The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Gambella Enclave

Stephen Bell

published 1988


Want of opportunity, not of interest, had prevented me from visiting the westernmost reaches of Ethiopia in earlier wanderings around the country. When I returned to Addis Ababa in late 1984 for the conference of Ethiopian studies, the opportunity arrived. I boarded the weekly flight, via Jimma, to Gambella, former enclave of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan on the Baro river almost 400 miles to the west. The 'plane was a DC-3 Dakota, the sturdy but spartan workhorse still flying the world's more obscure air routes.

The view from the window was an instant and spectacular lesson in the contorted topography of Ethiopia. First the densely cultivated plateau at 8,000 ft, clusters of stockaded tukuls amid patchworks of fields and eucalyptus groves. Then the highlands tumbled westwards towards the fringes of the Nile valley, and there came a vast pristine wilderness of swamps, ravines and jungle-clad ranges knotted together in long-ago convulsions of the earth's crust, where an occasional hill-top clearing and a thin wisp of smoke curling high into the sky evinced the presence of man. And then the diminishing hills and their ever sparser tree cover yielded to an uneven plain, all yellows and browns, of scrub, elephant grass and rock outcrops, the hot lowlands of the Nilotic Anyuaa and Nuer tribes. The Baro river, a serpentine swathe of contrasting verdure, came into view and the 'plane lost height rapidly. The fierce heat of mid-day caught my breath as I walked onto the airstrip at Gambella.

In its time the Gambella enclave, 60 miles within Ethiopia at the highest upstream point of the Baro's navigability (in the wet season), was surely one of the oddest outposts ever to fly the Union Jack (Note 1).

The Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 15th May 1902, which delimited the Ethio-Sudanese boundary, provided the legal basis for the enclave existence. Under Article IV, Emperor Minilik allowed "His Britannic Majesty's Government and the Government of the Soudan to select in the neighbourhood of Ita on the Baro River, a block of territory having a river frontage of not more than 2,000 metres, in area not exceeding 40 hectares, which shall be leased to the Government of the Soudan, to be administered and occupied as a commercial station, so long as the Soudan is under the Anglo-Egyptian Government. It is agreed between the two High Contracting Parties that the territory so leased shall not be used for any military or political purpose."

In a wider context, Articles III and V of the Treaty reflected two major concerns of British policy in the region at the time, and attracted considerably greater international interest than Article IV. Security of the Ethiopian headwaters of the Nile, an abiding British preoccupation, was provided for under Article III, whereby Minilik undertook "not to construct or allow to be constructed" any impediment to the flow of the waters of Lake Tana and the Baro river into the Sudan. Article V allowed the construction of a railway through Ethiopian territory to link Uganda with the Sudan. This truncated version of Cecil Rhodes's earlier vision could thus bypass the swamps of southern Sudan (Note 2). The impetus for Article IV was the mutual interest of both parties in fostering a thriving trade between the peoples on either side of the frontier, thereby enhancing the prospects for peaceful control over a potentially turbulent border region.

But the British interest extended beyond a desire to administer conveniently and cheaply the Anyuaa and Nuer on the Sudanese side of the newly-agreed frontier. The enclave became a pivotal element in an evolving grand design for the region which, as one of its objectives, envisaged the new Baro steamer route binding the fertile upland regions of western Ethiopia (where coffee grew wild) into economic dependence upon neighbouring Sudan, opening up the potential of their agricultural and suspected mineral wealth to exploitation by British monopoly capital. Ever more ambitious were the hopes of the British legation in Addis Ababa that the new route would develop into Ethiopia's main trading link with the outside world, pre-empting the commercial supremacy that appeared to have been promised to France with the concession for the railway from the Red Sea coast to Addis Ababa, the new capital (Note 3). British hopes were to be frustrated on both these counts, and a consistent theme in the enclave's early history is the yawning gap between aspiration and fulfilment.

