro” the same way an African-American does or Sylvain did? (14) Does the term “Negro” convey the same meaning as the term “bariya (ባሪያ)” for an Ethiopian?”

I think the above questions are enough to show that Tsegaye’s view that literally takes the reported claim by Menelik to conclude that Menelik did actually identify himself as a Caucasian is highly questionable. Here is one key clue to understand why interpreting the reported claim about Menelik literally to mean that Menelik identified himself as Caucasian is wrong. Note in the Skinner quotation above how he prefaces Menelik’s response to Sylvain as follows:  “With that fine, dry humor, characteristics of him, he replied….” When a writer indicates the reply Menelik reportedly gave to Sylvain was preceded with what he has written, how can one literally interpret the reply and conclude that Menelik actually affirmed that he was white and denied that he was black? We all know that when someone we know well as being humorous says something in a conversation we find ourselves asking whether the person is being serious or not before we conclude that what was said was actually what the person meant. We all know that what we say and what we mean by what we say are not always the same. One can say something without meaning it. The context of what has been said is crucial in understanding the meaning of what has been said. Tsegaye’s interpretation of what was attributed to Menelik violates these simple rules of interpretation of texts. As those familiar with theories of interpretation of texts would say, Tsegaye has read into the text instead of reading the text to understand its meaning. Reading into texts happens when a person has an agenda for which he/she wants to use the text.

Furthermore, in order to understand the utterances attributed to Menelik, note Skinner’s own view of Ethiopians as quoted above that “… [an Ethiopian] does not regard himself as a negro…the Ethiopian is quite unlike the negro.” This same Skinner reported that Menelik said that he was not a Negro, which is consistent with Skinner’s description of the Ethiopian people that they do not regard themselves as negro. Plus, it is important to bear in mind that Sylvain did not ask Menelik the question, are you a Negro?  Even if the question was put to Menelik as such, and if Menelik responded by saying that he was not a Negro, that does not automatically mean that he was denying that he was black. The most charitable interpretation is that Menelik would affirm his blackness as Ethiopians understand blackness without identifying themselves as Negros as that term has come to be used in the Western world where the categories of race between blacks of African descent and whites have played a pivotal role.[3]

Also, it is crucial to bear in mind that the conversation between Sylvain and Menelik was not about what race Menelik belonged. It is worth quoting, even if it is not needed, that Menelik has claimed, on other occasions, that he was black, which actually he was. Jonas writes, “For whatever reason, the same man [Menelik] who had courted the Dervishes against Italy in 1895 by appealing to a common blackness (“I am black and you are black—let us unite to hunt our common enemy”) now saw fit to decline Sylvain’s proffered crown.” [4] In an email communication, Raymond Jonas remarks, “It’s pretty clear that Menelik could use the notion of race tactically. Unlike Sylvain, Menelik wasn’t ideological in the least. He was black if it suited him to be black. And if it suited him to be “Caucasian” he could be that, too.”[5]Furthermore, the way I suggested how to interpret Menelik’s reported claims in light of his being a man with a dry sense of humor can perfectly be understood as him saying, no, thank you, Mr. Sylvain for your request, but I decline to accept it. In this connection, Raymond Jonas remarks, in his email communication: “When Menelik makes the “Caucasian” remark, he is trying to shake off Sylvain and the larger global role Sylvain envisions for him.”[6]Hence, it is perfectly legitimate to interpret Menelik’s response as a way of declining to accept the role Sylvain wanted Menelik to play for his Pan-Africanist cause.

Note that Menelik was supportive of Sylvain’s idea for which he was recruiting Menelik to be an honorary president, but was telling Sylvain that he approached the wrong person for such a role. Even if Menelik declined to accept Sylvain’s request, Sylvain continued to associate with Menelik. According to “….the black bishop Alexander Walters, Sylvain registered at the Pan-African Congress in London in 1900 as a representative of the Emperor. Menelik thus seems to have associated himself with black representatives at the congress.”[7]  I think the above examination of the extremely controversial claim about Menelik is enough for the purpose of this piece. I conclude this section by stating that Tsegaye’s portrait of Menelik as Caucasian is the creation of an Oromo ethno nationalist driven by ideology than what the evidence shows who the real Menelik was. The next section offers additional support to the preceding conclusion. Now I turn to examine Tsegaye’s other extremely controversial claims about the meaning and significance of the battle of Adwa.

