Economic Stagnation in Ethiopia, 1500-1800
by Mengistie Zewdu Tessema
Mengiste Zewdu is a Master student at the department of History and Heritage Management, Debre Berhan University. His main research interest is the economic history of Ethiopia. He reports here on research conducted in 2017 with the support of a CFEE grant.
My research primarily employs written sources which have direct nexus with the period of my study. These written documents consist mainly of foreign travelers’ accounts, chronicles, and other scholarly historical works of the period understudy. These source materials are mainly available in the libraries of CFEE and Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. I summarize here various historical sources surveyed in the aforementioned libraries and also from Debre Berhan University’s postgraduate library.
Studies about the economic history of Ethiopia have been launched since the 1960s. The studies are pioneered by Richard Pankhurst, who has published various articles and books on the components of Ethiopian economy, mainly agriculture and trade. The first book, An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early Times to 1800, was his interesting contribution that investigates the economy of medieval Ethiopia. In addition to the works of Pankhurst, the works of Donald Crummy and Moderchai Abir on agriculture and trade respectively are also noticeable. The works of Merid Wolde Aregay on land tenure, agricultural productivity, trade, and society and technology seem very sounding contributions on the economy of medieval Ethiopia.
The aim of this study is assessing: how had the medieval Ethiopian economy failed to transform itself into a developed economy? And why were the basic sectors of the economy: agriculture, trade and technology unable to cooperate and bring a significant change in the economic life of the period understudy? Factors that had greatly hindered the development of these basic sectors of the economy will also be given due emphasis in this study.
As investigation of various primary and secondary sources reveals the economy of medieval was inconsistent and static in its nature. There were various natural, administrative, cultural and other factors that seem to have been accountable for this inconsistent and static nature of the economy. These factors had affected the sectors of the economy separately, and they were also partly accountable for the failure of the sectors to cooperate and to bring the desired advancement in the economy of the period under study.
Although the high fertility of the soil and the abundance of cattle had been witnessed by many European travelers of the period, there were different factors that had hampered the peasantry’s productive motive in specific and the development of agriculture in general. The significant impediment for the inability of agriculture to transform itself into developed sector was the communal land tenure system what we call rest. It was because of that rest land tenure system was subjected to ceaseless fragmentation of land, and partly it confined the peasants to their rest land by hindering peasants’ mobility away from their original village. The gult system, the system in which the rights of appropriation of portions of the peasant produce was granted mainly to the ruling class, had also been influencing the peasants’ production and hard-working for the gult holders had taken the surplus production of the peasants.
The impermanency of royal capitals, though the problem had been improved after the foundation of Gondar in the fourth quarter of seventeenth century had also affected the peasantry and its productivity. This was mainly because the moving of the royal court required the peasant to feed the court and its companions; the soldiers were also blamed to be too destructive for the peasant and its produce.
Droughts that were ignited by environmental uncertainty, invasion of locusts and other insects, and various kinds of pestilences had also been noticeable catastrophes that worsened the lives of the society of the period understudy. For these environmental and natural hazards, inevitably followed by famine, took the lives of the peasant and their cattle.
The consumption behavior of the society of the period under study had also its own negative impact on the peasant’s saving habits. Most importantly, the extravagant feasts of the society and banquets of the lords and kings, which wiped out the surplus agricultural production, were the manifestations of improper consumption behavior of the then society. Furthermore, it was aggravated by the religiousness and superstitiousness of the society.
Therefore, the factors that are outlined above had forced the medieval agriculture to remain static, and to become unable to transform itself into advanced agriculture.
Trade had been the second important component of the economy of medieval Ethiopia. It had also contributed a significant share of the economy of this period. Like agriculture, however, trade had remained static and inconsistent throughout the period understudy.
Various kinds of factors contributed for the static and inconsistent nature of the trade sector. One of these factors was the inaccessibility of Ethiopia to the coasts. This inaccessibility problem seems to have been emanated from two possible reasons: little interests and commitments of Ethiopian kings to thoroughly control the coastal areas, and the military take-over of the coastal areas by the Ottomans. Thus, absence of Ethiopia’s complete control over the ports of the coastal areas had greatly endangered the trade in particular and the economy in general.