The first step in the implementation of Article IV scarcely augured well for a flourishing future. In January 1904 a site was chosen at Itang (in pursuance of the specific wording of the Article), only to flood when the Baro river rose in the rainy season six months later. The enclave's next location, 30 miles upstream at the junction of the river and the Jajjaba ravine (forming its eastern boundary), was significantly closer to its hinterland (Note 4). It was to remain here until its restoration to Ethiopia 52 years later, under the charge of the Sudan customs department until 1919, when it was transferred to the Upper Nile province and administered by a district commissioner (Note 5).

With hindsight, the British expectations of Gambella's commercial potential seem unrealistic. Why did this particular manifestation of the new British-dominated capitalist world order, in a remote and little-known corner of the African interior, fall so far short of these expectations? The answer is contained in a long catalogue of interrelated seasonal, economic and political factors, most of them unforeseen when the formulation of British policy in the Horn of Africa first embraced the idea of the trading enclave. Let us consider some of them (Note 6). In the first instance, the potential of the trading post was limited by the fact that the main artery of the new trade route, the Baro river, could only be used by steamers for five months of the year at the most, between June and November (Note 7). In some years, as in 1914, when the highland rains fell at well below normal levels, the "open" season could be restricted to a mere three months. Nor, even when the steamers were able to operate up to Gambella, did they provide a particularly swift service. At best, the 880 mile upstream journey from Khartoum took eleven days. Coal being unavailable in the Sudan, the steamers stopped frequently, sometimes for a whole day, while their crews scoured the land beyond the river banks in search of suitable wood for fuel (Note 8).

In the "closed" season, therefore, the enclave was effectively cut off from the Sudan, and the search for some means of communication throughout the year was a matter to tax many minds in the Sudan administration. An intermittent postal link existed between Gambella and the Sudanese town of Nasser, carried by Anyuaa runners who had to pass through territory of the Nuer, their ancestral enemies. A regular caravan route from Gambella to Macher, a village downstream open to year-round navigation, was not deemed feasible since, to avoid the malaria-infested riverine swamps to the west, a wide detour would be necessary through unadministered, and therefore uncontrollable, regions. Two ambitious proposals - the dredging of the Baro, and a railway alongside the river to a point of permanent navigability downstream - were rejected, unsurprisingly, on grounds of cost (Note 9).

If Gambella's links with the Sudan were discontinuous, particularly in the dry season, what of those eastwards with the highlands that were the very raison d'être of the enclave? Though beset by considerable problems, these could at least function all through the year. A temperamental telephone connection with Addis Ababa was put in place before the First World War, and mail destined for Europe in the closed season was carried by a weekly runner service to the highland town of Gore, linked in turn by another runner service to the capital (Note 10). But the difference in altitude of several thousand feet between the high hinterland and the hot malarial lowlands around Gambella presented particularly formidable obstacles to the movement of trade between the two. Not least were the almost precipitous escarpments separating them; and the tsetse fly of the lowlands prevented highland mule transport from bringing the harvested coffee crop down to Gambella, an arduous task accomplished only by human porters until the late 1920's, when a road suitable for lorry traffic linked the enclave with Gore. Additionally, there was the irony that the highland rains, while making Gambella accessible to the Sudan, at the very same time sharply curtailed the movement of trade within and from the highlands upon which the enclave depended. As for the trade in imported manufactured produce (principally American cotton goods), an inhibiting factor all through the year was the tendency of local rulers to impose their own arbitrary tolls between Gambella and the highland markets. On top of the official customs levies at Gambella (shared equally between the Ethiopian and Sudan governments), these could inflate prices to well beyond those of equivalent goods in Addis Ababa imported via the Red Sea coast (Note 11). Within the enclave itself, its isolated location and the seasonal changes in the level of the Baro river stifled economic activity, particularly the turnover of capital. With too few Maria Theresa dollars in circulation and without access to credit, traders risked bankruptcy when shipment to their markets was unavailable for at least seven months of the year (Note 12).

