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Dejazmach Subagadis Woldu: Governor of Tigray and Prince of Ethiopia

 

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                                              May 15, 2019


Subagadis (also spelled as Sabagadis and/or Sibagadis) was born in 1780 (with his baptismal name Zemenfes Qudus) to the Royal House of Agame in the Adigrat/Azeba town circles of the Ganta Afeshum district of Agame sub-province of the Tigray Regional State. Subagadis comes from a long dynastic genealogy of the Royal House of Agame that was founded and established by King Seme II (Dagmawi Seme) in the 1600s. I have affixed the title king to Seme following a labeling theory that justifiably describes his behavior and his deeds as the founder of an incipient state in Agame. King Seme is the son of Werede-Mihret Jirate Qechin1 originally from Lasta, and members of the dynasty are in right order, as shown below:

 

Werede_Mihret

    

Seme II (Dagmawi)

         

Awsebo

         

Shifare

         

Kinfat

         

Sebhat

         

Shum Agame Kumelit

         

Shum Agame Woldu

         

Dejazmach Subagadis

 

According to Ethiopian tradition and as shown in the above dynastic line, seven generations are counted in order to arrange marriage relationships with other family members outside one’s own extended family units. All Subagadis’ father, grandfather, and great grandfathers were Tigrigna speakers, but because his name is of Irob/Saho origin (“Suba” means victory and “Gadis” by force or coercion) some pseudo historians assumed that Subagadis was a Saho; in fact, as stated in Wikipedia, “Dejazmach Subagadis was the son of the Hasaballa Irob chief Shum Agame Woldu Kumelit…2     Shum Agame Woldu, the father of Subagadis, however, was not simply the chief of ‘Hasaballa’; he was also the governor of the entire Agame Awraja (sub-province of Tigray) and governing from his center at Adigrat; moreover, Shum Agame Woldu belongs to the original home of the Royal House of Agame at Azeba, in the Ganta Afe Shum area that surrounds Adigrat. Before the rise of Adigrat as the center-stage for the foundation of a mini-state and subsequently the royal establishment, Werede Mihret actually settled in the Tsira-Desaa area of Kilte-Awlaelo sub province, which was part of greater Agame. However, due to interactions, mingling, and marriages between various ethnic groups such as the Tigray, Agaw, Afar etc before and after the Kingdom of Aksum, it is not surprising that there were a sizable Agaw enlisted and serving in the Aksumite military; and it is not also surprising that following Aksum, the Zagwe Dynasty of the Agaw in Lasta inherited Aksumite heritage in all its facets including architecture; again it is not surprising that Werede Mihret, the son of Jirate Qechin came from the Lasta area and settled in the Kilte-Awlaelo and Agame areas. It is almost like detouring and making full circle for Werede Mihret to come back to the land of his ancestors.    

 

Despite the above facts with respect to identity issues, however, Subagadis was very much connected with the Irob people and there is no doubt that the Irob and Tigrigna speakers of Agame share a dual heritage from either side and syncretic culture that bounds them together, and due to this fact, at one point when Subagadis ascended to power in 1818 and consolidated political authority in 1822, he first ascertained his power base through his dynastic line and later sought legitimacy from the Irob people whose modus operandi was democratic; hence, he had to be elected by the Saho-speaking peoples’ council. Subagadis was elected unanimously by the Irob and this was a great victory (Suba) for him, because he would not resort to employing coercion (Gadis). In the Tigrigna-speaking area of Agame, Subagadis had no problem in regards to state power due to his inheritance of power from his father, as is the case in monarchic systems. Interestingly, Subagadis was the only governor of Tigray and prince of Ethiopia who enjoyed ascribed and achieved statuses at the same time; ascribed for inheriting power and achieved for being elected democratically by the Irob.

 

Subagadis and his ancestors, including Dagmawi Seme who later relocated to the Aiga area in Adi Irob, spoke Tigrigna but they also learned how to speak Saho but this does not make them to be Irob. This fact is substantiated by Abba Tesfai Medhin in his book entitled The History of the Irob People, in which he argues that the origin of the Irob is from Tigray proper and more so from the central highlands of Agame; he further argues that the original language of Seme was Tigrigna. Moreover, the Saho language of the Irob is an admixture of Saho and Tigrigna and it is not entirely Saho as is the case in the Saho (Asawrta) of Eritrea.2a

 

Dejazmach (henceforth Degezmati in Tigrigna) Subagadis was married to Embeytey (Lady) Tishal Gebremeskel of Areza, Seraye (present-day Eritrea) and begot fifteen children, ten boys and five girls and their names are: Degezmati Hagos3, Degezmati Kahsay, Degezmati Wolde-Michael, Degezmati Guangul, Shum Agame Aregawi, Shum Agame Sebhat, Degezmati Bariagabir, Degezmati Woldeselassie, Degezmati Fenta, Weizero Wuba, Weizero Birchiqo, Weizero Gibtsit, Weizero Brur, Weizero Tslat.4 All fifteen children are not from the same mother, Tishal; Subagadis himself had close to twenty-seven siblings, but although his mother Embeytey Wolete-Giorgis was the chief wife of his father Shum Agame Woldu, the latter must have had several wives to begot more than two dozens of children. By the same token, one of the sons of Subagadis, Shum Agame Sebhat, was born from Weizero Letebrhan of Shumezana, Akele-Guzai (in present-day Eritrea).

