‘Did Menelik II really say he is Caucasian?’: Fragments for the Little chaps, Lest you celebrate Prematurely

Tsegaye Ararssa



There is a renewed frenzy among social media activists in the Ethiopian right, who vow that Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia never claimed to be a Caucasian. They dispute the accuracy of his statement in which he said “I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian.”  In their most recent iteration, they claim that, among other things, the invocation of this statement is an attempt by “Some Oromo intellectuals” to trivialize the image of Menelik II and the famous battle of Adwa that supposedly he fought and won for the entire black race.[1] They also claim, wrongly, that these ‘Oromo nationalists’ are doing so motivated by an ideological commitment to vindicate the Oromo right to secession and destroy the Ethiopian state. They insist that there is a sinister motive behind this calculated move to trivialize Adwa because Adwa is not only the symbol of black independence but also the foundational moment of the unity of the Ethiopian people (people in the singular). By undermining the significance of Adwa, their rant goes, ‘some Oromo intellectuals’ in general, and especially I, in particular, seek to undermine the basis of Ethiopian unity. Nothing can be further from the truth.

I should therefore start by saying up front that I am not interested in trivilaizing the emperor and/or his battles. But I take issues with the contemporary romanticisation of the man (as the black Messiah out to save the black race) and the event (as a symbol of the struggle of the black race for independence from white colonialism). In the latest diatribe from the Ethiopian extremist right, they tried to rewrite the emperor’s statement by insisting on “the context,” which, in the end, didn’t help much to correct the Menelikan disavowal of his blackness and his claim to be white. Elsewhere, in my Facebook exchange with these folks, I have addressed the issue.in this set of fragments, I select a few of the counter-arguments that my critics tried to present in order to reinterpret the (pragmatic) Menelikan heresy that he is Caucasian. The points in each paragraph are prepared in the form of response to their superfluous outbursts.

  1. Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia did deny his being black. He is repeatedly reported to have said, “I am not a Negro. I am a Caucasian.” No historian has ever controverted that. Not even Harold Marcus, Menelik’s own biographer.[2] Not even the more contemporary writers such as Jonas[3] denied the fact that the emperor said it explicitly. All the existing historical evidence substantiates that he said it, and said it clearly and loudly.
  2. Menelik did deny his being black and disavowed his honorary position offered to him by people from Haiti, the country of the first black, mainly anti-slavery, revolution (1791-1804). He said it at a historical juncture when black slaves were already legally freed in the US (1863). Haitian blacks were already freed for quite some time. Menelik said what he said exactly understanding what the term meant then. And it did not mean slaves. He knew the term wasn’t synonymous with slaves.
  3. He said what he said when, as a master of over 70, 000 (mainly Southern) Ethiopian slaves himself, he knew he is not one of the likes of his own slaves. His statement was not a reference to status. It was a reference to race. He knows the difference between the terms ‘slave’ and ‘negro’. To bring in the word ‘Baria’ and to try to say what is neither written nor in the context, is not just reading too much into the text but to make a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the matter.
  4. Even the authoritative historians of the era confess that Menelik not only did say that but could say that. Because his tactical deployment of racial and civilizational identities had been seen as a laudable diplomatic virtue of the time. He had once said that he was black to form an alliance with the neighbouring dervishes. And these historians—e.g., Raymond Jonas[4]–confess that Menelik could say he is anything, that he is black or white, as it suits him. That is a clear evidence that he not only said it but it is in fact an absolute possibility he could say that because it is characteristic of him, as a consumate pragmatist, to say so.
  5. There’s ample evidence, ubiquitous really, even on these Facebook pages, that millions of Ethiopians, possibly the vast majority of them, including these hypocrite apologists of the unnecessary, who seriously think that they are not black. If they TODAY plead guilty of being disavowers of their black identity, how come they insist that Menelik didn’t say it? Ideological pre-commitment to make Menelik a saint is the only reason they seek to whitewash the self-proclaimed Caucasian emperor. I wish these Ethiopian extremists know that there are better ways of eulogizing the dead.
  6. The most outlandish claim they make is that he didn’t say he is Caucasian because “he probably doesn’t even know the word.” No, he did know the word. It was, at the time, the most common diplomatic-political vernacular used in order to speak of people as Caucasians or Negros. He knew what both words meant. At least, it is obvious that his translator knew what the words meant. Even if, for the sake of argument, one concedes that our emperor didn’t use the word Caucasian, then he must have used the more blunt word ‘WHITE.’ NECH in Amharic. And he did say it. That is why scholars have since been writing not just about him but about Ethiopia as HONORARY WHITE. These critics claim that we are reading too much into the text. We read what is written. We don’t do divination about what is not written. Reading what is written is just that, reading what is written. Not reading INTO it. Trying to explain it by creating unclarity where the statement is clear IS reading INTO the text. And it’s a cardinal interpretive sin.
  7. According to the elementary rules of text interpretation, where a text is clear, there is no need for interpretation. Interpretation is called for only when there is unclarity. Texts are said to be unclear when there is ambiguity, inconsistency, silence, and absurdity.

