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Africa History Note; Emperor Menelik II and his consort, Empress Taitu

A combined repost with appropriate edits to mark the joint birthday of Emperor Menelik II and his consort, Empress Taitu.

178 years ago in the town of Angolalla in Northern Shewa, a son was born to Abeto Beshah Wered (later Negus Haile Melekot) and Woizero Idjigayehu Lemma.  A lot of speculation exists about the origins of his mother, but she was in fact a lady of a family of northern Shewa, in the service of Beshah Wered’s great-grandmother Zenebework, widow of Merid Azmatch Wossen Seged. The child would be baptized as Sahle Dengel, but his grandfather Negus Sahle Selassie, king of Shewa, renamed him Menelik.  Menelik’s paternal line had reigned as rulers of Shewa as Merid Azmatches and then Kings.  They were descended from Abeto Yacob, the youngest son of Emperor Libne Dengel.

The baby born on August 17, 1844 would eventually mount the Imperial throne as Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia.  He would successfully consolidate the authority of the central government over peripheral areas, and restored the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown over the various vassal kingdoms and sultanates who had functioned with autonomy since the Zemene Mesafint.  He would successfully defend his realm against Italian colonialism, decisively defeating the largest European army assembled in Africa until that time at the Battle of Adwa in 1896.  He started his country on the road to modernity, setting up the foundations for development.

Menelik was married three time.  His first wife was Alitash Tewodros, daughter of Emperor Tewodros II whom he abandoned when he escaped from Magdala and returned to Shewa to reclaim his crown.  His second wife was Bafena Wolde, a formidable woman of great beauty from Merhabete who plotted against her husband in order to place her sons from a previous marriage in power.  Menelik divorced her due to this plotting.  His third wife was Taitu Bitul, the intelligent and resolute woman who would be his partner in power.  More on her below. 

Menelik II was the type of leader who suspended the collection of taxes when a rinderpest outbreak killed off most cattle including ploughing oxen, leading to a devastating famine.  He led by example going out to personally break the earth with a hoe, to encourage cattle-less farmers to do the same, stressing that there was no dishonor in working with one’s hands.  Easily moved by the plight of others, compassionate and merciful, he earned the nickname Imiye Menelik እምዬ ምኒልክ (Mother Menelik) because he was seen to be more like an indigent and affectionate mother figure, than the typical stern father figure image of traditional Emperors.  Tolerant in matters of religion, firmly believing that everyone had the right to practice their religion unmolested, he nevertheless was personally a devout member of the Orthodox Church and devoted to the Virgin Mary.   He had the ability to turn enemies into friends, but was firm when firmness was needed. 

In recent years, shameless revisionists have tried to turn Emperor Menelik II into a monster.  It is an insidious effort to undermine the Ethiopianism he stood for.  However, truth and history cannot remain buried or be corrupted forever.  The truth will prevail.

Taitu Bitul Haile Mariam was born at Debre Tabor some time between 1840 and 1853.  Scholars seem to lean towards 1851.  She was the third of five children of Ras Bitul Haile Mariam, half brother of Dejazmatch Wube Haile Mariam of Simien.  Her mother Woizero Yewubdar was a noblewoman of Begemidir and Gojjam.  Her uncle Dejazmatch Wube once ruled a big chunk of northern Ethiopia from his seat in Simien, including Tigray and wide swaths of what is now Eritrea.  He was one of the most powerful nobles of his day and even had ambitions of being crowned Emperor being descended from a daughter of Emperor Susenyous the Catholic.  Her Yejju relatives were the Wereshek dynasty of Princes who had ruled as Regents the Ethiopian Empire in the place of the then powerless Emperors throughout the Zemene Mesafint period.  Tewodros II swept away the power of the regional landlords, by first deposing her Wereshek relatives, and then her uncle Wube, being crowned Emperor in the very church Wube had built for his own planned coronation.  Many of her relatives found themselves imprisoned by the new Emperor.

Her brothers, Wele and Alula Bitul were imprisoned at the mountain citadel of Magdala where they became friends with their fellow prisoner, Menelik, the Prince of Shewa who had been kept a prisoner since boyhood when his father King Haile Melekot had died leaving Shewa defenseless against the forces of Tewodros.  Their friendship had continued after Menelik escaped from Magdala and been restored to his Shewan kingdom.  In the mean time Taitu had entered at least three marriages of which little is known other than that she produced no children that survived infancy. After Menelik’s marriage to Bafena disintegrated, Menelik had rejected many a candidate for his hand.  Menelik was looking for a wife and his friend Ras Wele Bitul suggested he meet his sister.  It is said that Wele and Alula had intended to introduce Menelik to their sister Woizero Desta, but when he saw Taitu he was captivated.  They married in a communion marriage at Easter in 1883.  In 1889, Taitu was crowned Empress-consort (Etege) of Ethiopia on the second day of her husband’s coronation as Emperor.  

Taitu more than any other Ethiopian royal consort of a reigning Emperor, acted as a true partner in power to her husband.  She took part in every discussion in matters of state and took part in the both the process and decisions of policy and action. Empress Taitu was the the other side of the coin of Menelik’s reign, the Ying to his Yang.  Menelik II was debonair, playful, something of a procrastinator, and loathe to make decisions that he believed might result in negative feelings.  His favorite phrase when confronted with such decisions was said to be “alright, let’s discuss this further tomorrow”.  Taitu on the other hand had no problem saying “No!”  Menelik found it useful to deflect such difficult decisions to her, and Taitu dealt with them without hesitation.  This may have been one of the reasons that Menelik was so widely adored while Taitu inspired awe and nervousness in her lifetime..  She did not mind a certain level of unpopularity as long as it got things done.  Taitu played a vital role in the negotiations with Italy leading up to the Battle of Adwa, and led a troop of soldiers and camp attendants during that war.  It was Taitu who came up with the idea to cut off the water supply to the Italian fort at Enda Iyesus overlooking Mekele which resulted in victory there before Adwa.  She was often portrayed by foreign sources as anti-modernization and anti-foreigner in contrast to her husband who was an enthusiastic modernizer.  However, Taitu was not so much against modernization as she was concerned about the ability of the state to keep up with the increased public demands that rapid development might bring.  She regarded many of the modern marvels like automobiles and telephones with disdain.  She challenged Alfred Ilg, (one of the few westerners she actually got along well with) on the need to build a railway connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti.  Who would feed the families of the mostly lowland Muslim caravan traders when the train put them out of business, she wanted to know?  How is a train a benefit if it robs a large group of their livelihood?  Among her greatest contributions was founding and naming the City of Addis Ababa. 

May the memory of Menelik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, and Taitu Bitul, Light of Ethiopia, be eternal.

✍🏿 Solomon Kibriye

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