Another significant factor that had hampered the trading activity of this period was the absence of currency. Although some foreign and indigenous currencies had been engaged in the transaction process, trade was mainly conducted through barter and ‘primitive money’ in most of the period understudy. And the absence of currency had affected the trade in different ways mainly by influencing the exchange of commodities and by discouraging accumulation of wealth.
Moreover, the attitude of the society towards the occupation of trade was also another significant factor that immensely hampered the development of trade of the period. Traders, who were performing the commercial activities, were held in low esteem. Hence, the occupation of trade had been reserved mainly to Muslims and foreigners, and it was partly followed by segregation of the merchants. This in turn had greatly affected the growth and development of trade.
Above all, since the import and export of the country were highly regulated by the kings and warlords, there was hardly diversification of trading items that had been imported and exported. The lack of diversification of trading items had partly emanated from the inability of agriculture to produce highly demanded crops at the international markets.
At the same time, the imports of the country were mainly determined by the will of the kings and the warlords for the imports were mainly consumed by them. Hence, the imports were usually firearms and luxury goods which were highly demanded by the upper classes of the medieval society.
The aforementioned and discussed and other predicaments had continued affecting the trading sector of the economy of the period under study.
Like agriculture and trade, the third sector of the economy, technology, had also shown a chronic static nature throughout the medieval economic history of Ethiopia. The basic problem for the stagnancy of this sector revolves around the attitude of the rulers and the society of the period. Beyond admiring technological achievements which they had observed in some occasions mainly from foreigners, the rulers were indifferent to technological advancements in their realm. The rulers had hardly provided patronage for those who were engaged in the occupation of handicrafts and skilled arts.
The attitude of the society to those who were engaged in crafts work was also hardly positive. Like the traders, craftsmen had also been held in low esteem. Even the society had attached pejorative appellations for those skilled workers. Increasing its scope, the low esteem for the craftsmen had grown into segregation of the craftsmen from the normal society of the period, and then to the formation of occupational castes. As some evidences suggest, the rulers had also partly taken in part the segregation and caste forming process. In general, this improper attitude for the occupation of craftsmanship had negatively affected the advancement of the sector in particular and the development of the economy in general.
Generally, the aforementioned factors which have been discussed in agriculture, trade, and technology hampered the development of respective sectors of the economy. However, factors that affected the sectors were not exclusive for a certain sector. In a sense the factor that affected one sector of the economy would inevitably have affected the remaining sectors of the economy. In fact, the attitude of the society to economic self-aggrandizement would have been very little, and it was mainly emanated from the teaching of the church. The teaching of the church emphasized the negligence of this worldly matter. This in turn had left great impact on the working habit and productivity of the society, and on the economy at large.
Besides, the three sectors of the economy seem also hardly cooperate one another. For instance, the agriculture sector had failed to contribute diversified trading commodities for export in the international trade. The Portuguese traveler, Father Francisco Alvarez, attested the insufficiency of vegetable and fruit production for export [to Portugal]. At the same time, the trading sector was also unable to bring manufactured goods that enhance the agricultural productivity or to heighten the technology and techniques of production. Rather than being benefited by developing the trading and technological sectors, the static agricultural society of Ethiopia had remained with contempt and negligence for these sectors of the economy. This little collaboration had greatly endangered the economy at large and forced it to remain static for several centuries.
Therefore, the economic development of the medieval Ethiopia would have remained stagnant throughout the period under study. Actually, the stagnancy of the economy has also continued beyond the period of this study, until the end of the twentieth century though there were some improvements in the later period. The inability of the sectors of the economy to cooperate and to bring significant changes along with the above outlined factors had also contributed for the static nature of the Ethiopian economy.
View of Aliyu Amba, after Bianchi, G., Alla Terra Dei Galla, Milano, Fratelli Treves, 1884, p. 209.