07.- 11.06.

P 30: Questioning the Coloniality of Territory: the Case of Nineteenth Century Ethiopia



Dr. Felix Schürmann, University of Erfurt
Woldemariam Ambo Zegeye, Mekelle University/መቐለ ዩኒቨርሲቲ)



Historians tend to explain territorial rule in Africa as a political technology introduced by colonial pow-ers. This panel explores what insights the case of Ethiopia, which had not seen colonial rule until its annexation by Italy in 1936, adds to this debate.


Long Abstract

Many historians tend to explain territorial rule in Africa as a political technology introduced by colonial powers. According to this interpretation, colonial rule replaced an African model of community states (based on governing through personal relations) by a European model of territorial states (based on governing through the control of land). More recent studies, however, have pointed to continuities between pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial strategies of exercising state power, and thus raised doubts on the coloniality of territorial rule. What insights can the case of Ethiopia, which had not seen colonial rule until its annexation by Italy in 1936, add to this debate? This panel explores practices by locals as well as by external actors that underpinned notions of territoriality in Ethiopia respectively in the principalities that dominated the region during the Zemene Mesafint period (mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries): land use, affiliations with places, map-making, conceptualizing landscapes, and demarcating borders and boundaries, to name but a few.


01 Admasu Abebe: Conceptualizing Indigenous Spatial Knowledge and Boundaries in the Dawuro Kingdom, before 1889: Research on the Great Dawuro Walls (Kati Halala Kella) Omo Valley, Ethiopia

This paper focuses on local boundary and special knowledge in the 16th to 18th century Dawuro king-dom in southern Ethiopia. Specifically, I am looking at its border walls, locally known as kati Halala kella, built with three to seven rows of rounded dry stone walls as well as ditches. The walls had an estimated length of about 150 to 200 km for each row, with a sum total of more than 1000 km, each being between two and four meters high. Its seven main gateways served as the border control system. The focus of this paper lays on conceptualizing indigenous boundary organization and spatial knowledge in the Dawuro kingdom, with a special emphasis on local experiences connected to the kella system.

In Dawuro society, the border walls (kella) played a central role in processes of war and peacemak-ing, as it was understood to be not only an important defense system in times of war, but a guarantee for subsequent peace negotiations and alliances as well. The kella defensive system was carefully instituted through socio-spatial analysis of the border landscape, for example by connecting the historical route of possible crossing points (pinuwa) of the Omo River directly to gateways of the border control system. Those gateways were also built on challenging topographical landscapes such as steep hills or mountaintops to enable better defense in the case of an attack. Thereby, the kella system relied on local spatial and topographical knowledge of the landscape.

The kella also served an important socio-political and religious function in the Dawuro kingdom. The king used the border to conduct honorary receptions (Dawuro-Kafa), it was a dedicated site of meeting between kings (Dawuro-Bosha), served as a battlefield buffer zone (Dawuro-Konta) and delineated the boundaries for taxation, crossing linguistic and ethnic lines (Jimma-Dawuro). In addition, the kella was integrated into local belief systems. A guardian spirit (Mixa qolla), believed to dwell on the gates, made it into a site for religious rituals (mista-qollas yashuwa). Those rituals, if enacted properly, would protect the population inside from enemies in the physical world, as well as preventing the entry of invisible spiritual threats, which were believed to cause disease, drought, war, insecurity, infertility and other calamities. As such, the kella functioned in a variety of social, political and religious ways to enable means of interaction, exclusion and protection to Dawuro society.

Although the Dawuro kingdom had been mapped by European cartographers as early as the mid-19th century (examples of European mapping include Beke: 1843 &1850; d`Abbadie: 1890 & 1943; Borelli: 1890), thus far, the Halala kella has not garnered much attention from scholarship in modern boundary studies. This is unfortunate, since the role the kella system of border delineation played in sustaining the small Dawuro kingdom until its incorporation into greater Ethiopia in 1889 offers important insights into local spatial knowledge and practices of border regulation for boundary scholarship.

Admasu Abebe is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at Addis Ababa University, where his current research is focused on indigenous spatial knowledge in the Dawuro kingdom in southern Ethiopia.


02 Iris Schröder:  European Travelers’ Itineraries and Maps Made in Gotha, 1860s to 1880s

During the second half of the nineteenth century, a handful of European travelers crossed the North-ern Abyssinian lands, carefully noting the ways they had taken as suggested by local guides. Their respective tracks were put into written itineraries, which contained the directions taken as well as the most remarkable sites on the way: mountains ranges and hills, rivers and creeks, as well as churches and settlements – just to mention a few. These itineraries including letters and notebooks written “in the field” should come to Gotha, a hub of nineteenth century map-making in the German lands. Once in Gotha, cartographers took up the different data, trying to sort them out in order construct maps of the far-away lands that were hitherto most unknown to them. The ensuing products they constructed do mirror the many difficulties of the overall mapping endeavor. Thus, the maps often included question marks as well as other markers of overall doubtfulness and uncertainty.

