In Memory of the Founding Generation of Academic History of Ethiopia

By Tsegaye Tegenu, PhD | February 20, 2017

The recent departure of the well-loved Ethiopian historian, Professor Richard Pankhurst provide us the opportunity to remember the efforts of professional historians who for the first time started university based history teaching and research on Ethiopia. The founders were few in number and all of them have now passed out of existence, Professor Richard Pankhurst being the last.

Upon hearing the death of Professor Taddesse Tamrat (in May 2013), Professor Donald Edward Crummey wrote a letter to Professor Bahru Zewde “There is one fewer of us now, and we were never many to start with”. On August 16, 2013, three months after he wrote the letter, Crummey passed away and the few who lived behind him soon passed away one after the other: Professor Sven Rubenson (October 2013), Professor Donald Levine (April 2015), and now Professor Richard Pankhurst (February 2017). Before that all of them were trying to overcome grief of their loved compatriots, Professor Harold Marcus (January 2003), Dr. Sergew Hable Selassie (January 2003), Dr. Zewde Gebre Sellassie (December 2008), Professor Merid Wolde Aregay (December 2008), and Professor Aleme Eshete (March 2011). Now no one left behind to tell the stories of the pioneers of academic history.

The professionalisation of history writing in Ethiopia started with the establishment of the Department of History (1962) and Institute of Ethiopian Studies (1963), at the then Haile Selassie I University (Addis Ababa University). Before that Ethiopian history was written by chroniclers, royal courts appointed officials, historians educated and drawn from monastic ranks. Even if these historians had some major characteristics of professional historiography (had already developed ideas about objectivity and truthfulness), they did not consistently reflect on their methods and theories. When writing Ethiopian history they were not at pain to attempt to scarify literary ambition, religious and political biases in favour of scientificity (for the sake of greater truthfulness and objectivity).

The methodological ground rules of professional historiography (source criticism, objectivity, archival research, the desire to consult as many primary sources and the use of auxiliary sciences) were introduced in teaching and research by Prof. Sven Rubenson, Prof. Donald Crummey, Prof. Merid Wolde Aregay, and Prof. Taddesse Tamrat, among others. These historians served as department head of history and director of IES at different points in time. They introduced their university based training to establish training and research programs at Addis Ababa University. Prof. Sven Rubenson had his training from University of Lund (which share its historiographical tradition from University of G├Âttingen), Prof. Donald Crummey, Prof. Merid Wolde Aregay, and Prof. Taddesse Tamrat from School of Africana and Oriental Studies ( SOAS), and Prof. Richard Pankhurst from London School of Economics.

It is beyond the scope of this memorial tribute to present a descriptive and factual account of their struggle in establishing professional academic and scholarly history writing on Ethiopia. All of them dedicated their resources and time in researching the various periods and geographical and thematic areas of Ethiopia, training students, building research capacities, funding documentation system and graduate programs.

Greatest works of the founders include

Aleme Eshete (1982), The Cultural Situation in Socialist Ethiopia. Paris. UNESCO.

Crummey, Donald (1972), Priests & Politicians: Protestant & Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia (1830-1868). Oxford

Levine, Donald (1974), Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. London.

Marcus, Harold (1985), The life and times of Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1844-1913. Oxford.

Merid Wolde Aregay (1971), Southern Ethiopia and the Christian Kingdom, 1508-1708. SOAS.

Pankhurst, Richard (1968), Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935. Addis Ababa.

Rubenson, Sven (1976), The survival of Ethiopian independence. London

Sergew Hable Selassie (1972), Ancient and medieval Ethiopian history to 1270. Addis Ababa.

Taddesse Tamrat (1972), Church and State in Ethiopia: 1270 – 1527. Oxford.

Zewde Gebre Sellassie (1975), Yohannes IV of Ethiopia: A Political Biography. Oxford

University based history teaching and research in Ethiopia has now over five decade tradition. The founders has set in motion a scientific method and approach in historical research and teaching, which amounts almost a revolution in the Ethiopian historiography. We all take immense pride in their scholarly achievements, and extend our sincere gratitude and appreciation for all of their hard work and devotion to the Ethiopian people.

Tsegaye Tegenu, PhD

Senior lecturer

Department of Social and Economic Geography

Uppsala University