Wednesday, December 22

A Warrior Society and its Weapons

The Library of Congress Country Study has this to say about military tradition in national life.
Wars, insurrections, and rebellions have punctuated Ethiopia's history [and still do - see the post War Makes Folks Poor]. Kings and nobles raised and maintained armies to defend the "Christian island" against Muslim invasion or to conquer neighboring territories. Even after consolidation of centralized authority under "Solomonic" emperors in the thirteenth century, subordinate neguses (kings) and powerful nobles, some of whom later carried the high military title of ras (roughly, marshal; literally, head in Amharic [like Ras Tafari...]), ruled different regions of the kingdom and commanded their own armies as they struggled for power and position. According to a seventeenth-century European, only nature could temper the bellicosity of the Ethiopians, whom he described as "a warlike people and continually exercised in war" except during respites "caused by the winter, at which time by reason of inundation of the rivers they are forced to be quiet."
This reads like a rather rough indictment. For the sake of perspective think of the toll of war in Europe in the first half of the past century or indeed the past several centuries and remember that being warlike is not that unusual an aspect of the human condition.
From the time of its establishment in the thirteenth century, the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia was fundamentally a warrior society. Both the Amhara and the Tigray, the two dominant peoples of the kingdom, were imbued with a military ethos that placed great value on achievement in battle and the spoils to be gained thereby. Military values influenced the political, economic, and social organization of the Christian kingdom, while senior state officers often bore military titles. Additionally, military symbolism and themes occur frequently in Amhara and Tigray art, literature, and folklore of the period. Other ethnic groups, particularly the Oromo, also had warrior traditions and admired courage in combat, although the social systems that encouraged these values differed substantially from those of the Amhara and the Tigray.

Generally, soldiering has been the surest path to social advancement and economic reward in Ethiopia. Kings and nobles traditionally awarded land, titles, and political appointments to those who proved their loyalty, competence, and courage on the battlefield. As a result, warriors traditionally gave allegiance to that commander who could assure the fruits of victory to his followers, rather than to an abstract notion of the state or to government authority.

In early times, the army's command structure, like the nation's social structure, resembled a pyramid with the emperor at its apex as supreme military leader. In the field, a hierarchy of warlords led the army. Each was subordinate to a warlord of a higher rank and commanded others at a lower rank according to a system of vertical personal loyalties that bound them all to the emperor. At each command level, the military drew troops from three sources. Each warlord, from the emperor to a minor noble, had a standing corps of armed retainers that varied in size according to the leader's importance. Many landholders also served several months each year in the local lord's retinue in lieu of paying taxes. Most troops, however, came from the mass of able-bodied adult freemen, clergy alone excepted, who could be summoned by proclamation on an ad hoc basis when and where their service was required.
Traditionally the beating of war drums and the reading of proclamations and exhortations from leaders and clergy have played a role in this. Service in war to God, Emperor, Country (and region and local lord) was expected. Staying behind meant a lifetime of humiliation and disrespect. Excepting certain 'post-national and post-modern states' snugly under the protection of more traditional ones, the call to arms is still a crucial factor in the national life of every country.

One of the little noted aspects of this kind of martial tradition is the sheer mathematics of war and society. Simply put, if the society can produce a certain surplus of food or gain such by trade or conquest, it can remain at war intermittently or almost indefinitely as long as their is a steady supply of motivated young men willing to go to war. The transformations wrought by the modern era, basically technological and industrial, have upset that nasty calculus because war has become so much more destructive at every level of society. The degree of popular consent required for effective war in most countries also upsets those lethal equations.

Each man provided his own weapon and was expected to acquire skill in its use on his own initiative. He brought his own food for the march or foraged en route. Often a soldier brought his wife or a female servant to cook and tend mules. Indeed, the authorities recognized women as an integral part of the Ethiopian army insofar as many officers believed that their presence discouraged cowardice among the men. More important, women formed an unofficial quartermaster corps because men believed it was beneath their dignity to prepare food.
Curiously other armies such as Cambodia's when fighting the Khmer Rouge continued this tradition into the latter 20th Century.

Like most nations on the planet, the existence of Ethiopia and her predecessor kingdoms depends on an extensive military and martial tradition that regardless of shifting roles and often shared responsibility holds glory for some and bitter resentment for others.

For example, France as we know her, is the result of countless bloody centuries of conquest and defeat by competing militarily and culturally aggressive centers in France and abroad. While folks from Normandy may occasionally be rude to Parisians on vacation there is little chance of a P.F.T.L.N. (People's Front for the Total Liberation of Normandy) going into the forests and waging guerrilla warfare. The modern world has had little patience for Ethiopia's belated consolidation and all the wounds are far more recent, indeed they are manipulated , then rubbed raw and prevented from healing as a matter of government policy.

