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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WOLDE Selassie Asfaw, Department of History and Heritage Management, PhD candidate in History and Cultural Studies

The Italien Geographical Society’s “Scientific” Station Lit’ Marefiya was in a crossroad in Ethiopian history. It remains an elusive spot, not well known in history-writing. It was located in the highlands of central Ethiopia in the old capital of the kingdom of Shewa, Ankober. Many writers do not mention its existence at all, while it is an important chapter of history. Notably, it was central for several phases of Ethiopian history ? starting from Menilek’s approachment to Italy and Italian support for his claim to the throne (the so-called “Shewan policy” of Italy) to Italy’s unsuccesful attempt to colonize Ethiopia in 1895/96. Few people have heard of Lit’ Marefiya, and generally its historic impact on our society has not yet been well assessed. The history of the Station Lit’ Marefiya is roughly the following: The then king of Shewa, Menilek II, had given Lit’ Marefiya to Italy in December 1876, with a binding lease of 20 years. It was officially used as a station by the Italien Geographical Society, but soon became a centre of Italian politics of influence. The very first phase focused on geographical exploration, according to the fashion of Europe of that time, and the station got a health centre and was supposed to study the major lakes of equatorial Africa. However, this aim was never realized. Instead, after a few years the station became de facto the mission of Italy, representing Italian interests. This is to be seen in the context of nigus Menilek’s previous alliances with outside forces, only the year before the king having been in close contact with the Egyptians (1875), who had planned to provide him with arms against the powerful emperor Yohannis IV, but failed. In this context we see that the Italians could fill this vacuum with Lit’ Marefiya. It was especially with the arrival of Count Antonelli in 1879 that the station became a centre of colonial political activities. In 1881 Antonelli, by now the official diplomatic representative of Italy, promised to buy weapons from Italy, and he arrived on April 29, 1883 with 5000 Remington Rifles. This paper discusses the further effects of the activities at Lit’ Marefiya: This includes the effects of arms dealing (Menilek profiting from slave trade and decimating elephants for ivory trade); the Italian role after the 1884 Hewett treaty (Italy’s expansion into the entire Red Sea coast from 1885); the support for Menilek’s ascent to the throne first (in Wuch’ale), then followed by confrontation (Lit’ Marefiya playing a role in the war, which culminated in the Battle of Adwa), and finally the continuous colonial presence of Italy in Eritrea following the little-known Feres May agreement. Lit’ Marefiya was given up in 1895 when the relations with Italy had detoriated.

Lit’ Marefiya should not stay a passing remark in Ethiopian history, but the role it had in influencing Ethiopian history in general and particularly northern Ethiopia, through social, political and economic destructions in the course of the Italan claim to “own” Ethiopia, has to be be assessed properly.