Excerpted From: Takele Merid and Alexander Meckelburg, Abolitionist Decrees in Ethiopia: the Evolution of Anti-slavery Legal Strategies from Menilek to Haile Selassie, 1889-1942, 42 Law and History Review 97 (February, 2024) (66 Footnotes) (Full Document)

MeridMeckelburg.jpgCustomary laws of slave-holding societies across Ethiopian history determined how members of these societies used the labor of enslaved peoples and regulated their status. Analyzing these legal traditions highlights the cultural norms and ideologies of enslavement and may provide insights into the nature of slave-holding regimes in Ethiopian history. No coherent overview of different customary approaches to slave holding (including questions of property, inheritance, and manumission) and the roles, functions, statutes of slaves in various Ethiopian societies exists as of now. Outside Islamic traditions observed in Ethiopia, which adhered to Quranic legal regulations, and Christian Orthodox traditions, which are the primary focus of this article, customary laws were predominantly conveyed orally. Only a limited number of these customs were documented in writing by foreign and domestic administrators and researchers.

The emerging Ethiopian state was primarily composed of Christian societies such as the Amhara and Tegregna. These, along with their allies, were themselves slave-holding societies. Their rulers derived economic benefits from taxing the slave caravans that passed through their territories along trade routes spanning northern Ethiopia, the Red Sea, and Sudan. These Orthodox societies relied on an early written text of codified law. The Fetha nagast regulated, among other civil and legal matters, slavery and manumission practices since the fifteenth century.

During the mid-1870s to ca. 1900, the kingdom of Shewa, led by King (later, Emperor) Menilek, embarked on a significant territorial expansion. This expansion played a pivotal role in shaping the contemporary political boundaries of Ethiopia. As these newly conquered regions were integrated into the Ethiopian domain, the emerging center of authority in Addis Ababa assumed administrative control. In parallel with this territorial shift, Ethiopia underwent a transformative process. It evolved from a collection of diverse societies where slavery was customarily regulated, to a society where slavery became regulated under a common Christian legal code. The Fetha nagast hence provided the customary subtext for a legal system in transformation. The Christian law remained a point of reference for the modernization of the legal sector well into the twentieth century. By the 1950s, a Codification Commission convened legal experts from Ethiopia, Europe, and America to establish a new penal system. On the interplay between Western and Ethiopian legal traditions, Haile Selassie, in his opening remarks delivered before the Commission, emphasized, “the point of departure must remain the genius of the Ethiopian legal tradition and institutions which have origins of unparalleled antiquity and contiguity.”

Yet, scholars are divided on the impact of this legal change on the overall legal history of Ethiopia. One view downplays its influence claiming that it mattered primarily to Christian elites who could access sources in the Ge'ez language, often inaccessible to many non-Christian. We argue that Christian law strongly shaped pro-slavery and anti-slavery ideology. Legal pluralism and multiple, sometimes overlapping regulations remained influential at different times and in different places. We regard the Fetha nagast as a legal tradition, with Thomas Duve, transporting fundamental “modes of normativity other than those that resulted in the (Western) modern state.”

The resilience of slavery in Ethiopia, despite official efforts to abolish it, is conventionally explained by the inability of Ethiopian rulers to exert power and authority across the entire territory, or by the impact of international pressure and the interplay of modernization and conservatism. Most studies on slavery have traditionally centered on British and Italian deliberations on the subject and the documentation produced by the League of Nations. Nevertheless, these studies often overlook the Ethiopian perspective, particularly in relation to internal political factors, ideological considerations, and conceptualizations of slavery. Additionally, a systematic analysis of the legal frameworks of slavery in Ethiopia is yet to be done.

This article contributes to addressing these gaps by examining the Fetha nagast's changing influence on the development of Ethiopia's national antislavery legislation over the period 1889-1942. The Fetha nagast served a dual purpose in Ethiopian society. On one hand, it regulated the treatment of slaves, effectively sanctioning the practice of slavery, while on the other hand, it delineated the rights and responsibilities of slave owners. These dual functions highlight how slavery became institutionalized and legitimized in Ethiopia. Simultaneously, by enforcing manumission and allowing it to take root in Christian society, the Fetha nagast also laid the groundwork for the eventual process of abolition in Ethiopia. A legal-historical perspective on the question of slavery and anti-slavery offers valuable insights into the coexistence of these opposing forces during Ethiopia's pursuit of nationhood. The Fetha nagast, steeped in Christian ethics, viewed both slavery and manumission as integral components of a broader moral framework.

In the ensuing sections, we will review selected anti-slavery laws, closely examining the texts and contexts of consecutive edicts enacted between 1889 and 1942. We focus on four consecutive proclamations beginning with the 1906 edict by Emperor Menilek, followed by the 1923 and 1924 laws passed under the government of Empress Zawditu, and Ras Tafari as well as the final proclamation of 1942. Our analysis explores how these proclamations related to the principles of the ancient Christian legal code, providing a nuanced understanding of the evolution of slavery-related laws in Ethiopia. After all, these laws highlight “forms of knowledge, ( ... ) constructed in discourses whose rules of formation bear the imprint of social structure.” Thus, a close reading of the laws can help us understand ideological, cultural, and political dynamics in the context of rising anti-slavery mobilization in Ethiopia.

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From the 1920s, the League of Nations promoted a new approach to antislavery in which an international body and ad-hoc committee held individual empires accountable for enforcing their anti-slavery legislation. This had many consequences worldwide. In the Ethiopian context, it imposed a profound rethinking of the acceptability of slavery itself. The Christian ethic of manumission was mobilized in the 1924 edict, to encourage the freeing of slaves though religious institutions and the provision of education and training to freed slaves. And although domestic slavery was not challenged, these ideals encouraged various actors in civil society and the government to emancipate their slaves. This could happen while normative ideals continued to conform to the principles of the Fetha nagast. Until 1930, the institution of slavery itself remained undisputed. For example, in the Penal Code of 1930, slaves were still expected to render what was due to their master's children. The edicts addressed themselves to the slaver owner, who was encouraged to free those enslaved to him.

But the resilience of slavery and the slave trade in Ethiopia was hotly debated both internally and internationally: had Ethiopia reached the same level of civilization as Europe? The answer to this question hinged on whether Ethiopia's authorities could, or could not, prove the efficacy of their antislavery policies. While Haile Selassie was seeking to demonstrate such efficacy, the international public opinion and Italy's imperialism temporarily imposed their negative answer to this question. The failure of the League of Nations to protect Ethiopia, one of its member states, left the country vulnerable to Italian occupation, which proposed its own answers to the slavery question. Following the end of the Italian colonial regime, Haile Selassie's 1942 law finally abolished slavery in Ethiopia. A new normative approach toward slavery had replaced the old slavery ethics of the Fetha nagast.

Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and

Takele Merid Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia<This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>.

Department of History, University College London, London, UK Corresponding author: Alexander Meckelburg; Email: alexander.meckelburg @ucl.ac.uk

Alexander Meckelburg Research Fellow, History Department, UCL London, London, UK<This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>