In my talk, I will tackle the issue of traveling local knowledge with a special eye on boundaries and borders. Looking more closely at a series of maps made in Gotha, which drew on travelers’ geographic data and reports, I will argue that borders and boundaries played an overall prominent role in these maps, but in quite a different way from what one might expect. As I will show, the mapmakers frequently used lines that they put onto the map in order to convey some sort of structure to the respective lands they were interested in. In this vein, the travelers’ itineraries as well as rivers and mountain ranges were prominent features, indeed. However, in many cases these lines did assume a variety of different explanatory functions, as they could be taken as features separating the lands and the social and political fabric, while at the same time they could also be seen as sites of entanglements. Moreover, and secondly, I will argue, too, that the early map-makers from the 1860s to the 1880s did have a rather holistic take on the lands that they tentatively tried to map. This meant that they took into account quite different registers of information, ranging from physico-geographical data, knowledge of the flora and fauna as well as of the cultural and social fabric of the respective area. As many of the travelers, including those who stayed in the area for a longer time, had a special eye on the overall complexity of the contemporary political situation, the map-makers, too, abstained from simplifying political territorial claims for a considerable long period of time.

In the last part of my talk, I will briefly tackle a new digitization project that we started in Gotha this spring. Sponsored by the German Ministry of Education and Science, we will digitize all the maps of Africa that we are holding at the Gotha Perthes Collection in order to make them better accessible as well as better known for future research. The project will be accompanied by a scientific blog. Hence, we do invite you to follow and use the maps that give such precious written data by continuously portraying at least some of the maps we digitize. Moreover, there will be a working group which we will start in order to work on issues of political boundaries and territorialities. We do assume that there is a lot more to say on this as we have already tentatively started to do in our panel.

Iris Schröder is holding the chair of Global History and is the director of the research centre "Transcultural Studies" at the University of Erfurt, where her main areas of research are the cultural history of geography and the globalization of knowledge in the 19th century.


03 Wolbert G. C. Smidt: A Key-element for the Interpretation of Local Territorial Concepts in Ethiopia: In-teracting and Overlapping Concepts of Territoriality

This paper is based on the observation, that often territoriality in political and historical discourses both in the West and modern Ethiopia tend to be linked with ideas of exclusivity, separation and territorial unity. However, sources such as historical documentations of territorial concepts and practices (e.g. with rich and detailed data in the Perthes map collection) and local memories and "soft" practices of territoriality show (more engrained in cultural-sociopolitical land use traditions than in formal law), that Ethiopia and its historical neighbors are marked by very complex concepts of territoriality which do not correspond to modern assumptions and expectations. One element are groups with intercommunity links of different kinds, from interethnic clan-relations to religious affiliations across ethnic or provincial borders. An example for this are ancient Muslim groups who historically served as interregional bridge-makers, for example through trade and information exchange. Another element is the interaction between local groups with a high level of autonomy and traditional land right practices on the one hand and higher level state structures which create super-structures on the other hand. In the same time local territories kept a high-level of self-governance and thus also a high degree of unity of local political identities, expressed for example through ethno-linguistic identities assuring local stability. State-led territorial arrangements and re-arrangements, using modern concepts of borders and territorial exclusivity, in some cases led to contradictions between local land traditions and the imagination of territory used as a basis for modern state practice. A look into historical and anthropological sources suggest that interaction between local territorial concepts and overlapping land-affiliations were less based on borders separating closed and unified territories (linked with exclusive political structures in charge with these territories), but rather on interacting checkpoints (such as "kella", involving groups acting as interconnectors), and on tributary relations, affiliations across boundaries, and even double affiliations of territories with competing states or state leaderships, mostly based on a high degree of local autonomy. This should not lead to misunderstandings: In the same time fixed and well-defined territorial boundaries separating entities were an integral part of traditional state organisation in the region.

Wolbert G.C. Smidt is a Senior Researcher at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, working as an ethnohistorian in the Yeha Project in Tigray, Ethiopia, and in the same time is a full professor at the department of anthropology at Mekelle University, Ethiopia, as an adjunct member.

June 9 @ 14:30
14:30 — 16:00 (1h 30')

Zoom Room 2

Felix Scürmann, Woldemariam Ambo Zegeye

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