Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ABYSSINIA, an extensive country of eastern Africa, in the upper valley of the Nile. It is bounded on the north by Nubia; on the east by Adel, and by a narrow belt of Arab coast land washed by the Red sea; on the south and southwest by almost unexplored regions; and on the west by lands which are little known to us, and inhabited by negro tribes. Its length from north to south may be 540 geographical miles; its breadth from east to west is about the same as its length. Approximately its area is equal to, if not larger than, that of France. The population is supposed to be nearly 4,500,000.


—Taken as a whole, Abyssinia is a great mountainous plateau which rises to a height of 8,000 feet or more above the level of the Red sea and the extensive plains of Adel. On the north and west, the plateau slopes toward the plains of Atbara; on the southwest it inclines toward the valley of the Bahr-el-Azrek or Blue river; on the south it extends in the direction of Kafa and Enarea, countries as yet but little known. Its surface, which is very uneven, presents a succession of plains of different elevations, of abrupt mountains and deep valleys. In the south there is a great depression containing a large lake known by the two names of Tzana and Dembéa. About its middle the plateau is cut in two, from west to east, by a broad fissure or furrow more than 2,000 feet deep, through which flow the tumultuous waters of the river Takkazze, one of the two great rivers of the Abyssinian plateau. The other river is the Abai, which in Nubia is called the Bahr-el-Azrek or Blue river. This cut between the north and the south of Abyssinia, establishes a natural division which, at different periods, was considered as a political line of demarkation, and which to a certain extent may also be called an ethnographical boundary. North of the Takkazze and as far as the sea-board the country is called Tigré. On the south it is called Amhara, of which Shoa, which was formerly an independent kingdom, is now a subdivision. The capital of Tigré was formerly Axoum. It is now Adowa. The capital of Amhara is Gondar; it is the residence of the emperors of Abyssinia. Ankobèr is the capital of Shoa. There are about 7,000 or 8,000 inhabitants in Ankobèr, and the same number in Adowa. Gondar may have twice that number.


—The Abyssinians divide their country into three natural parts: first the kolla or lower plains, then the déza or uplands, and the ouïnadéga or intermediary provinces. The lowlands, which are naturally the warmer, produce nearly all the vegetables and fruit trees grown in tropical countries, such as cotton, indigo, the gum tree, the ebony tree, the sugar-cane, the date tree, bananas, the coffee tree, etc. The lands in the middle part of the country have a temperature which may be likened to that of lower Italy and of the south of Spain. They readily produce most of the cereals, fruits and vegetables found in the temperate and the southern parts of Europe.


—With the exception of the gold washings in the extreme western and southwestern sections, the mineral wealth of Abyssinia, or the greater part of it, is still locked up in the recesses of the earth. Small squares of salt constitute the currency of the country. This salt comes mostly from the lagoons lying between the northeast top of the plateau and the beach of the Red sea.


—The inhabitants belong to several distinct races. The Semitic element, the immigration of which dates back to an unknown period, spread particularly over the Tigré country. Its language is called the Giz. This region was colonized by the Greeks who came to Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes. The so-called Ethiopian race is also spread over the Tigré; but it predominates almost exclusively in Amhara and the rest of the country. It presents striking points of resemblance to the Galla tribes in the southwest of Abyssinia, a remnant of the Berber nation which possessed northern Africa in ancient times, and whose origin has been so much mooted. Abyssinian society has adopted some of the manners and customs of civilized nations, while in other respects it still retains the barbaric usages of African tribes. The Abyssinians are Christians of the Greek rite. The Gallas are Mussulmans.


—In Abyssinia there are three remnants of civilization. The first was contemporaneous with ancient. Egypt, and was attributed by Herodotus to the Ethiopians. The Jews revived it. The Abyssinian dynasty is said to date back to Menilek, the son of Solomon and the legendary queen of Sheba. His descendants, it is related, reigned without interruption down to the eleventh century after Christ, when they were expelled by other Jewish kings who had not, like the descendants of Menilek, embraced Christianity. They were reinstated three centuries later. Their last descendant was living in 1840. The second civilization, introduced by the Greek kings of Axoum and by Christian missionaries of the fourth century, partook of the Greek and Egyptian character. The use of the Greek language became pretty general, at least among the higher classes. It was used in public inscriptions either alone or together with the Giz.


—In Abyssinia Christianity has neither hastened nor followed the progress of civilization. Like other countries subject to Greek empire, and still more on account of its remoteness, Abyssinia was left isolated, by the Mussulmans, from European civilization. Of the laws of Europe it has preserved only a few fragments of the Theodosian code.


—Abyssinian Christians are monophysites; in other words, they believe that there is only one nature in Jesus Christ. One of their confessions of faith is peculiarly Nestorian, like the confessions of nearly all the Christian churches in Asia. A Portuguese expedition overran Abyssinia in the sixteenth century, after which the Jesuits came and made three hundred thousand proselytes; but persecution soon blotted out every vestige of Catholicism in Abyssinia.


—The Abyssinian, like every other monarchy, has had its changes and its revolutions. Sometimes it extended its authority over the entire territory, and often it had to contend against independent chiefs. Subdivision of the country and a state of anarchy, favored by local circumstances and the difference of origin of the population, have been frequent during the last century and a half. Tigré and Shoa recognized, it is true, the nominal supremacy of the king or emperor, who resided at Goudar, in Amhara, but in reality they were independent of him. The emperor, or the Alié, had been gradually stripped of his authority by the Ras, a sort of mayor of the palace. But the Ras had to contend for the mastery over each province, with feudal chiefs, the most powerful among whom assumed the title of king (négous). Oubié rose to power in 1840. He had conquered nearly all Abyssinia, when he was defeated and killed by Kassa. The latter took the name of Theodore, and proclaimed himself the restorer of the ancient Abyssinian power. His intelligence seemed to be equal to his pretensions; but subsequently he lost much of his force of character in the exercise of his authority which was menaced, and in the struggle in which he imprudently engaged with England.


