Academic journal article African Studies Review

Rethinking Property and Society in Gondärine Ethiopia

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Rethinking Property and Society in Gondärine Ethiopia

Article excerpt


The historiographic question that this article asks is: How can historians uncover actual social and economic practices without imposing anachronistic standards and terminologies on the available evidence? The analysis focuses on the relationship between landlords and zégoch-a hitherto unrecognized and socially subservient class of peasants-in the context of social, economic, and cultural realities in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ethiopia. The thesis is that during this period the Ethiopian ruling classes gained their power and income primarily from ownership of rim land-a form of private property-and the labor of zégoch.

Editors' note: An earlier version of this article was the winner of the African Studies Association's prize for the best paper presented by a graduate student at its 2007 annual meeting.

Historiographical Issues

In studies of the Ethiopian land system, most historians have argued that large sections of Ethiopian society were organized around two forms of land tenure, the technical terms for which are rist - the hereditary and "usufructuary" land right of the peasants - and gult - a unit of land held by social elites as fiefs from the king and lords, usually to honor or to compensate for administrative and military services. Inherent in these concepts are categories of social and economic relations organized in terms of the elites' limited right to the land owned by the peasantry (Hoben 1973; Crummey 2000). In the course of conducting research on landholding in Ethiopia, however, I and other scholars have discovered material that demands a re thinking of this conventional interpretation of the Ethiopian land system and, by extension, the social structure of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ethiopia. In particular, the study of land charters justifies the need to formulate new analytical units and concepts for the study of Ethiopian society and its property system by recontextualizing the agrarian literature in terms of the categories of rim - a form of private property - and zéga (pl. zégoch) - a socially subservient class of peasants. In proposing the significance of these two categories, I argue for a major rereading of the social and agrarian history of Ethiopia.

Although scholars of Ethiopia have recendy become interested in the rim form of property (e.g., Bausi et al. 2001), studies on Ethiopian landholding still seem constrained by the power of orthodox ideas and the predisposition of historians toward old categories and concepts. The significance of zégoch, for example, has not received adequate attention, and my interpretation of rim departs significandy from other models. Hence die first and central goal of this paper is to demonstrate that the social institution of zégenàt ( i.e., the zégoch condition of servitude) that was long recognized as prevalent in the province of Gojjam replicated a similar institution in other parts of Ethiopia, especially the province of Gondar in the northwest (see Mengistie 2004). The second purpose is to reflect on the land tenure traditions of northern Ethiopia, especially Gondar, based on a close analysis of the charter and land register of the church of Qwesqwam.

Unfortunately, in many ways the limited sources that we have about rim and zéga open more questions than they answer. Since it is impossible to determine the geographic scope of rim and zéga outside of the Amharicspeaking provinces of Gojjam and Gondar, the spatial unit of analysis here is northwestern Ethiopia only, where these categories make their appearance primarily in legal records. The sources under discussion also suffer from another kind of serious limitation. Although they offer us valuable insights about social categories extending from royalty to the humblest zégoch, they are decidedly biased toward the elites because of the relative obscurity of the zégoch in terms of their lived social experiences. This means that the ways in which social and legal institutions affected the lives of zégoch can hardly be known from the available data. …

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