Ethiopian Treasures

Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889)

Following Emperor Tewodros's death, a struggle for succession took place between Tekle Giorgis and his brother-in-law, Dejezmach Kassa of Tigray. In 1872, Dejezmach Kassa of Tigray defeated Tekle Giorgis (1868 -1872) and was crowned under the name Yohannes IV. He established Mekele as his capital when he relocated his power base from Debra Berhane to Mekele in 1881. Yohannes was a committed Christian, nationalist, diplomatic, and a great military leader.

Yohannes continued the unity of Ethiopia started by Tewodros but Prince Menelik of Shewa (who was imprisoned by Tewodros for refusing to submit to him) and the British undermined his ambitions. The British let the Egyptians control the source of Nile, Lake Tana, and they occupied Gundet, Gura and Bogos regions. They betrayed Yohannes who was an ally of the British during the campaign against Tewodros at the Battle of Meqdala in 1868. Even though Yohannes allowed Menelik back to rule Shewa after 10 years imprisonment, Menelik continued to play internal politics by seizing Wollo and putting Mohammed Ali as Governor while Yohannes fought Foreign powers.

Emperor Yohannes was determined to solve the problems Ethiopia faced on all fronts. Yohannes defeated the Egyptians at Battle of Gundet and Gura in 1875/6. He contacted Menelik to try to resolve and settled diplomatically their differences and signed an agreement called the Lache agreement of 1878, recognising Yohannes as Emperor and Menelik as Prince of Shewa.

Yohannes then turned his attention to negotiating with the British and Egyptians to recognise Ethiopia as a sovereign state and independent country. Yohannes ambitions were helped when the Mahdist war broke out in Sudan in 1882. Britain had troops stationed there and Britain needed Ethiopia's assistance to rescue its troops. In 1884 the Treaty of Adwa was signed between Ethiopia and Britain, which fulfilled Yohannes demands such as the return of Bogos which was occupied by the Egyptians and the right to import weapons and goods. In return Britain would control the Port of Massawa. After a year, Britain tore up the treaty and handed the Port of Massawa to Italy, which became a major threat to Ethiopian sovereignty.

In 1887, Italy occupied Saati and Dogali. Yohannes fought the Italians at Dogali won the battle and then went on to liberate Saati. During that time, Yohannes received news of the Mahdist invasions of Metema and Gonder and the rise of Menelik against Yohannes. This forced him to prioritise the danger facing Ethiopia and deciding to leave the Italian occupation of Saati. Yohannes marched on Shewa to fight Menelik. Menelik heard of Yohannes's intention and sent a messenger disguised as a monk to meet Yohannes before he reached Shewa. The messenger told Yohannes about his dream not to attack Menelik and instead guided him to fight the Mahdist. Yohannes was a deeply religious man and believed the messenger, which worked well for Menelik. Yohannes and his troops went to defend the threat posed by the Mahdist and headed to Metema, where the Mahdist troops were stationed. In March 1889, Yohannes defeated the Mahdist at the Battle of Metema but he was fatally wounded and died from his wounds.

The death of Yohannes sent a shock wave among Tigrayans. Yohannes' officials asked Ras Mengesha, the son of Yohannes IV, to claim the throne but the power struggle between the relatives of Emperor Yohannes intensified as they refused to recognise Ras Mengesha as Yohannes's heir.

Ras Mengesha's rival and nephew Debab Araya entered the fray to be heir but some Tigrayan nobles wanted Gugsa Araya to take the throne. However, Ras Alula who was a powerful warrior and known for his loyalty to Emperor Yohannes supported Ras Mengesha's claim to the throne and fought bitterly against Debab's and Gugsa's claim. Even though Ras Alula supported Ras Mengesha's claim to the throne Ras Mengesha did not try to take firm measures to curb the feud against him.

Eventually, Menelik of Shewa took the throne and became Emperor. After this event many Tigrayans never forgave Ras Mengesha for his failure to keep the throne in Tigray and allowing Menelik through the back door to be emperor. This was particularly given the fact that Menelik had played a major role in undermining Yohannes efforts to combat against foreign invaders, reunite and modernise the country.


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