"Like Adding Water to Milk": Marriage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Ethiopia*

By Sereke-Brhan, Heran | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

"Like Adding Water to Milk": Marriage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Ethiopia*


Sereke-Brhan, Heran, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


As the Ethiopian state moved toward centralization in the latter half of the nineteenth century, struggle for ascendancy dominated the political stage vacated by the suicide of Emperor Tewodros in 1868. In the decades that followed, internal relations were characterized by shifting allegiances and opportune alliances. Power changed hands three times, from the short-lived reign of Emperor Takla-Giorgis (1868-1871), to Yohannes (1872-1889), then Menilek (1889-1913). Even while political maneuverings and conflict continued among these and other prominent figures, less visible but equally strategic negotiations took place in the form of marriage arrangements among elite families.

Although not studied extensively, marriage among notable families has often been acknowledged as an important diplomatic and political tool of the Ethiopian state. This essay documents the almost century-old presence of certain families in proximity to power, establishing their essential role in the forging of empire. The origins of a national elite, intricately connected across geographical regions and over several generations, found its genesis in these marriage networks that often provided critical continuity in the face of changing politics. In light of its particular emphasis, this article argues for a study of a social history of power, whereby attention is focused less on the institutional structure of power than on the elusive nature of how it has been sustained through social networks.

Besides lending insights into political history, elite intermarriages provide a novel opportunity to consider the position of elite Ethiopian women. Their movements in and out of marriage arrangements indicate the potential power they carried by virtue of their birthright and family placement. As pawns and participants in the political chess game, women used their own social strategy to gain influence in the courts.

Charting a social history of power through elite intermarriage also presents an indirect opportunity to reconsider issues of identity. Based mainly on a primordial understanding of ethnicity, Donald Levine's Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture has contributed greatly to framing this primordial understanding of ethnicity, Donald Levine's Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture has contributed greatly to framing this discourse. Key to his formulation is that any serious account of contemporary Ethiopia must begin with the fact of Amhara dominance.1 The contemporary politicized nature of the subject notwithstanding, conventional presumptions of Amhara "ethnicity" as the primary agent in shaping national culture deserve thorough treatment in their own right.2 For the purposes of this study, Levine serves as a useful point of contrast from which to develop an alternative approach.

Sociological theorists critical of the primordialist approach to ethnicity object to its conceptualization as inherent and unchanging. Arguing that ethnicity is constructed and cannot be assumed, they attempt to historicize the process of identity formation by examining examples of ethnic change, dissolution, immigration, and intermarriage, thus holding theory accountable to particularities of time and place.3 Although not primarily focused on ethnicity, this study shows that due to extensive intermarriage, the composition of the power elite labeled "Amhara" changed over time. By documenting who comprised Ethiopia's ruling elite, it touches upon the broader concern of whether they created an endogamous "Amhara" ethnicity identifiable as such, or alternately, if the term "Amhara" as applied to the ruling elite was a representation of "official culture."

Beyond the symbolic value of elite intermarriage or dynastic alliances lie intriguing questions that beg exploration: Did such marriages result in corresponding power sharing between regional powers, kingdoms, or polities, or did they assume complete assimilation to a center? …

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"Like Adding Water to Milk": Marriage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Ethiopia*
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