Thus in Ethiopia, there may be more wars in the offing. One should take a dim view of causes such as selfish competition between elites and on despotic government that forces a popular reaction. However, judgement is in favor of war when looking back on struggles with foreign invaders or at times judgement is suspended in the case of other conflicts without which the country itself would not exist. For now let us turn our attention to the past in Axum and Medieval Ethiopia to trace the story of martial tradition and weapons.

Axum at War

The best known ancient source of the country's martial tradition is Axum
The Aksumite state [which] emerged at about the beginning of the Christian era, flourished during the succeeding six or seven centuries, and underwent prolonged decline from the eighth to the twelfth century A.D. Aksum's period of greatest power lasted from the fourth through the sixth century.
A look at Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity by Dr. Stuart Munro-Hay is a good place to begin.
An important aspect of the Aksumite kings' responsibilities was the conduct of military campaigns, the main theme of almost all the Aksumite royal inscriptions which have survived.
We therefore have a considerable amount of information about the Aksumites' methods and tactics in warfare. It is very probable that the Aksumite system of controlling subject peoples through their own rulers had the effect of encouraging these to try the strength of their overlords at each succession or other crisis. This might explain the `revolts' which occurred at places apparently quite near to the centre of the kingdom. The inscriptions and coins often use the word `peace', but we gather that the `Pax Aksumita' was, if not apparently seriously challenged, in need of continuous repair.
The military establishment was undoubtedly one of the key institutions of the Aksumite monarchy, and as such was closely associated with it. The king himself was the commander-in-chief, but royal brothers and sons, and perhaps other relatives, were frequently put in charge of campaigns when the king was occupied elsewhere. The semi-sacred character of the monarchy may have been one of the bases of its domination, but the control of its military arm by members of the ruling family must also have been a source of strength and security.
The Aksumite army was organised into sarawit (sing. sarwe), groups or `regiments' of unknown numerical strength, each with a name (possibly a provincial district name, or a `tribal' name), under their own commanders or generals. The generals of these groups were referred to in the inscription DAE 9 by the title nagast, the plural of negus or king, exactly the same as the word used in the royal title negusa nagast, king of kings, in the same inscription. This indicates the importance of their office, and was possibly a reminiscence of the former sub-kingdoms now part of Aksum. The troops were presumably levied as needed, though there must surely have been some kind of `Praetorian Guard' at the capital for ordinary guard duties about the palace, treasury and the king's person. In mediaeval times such troops were designated by the name of the part of the palace which they guarded.
When on campaign, encampments were set up, possibly in some cases in recognised military stations or garrisons, or traditional muster-points. Certain provisions were requisitioned where necessary from the enemy's country. Others were brought on beasts of burden or by human portage. Mention is made of the water-corvée, and the provision of water must have been particularly important when the campaigns reached the more arid areas. Camels were certainly used in transport, and are sometimes specified among the plunder taken.
Campaigns in Yemen with Aksumite forces numbering up to 100,000 are mentioned. The principal weapons were the sword and spear, whose iron and steel were partially imported - shields were made of buffalo hide. Although there are no accounts of horses in battle, they played an important part in national life as shown by their prominence in burial sites. There were elephants in abundance but the only evidence of their use is a Byzantine witness who gives an account of a royal chariot pulled by them. Axum also had a fleet and shipyards - it was a maritime nation with overseas posessions. One ancient source describes Indian and Aethiopian (sic) ships
"all the boats which are found in India and on this sea (the Red Sea) are not made in the same manner as are other ships. For neither are they smeared with pitch, nor with any other substance, nor indeed are the planks fastened together by iron nails going through and through, but they are bound together by a kind of cording. The reason is not as most persons suppose, that there are certain rocks there which draw the iron to themselves (for witness the fact that when the Roman vessels sail from Aelas into this sea, although they are fitted with much iron, no such thing has ever happened to them), but rather because the Indians and the Aethiopians possess neither iron nor any other thing suitable for such purposes. Furthermore they are not even able to buy any of these things from the Romans since this is explicitly forbidden to all by law"
It is clear that the metals were produced in Axum but the requirements of the fleet may have been secondary to land military needs, especially if other nations on the shores of the Indian Ocean had a long experience of 'sewn ships'. The refusal of the Romans to trade the strategically significant materials is interesting as well.

Aksum eventually became isolated from the other worlds of antiquity when Islam and particularly the Ottoman Empire, came to dominate the coasts of the Red Sea. A prolonged period of decline followed that saw its institutions and inhabitants migrate south towards the interior. There, descendants of Axum formed a new state, culture and indeed a people, the Amhara, from a fusion with the peoples of the interior such as the Agew.

Other descendants of Axum in its natal Tigray also saw much transformation and joined in the creation of their shared new world. The result was the rise of the Abyssinian Empire which itself was transformed after the arrival of the Oromo people on the scene in the 16th century. The creation of all of these interacting groups eventually developed into modern day Ethiopian Empire.

The period of isolation when much of the Ethiopian change was being created is described by some as an Ethiopian Dark Age
The 18th century English historian, Edward Gibbon Wrote: "Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten".

