Tewodros II (1820-1868), also called Theodore II, was a visionary emperor of Ethiopia who tried unsuccessfully to reconstitute and modernize traditional institutions by emulating European technological achievements.

Tewodros, or Kassa, as he was baptized, was raised by his half brother Kinfu, a reckless and ruthless warlord whose military and political struggles throughout the 1830s provided training in military skills and small-scale warfare for young Kassa. After Kinfu's death in 1839 Kassa himself became a legendary outlaw during that period of Ethiopian regionalism and disregard for centralized authority as he plundered caravans, sacked villages, and collected booty; but unlike most renegades he then redistributed this wealth to peasants.

Attracting many devoted followers, Kassa easily defeated local rivals, captured much of central Ethiopia, and made a temporary yet wise peace with the national clergy. In February 1855 he overpowered his last rivals in the north and sealed the victories by getting himself anointed and crowned emperor of Ethiopia. He chose as his throne name Tewodros, after a prophetic figure whom many Ethiopians believed one day would provide a rule of righteousness, peace, and prosperity.

Modernization of the Country

Tewodros's ambition to initiate a political reformation in order to restore Ethiopian greatness required national unification as a precondition for peace and order. Accordingly he tried to break the feudal pattern of local government by personally appointing salaried provincial governors and judges. He also ordered the integration of regional forces into a national army organized and disciplined under his command, and he called for a restoration of the Christian faith to involve a rededication of moral standards, encouragement of mission work, and an end to petty and debilitating doctrinal differences.

Furthermore Tewodros actively recruited instructors, engineers, and artisans of all kinds from Europe to provide the technical assistance deemed necessary for his active domestic and foreign policies. These expatriates constructed roads, bridges, and houses and even assisted in the local manufacture of some crude firearms and cannons.

But impressive as these efforts were, Tewodros ultimately failed to fulfill his dream because of his inability to come to terms with either the powerful landed aristocracy or the Church. For instance, for financial support the Emperor relied heavily on provincial taxation while he strived simultaneously to end the tax-exempt status of the Church and to reduce its landholds; he adamantly refused, however, even to consider any reduction in the size of his army.

Tewodros was unable to compromise or give concessions to crucial institutions of the old system; his rift with the Church eventually deteriorated into overt hostility that deprived him of the support and backing among many traditional farmers and peasants who unfailingly aligned with the Church. Increasingly dependent on an army that spent most of its time fighting rebellious leaders from traditional ruling families, Tewodros further alienated those peasants who themselves were pushed to a point of near starvation when forced to feed and quarter his 50, 000-man army. Despite incessant uprisings and his escalated reprisals, Tewodros remained confident of ultimate success—provided he lived.

By the mid-1860s northern Ethiopia had once again fallen to local princes, and the national army under Tewodros was racked by desertions that reduced it to less than 5, 000 men. When the monarch asked the governments of Britain and France for additional aid, assistance, or at least moral support against foreign enemies, including the Moslem states of Turkey and Egypt, the European failure to respond seemed to imply a marked indifference and diplomatic disrespect; disparaging remarks and imprudent intrigues on the part of certain Europeans within Ethiopia only served to deepen Tewodros's suspicion of all foreigners.

Conflict and Failure

When suspicion turned into anger, the incensed emperor imprisoned the consuls, artisans, and missionaries in his domain at the mountain stronghold of Magdala and retreated there with his meager military following. Alarmed but unable to effect the release of these "captives, " the British government in 1867 reluctantly sent a large force to Ethiopia to free the prisoners; when the force stormed Magdala on April 10, 1868, the proud Tewodros committed suicide rather than surrender.

The reign of Tewodros II opened a new era and closed an old one. His vigorous policies involved a commitment to break local traditions and adopt the trappings of modern technology. But an unwillingness to share responsibility and an underestimation of the social consequences of his reforms within the context of mid-19th-century Ethiopia proved his undoing.

Tewodros probably left Ethiopia as disunited as he had found it; yet, as the first emperor to conceive the idea of a united, strong, and progressive Ethiopian state equal to any in the world, he deserves the title of father of modern Ethiopia.

Further Reading on Tewodros II

The best biography of Tewodros is Sven Rubenson, King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia (1966). Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes (1968), is a careful examination of the turbulent decades that preceded the emergence of Tewodros. Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians (2d ed. 1960), is a fine introduction to the peoples and cultures of Ethiopia, and Richard Greenfield, Ethiopia: A New Political History (1965), presents a useful survey of the Ethiopian past.