Ambiguity is cleared by going to the sources, assessing the context–internal and external.

Talking about context in the absence of any ambiguity is not just interpretively erroneous; it’s a deliberate attempt at rewriting the text. It is the crudest form of hermeneutical sin. Our most learned miracle workers who were doing divination on Menelik’s words were just trying to rewrite it for him.

Textual silence on a matter is redeemed through, among other things, analogical reasoning/interpretation.

Inconsistency is overcome interpretively through considering the temporal, normative, and spatial hierarchy among claims of a text. Thus the late coming clause in a particular text prevails the earlier clause. The normatively superior clause prevails over the inferior one. The more specific clause prevails over the general one.

Absurdity in a text is interpretively overcome through resort to natural reason/justice, equity, and fairness.

These are the most basic principles and techniques of interpretation of texts. These are the most rudimentary rules for making sense of texts.

These interpretive techniques are applicable in the attempt to enunciate the meaning of a text, be they academic, diplomatic, legal, or theological. Considering the fact that the better educated among my critics are theologians/philosophers and lawyers, I say they should have known better when they were wasting interpretive energy where it was not needed.

Where a text is clear, literalism prevails. If a lawyer fails to know this cardinal rule, he has effectively disqualified himself from the profession on two grounds: technical incompetence and professional-ethical failure. When you see a self-proclaimed philosopher does it, then you start to understand why mooshy platitude masquerading as scholarly work is overwhelming our part of the world. And why we are the most tragic of peoples and that our tragedy is truly profound.

Fortunately, Menelik’s exquisitely terse statement (“I am not a Negro at all; I am a Caucasian”) is vividly clear and, as such, invites NO interpretation whatsoever. By taking his words literally, I think I am becoming the more faithful subject–ironically as always–than our loyalist (citizens) who read too much into the text just so they can rewrite his statement to try and salvage his image.

The guy said he is not black. Even worse, he said he is white. By so doing, he has distanced himself from blacks. By so doing, he has made it clear that Adwa is anything but a war fought for independence of the black race. That it was taken as such now (or even by the misled Haitian delegates then) is a different matter. Image created by fraud does not become a true image just because the fraudulent one got away with it.

  1. Colonial international law of the time was operating on the basis of racialized hierarchy. Menelik’s deals with the Europeans in the scramble for territory in the region was essentially a racist maneouver by an honorary white man that joined the club of ‘legitimate’, I.e., white, colonizers. In effect, he was a black colonizer of all the non-abyssinian peoples of Ethiopia. And the boundary treaties and the legacy of racialized hierarchy in Ethiopia today is still with us. The pains we live with coming from Eritrea, Ogaden, Djibouti, Nile, etc, are the results of that colonial inauguration.
  2. Adwa is not a symbol of unity for Ethiopians. Nothing was more divisive than Adwa.

A. Adwa legitimized the Italian colonization of Eritrea. My critics today blame TPLF for ceding Eritrea too easily. Menelik did it first. The TPLF are very good students of empire. They followed his footsteps. As devious as they are, even the issue of Eritrea is not their problem. Yes, they benefitted from the Eritrean complication but they only capitalized on the problem Menelik laid down for them. Eritrea is his problem child. Separation among the peoples of the northern core happened during his time.

B. The other peoples’ land and identity was alienated (from their own land and own subjectivity as collectivities) irredeemably after Adwa. Their occupation by conquest was internationally legitimized by, because of, and after Adwa. Adwa was indeed a very divisive moment. Yes, it was also the first moment of division between citizen and subject. It was the moment that defined the outer bounds of citizenship. It was a moment that putatively defined the cleavage between the core and the periphery, the citizen and the subject, the rist land and the gult land, the north and the south, the Ethiopian and his (and much less her) others. It was the moment of inauguration of state violence, looting, plunder, pillage, genocide, alienation, dispossession, and displacement right before a watching colonial-imperial world. Almost all evils of the modern Ethiopian state are rooted in the Adwa moment. This constitutive evil was subsequently (in 1931) embraced in the first codified imperial constitutional law of the country. No, Adwa isn’t a symbol of unity. If it were, it must have symbolized the unity that never was, the content-less unity that their children fetishize today seeking to impose it on peoples regardless of their expressed consent (or its absence thereof).

C. Ethiopians were more divided knowingly/consciously (at times deliberately-politically) only after Adwa. This is seen, for instance, in the differentiated land tenure system. And in the southward flow of imperial desire and in the northward movement of resources, slaves (in the past) and working labour (in the present—albeit limited owing to the unfair distribution of social opportunities and economic facilities).

