Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Dominique HARRE, Independent Researcher, CFEE

Important cultural transfers often lack a coherent corpus of historical sources when they relate to material culture. This is the case for new business and economic traditions that emerged in the late-19th century Ethiopia making the country part of the ongoing capitalism’s expansion in the Red Sea/Indian Ocean area. A turning point was reached when foreign communities, such as Armenians, Muslim and Jain Indians, and Greeks, settled in increasing numbers along the Somaliland coast, in Djibouti, and in Ethiopia. Under the active encouragement of Menelik II they introduced the large trans-local businesses that operated between India, Aden, the Ottoman Empire, as well as global consumer markets. They also brought a new urban architecture and specialised craftsmanship. These early exchanges had long-lasting effects on Ethiopia’s diplomatic, material, and cultural bonds. The paper presents selected textual evidence essential to understand the movements of people and relationships that made these cultural transfers possible. Some rare documents come directly from merchants, builders, and craftsmen of Indian origin, who also left more tangible traces in the urban landscape, first in Harar and then in Addis Ababa, than their written accounts. Other textual evidence is incorporated from disparate and indirect sources, including diplomatic archives from various countries, consular registers, and contemporary travel accounts. This written evidence yields enough material of its own to be a fruitful ‘discussion’ with non-textual sources, including oral sources. It too suggests ways to document the non-Western origins of modernisation in Ethiopia in a non-colonial context.