Some five years after its inception, the enclave's unpromising financial record, added to the financial burden of its maintenance, encouraged a mood in Khartoum in favour of its closure. But the wider political priorities of the Foreign Office overrode the doubts of officials within the impecunious Sudan administration. The Foreign Office professed optimism in the future of Gambella as the entrepot of western Ethiopia's external trade; and it further argued for a continued British presence at the trading post as a necessary centre of influence during the dismemberment of Ethiopia that was expected to follow the death of the aged Emperor Minilik. For the same reasons, a withdrawal, undermining British prestige in the region, would be at the expense of any moves that might be contemplated towards incorporating western Ethiopia into the Sudan.

It happened meanwhile that, to a cautious extent, the growth in Gambella's trade justified the Foreign Office's optimistic outlook. From £17,120 (Egyptian) in 1906, its value almost quadrupled to £66,264 (Egyptian) in 1911 when, for the first time, customs dues more than covered the Sudan government's expenses in the maintenance of the trading post. It soon established itself as the main channel for Ethio-Sudanese trade, its share, which varied at between 65% and 70%, surpassing by far the historic routes well to the north, through Kurmuk and Matamma; in the period before the Italian invasion, the value of the Gambella trade peaked at £335,990 (Egyptian) in 1925, thereafter to decline over the following decade. Insofar as Gambella's proportion of Ethiopia's total foreign trade is concerned, this was to average at around 17% by the mid 1930's, compared with 75% for the Djibouti route (Note 13).

In hand with Gambella's improving prospects went important capital improvements to its port facilities, carried out over the period from just before to just after the First World War. A quay, served by a crane and a Decauville light railway, and commodious warehouses for storage of produce during the closed season lined the river-front; and a growing number of Greek and Syrian merchants, trading in particular in coffee, cloth, ivory and beeswax, set up business in the enclave.

But ambiguities in the legal status of the enclave were recurring causes of Anglo-Ethiopian friction through this period. Apart from its unclarified northern and western boundaries (Note 14), the Sudan government was uncertain of the extent of its own judicial powers within the enclave. And what, moreover, constituted a "military or political purpose"? In this context it is worth referring briefly to two separate episodes, the appearance of a gunboat at Gambella and the affair of the wireless station, both of which highlighted diverging British and Ethiopian interpretations of the wording of Article IV of the Treaty.

In 1913, at a time of anti-government Anyuaa unrest in the region, the consul requested the presence of a gunboat in case of possible attack. The gunboat arrived from the Sudan, allegedly with Ethiopian consent, but if this consent had been received as Walker, the consul, claimed, news of it had not reached the Ethiopian authorities at Gambella. Fitawrari Walda Maryam, the official in command of the Ethiopian post at Gambella, wrote thus to Walker before the gunboat withdrew:

"You told me before that the ship of war was coming to Gambella and I said that it could not come without permission and I warned you. Now not even 60 soldiers may come without permission and I order this in the name of Menelik and Lij Iyasu. The station of Gambella was for merchants, not soldiers." (Note 15).

In 1915, a newly constructed wireless station connected Gambella with the Sudanese telegraph system for the first time. The outbreak of war the year before had impressed upon the British government the need for a means of swift communication with its legation in Addis Ababa independent of the Italian telegraph system through Asmara that it then depended upon. In response to an Ethiopian charge that its installation was a unilateral British act in violation of Ethiopia's sovereignty, Thesiger, the British minister in Addis Ababa, replied that this was not disallowed by the Treaty of 1902 "for commercial purposes"; he added that the increased volume of trade through the enclave had made imperative a swift and efficient means of communication with the Sudan. Lij Bayana, minister of posts and telegraphs, opposed the installation of the wireless station, interpreting this as a political act in violation of the 1902 Treaty; he further doubted whether the Gambella trade had increased so spectacularly as to warrant it (Note 16). The pro-British faction included the president of the council of ministers, Bitwadad Hayla Giyorgis, and the war minister, Fitawrari Habta Giyorgis. The German legation, suspected by Thesiger of influencing the opposition of Lij Bayana, stated in a formal protest to the Ethiopian government that it would regard permission for the wireless station as "an unfriendly act". The full and somewhat complex story of this affair cannot be told here (Note 17). Its upshot was that the wireless station remained in Gambella on the understanding that the Sudan government was committed, whenever asked, to selling its apparatus to the Ethiopian government, who would pay the salaries of the staff that the Sudan government declared itself willing to supply. The affair of the wireless station was to rest there.

