02 October 2007

Crime & Punishment:
"They Deprived Them of Their Hands"

By Karen Mercury

Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia (1818-1868) was a most difficult despot to write about. I studied him in depth for over a year and felt I'd come to know him, yet I was still strangely on the fence about him. As writers know, there are always grey areas to "evil" people--no one is ever completely black or white. Tewodros changed with the moon.

What is certain is that he was insane by our standards now, and that he decimated his beloved country, but that was not his intent. He was without doubt one of the greatest rulers of all time, possessed of a brilliant military mind, brutally enigmatic.

So I wrote:

Tewodros was tireless in business, sleeping only a few hours each night, and he was strangely polite and charming when glad. He was a dashing ruler, invoking great love and adoration in his people when he wished, but all trembled when his ire was raised. In his early years he had shown clemency toward the vanquished, wishing them to be his friends, requesting nothing from them other than arms for his soldiers. He had been free from greed and generous to a fault. Like Peter the Great, he was a king of kings, overflowing with military idealism, a lover of the mechanical arts, possessed of unbounded courage. Yet when his beloved first wife who accompanied him on all campaigns had died, and he had tired of the endless rebellions always springing up around him, he changed. He took greatly to drink and began exacting revenge upon his enemies in equal part. He burned men, and deprived them of their hands and feet for the slightest insurrection.
He achieved "The Long March" with his followers and army against the greatest of all odds, hauling armament his white slaves had built for him (the first ruler in Africa not to rely on foreign armament, he built his own foundries), up to his mountaintop fortress of Magdala, where he made his last stand against the invading British Army, because he'd found it necessary to imprison several dozen white missionaries. It took a few years for word to get back to Whitehall (Tewodros didn't allow anyone to write letters), and the expedition to be mounted. One of the prisoners, the Reverend Henry Aaron Stern, was imprisoned for putting his hand to his mouth. Placing your hand against your mouth was not a kosher thing to do in Abyssinia--or around Tewodros.

Yes, indeed, Stern wrote a captivating and engrossing edition entitled Wanderings Among the Falashas. He published it back in England, and had the sincere naïveté to return to Abyssinia afterwards. Tewodros said "I've had enough of your Bibles" and had him chained, claiming that he was calumniated in the book. He nearly killed him, merely for putting a hand to his face to suppress horror at seeing his two servants beaten to death.
I loved Stern so much, I based a major character on him. Missionaries are usually good for that sort of thing!

Of course, along the way, I formulated my own ideas about "Ted," as I came to fondly call him. I worked hand in hand with Sir Dr Richard Pankhurst (yes, the son of Sylvia) who was at the time busily erecting a statue of Ted in Addis Ababa. I was very worried that he might find my portrayal on his idol perhaps a bit too harsh, but he never said a word to me about that. I came to believe that Tewodros had what we now call "abandonment issues" and was highly mortified that he was the son of a prostitute and, much like Phil Spector, held guns to the heads of people who tried to leave him.

"You’re a good friend of the Emperor. Why is he so fickle and unstable? Why does he imprison so many people who only mean to help?"

Delphine knew this would be a complex question, but even she was surprised at the thoughtful manner in which the Captain laid his pipe on the windowsill, then bore down on both palms to lean out the window and regard Lake Tzana. The silver cumulus clouds that raced over Gondar's valley cast mutating shadows on his excruciatingly handsome face, forming craggier depths to the half-moon scar on his left cheekbone. "Tewodros's spirit does not lie easy with him, Miss. He wishes to keep everyone close to him, for it's his deepest fear to be abandoned. He wants Europe, and most of all England to love him, and so he keeps making overtures that he interprets as being rebuffed. If he imprisons everyone, they can never leave, and so he'll never have to be alone."

"He's insane," Delphine said quietly.

Standing erect, Ravinger looked down at her. "Perhaps. But isn't it in everyone's nature to want to be loved? And do we not go to great lengths to achieve that?"

"But...we don't imprison those we expect love from, Captain."
His last stand on Magdala was doomed from the start, and I'm sure he knew that. He wanted to show the world that an African ruler could build a country without the help of Europeans, and that he did. But as a military ruler, he found he couldn't control the different districts of the country that were swiftly becoming disillusioned with his particular brand of justice--his army needed food, yet Tewodros had 10,000 head of cattle shot because a prophet told him their lives would signify the end of an emperor.

She was soon in a horrifying clearing. The prison stables stood to her left, and a sheer drop of some three thousand feet occupied the entire right. Tewodros stood over a youth of about thirteen, his talwar already lubricious with blood, his face disfigured by rage. Delphine raced forward, her garments tripping her. She landed on her knees next to the squirming body of a man who had been hacked apart by Tewodros's sword.

