The Glory of the Kings
By Dan Close (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Reviewed by Phillip LeBel (Ethiopia 1965-67)
Even if one has never been to Ethiopia, one can learn much by reading Dan Close’s historical novel, The Glory of the Kings. For those who have, much could still be learned by his careful weaving together of various sources to give us a vivid picture of how Adwa was so important to Ethiopia’s future and a key to understanding the present dynamics of society in the Horn of Africa.
Author of several previous books , Dan Close has put his knowledge of the 1896 Battle of Adwa into a compelling fictional narrative. Drawing on Ethiopia’s official history, the Kebra Negast, from which the title of his book is derived, he weaves together many known details of the battle with characters drawn from his personal experience in the Peace Corps in the Arusi Oromo town of Bekoji.
The Glory of the Kings speaks to the significance of Adwa for Ethiopians then and now. It is on a scale comparable for Ethiopians to War and Peace – full of heroes, victims, and villains and given in a style that would translate well into an Amharic epic . Through both historical and fictional characters Close brings to life how individual actions shaped the flow of events at a critical moment in time.
For anyone familiar with Ethiopia’s history, the Battle of Adwa was a crucial event. Until Mussolini’s invasion in 1935 Adwa served to check Italian imperial ambitions in the Horn of Africa . By asserting Ethiopian independence against the tide of European colonialism during the scramble for Africa , it served ironically to foster a separatist sentiment in Eritrea. Once Italy withdrew from Eritrea at the end of World War II, it set events into motion what would become a war of independence.
To bring the Battle of Adwa to life, Close draws on the lives of both historical and fictional characters. Emperor Menelik II (1879-1913) stands at the top of the historical list, followed by a cast of kings, rases, and other figures too numerous to list here. Close has done a careful job of researching what we know about the leaders in the Battle of Adwa, where they came from, and some observations about their personalities. In the book, they come alive as the drama unfolds. At this level, you could learn as much from the facts in the book as the emotion it conveys through the fictional characters.
For the imagined characters, Close draws on his knowledge of the region of Bekoji, where he was a Peace Corps volunteer, to give us a portrait of how people in a remote land responded to Menelik’s call to arms in face of the threatened Italian invasion. Two brothers, Bedane and Chala Negassa form the central part of the narrative. We are treated to a view of them as aspiring young warriors, eager to prove their worth in battle as their legendary horse-riding Oromo ancestors had done.
Chala, the younger of the two brothers, is given the task of guiding the Bishop of Bal’e province north to the battlefield, to help lead religious prayer for victory against the Italian invaders. Bedane leadership of a cavalry squadron was punctuated by an imaginary humorous encounter between Bedane and Menelik over a bicycle.
Beyond the Ethiopian historical and fictional cast of characters, Close also provides a detailed account of the Italian forces led by General Oreste Baratieri (1841-1901), sometime colonial governor of Eritrea. In this we even have a map of the battlefield, of the gathering of intelligence, and the strategy used in which Ethiopian forces no only outnumbered the Italians but also applied the element of surprise to win the day.
Those familiar with Ethiopia will find all of this quite familiar. But as with many “ferenji” accounts, phonetic spellings can be a challenge. Unless I am mistaken, I think that “Bedane” would be more accurately rendered as “Bedanie.” Similarly “mutto”, meaning “one hundred” sounds more accurate than “meto”.
Beyond this is a more complex question to which Close offers at best an oblique answer. The Amhara historically subjugated the Oromo, much as was the case with the Hadiya, the Gurage, and the Kingdom of Kaffa. This took place first by King Sahle Selassie (1795-1847), and then by Emperor Menelik, who expanded forces southward during the nineteenth century. Some of this was driven by religious zeal, in response to the historical jihad undertaken by the sixteenth century Imam of Adel, Ahmed Gragn (1507-1543) in the 1520’s. But for the rest, it was Ethiopia’s response to an expanding European colonialism that culminated in the Battle of Adwa.
What is problematic in all of this is whether the Oromo could be thought of as friend or foe of Menelik, since some opposed his conquests to the south even as he sought help from those conquered populations in his gathering forces at Adwa. Amhara rulers such as Menelik were often prone to think of the Oromo as “Galla,” which carried a pejorative tone, unlike the term “Oromo” that is used widely today. Close’s treatment of his fictional characters Bedane and Chalo plays against this, at one point indicating that the Oromo of Bekoji had been supporters of Menelik, while for other groups, opposition was the order of the day. I give Close credit for invoking both attitudes in his narrative, leaving unresolved the tangled relationships that evolved as nineteenth century Amhara expansion proceeded southward.
Toward the end of his book, Close expresses his hope that conflicts in Ethiopia and Eritrea today can be resolved peacefully. Despite now decades of separation of Ethiopia and Eritrea, I was able to witness one sign of long-term healing while on a Fulbright professorship in Ethiopia in 2009. At that time, I had occasion to once again visit Adwa, in Tigre province, as part of an historical tour. When in Adwa, my wife and I noticed that one of the stele that Mussolini had forcibly removed during the occupation of Ethiopia, and which had stood for decades at the end of the Roman Forum, was finally returned to the Ethiopian government . A banner along a wall in front of the stele proclaimed, “Long live the friendship between Italy and Ethiopia,” and to which a grateful Ethiopia could finally express a measure of sincere appreciation. Alas, what this gesture did not resolve were the seeds of continuing tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea that had had been sown decades ago by the Battle of Adwa.
Phillip LeBel, Ph.D. (Ethiopia 1964-67), was a Peace Corps volunteer secondary school history teacher in Emdeber, Shoa Province, and wrote preliminary text materials for use in the school system while in the Peace Corps. Upon leaving Ethiopia in 1968, he undertook graduate education in Economics, obtaining a Ph.D. from Boston University in 1977. From there, he pursued an academic career, mostly at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey, and from which he was granted professor emeritus status in 2010. Over the years, he has visited or consulted for various organizations in some forty countries in Africa. He is the recipient of two Fulbright fellowships, one at the University of Dakar in 1984, and another at Addis Ababa University in 2009, for teaching and research in Economics. His published research contains a few articles on Ethiopia with a focus on the Gurage, and with whom he has maintained ongoing ties. He now lives with his wife Danièle in Delmar, Maryland, where he continues to teach part-time and do research on various topics. His website is: http://msuweb.montclair.edu/~lebelp
What the Abenaki Say about Dogs (2009), A Year on the Bus (2010), Stories From the Arusi Hills (1973). The latter title was selected for inclusion in the Official 50th Anniversary Peace Corps Collection of the Library of Congress.The noted director Haile Gerima produced a documentary on Adwa that was released in 1999, and which has received critical acclaim.The defeat of Italian forces at Adwa became a signal event in Mussolini’s decision to invade Ethiopia in 1935. Inspired by the nationalist writings of the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938), Mussolinii was determined to “avenge” the “stain of Adwa”, thus setting the stage for unchecked aggression that would soon be followed by the Spanish civil war, and then the outbreak of World War II. Two years after the Ethiopian victory at Adwa, French and English armies almost went to war in Fashoda over competing claims to the Sudan. The Eritrean military struggle for independence culminated in the 1991 defeat of Mengistu Hailemariam’s military forces, from which Meles Zenawi took over the Ethiopian government to produce an agreement that recognized the independence of Eritrea. Repatriation of the stele required years of prodding by Ethiopian officials as well as by friends of Ethiopia, in particular, Dr. Richard Pankhurst, noted historian of Ethiopia.