The failure in the early 1920's of two major ventures of British capital in Ethiopia, the Abyssinian Corporation and the Abyssinian Development Syndicate, dampened British expectations of a bonanza in undertaking the development of Gambella's hinterland. The new mood was acknowledged in the notorious Anglo-Italian Agreement of 1925, which provoked an immediate Ethiopian protest to the League of Nations:

"In the event of His Majesty's Government, with the valued assistance of the Italian Government, obtaining from the Abyssinian Government the desired concession on Lake Tana, they are also prepared to recognise an exclusive Italian economic interest in the west of Abyssinia and in the whole territory to be crossed by the above-mentioned railway" (Note 18).

Over ensuing years, as the Gambella hinterland came to be included within the interpretation of "an exclusive Italian economic interest in the west of Abyssinia", the British government withdrew official support for any of its nationals seeking investment opportunities in western Ethiopia lest its partner in the Agreement might be offended.

The enclave, unmentioned in the Agreement, was to endure, to ever vocal Italian dissatisfaction, beyond the invasion of 1935-36. The economic policies of the new occupation regime discriminated against the foreign concerns and individual foreign merchants that had traded in Ethiopia before the invasion, driving many into insolvency or out of the country altogether. This was accomplished largely through the imposition of stringent export and currency regulations favouring the businesses of Italian nationals and the large para-statal trading corporations, such as the Societa Anonima Navigazione Eritrea (SANE) and the Societa Nazionale d'Etiopia (SNE), both with agencies at Gambella, which had established themselves in Ethiopia hard on the heels of the invading armies. Throughout the occupation period, Gambella remained the main entrepot of trade with the Sudan, but the impact of Italian policy on its pioneer traders was ruinous. In October 1937 the consul at Gambella, Jack Maurice (of whom more later), reported on recent measures that had come into effect and stated that prices at which commodities entering the enclave could be bought had been set by edict at a low rate:

"If any non-Italian offered more in order to attract trade he was liable to a fine. The Italian firms SANE and SNE consistently offered more and no action was taken against them. Coffee, etc, could at that time still come into the Enclave directly for sale. That has now been stopped. All Gallas who wish to bring their coffee direct into the Enclave are stopped before they enter. They have to report to the Italian Customs where they are informed that they must only sell to SANE or SNE. To ensure that they do they have to report on their return from the Enclave with a receipt from either of these two firms. So we have now arrived at the somewhat humiliating position that the only firms doing any export trade in a Sudan Government Enclave are both Italian".

The movement of goods out of the enclave was to decline sharply in volume, doubtless almost entirely in consequence of the Italian monopoly of Ethiopia's export trade and the effective constraints upon any significant commercial activity by other nationals. The Annual Report for Gambella of 1938 records that, compared with 1937, the export of coffee (in bags of 150 rottle) fell from 23,347 to 18,784, cloth bales from 2,076 to 1,751 and, more spectacularly, general merchandise (packets) from 159,731 to 16,012 (Note 19).

Italian seizure of the enclave followed immediately upon Mussolini's entry into the war in June 1940. Nine months later, in March 1941, a combined Belgian colonial and British Commonwealth force wrested it back in battle. Fifteen years later, the Sudan was independent and, in accordance with the 1902 Treaty, the lease expired.

The Baro river trade route atrophied years ago. I was told that the last of the old Sudan steamers had sailed out of Gambella for ever in the early 1960's. Much of such Ethio-Sudanese trade as there is nowadays, if not air cargo, is carried by lorry across the frontier far to the north, close to the traditional routes usurped by Gambella in its heyday.

