Subject: ras chief
Culture: Amharic Ethiopian
Setting: Ethiopian empire 1868-1913
Context (Event Photos, Primary Sources, Secondary Sources, Field Notes)
* Knight/Scollins 1989 p6
"The Abyssinian army ... was most experienced at fighting in its own environment, but by nature it was feudal rather than modern. Tewodros had made some attempt to superimpose a central, imperial superstructure on the tribal nature of the kingdom, and in the more assimilated provinces his military appointees had superseded the power of the rasses; but for the most part, power resided in the chiefs, who were hereditary warlords. Each ras or chief commanded his own followers, and their support for national campaigns depended on their allegiance to the Emperor. Since they were not a standing army, Abyssinian warriors were not paid, but were expected to profit by looting, with the result that a class of warriors emerged who had enriched themselves through war, and whose continued prestige depended upon it. They were the nearest thing that Abyssinia had to professional soldiers."
* Benitez/Barbier 2000 p98
"These mostly Christian groups, the Amhara, Tigray and Oromos, have been appropriately termed the 'younger peoples of Ethiopia', while the smaller pagan groups who fled to the borderlands are considered the 'earlier peoples'. With the coming of Arab-led international slave trade, the local practice of taking slaves grew enormously in scale and further stratified Ethiopian society. Mostly in the guise of Christian conversion, Amhara pacified 'earlier peoples', confiscated their lands and conscripted them into the army. The practice of exporting them as slaves to the Middle East and even India continued unabated even though Menelik II, who ruled until his death in 1913, abolished slavery under pressure from the Europeans. The emperor himself continued the tradition of using former slaves as bodyguards or 'black warriors' in his elite heavy cavalry. He equipped them with horses, guns, shields and armour, and in return received their complete loyalty."
* Thesiger p19
"Each feudal lord was surrounded by levies from the province which he ruled. The simple fighting men were dressed in white, but the chiefs wore their full panoply of war, lion's-mane head-dresses, brilliant velvet cloaks stiff with silver and golden ornaments, long silk robes of many colours, and great curved swords. All carried shields, some embossed with silver or gilt, and many carried rifles. The Zulu impis parading before Chaka, or the dervishes drawn up to give battle in front of Omdurman, can have appeared no more barbaric than this frenzied tide of men which surged past the royal pavilion throughout the day, to the thunder of the war-drums and the blare of war-horns. This was no ceremonial review. These men had just returned after fighting desperately for their lives, and they were still wild with the excitement of those frantic hours. The blood on the clothes which they had stripped from the dead and draped round their horses was barely dry.
"No more colorful and imaginative costumes could be conceived than those traditionally worn by the Ethiopian warrior. Tewodros allowed his soldiers to wear shirts of silk, and the use of animal pelts as part of the military uniform has long been a custom. By the middle of the nineteenth century, soldiers were wearing specially cut trousers and shirts, with cartridge belt, sword belt and shield of toughened animal hide. Often the shirt was silk, and the shoulders might be covered with a sheep, goat, or wild animal pelt. Status was indicated by the amount of Gold decoration on scabbard, sword, and saddle mountings.
"Prowess in battle, indicated elsewhere in the world by medals, might be evinced in Ethiopia in a number of ways. Bracelets, earrings, and neck chains often were worn to show that the warrior had rescued a companion, killed many men, or shown unusual bravery as a hunter."
* Racinet 1988 p50
"An Abyssinian, wearing a cotton military cloak that is held in place with a black panther skin. This is decorated with a large piece of red leather in the shape of a cross and partly edged with silver. He wears cotton leggings and a wide piece of cotton is wrapped round his body."
* Knight/Scollins 1989 p8-9
"Men of rank or wealth wore a silk tunic, the kamis, which was often richly embroidered, red being a favourite base colour. Distinguished warriors wore a distinctive cope, the lembd, which was either draped around the body or worn across the shoulders. Often made of animal-hide, it hung in long panels at the front and back, decorated around the edges and over the chest with brass or silver plates. Those warriors who had proven their courage by killing a lion were allowed to wear the hair of the mane on the shoulders of the cope. A ras or chief might wear a spectacular headdress made of lion-hair and trimmed with streamers. There were no marks of rank, but a man's authority could be determined by the quality of his costume, that of chiefs being spectacularly lavish."
* Harrold/Legg 1978 p151
"The accepted dress for men is a white, long-sleeved tunic shirt worn outside long white trousers, made of linen or cotton. They also wear the shamma, sometimes with a woven border. It is draped in different ways according to the region, but the men usually have it over the right shoulder and the women over the left. The draping can also have special significance, such as when attending church, celebrations or visiting someone of high rank. On feast days, a tunic of striped silk is worn with the shamma."
* Spring 1993 p98
"[D]uring the ... period of civil wars and invasions by hostile peoples, when a large proportion of the adult male population became virtual soldiers of fortune, fine swords and elaborately decorated shields were looked upon as signs of a warrior's prowess in battle as well as of his wealth, rank and status. They were possessions to which every soldier aspired."