Why Trivialize the Significance of Adwa for Blacks?

Let us start with Tsegaye’s view on the significance of Adwa for the black people. He writes, on his Facebook post on March 1, 2016 at 8:13am, thus: “To claim that Emperor Menelik II fought a black war is a distortion of history. It’s an insult to any self-respecting black person. What he did was fight an imperial war that happens to be between a white European and a black African empire (the latter of whom didn’t even identify as black or African).” He adds, “To say Menelik fought a black war of independence at Adwa is at best inaccurate and at worst a deliberate distortion of history intended to galvanize legitimacy for his rule and to print an image of a saint in the face of the need to acknowledge responsibility for his failings or the atrocities of the state he founded.” Furthermore, Tsegaye offers some reasons why some Ethiopians celebrate Adwa for a wrong reason thus, “To those of you who, because of historical misinformation–via political and cultural propaganda such as songs by Gigi, Tedy Afro and essays by Bewketu, and a self-conscious and yet a romanticizing film produced by Professor Haile Gerima, etc– to those of you who could not distinguish the right and the wrong reason for celebrating the event as a result; For you, I have only pity.” The following quotation gives us an insight into Tsegaye’s rationale as to how the significance of Adwa should be understood. He writes, “I will not shrink the meaning of the event or the historical figures into one and only one. I insist on multiple interpretations of Adwa and all other historical events in Ethiopia. I insist on multiple popular interpretations. I will not regurgitate and reproduce the state orthodoxy of the past as the truth or the one and only interpretation of historical truths.”

Now consider, in contrast, the following quotation from the Introduction of the book, The Battle of Adwa by Raymond Jonas. Jonas writes, “This is the story of a world turned upside down. On the first of March, 1896, not far from the Ethiopian town of Adwa, an African army won a spectacular victory over a European army…Ethiopian victory over Italy at the battle of Adwa was decisive; it brought an Italian war of conquest to an end. In an age of relentless European expansion, Ethiopia alone had successfully defended its independence.” [8] Jonas adds, “Inevitably, Ethiopian victory was interpreted in racial terms, for not only had an African army defeated a European army, but a black army had defeated a white army. Adwa thus cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age—that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of the Europeans. Adwa is not only the founding event in the history of modern Ethiopia, and not only a founding trauma in the young life of the modern Italian nation. Adwa is, I would argue, part of our global heritage.”[9]One can add numerous similar quotations, but there is no need to do so for the purpose of this piece.

Now to the question: Why would anyone, in our case, Tsegaye, hold a view that trivializes the meaning and significance of Adwa for black people? To be fair to Tsegaye, his contention, at times, is that many, probably most who celebrate Adwa do so for wrong reasons. Consider the following quotation from Tsegaye. He writes (in the same Facebook post),  “This is also the Menelik that these nonthinking Ethiopians (averse to critical thinking while pretending to understand history or their country) are trying to celebrate as the man who fought Adwa to defend and secure the freedom of black peoples across the globe.” Note this: Tsegaye suggests that many celebrate Adwa celebrate it with the following reason in mind: That Adwa was “fought to defend and secure the freedom of black peoples across the globe.” But is this suggestion or assumption right? It is not. The fact that Menelik or Ethiopians fought and defeated the Italian army in the circumstances the war was fought need not be thought as a war that was fought to defend and secure the freedom of black people across the globe. Menelik did not have to engage in the war with that goal in mind. But that does not shrink the significance of the victory for what it has come to symbolize for blacks all over the world. The global significance of Adwa need not be the reason, at that moment, for Menelik to engage a European army conquering a sovereign nation with an intention to colonize its people. The significance of Adwa for black people emerged after defeating a white European army. The victory at Adwa stopped Ethiopia from turning into an Italian colony and that is what Ethiopians have been celebrating with pride as one of the nation’s emblematic moment of triumph over white Europeans. Our ancestors, paying ultimate prices with their lives, have secured freedom and human dignity for generations to come. In my view, trivializing the significance of Adwa for black people for a wrong reason is uncalled for.