In this telling statement Gibbon was only expressing the prevalent view of Ethiopia in Europe in his days. He was describing in rather colorful terms what Europe regarded as Ethiopia's "Dark Ages," the period from the 7th century to the 16th century AD - i.e., the period which saw contact between Europe and Ethiopia dwindle to a vanishing point.
As we have described, there was a lot going on in Ethiopia at this time including the founding entire states and cultures rich with literary and artistic heritage - so natives of that time certainly may not have felt they were living in a dark age. However, their loss of contact with Europe did mean that their former currency with European religious, political and technical advancements was lost.

Medieval War

The United Nations University Press has a fascinating publication on The impact of technology on human rights that begins
Of all the European technologies introduced into Ethiopia, firearms have had the longest sustained impact, one that has, directly and indirectly, totally changed the country demographically, socially, politically, and economically. A study of this particular technology is therefore of special importance to an examination of the impact of modern science and technology in Ethiopia. A brief review of weapons technology in Ethiopia prior to the advent of firearms will help to explain the impact of the latter.
Bows and arrows were extensively used in the Medieval Period as shown by one description in "the chronicle of Emperor Amde Tsion in which the Emperor 'rose leaping like a leopard and roaring like a lion, drew his bow and shot at the King of Hegera. And the arrow struck him in the neck....' The King of Hegera fell and that finished the battle."

Poison arrows were unfamiliar in the kingdoms as accounts of encounters with Nilotic tribes using such weapons describe that antidotes were not at first available. Virtually every reference to medieval arms in Ethiopian chronicles refers to the spear, sword and metal tipped shield. Cavalry units were either armored or not. This is in the modern tradition of the shock effect of main battle tanks and the harrassing or reconnaisance abilities of more agile units based on light tanks, armoured cars or even helicopters (air cavalry).
One associates the coat of mail and the helmet with European medieval knights so much that it may sound strange to find them in medieval Ethiopia as well. Nevertheless, they are consistently mentioned and described in the royal chronicles and other records, leaving no doubt of their extensive use in Ethiopia.
The arrival of firearms was traumatic and providential inaugurating and helping to end one of Ethiopia's Dark Ages - the ruinous invasions of the 16th Century.
Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim El Ghazi, the Emir of Harer [the infamous Gragn - the left handed], one of the hitherto Muslim states of the east which had formerly been vassal states, armed with muskets and cannon from the Turkish Pacha of Zebid, and mercenaries from the Mocha Arabs, India, Persia, Egypt, and Turkey, routed the Christian empire. Emperor Lbne Dngl (1508-1540) became a fugitive for 11 years before his death. Ahmed's ravaging of Christian Ethiopia was only slightly checked in Tigray, and that was owing to some firearms the Tigrayans had acquired, thanks to their geographical position by the sea.

Ahmed also failed twice to break the defences of the mountain fortress of Amba Gishen in Wello, perhaps primarily because of the natural impregnability of the fortress, though, at least in the second attempt, firearms were used in its defence. Emperor Lbne Dngl's son, Gelawdewos (1540-1560), inherited the throne and obtained military assistance from the Portuguese to the tune of 400 soldiers and a little more than 400 muskets. With this assistance, he defeated Ahmed, and the Christian empire was re-established, though it was much weakened.
Portuguese and Spaniards partially motivated by the defence of Christendom had among their numbers mercenaries including Arabs and Turks who, allied with the emperors, operated heavy gunpowder weapons. The effect of firearms is described as being psychological - the quality of firearms worldwide at the time was such that most killing was done by traditional weapons. Battlefields where "the sun became shrouded in the smoke of the fire of war as if enveloped in a thick mist" may have been doubly trying for combatants. Generally
Familiarity with firearms probably came to Christian Ethiopians through their Muslim compatriots. It is worth noting that until 1670,when Emperor Yohannes I decreed separation of habitation, Muslims and Christians often used to live together as one community, as they have gone back to doing now.
Successive attempts by the Ottoman Empire to invade were beaten back with the new arms in the years after the Empire's devestation by Gragn. Bullets were being made locally - gunpowder followed but despite native metal working traditions and facilities a domestic firearms industry never evolved beyond the basics.

Internally, distance from the sea was a crucial factor in the power that came to various parts of the Empire from firearms and there was never an imperial monopoly in their trade. Early in the days of Gragn's invasion Tigray was able to use them successfully while centuries later in 1882, the kingdom of Jimma Abba Jifa had fewer than fifty rifles and a few pistols when it was reincorporated into the Kingdom.

We will leave for another time more history of war and arms, particularly those involving the arrival of the warrior Oromo people on the scene shortly after the first Dark Age of the unsuccessful Muslim invasions. Without the Oromo, any vision we have of modern Ethiopian history would be impossible. The later Era of Princes which was defined by constant civil war defines Ethiopia's second Dark Age and lasted into the 19th Century.

Eventually we will get to the AK-47, which has become an Ethiopian icon.

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