The Cannon on Churchill Road
Tewodros and his Ethiopian contemporaries realized that the country had seen better times. Legend had it, they knew, that the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba had communed with King Solomon of the Bible, and that their country had been known to Alexander the Great. The greatness of Ethiopia’s past was moreover amply visible moreover in many of the country’s antiquities: most notably at Aksum, Lalibela and Gondar.
Subsequent developments, some connected with the coming of fire-arms, had however changed all this. Ethiopia by the middle of the 19th century was very clearly being overtaken by other powers. The once centralized realm was disintegrating under the rule of regional chiefs, while external players were making themselves increasingly felt on the Red Sea stage: Egypt, which had been modernised under Mohomed Ali, was advancing into Sudan on the very frontier of Ethiopia; and (2) the British and French, were demonstrating the power of their gunboats on both sides of the Red Sea, at Aden, Tajurah and elsewhere.
Support for Ethiopia came, however, at an entirely different level, from Samuel Gobat, a Swiss Protestant missionary interested in the East. He proposed sending Tewodros a group of missionary craftsmen. It was understood that they would teach the Bible, an activity in which the Emperor was only marginally interested, but would at the same time assist him in the field of technology, which fascinated him immensely.
Faced with the difficulty of importing fire-arms Tewodros meanwhile had the revolutionary, but as it turned out sadly impractical, idea of casting cannon in Ethiopia – and of cutting a road in the mountains to transport his largist gun half way across the country to his fortress at Maqdala – no mean undertaking.
To understand this idea, dear reader, one should recall that Ethiopia at the time in question had no access to the sea, and could therefore import fire-arms only by smuggling them through unfriendly or outright hostile territory. This might be done with rifles, by night, with no one looking. The import of cannons, however, was an entirely different proposition. To transport them over a country without roads it was necessary to construct passages through the mountains. This would almost inevitably attract immediate attention, and could not be done in any secrecy.
It was in this situation that Tewodros remembered Samuel Gobat’s missionary-craftsmen, whom he had settled (with other craftsmen, both Ethiopian and foreign)at Gafat, a hill near his then capital, Debra Tabor.
Gafat, dear reader, enjoys an important place in Ethiopian technological history, and deserves to be named as a cultural heritage site.
So was it that Tewodros asked the missionary craftsmen to make him cannons. The craftsmen at first replied that as men of God they were unable to cast cannons, and were in any case inexperienced in such work. Tewodros showed that he was not pleased; whereupon the foreign craftsmen yielded to his pressure – and after several abortive attempts produced the famous cannon Sevastopol, which Tewodros, a man of vision, as well as of action, named after one of the battles in the Crimean War.
Sevastopol was a failure, largely because Tewodros and his men had no experience in using such weapons. His determination, and insistence on producing the mighty cannon, was nevertheless remarkable – and had a major impact on subsequent observers and commentators.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s we admired Tewodros’s determination in making Sevastopol – and, looking to Ethiopia’s future industrial progress, spoke of Tewodros’s efforts as Ethiopia’s First Industrial Revolution. With this phrase went the nostalgic idea that had Tewodros not fallen at Maqdala in 1868 economic development in Ethiopia might – as elsewhere – have been fueled by such activity as cannon-building.
More recently AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures, proposed to honour Tewodros’s technological achievement by urging Addis Ababa Municipality to erect a copy of the said cannon in a square which Emperor Haile Sellase had named after Tewodros several decades earlier. A small sub-committee from AFROMET was accordingly flown out by helicopter to study the question. It may be disclosed, dear reader, that the helicopter pilot was initially unable to find Maqdala on the map. He accordingly landed on a nearby spur of mountain, and asked directions from the local populace – just as travellers of old might have done in Tewodros’s day.
The sub-committee members on successfully reaching their destination were struck, like previous observers, by Tewodros’s achievement in casting the huge cannon and dragging it to such a remote locality. They then discussed the size of the model cannon which they were proposing to erect in Addis Ababa. They felt that a model the size of the original one at Tewodros’s fort would look too small when seen from afar in Churchill Road, and that a larger copy, rather than an exact facsimile, was what the situation called for – but how much larger should it be, they asked themselves?
The sub-committee, as you might imagine dear reader, had no ruler or measuring tape between them. They therefore had resort to an entirely novel unit of measurement: a Volkswagen car. (German ambassador: please copy).
After the sub-committee’s return to Addis Ababa the Municipality transported one such car in a mobile crane, and drove it up and down Churchill Road, trying to envisage how a statue of that size would look. A consensus was reached in favour of the VW’S size. One such car was then lifted by crane, and placed on top of a VW Combie – after which it was agreed that this should be the size of the cannon’s gun-carriage.
Members of the Addis Ababa public who chanced to be in Churchill Road at the time and saw all these antics with a VW seemingly flying in the sky above Tewodros Square concluded that Ethiopian TV was making some kind of post-modern feature film.
The model cannon was duly cast at the Spare Parts Factory at Nazaret – and its workers were so enthusiastic about the project that they completed their task on time (which was unusual). They were then taken by bus to Addis Ababa to celebrate the statue’s inauguration.
The erection of Addis Ababa’s new statue was warmly welcomed, but some observers, looking further into the future, observed: We have the statue of the cannon; now we must have a statue to the man who conceived it!
To learn more of all this, dear reader, you should consult Professor Volker Matthies’s new book The Siege of Magdala. The British Empire against the Emperor of Ethiopia (Princeton, 2012).