Negadras Gebrehiwot Baykedagn
from "Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia"
By Prof. Bahru Zewde
Often times, contemporary Ethiopian politicians and mercenary historians attribute the backwardness of Ethiopia to the feudal systems of its government and leaders. Although there is truth to this, nothing had been said about Ethiopian intellectuals who, while serving in the Ethiopian governments of Emperors Tewodros, Yohannes, Menelik and Haile Selassie, struggled to bring about meaningful political and social changes in the country. The struggle and work of those intellectuals are glossed over and forgotten whereas the life of the kings and queens are glorified.
As part of our quest to find and emulate exemplary leaders of change, it is fitting to learn about the lives and contributions of Ethiopia's men of letters and agents of change. Earlier in the year Prof. Aleme Eshete shared with us the life time contributions of the late Dr. Sergew HableSelassie. Thanks to Prof. Bahru Zewde's work we are now able to learn about the lives of "The Reformist Intellectuals of the early Twentieth Century." One among a series of such intellectuals was Neggadras Gabra-Hewat Baykadan. Neggadras Gabra-Hewat Baykadan was among beneficiaries of Western
education who came to occupy important positions in both Emperors Menelik and Haile Selassie's governments. The following brief history of Neggadras Gabra-Hewat is adopted from Prof. Bahru Zewde's book, "Pioneers of Change in Ethiopia." His picture is in the attachment.
The most celebrated of the early twentieth-century intellectuals, Gabra-Hewyat Baykadan led a life that has perhaps been the least documented. His lifespan was also one of the shortest, lasting barely 33 years. He was born on 30 July 1886 in the village of May Mesham in the district of Adwa. His father, Shaqa Baykadan, was in the service of Emperor Yohannes and died with the emperor at the Battle of Matamma on 9 March 1889. The early 1890s were a period of exceptional turbulence in Tegray, where the political disintegration and psychological void created by the death of the emperor, the
ravage of one of the longest and most devastating famines the country had ever known, and the depredations that attended Menelik's campaign of 1890 to assert his new imperial authority, all combined to produce great instability.
was in these circumstances that Gabra-Hewat fled with some other companions to
Eritrea at the age of seven. According to Richard Caulk, Gabra-Hewat joined
Swedish mission school at Menkullu, on the mainland off Massawa. A trip to the port of Massawa that he subsequently made with his friends was to change decisively the course of his life. Gabra-Hewat and his friends got permission from the captain of a German ship
docked there to go aboard and look around. When time came for the ship's departure, Gabra-Hewat stowed away. When the captain eventually discovered his 'guest', it was too late to do anything. On arrival at the destination, he entrusted the young boy to a rich Austrian family, which adopted him. Under the benevolent patronage of his Austrian sponsors, Gabra-Hewat learnt the German language, and is said to have gone on to study medicine at Berlin University. After completing his studies in Germany, he returned to his country. In the Ethiopian court, he had the good fortune of winning the friendship of Dejjach Yeggazu BeHabte, who assigned someone to teach Gabra-Hewat Amharic. After seven months of studious application, he was able to master the language to such a degree that he was to emerge as one of the finest writers of Amharic prose. It was also Dajjach Yeggazu, along with Naggadras Hayla-Giyorgis, who recommended Gabra-Hewat to Menilk.
Gabra-Hewat was reportedly made private secretary and interpreter to the emperor. Apparently in his capacity as interpreter, he also accompanied an official mission to Germany led by Dajjach Mashasha Warqe in the summer of 1907. As in the case of Hakim Warenah and the British, the illness of Emperor Menilek lent him some
diplomatic utility to the German government. He was attached to the German doctor Steinkuhler, and detailed to treat the ailing emperor and thereby promote the fortunes of German diplomacy. Again, like Warqenah, Gabra-Hewat failed to win the confidence of Taytu, who reportedly forbade him to touch the invalid. The acrimony that subsequently developed between the empress and the German doctor, who provoked the controversy about the poisoning of the ailing emperor, could only have reflected badly on his Ethiopian associate. In the potent article "Ate Menilek-na Ityopya', there is an allusion to
the German minister, Dr. Zintgraff, and his interpreter instigating the nobility against Taytu's ambitious designs on the throne. It was probably under these circumstances that he chose to exile himself to the neighboring British colony of the Sudan sometime in November 1909.
Gabra-Heywat fell critically ill on his return from the Sudan and was hospitalized in Massawa. As the brief preamble suggests, it was apparently while he was convalescing--and not, as Tegabe claims, while in the Sudan that he wrote 'Ate Menilek-na Ityopya'. In the preamble the author pays a glowing tribute to his lifelong friend, Pawlos Manamano, to whom, next to God, he says, he owed his life. Pawlos was to render Gabra-Hewat an equally worthy service a few years later when he published posthumously his major work, a treatise on political economy, Mangest-na Ya Hezb Astadadar.
are two things are worthy of note here. The first is how his sojourn in the
Sudan, and much earlier in Eritrea, impressed him deeply and forced him to
contrast the backwardness of his country with the progress he believes to have
been achieved in the two colonies. As he writes: (Translation from the Amharic
version) "If we look around our neighboring countries, we see intelligent
people developing them with diligence. In particular, if we look at the Sudan,
which had been ravaged by the Dervishes, we realize how a desert can be
transformed into a Garden of Eden when ruled by such intelligent people like
the British. All around us colonies are marching ahead undeterred by any
obstacles. For intelligence can only be checked by intelligence. Woe, then to
a people that persists in its ignorance, for it is ultimately bound to
The second point to note is Gabra-Heywat's balanced appraisal of Empress Taytu, despite all that he had endured at her hands. The major fault that he finds in her otherwise illustrious career is her attempt to disrupt Iyyasu's succession to Meilek, not the hard time she gave him and fellow intellectuals like Afwarq and Gabru. As the last paragraph of the article makes clear, 'Ate Meilek-na Ityopya' was addressed to Iyyasu, the heir to the throne. Disappointed by Menilek as a modernizing monarch, Gabra-Hewat apparently
pinned his hopes on the young prince. He was soon to be disillusioned, as Iyyasu failed to
demonstrate the resolution and consistency necessary for the social and economic change that Gabra-Hewat and his fellow intellectuals recommended. Like Takla-Hwaryat, Gabra-Hewat had no choice but to shift his hopes and his allegiance to another young prince, Tafari Makonnen, the future Haile Selassie. And after Tafari became heir to the throne in September 1916 Gabra-Hewat started to occupy major administrative posts, as inspector of the Addis Abab-Djibout railway in 1916 and Naggadras of Dire Dawa in 1917. He died on 1 July 1919.