* Benitez/Barbier 2002 p96
"Warfare was a way of life for the Amhara court. The army was constantly either battling with Muslim and pagan lowlanders or dealing with internal political strife. They fought with large round shields, called tāfā or gãshã, made from buffalo, rhinoceros or hippopotamus hide which the shield maker stretched over a wooden mound and secured with pegs. He scraped, pounded and oiled the hide, and then, before it had completely dried, he carefully etched it with lines and embellished it with silver, gold or bronze. He attached a sturdily rolled handle to the back, providing enough space for the bearer to draw the shield all the way up to his upper arm.
"The introduction of firearms did not discourage the Amhara from manufacturing shield, which they valued for reasons that went far beyond defence. To reward valour in combat, provincial governors traditionally gave warriors shield which were embellished with silver ... or, occasionally, with lion's mane or semi-precious stones. For the Ethiopians, ownership of such objects brought social prestige. It was important that a shield should be perfectly round and exhibit high standards of metalwork. The Maria Theresa dollar, first minted in Vienna in 1751, became Ethiopia's currency in the early nineteenth century and provided the raw material for many of the beautifully decorated shields one finds in Western collections today."
* Spring 1993 p99-100
"The possession of a fine, perfectly round shield and, more significantly, the types of embellishment applied to its surface were indications not only of an Ethiopian's standing in society but of his valour on the field of battle. Shields given as marks of distinction by the Emperor to the Rases (governors) of particular provinces would often be covered in velvet and embellished with strips of silver. Towards the end of the nineteenth century gold began to be used -- an indication as much of the value of this metal in the eyes of the numerous European advisors at court as of the increasing affluence of the empire. Shields presented as favours by the Rases to their chiefs would usually be decorated with silver. However, Parkyns notes that shields embellished with brass were 'not much approved of, as they cover a bad skin: for a man possessed of a good, handsome shield would never think of thus hiding its intrinsic beauties'. As with a warrior's other arms and accoutrements, his shield, covered in a red cotton cloth, was carried on his mule when on the march. A young boy would hold his master's shield behind him when the latter was engaged in any sort of important discussions, effectively to add weight to his argument.
"Shield attachments were also significant indications of a warrior's achievements. They often took the form of a large pendant composed of several pieces of lion's mane sewn together and made to cover the central section of the shield from top to bottom and to hang some way below the lower rim. Sometimes a narrower piece of lion's mane would hang on the shield boss while to one side might be attached a lion's tail or paw mounted in clasps of decorative silverwork.
"Interestingly enough, the production of shields continued unabated in Ethiopia even though firearms were probably more widely used from an early date than in any other African country. Shields were still considered a useful accessory among the late nineteenth-century armies of Johannes IV and Menelik, despite the experience of fighting long and bitter campaigns against the Mahdist forces of the Sudan and against Egyptian and Italian armies, all of which were equipped with modern rifles as were the Ethiopians themselves.
"Undoubtedly the significance of shields extended far beyond their purely functional capabilities, though their shape and construction made them an extremely effective means of defence. The manufacture of a good shield required great skill and precision. The first stage was to cut out a piece of untreated buffalo of hippopotamus hide, then to place it over a shaped wooden mould sunk firmly in the ground. The edges of the hide were carefully stretched and secured by means of a number of pegs, thus creating the basic conical shape of the shield. Any hair on the surface would be scraped off at this stage, and the hide allowed to dry out. Then several coats of oil would be applied over a period of days, causing the hide to swell. In between coats the hide was beaten with broad-headed mallets to achieve a tough and durable consistency. The shieldmaker would then use a number of special hammers to apply the embossed designs to the surface of the hide before allowing it to dry out completely. Any metal work would also be applied while the shield was rigidly held in position. When the completed shield was removed from its mould, a looped handle of hide would be attached across the concave reverse side of the central boss. This loop would be narrow enough for the warrior to grasp with one hand when in combat, yet sufficiently large to allow him to pass the shield up his arm almost to the shoulder, a position in which the shield was carried when warriors were not engaged in hand-to-hand fighting."
* Benitez/Barbier 2000 p98
"Possession of a fine shield among the Amhara was much like owning a sword, horse or a matchlock (a turn-of-the-century musket) -- items regarded with reverence among warriors and chieftains. Shields added weight to the owner's importance and were often carried by young boys behind their masters at public meetings or gatherings. As the Ethiopian empire grew in prominence after the Amharic conquests, gold embellishment began to appear on shields, although bronze also came into use at this time."
* Knight/Scollins 1989 p9
"Shields were round, and made of hide or wood. Shields had a rather mystical significance because of their protective qualities, and they were often decorated with strips of metal on the face. Peasants would have carried plain shields, whilst those of senior warriors were covered in ornate silver or brass patterns. Sometimes strips of lion-skin were also fastened to the front of the shield."