A question for my feeble-minded critics: If Ethiopia was so united at Adwa, why was it that they couldn’t stand together in Maychew? Why did our huge, albeit disorganized, army went in disarray just before the real fight started? Why was there an inward war (for example with the Rayya) just before confronting the Italians? Why did some of the members of the royal family of the northern core betrayed Ethiopia and joined their next of kin in Eritrea (who, then, were under the Italian colony)? Why did we have a large number of people, from within the Abyssinian core that became collaborators of the Italians as banda? You don’t need to read anything beyond the late Hadis Alemayehu’s magnificent war memoir, TIZITA, in order to see how violently divided we were after Adwa.[5] If Ethiopia was so united at Adwa, why are we so forcing it today? Why are we fighting so hard to bring it into existence today? If we were so united, why are we even having this conversation?

  1. And yet, I for one never wanted to trivialize Adwa for these reasons. Now, I think it should be trivialized actually, if only to unsettle this closed, blind, and blinding Ethiopianist paradigm built totally on a pack of false claims. It is perfectly legitimate to do so. But I don’t trivialize it. No. I have too much at stake to do so. I have too much of a heritage to lose by trivializing it. I was arguing only for a more nuanced and thus a more accurate appraisal of Adwa. I was for a history that tells a people’s lived experience and memory of Adwa, rather than the state’s–court-centered–narration of it.

Yes, I challenge the state-nationalist orthodoxy because it is entirely a pack of ideologically motivated, racist, bigoted, phobic lie. And I will do so, if I can, rather proudly. But no, what I want to see now is a more honest, a more accurate, a more comprehensive appraisal that would aid the project of redeeming that moment. I am for an alternative interpretation, yes. I am for many, varied, differentiated, plural interpretations. I am for the social-historical meaning of Adwa. If that makes me an Oromo secessionist, so be it, although it will be an insult to my secessionist compatriots.

Lastly, what was the Oromo justice my critics were promoting when they were rewriting the old man’s statement? Was that to aid stop the Master Plan or to stop the Oromo protest? So the fact that Menelik said he is black or white makes the Oromo protest illegitimate? How does that help their campaign to silence the Oromo?

Just what was the justice they are struggling for? Tedla, of course, is not struggling for anything. He never does. He never will. As I have repeatedly said to him before, he is too non-committal ethical-politically. It takes a spine to do so. After all, he had long denounced his Ethiopian identity, when in the 1990s, he proclaimed that he was “an American by choice,” the America that seduces and eludes him, at a time, to date. The proper question therefore is: what good are his masters serving by rewriting the Menelikan conceited disavowal of blackness and claim of whiteness?

Also, Tedla had long been bragging about exposing the myth created by ‘Oromo intellectuals’ (his code word for any Oromo that’s visible in his world). I have to ask again, just what was the myth, Tedla?

I suspect he was announcing his writing of a new myth that corrects Menelik’s statement. Now we know!

To him and his masters who clap for him from behind, I say: at least be interesting. In the very least, one should be as interesting as the old man was.

Interesting or otherwise, I promise them this: I wish them well with the project of myth making which they are so adept at–which I have demonstrated here in these fragments. I also promise them that I am not interested in their myth. I have a lot bigger myth to debunk right here, right now, being propagated by the true heirs of Menelik II. Their name is EPRDF.

Oh, by the way, I still have yet to hear from any of the pack to come forward for a live debate on any media of their own choice. Having heard that Tedla was writing to various media outlets suggesting to them to deny me interviews, I have written to their own favourite media person asking for him to organize a debate for us. I have also asked other outlets to invite them for a live media debate. I hope they will stop this rumour-mongering and show up for an accountable, public, live debate so that they also learn a thing or two about ethical listening in the face of inconvenient truths.

This, then, is a fragment for the little people, who are still dancing to the chant of imperial state orthodoxy, lest they celebrate prematurely.

This article is available on PDF format:Fragments-for-the-Little-chaps


[1] Tedla Woldeyohannes, ‘Ethiopia: Dr Tsegaye Ararssa’s Caucasian Menelik and the Trivialization of Adwa’ ECADF (26 May 2016), available at: http://ecadforum.com/2016/05/26/ethiopia-dr-tsegaye-ararssas-caucasian-menelik/. The points mentioned in these fragments seek to respond to the claims, mischaracterizations of my character and motives, and interpretive errors in this article. But it is also informed by another of Tedla’s article directed exclusively at launching an ad hominem attack on me: ‘Ethiopia: Making Sense of Dr Tsegaye Ararssa’s Self-contradictions,’ ECADF (18 May 2016), available at: http://ecadforum.com/2016/05/18/ethiopia-making-sense-of-dr-tsegaye-ararssas-self-contradictions/.

[2] Harold G Marcus, The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1844-1913. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1995.

[3] Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[4] Raymond Jonas The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

[5] Haddis Alemayehu, Tizita.[Amharic] Addis Ababa: Kuraz Publishing Agency, 1985 [EC]. See also John Spencer, Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haileselassie Years.  LA, CA: Tsehay Publishers, 2006 [1984], for a detailed account of the state of affairs during and after the days of the Maychew face off during Ethiopia’s WWII, also giving us a vivid description of  the war effort, how divided our army was, the level of disaffection even among the upper echelons of power. He also gives an account of his own encounter with the Emperor (Haileselassie I) in the war front just before the Crown Council eventually decides that the emperor go on exile.