"Tewodros! Why do you do this? Why do you try him? You told me you were benevolent, and would let them go!"

"Do these people think they can oblige me to strike off their chains? Now they cry and moan for food, when I do not even have enough food to give my devoted soldiers!"

He evidently recognized her, but he was so distorted with anger, he was in an entirely different sphere altogether.

Delphine's hands slapped together in prayer. "What has this boy done? How could he have possibly--"

"He is the son of a man who took liberties with a concubine!" Tewodros shrieked, his hair all in unseemly disarray.

"But then you must kill the man who did that, not the son!"

She saw only sky then, for she was wrenched from her kneeling in the mud, her limbs were jerked about, and she was hauled back into a buttery cocoon of men's limbs. She shook her head to clear it of phosphenes, and she was staring into the bug-eyed visage of Kaspar Nagel, who agitated her rudely.

"Mein Gott, woman, will you never cease your unhelpful ravings? Leave the Emperor be! He is the only one who can pass judgment and carry out the sentencing!"

"But that poor boy is only the son of a man who had eyes for one of--" She turned to gesture where Tewodros had stood, only to view the enraged monarch toss the flailing boy over the edge of the cliff. The boy hovered for a moment suspended on the breeze, a black figure cut from a block of wood with no features or defining marks. Then he was gone.

General pandemonium broke out now, the prisoners yet waiting in the queue to have their fetters struck suddenly changing their minds and trying to flee back inside the stables. The inmates still inside prevented their access by pushing to get out, as they had not witnessed Tewodros's acts of murder. Soldiers in the audience who thus far had numbered among the perfectly free, innocent, and liberated also turned and made tracks in a disorderly fashion toward the peaks of Selassie and Fahla, as though in his mania Tewodros might select random victims from among the general populace.

"Do you see? See what he’s doing, Kaspar? Not an hour ago, he promised me he was freeing everyone! Now he’s throwing little boys over the--there's another one! What has that man done?"

Kaspar wouldn’t answer, and wrestled with her arms as though determined to throw her to the ground and sit on her, so she beseeched a nearby man, "What has that man done?"

"He loaded a musket for the Emperor, and it misfired."

"Misfired!" That fellow went sailing over the cliff's edge.

The crime of the next man, who had been a valet to the Emperor, was of daring to laugh with a royal body-guard. He was swiftly dispatched. And because the water wells were situated at the base of that cliff and some of the victims fell into the water, thus not arriving in the properly deceased mode, Tewodros sent musketeers to finish them off, blasting away ruthlessly in a neat line on the cliff like so many architectural crenellations.
Are things better now in Ethiopia? I had to snail mail chapters to Dr. Pankhurst at his university in Addis, because computer systems were so dodgy there, and he's very old and can't read the computer screen very well. Once, I didn't hear from him for 2 months, and I read there was a huge uprising at the University, with students shot and jailed. In the end, I found that I loved Ted, and probably would've followed him to Magdala, too.

Ravi leaned against the red stone arch and looked out at the pool. "He does now say that Europeans are wanting in sincerity, ill-mannered and ill-tempered. But it’s only because he had the highest expectations of us. You have to understand, I came here ten years ago. Things were different then. According to the apocalyptic work Fikkare Iyesus, Christ would himself bring Tewodros to power after a long period of corruption, perversity and lawlessness, of the rule of imposters and corrupt Rases. That was the Zemene Mesafint. During Tewodros's reign, the wrath of God would be averted and blessings and mercy bestowed upon the faithful."

"Oh, yes. Don’t they all say that, at first?"

"He exhorted the farmer to plough and the trader to trade. He urged thieves and shifta to quit their robbery. Wronged people were invited to appeal, the destitute to approach him as their father. He took it seriously, devoting several hours a day to hearing plaintiffs. He also abolished the custom that kinsmen of a murderer or even someone who’d caused an accidental death had to answer with their lives."


"He risked the clergy's wrath by booting all the big fish, saying that each church should have land sufficient to feed only two priests and three deacons, giving their lands to farmers. He's an educated man, Delphine, raised in a convent. He puts some of our countrymen to shame in his knowledge of Shakespeare--he can certainly out-quote me, though I've never had a warm and friendly relationship with that behemoth."
In the words of Reverend Henry Aaron Stern: "Abyssinia is the only nation in Central Africa bearing the name of Christian, and now, alas, notorious for vice, that may yet become famous for 'whatsoever is honest, lovely, and of good report.'"