Furthermore, to see why Tsegaye engages in trivializing the significance of Adwa, consider his view of Menelik as discussed above. In Tsegaye’s view, for black people, to celebrate Adwa as a victory won by a person [a leader] who did not regard himself as black is celebrating it for a wrong reason. But there is no good reason to believe that Menelik did not regard himself as black as I showed above.  Hence, one of Tsegaye’s main claims falls apart. That is, he has no ground to argue from the view that Menelik did not consider himself as black to the idea that celebrating Adwa as a victory for black people is wrong. This is plainly a mistake. Second, recall what Tsegaye’s positive proposal is when it comes to celebrating Adwa for the right reasons. He writes, “I will not shrink the meaning of the event or the historical figures into one and only one. I insist on multiple interpretations of Adwa and all other historical events in Ethiopia. I insist on multiple popular interpretations.” It is yet to be seen what multiple interpretations of Adwa Tsegaye has in mind. But there is a clue as to what he is opposing. Recall this, “I will not regurgitate and reproduce the state orthodoxy of the past as the truth or the one and only interpretation of historical truths.” Of course, by the “state orthodoxy” there is no doubt that Tsegaye is alluding to the Ethiopian state. Hence, his opposition is to the story of Adwa interpreted and told by the State that had conquered and incorporated the homeland of the Oromo people into the Abyssinian/Ethiopian imperial empire.[10] Remember that Tsegaye claims that “To say Menelik fought a black war of independence at Adwa is at best inaccurate and at worst a deliberate distortion of history intended to galvanize legitimacy for his rule and to print an image of a saint in the face of the need to acknowledge responsibility for his failings or the atrocities of the [Ethiopian] state he founded.”

One can conclude from the preceding quotations that Tsegaye questions the significance of Adwa that has been told from the point of view of the Amhara, the Abyssinians, or the Ethiopians. Alternative or multiple interpretations of the meaning and significance of Adwa is a project he seems to be interested in so that “I [he] will not shrink the meaning of the event or the historical figures into one and only one” and there is no doubt that Tsegaye is against the central role that has been attributed to Menelik for the victory of Adwa as his allusion to the “historical figures” suggests. Tsegaye’s proposal for multiple interpretations of the meaning and significance of Adwa suggests that it is wrong for the Oromo people to believe the received view about Adwa on the grounds that this view is the view of the Ethiopian state, which is distinct from the view of the Oromos. It is reasonable to conclude this section, like the previous section, by stating that Tsegaye’s trivialization of the significance of Adwa, in the sense discussed, is the result of his Oromo nationalist ideology.

Concluding Remarks

The following concluding remarks support the preceding conclusions. One wants to ask why Menelik is the target for some Oromo ehno nationalists, notably for Tsegaye, as we have seen above. Here are the two main reasons I can think of: (1) Menelik’s role in the battle of Adwa is central and Adwa plays a central unifying role for Ethiopians. (2) Menelik is attacked or targeted for his role in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state, which is the result of, according to this view, the conquest of, among others, the Oromo homeland and incorporation of the nation called Oromia into the Ethiopian/Abyssinian Empire.