One of the enclave's officials is particularly remembered to this day by Gambella's older residents, even after more than 40 years: Jack Maurice, a consul here both before and after the enclave's brief Italian occupation. A tall, gangling man, he had, according to war correspondent George Steer, "emerged unscathed from the battle between mosquitoes and alcohol for the possession of his blood" (Note 20). The generosity of his hospitality was as legendary as his ability to remain unaffected by vast quantities of drink; he could drink a party off their chairs and under the table at one place and do the same somewhere else in the course of a single evening. When Italy entered the war, I heard, he was forewarned of orders for his arrest by Captain Praga, commanding the Italian military post across the Jajjaba ravine, and escaped by dugout canoe downstream to the Sudan. I was shown his bungalow. Above a doorway, in faded paint, was an appropriate greeting: "Bide Awhile". In the garden, the graves of his favourite horse and dog were marked by inscribed concrete slabs.

Many of the buildings of the enclave remain to this day. Most are appropriated to other uses or are abandoned. The twin masts of the once controversial wireless station, although long disused, are still in place. They are about 100 ft tall and a prominent feature of the Gambella skyline. The austere but attractive building alongside, which housed the receiving and transmitting apparatus, is now a government office. Only one of the warehouses on the water-front, a solid red-brick structure, is in good repair and retains a storage function. Others still stand, roofless monuments to the shifting patterns of commerce. Through the collapsed wall of one of them I saw ancient rusting machinery choked by luxuriant jungle, a shady haunt of lizards and exotic butterflies.

The quay, still with its bollards, is solidly built. It is hard to envisage the hustle and bustle of a busy port in this peaceful spot, pleasantly shaded by enormous mango trees planted 60 years ago. I was here in December when, half a century ago, the river would have been closed to the enclave's seasonal navigation for a month. Its level had already fallen dramatically and, separated from the distant waterline by a steep expanse of dried mud, the quayside gave something of the appearance of a beached whale (Note 21).

From the quayside it is sometimes possible to glimpse crocodiles out in the mid-stream or on the far bank. A quarter hour's walk downriver brought me to a vantage point from where I saw many more, and from much closer, basking motionless in unblinking menace on rocks and sandbanks. A once prolific but now threatened species still thrives in a natural habitat close to man. Haute couture and the handbag industry are far away (Note 22).

The enclave's history is etched on the gravestones of its old and overgrown cemetery 400 yards north of the river. Most of those not lost to view under impenetrable thorn belong to the long-gone Greek and Syrian communities, once the backbone of the Gambella trade. I saw a fragment of a marble headstone entangled in briars; it belonged to the grave of Major-General Sir William Gatacre, a divisional commander in the Boer War and veteran of earlier campaigns in Burma, the North-West Frontier and the Sudan, who died of fever in 1906 while hunting elephant near here. Another grave, marked by an iron pedestal and a low iron railing, the rusty epitaph still distinct, belongs to W G Dawson, superintendent of customs who died at Gambella in 1916, aged 31. Nearby, cracked and almost swallowed by the ground, is the recumbent headstone of Lieutenant H Lambrecht of the Belgian colonial force that fought at Gambella in 1941. A little to the north, beyond the other graves and on the edge of a group of Anyuaa dwellings, a crumbling memorial bears a scarcely decipherable inscription commemorating the soldiers and porters of that same force who died during the long journey from the Belgian Congo or in the battle for Gambella. In front, a concrete stump marks where a flagpole once stood.

Gambella stirs to life in the early evening. Fishermen in search of Nile perch row out to mid-river in slender dugout canoes. Bathers congregate down in the shallow water where the Jajjaba creek, now almost dry, joins the main stream. A light breeze lifts off the water and carries the faint fragrance of newly-lit fires. The river gleams orange under the sinking sun as the far bank darkens. The cicadas strike up a strident chorus. A tranquil glimpse of immemorial Africa, where Europe has never intruded. It is as if the Gambella enclave might never have been (Note 23).

