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Ethiopian Emperors and Slavery

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Slavery in the Ethiopian region is of “great antiquity.”  (Pankhurst, 1964, p. 202.)  Historical inscriptions going as far back as 1495 B.C. point to the subjugation of people from the Land of Punt into slavery.  (Encyclopedia Aethiopica, p. 673.)  There are also sources indicating the export of slaves from the Aksumite Kingdom (100–940 AD), a territory that included parts of modern day Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Slavery continued to be a “national custom” (Comyn-Platt, p. 152) in Ethiopia well into the early 20th century.  (Pankhurst, 1968, p. 73.)  So much so that even Ethiopian rulers, including those who did not approve of the institution, such as Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913) and Emperor Haile Selassie (Ethiopia’s regent, 1916-1930 and Emperor of Ethiopia, 1930-1974), are said to have owned slaves by the thousands.  (Pankhurst, 1968, p. 75.)  Some even personally took part in slave raids; the most notable case being that of Iyasu V (1913-1916) (AKA Lej Iyyasu) and his 1912 slave-raiding expedition (p. 32).

One of the first written laws to regulate slavery in the Ethiopian region was The Fetha Nagast (The Law of the Kings), a traditional law for Ethiopian Christians translated from 13th Century Arabic writings of a Coptic Egyptian writer, Abu-l Fada’il Ibn at- ‘Assal.  (Goadby, p. 181; Pankhurst, 1968, p. 74.)  Under the Fetha Nagast, one category of people that could legally be enslaved was prisoners of war (POWs).  It declared

[[t]he state of] Liberty is in accord with the law of reason, for all men share liberty on the basis of natural law. But war and the strength of horses bring some to the service of others, because the law of war and of victory makes the vanquished slaves of the victors.

It also provided for the enslavement of non-believers and the children of slaves.

A person did not have to have fought for the losing side of a war or be born to a certain class of people to end up a slave as there were additional bases for enslaving people.  For instance, a woman who cohabited with or married a slave could be enslaved.  Failure to pay one’s debts could result in “temporary slavery,” also known as debt bondage  (Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, p. 679) (in those days one did not have the luxury of filing for bankruptcy protection).  Slavery could also be imposed as a punishment for committing certain crimes, also known as “punitive enslavement.”  Emperor Menilek’s 1899 decree mandating the enslavement of thieves and people who sold slaves in violation of his ban is a good example of this form of enslavement.

The front cover of a red text with title in gold, title translated as "The Law of the Kings."Slaves had a dual status under the Fetha Nagast.  On the one hand, they were treated as property.  Slaves could not own property of their own, serve as witnesses (although in practice this ban was often disregarded, particularly in murder cases), make wills (although they were allowed to do so with permission from their master), act as judges, hold other public offices, serve as guardians, or represent their masters in law suits.  More importantly, they could be sold (with a notable exception: selling of a “believing slave to an unbeliever”) or rented – much like any other chattel.  On the other hand, there were ways in which slaves (particularly Christian slaves) were treated as human beings.  This is illustrated by the existence of an obligation of a slave owner to allow slaves to worship as well as bans on separating women slaves from their children; on selling siblings offered for sale at the same time to two different buyers; or on separating a slave from his wife or child.

The Fetha Nagast did mandate various instances in which slaves had to be freed.  A slave could be emancipated:

  • If the slave had served two generations of a family (a retirement plan of sorts);
  • If a member of the master’s family became the godfather or godmother to the slave;
  • If the slave became a priest or a monk (of course, to do so the slave needed the master’s permission);
  • If the slave became a soldier;
  • If the slave had saved his master’s life;
  • If a pregnant slave was emancipated, her child would be born free;
  • If a slave had been taken prisoner during war but returned to his master of his own volition afterwards; and
  • If a slave-owner died leaving no heirs.

However, the lack of effective control of central governments over the vast parts of the Ethiopian region meant that the enforcement of provisions of the Fetha Nagast and other laws was limited.  (Goadby,  p. 180.)  In addition, the fact that people in places of authority, such as judges and chiefs, were also slave owners who supported the institution made it difficult for slaves to assert their freedom.

Slavery in Ethiopia was abolished in 1942 by Emperor Haile Selassie.  However, he was by no means a pioneer in the fight to end the institution.  He admitted to this in his autobiography in which he credits his predecessors for their attempts to take on the institution of slavery.  (Haille Sellassie, Vol. I, p. 80.)

Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1869) is said to have made the first attempt at ending slavery when, in 1854, right before his coronation, he outlawed the slave trade. (Zewde, p. 34; Pankhurst, 1968, p. 93)  However, he did not try to completely abolish the institution of slavery, in large part because he believed that the deep roots of the practice in society made such an attempt impracticable.  This was also the reason for his forming an exception to the ban on slave trading in which he allowed Christians to buy slaves if they did so for charity.  During this period he is said to have tried to lead by example by making various gestures to discourage slavery, including buying slaves from Muslim traders and baptizing them and banning his soldiers from selling POWs.  (Zewde, p. 34)

The 1854 ban on the slave trade had little effect and the slave trade continued to flourish.  Upon the realization that this was in large part driven by the exception made to the ban on the slave trade, in 1862 the Emperor issued a decree banning the sale of any and all Christian slaves, the violation of which was subject to a gruesome penalty; a person caught trading Christian slaves would have his hand and foot amputated.  (Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, p. 680.)

Yet another unsuccessful attempt at curbing the institution of slavery was made by Emperor Yohannes IV ( 1872-1889).  He signed a treaty with Britain in 1884 that sought to put an end to slave trading including the importing and/or exporting of slaves in the region.  In it, he also agreed to protect emancipated slaves.  Although he is said to have made a genuine attempt to hold his end of the bargain, his actions could not effectively curb the slave trade and slave raids.  (Pankhurst, 1968 p. 99.)

Emperor Menelik II was no different in his aversion to the institution of slavery, although he was not always consistent in his actions.  In 1876 he issued a proclamation in which he prohibited Christians from buying and selling slaves in his territories and mandated that any Muslim caught traveling with slaves should be taken into custody and tried.  (Pankhurst, 1968, p. 100.)  This law was ineffective in part because Menelik himself violated its terms by, among other things, continuing to levy taxes from slave markets.  Upon his ascent to the throne in 1889, he again issued a decree abolishing slavery.  (Encyclopaedia Aethiopica 680.)  However, he made an exception for POWs and he used this exception to enslave war captives by the thousands.  As noted above, he also used slavery and enslavement as a tool for punishing certain criminals.

In my next post, I will highlight the fruitful attempts made to put an end to the institution of slavery in the 1920’s leading up to its complete abolition in 1942 with the enactment of the Slavery (Abolition) Proclamation of 1942.  Stay tuned!

The following materials from the Library of Congress’s collection were used in preparing this post:



Comments (3)

  1. this is an eye opener, however, the term “Slave trade” has a totally different meaning in comparison to the trans Atlantic trade in my view. The Trans Atlantic Trade was at a “Mass production” and corporate level and intergenerational. The Slaves’ existence was exploited to every extent possible …

  2. This was a very helpful article. I’m just doing some research on Haile Selassie and his actions to curb the slave trade in Ethiopia and found this to be well-written, researched and readable!

  3. When Minilk defeated Oromo and the southern people of Ethiopia in the late 19th century he considered the entire OROMO and southern people as war criminals and source of slavery. All the defeated nations became POW.

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