To attack Menelik for the first reason is indirectly to attack Adwa for its powerful role as one unifying event for Ethiopians, but note that according to these Oromo nationalists, Oromia is not part of Ethiopia absent the “colonial” incorporation of Oromia into greater Ethiopia. In this connection, to offer a multiple interpretations of the significance of Adwa would produce a much diminished role for Adwa to play, say, only for the Amhara’s with which Ethiopia is usually identified by Oromo ethno nationalists. If the significance of Adwa is limited to the Amharas or the Northerners alone including the Tigryans,  that would diminish the key unifying role it has played for all Ethiopians for generations.  Hence, a multiple interpretations of the significance of Adwa seems to aim at producing local narratives or ethnic-based narratives,  as opposed to one unified national  narrative for all Ethiopians, including the Oromos. Those who are in favor of one unified significance of Adwa for all Ethiopians, including many Oromos since not all Oromos are Oromo ethno-nationalists,  would challenge the proponents of the multiple interpretations of the significance of Adwa to show why this view on offer is more significant than what it intends to replace. Following this reasoning, as one can see, would lead to the diminishing significance of Adwa for a country called Ethiopia. Consequently, Adwa would no longer be considered the victory of the Ethiopian people against Italy.  But why would anyone need such an interpretation of the significance of Adwa? Tsegaye must make his case to show why his multiple interpretation or alternative view of Adwa is better than the existing one.

The other reason targets Menelik for historical injustice that was committed in the process of formation of the modern Ethiopian state. Attacking Menelik for his role in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state is also attacking the notion of Ethiopia as one unified country because this unity, according to the Oromo ethno nationalists, is an imposed unity and the one who imposed this unity is Menelik. It is important to note this: Those who attack Menelik for the second reason wrongly tie, in my view, this reason to Menelik’s role as a leader at the battle of Adwa. That is, Menelik’s role in committing injustice (incorporating other nations, such as Oromia, by means of violence) in the formation of the modern sate of Ethiopia, in my view, should not serve as a ground to diminish or trivialize his role at the victory of Adwa. Furthermore, it is not hard to see that a coordinated attack on Menelik from the two angles, as I have showed above, is a direct attack on what unifies Ethiopians, Adwa, and who unified Ethiopia as a modern state, Menelik. As an Oromo myself, with a mixed ethnic heritage from the South, I will address the historical injustice committed by Menelik in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state in another article. It is my hope that in this piece I have shown that Tsegaye’s Caucasian Menelik is not really Caucasian at all, and it is uncalled for  to trivialize  the significance of Adwa for black people  for the wrong reasons in  the quest for justice and equality for the Oromo people. Also, it is my hope that this piece will trigger some discussion and debate on this important topic.

*Tedla Woldeyohannes is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Saint Louis University in Saint Louis, Missouri. Tedla has taught Philosophy at Western Michigan University and Saint Louis University.

[1] In his book, The Battle of Adwa, Raymond Jonas, notes that “Skinner spoke French, as did Sylvain, so while he [Skinner] would not need a translator to understand Sylvain’s proposal [to Menelik], both he and Sylvain would have relied on a translator for Menelik’s reply.” The Battle of Adwa, (Harvard University Press, 2011), 283.

[2] Raymond Jonas in a footnote to his discussion of the question writes, “Today, highland Ethiopians do not see themselves as black; when asked, they will say their skin is red… The key question for the historian is whether such a view would have been current in Menelik’s time.” (Page 390, footnote 60).

[3] In an email communication (5/24/16), the author of the book, The Battle of Adwa, Raymond Jonas, remarks, “It’s in this context that Menelik is said to have uttered the “I am a Caucasian” remark attributed to him by Skinner. In the book I point out that the phrasing of these remarks attributed to Menelik by Skinner is more elaborate in length and style than most other remarks attributed to Menelik by other sources. Menelik, in these other sources, spoke in simple and direct terms. Still, I don’t see any reason to doubt the essence of the remark. I think that here, Menelik was articulating the common Ethiopian view that Africa is home to many ethnicities and that Ethiopians are distinct both from sub-Saharan Africans from which Sylvain descended and the Arab and Berber populations of North Africa. Some would even link Menelik’s remark to a kind of Ethiopian chauvinism.”

[4] The Battle of Adwa, 283.

[5] 5/24/2016.

[6] 5/24/2016.

[7] Joseph Harris, African-American Reactions to War in Ethiopia, 1936-1941 (Louisiana State University Press, 1994), 2.

[8] The Battle of Adwa, p.1

[9] Ibid.

[10] See, Tsegaye Ararssa, https://advocacy4oromia.org/oromia/resistance-recovery-and-reconstruction-in-pursuit-of-equaliberty-in-the-21st-century/

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