 

Notes:

1 A technicality: the Egyptian flag flew alongside the British flag at Gambella since the trading post was an enclave of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. The Condominium Agreement of 1899 provided for dual British and Egyptian sovereignty over the Sudan, which did not comprise a formal part of the British empire. It was nevertheless a territory as much under direct British rule as most others within the empire, and the senior ranks of the Sudan government were filled by Britons while Egyptian participation was limited to some of the subordinate administrative posts.
2 Gambella was presumably seen not only as a trading post, but also as a station on this railway (which never came to be built).
3 Construction had already started on this railway from the French port of Djibouti on the Red Sea, but its progress was delayed by financial and political setbacks and it did not finally reach Addis Ababa until 1917.
4 A twin settlement grew up around the Ethiopian customs post on the eastern side of the Jajjaba ravine. It seems that the northern and western boundaries of the enclave were never delineated. The southern boundary was, of course, the river.
5 Throughout the duration of the enclave, the British official appointed from Khartoum to oversee its day-to-day administration was commonly, if confusingly, referred to as a consul. In this I have followed suit. Consuls posted elsewhere in Ethiopia at various times between 1900 and 1950 (in the south and the west, for example, at Dangila, Gore, Maji, and Mega) were responsible to the British legation in Addis Ababa rather than, as at Gambella, to the administration of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
6 Nothing more than a cursory discussion of the origins and subsequent development of the Gambella enclave is attempted here, For its history up to the Italian invasion, see Dr Bahru Zewde: "Relations between Ethiopia and the Sudan on the Western Ethiopian Frontier, 1898-1935" (Ph D Thesis, University of London, 1976). I found this to be an exhaustive and invaluable study. Unfortunately there is no similar study of the period beyond: the Italian occupation and the 15 years between the liberation and the return of the enclave to Ethiopia.
7 The steamers had a draught of 3 - 3½ ft.
8 The downstream voyage took a week. The steamers were operated by Sudan Government Railways, who eventually provided a service of twice-monthly sailings between Khartoum and Gambella in the open season.
9 A light launch was later to be introduced for postal service, and in 1915 a wireless station linked Gambella with the Sudan.
10 A letter from Gambella reached London in 37 days by this route. The Sudanese steamers provided a rather faster service in the open season.
11 To the dissatisfaction of progressive Ethiopians, governors in this region were unsalaried officials appointed from Addis Ababa and expected to fend for themselves.
12 This problem was eased when a branch of the British-controlled Bank of Abyssinia was opened in Gore in 1912, and a sub-agency in Gambella offered credit against goods to be sold in the forthcoming open season (and meanwhile stored in a new warehouse on the river-front).
13 A figure to comment eloquently on the unrealistic British hopes of the enclave's future as Ethiopia's principal route for external trade.
14 See, for example, note 17 below.
15 Bahru Zewde: op. cit., p 136.
16 Here Lij Bayana was more correct than Thesiger. At this moment, the Gambella trade had in fact declined since 1911, the first year of the enclave's solvency.
17 Bahru Zewde: op. cit. A separate point of issue, to be lost sight of in the general debate, was the claim of Ethiopian officials in Gambella that the stone to build the wireless station had been quarried from a hill beyond the northern boundary of the enclave without Ethiopian permission.
18 The railway referred to here was one that Italy wished to construct which, passing west of the terminal of the French line at Addis Ababa, would link her colonies in Somaliland and Eritrea. The "desired concession on Lake Tana" refers to a dam that the Lancashire cotton industry considered imperative for the expansion of the Gezira cotton scheme in the Sudan. Neither project materialised.
19 For this information on the Italian economic assault on the enclave, see Dr Richard Pankhurst: "A Chapter in Ethiopia's Commercial History: Developments during the Fascist Occupation, 1936-41", Ethiopia Observer XIV I (1971).
20 G L Steer: "Sealed and Delivered" (London, 1942), p 49.
21 The seasonal variation between high and low water at Gambella is around 23 ft.
22 Wildlife of the larger varieties is still abundant around Gambella. There are colonies of hippopotamus in the river, and herds of elephant roam the nearby country.
23 The future will bring change to Gambella. The Baro river is now spanned by an impressive road-bridge and there are plans for the expansion of the town. A large irrigation project is underway nearby with Russian aid. As for the immediate present and its pressing political problems, the refugees from the civil war in southern Sudan have crossed the border and are sheltered in a large UNHCR camp downstream at Itang.

First published as an Occasional Paper in 1988

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