—In 1861, Négousieh, a relative of Oubié, proclaimed himself négous of Tigré. In Europe, Négousieh was thought to favor French influence in Abyssinia; while Theodore was looked upon as a friend of the English. Négousieh was vanquished and cruelly put to death by his rival. The triumph of the latter was considered, in Europe, the success of English policy, and England was supposed to entertain plans of colonization in Abyssinia.


—Suddenly the news was brought to England that king Theodore had imprisoned Mr. Cameron, the British consul, at Massowah, a small Arab town situated on the coast beyond the limits of Abyssinia. The consul had wished to negotiate a commercial treaty between Theodore and the English government, as Lefèvre had endeavored to do between Oubié and France, in 1840. Theodore had consented to the treaty, and had even sent a communication to the queen of England, not, as some have said, to offer her his hand in marriage, but to propose an alliance between England and Abyssinia (1863). Mr. Cameron was intrusted to carry the dispatch to England, but he brought back no answer. Besides, on his way, he had tarried among the Turks of Nubia, the hereditary enemies of the Abyssinians. Theodore caused him to be imprisoned, as also several English and German missionaries and their families. The British government, which up to that time had rather discouraged than encouraged intermeddling with Abyssinian affairs by Mr. Cameron, sent Mr. Rassam, bearer of a dispatch from the queen, to demand the liberation of the prisoners. At first Mr. Rassam was kindly received, and all the captives were set free in his presence. Afterward, suddenly, on account of some unexplained suspicion, Theodore caused to be put in irons all the Europeans in Abyssinia, together with the envoy himself (1866).


—It was then resolved to send an expedition to Abyssinia, for the sole purpose of obtaining reparation for this outrage against the law of nations. The expedition was prepared in India, which offered better resources than Europe to carry on a war in Africa. Between September and December, 1867, about 15,000 men were forwarded to Abyssinia. Sir Robert Napier, the commander of the expedition, demanded of Theodore the setting at liberty of the prisoners as the only condition of peace. Among the prisoners were 61 Europeans and 150 Abyssinians. Upon his refusal, one-third of the army of invasion was ordered to advance, across the table-lands and the precipices, to compel him into acquiesence, in the fortress of Magdala, where he had retired with the captives. On the 15th of March, 1868, 5,000 men appeared on the plateau of Dalanta, in front of the fortress. The army of Theodore which at first was 150,000 strong, had been reduced by desertion to 6,000 men. These 6,000 men attacked the English and were repulsed, leaving on the field of battle 2,000 of their number. The English had only 20 wounded, and not one killed. On the following day Theodore sued for peace on the terms proposed to him before the expedition, and which were refused. Then the king set free the European and put to death the Abyssinian captives, and when an assault was made on the fortress he took his own life. The English army retired from Abyssinia without broaching the subject of establishing themselves there. It was sufficient for them to renew the prestige of their arms, which enables them to rule in the East by the maintenance of only small armies.


—Neither nature nor man has adapted Abyssinia to commerce on a large scale. The surface of the country and the absence of navigable streams render communication with the interior very difficult. In the whole country there is not a single road which deserves the name of a highway. Each canton has its own market for daily needs. Foreign commodities are carried to Abyssinia every year by caravans between the coast and Amhara. There is a special demand for coarse but showy cloth, silk and cotton fabrics, velvets, printed hand-kerchiefs and calicoes, all of an inferior or middling quality; also for toys, looking-glasses, needles, articles of glass-ware, weapons and fire-arms, black pepper, and various trinkets. In exchange, the caravans bring back principally gums, coffee, ivory, myrrh, wax, honey, ostrich feathers, peltries, horns, gold, musk, mules, wheat, and slaves.


—The manufacture of cottonades is the chief industry of the country. The principal trades are those of weavers, metal-workers, blacksmiths, metal-founders, gunsmiths, goldsmiths. The various industries are centered mainly at Gondar. As a rule, and for ordinary purposes, every man in Abyssinia is his own artisan.


—All traffic between Abyssinia and foreign lands converges at Massowah, one of the best harbors on the Red sea. The city and the fort are now governed by a Turkish officer appointed by the Ottoman government at Djedda. France, England and Austria have each a consul at Massowah. In 1859 France acquired Adulis, and in 1860, Obhok.


—In ordinary times two principal caravans, the larger in the month of July or June, arrive at Massowah from Gondar every year. Smaller caravans come in every month. Caravans also come from Taka and Khartoum. A document published by the minister of agriculture and commerce estimates at 14,000,000 francs the general business transacted at the port of Massowah in 1859. Of this sum the imports amounted to 12,000,000 francs in round numbers, and the exports, 2,000,000. If these figures are correct, they show a great increase, as compared with the estimates for the preceding years.


—BIBLIOGRAPHY: Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia, by Stern; London, 1862. Voyage en Abyssinie, by Ferret and Galinier; Paris, 1847. Travels in Abyssinia, by Plowden; London, 1868. Lefebvre, Voyage en Abyssinie; 6 vols. with an atlas, 1845-50. The British Expedition to Abyssinia, by Hozier; London, 1869. Reconnoitering in Abyssinia, by Wilkins; London, 1870. A History of the Abyssinian Expedition, by Markham; London, 1869.


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