 

Subagadis belongs to the Zemene Mesafint or Era of Princess (1769-1855), a period in which Ethiopia was divided into regions ruled by local lords, but all of them aspired to become emperors of Ethiopia and were not as such interested in confining themselves to their respective regions. Furthermore, the princes strongly believed that the king was symbol of Ethiopian unity and cannot be dethroned by any power, although the status of the monarch during the Era of Princess was one of subservience and/or acquiescence to the contending lords.

 

The contending princes were mainly from Tigray, Gondar, Gojjam, Wollo, and to some extent from Shewa; the latter’s lords administered their local region during the Era of Princess, but they were not directly involved in the fierce competition for state power against the other lords. The first prince who consolidated power over Tigray in 1748 was Ras Michael-Suhul and two decades later he expanded his dominion to Gondar and relocated to that city where the relatively weak emperor resides; after ruling for almost four decades, he was followed by Ras Woldeselassie (1736-1816), who governed Tigray from his center at Cheleqot/Hintalo.

 

Subagadis gathered momentum in his home district and rebelled against Ras Woldeselassie, but the latter had a huge force and he campaigned in the Agame area to subdue the recalcitrant rebel; quite obviously, Subagadis was no match to the forces of Woldeselassie and he sought refuge at the monastery of Gunda Gunde. Ultimately, however, Woldeselassie could not easily get the submission of Subagadis and he recognized him as the governor of Agame in 1810. A year later, not only did Subagadis consolidate over Agame, but he also managed to enjoy full support from his subordinates in Adwa, Shire, Akele-Guzai, and Hamassien.

 

Ras Woldeselassie died in 1816 and Subagadis quickly overrun the whole of Tigray, and by 1822 he was recognized by the people as the sole lord of Tgray. In order to further consolidate power beyond Tigray, Subagadis tactfully established alliances with Dejazmach Wube HaileMariam of Semien, Wagshum Kinfe of Lasta, and Dejazmach Goshu Zewde of Gojjam. The main objective of the alliance was to systematically isolate and if possible eliminate Ras Mariye Gugsa of Gondar, his main foe and contender.

 

Before Subagadis was seriously engaged in the competition for power with the various princes, he strongly believed that firearms would effectively decide the outcome of a battle, and for this reason, in an effort to amass as much weapons as possible he established diplomatic relations with the European leaders, mainly with the British; and he was successful in this regard. By the 1820s standard, Tigray under Subagadis became a formidable region with latest guns, trained fighters, and matchlock men vanguards

 

Subagadis, now confident with his latest firearms and by far superior guns compared to those acquired by other contending princes, he was ready to attack Ras Mariye Gugsa along with his Yejju forces. However, Subagadis’ fate will be sealed at the Battle of Debre Abai by the River Tekezze, in which he lost the battle to the Mariye’s forces and ultimately executed by his enemies; nonetheless Mariye too was killed by Degezmati Hagos (Meda Tsebebo) and both contending princes died only to leave a smooth road to power to the ambitious Dejach Wube who later became the governor of Tigray. The defeat and loss of Subagadis was attributed to the following main factors:

 

1.    Long before the Battle of Debre Abai, Subagadis was betrayed by some of his confidants including Degezmati Gebremichael, Hanta Gebru, Degezmati Sahlu of Haramat (Kilte Belesa); and Dejach Wube, who incidentally was the son-in-law of Subagadis

2.    Subagadis underestimated the forces of Ras Mariye; he thought he was going to subdue his foe by the firearms he acquired, but on the contrary his own forces were overwhelmed by the sheer number of his enemy forces;

3.    Subagadis made a strategic mistake by advancing to the turf of his enemy instead of waiting for Ras Mariye’s forces to come to mainland Tigray, in which case he would have had a chance to sustain the fight and get support from the local peasants; legend has it that Subagadis was told by his advisors not to advance toward the Tekezze and rather wait until his fighting forces gather more momentum, but he apparently ignored their advice.

4.    Subagadis entered the battle before he made military arrangements with his allies mentioned above, and he simply headed toward the battle zone without mobilizing all his forces in Tigray, Akele-guzai, Seryae, and Hamassien  

 

Subagadis was one of the brilliant and visionary leaders of the Zemene Mesafint (Era of Princes); he was a charismatic leader and a fine diplomat and made good relations with fellow Ethiopian aristocratic leaders of his time and European statesmen alike; he especially had established ties with the British in order to secure Massawa as port of Ethiopia and the Red Sea as outlet to the rest of the world; and in an effort to effectively control Massawa and its vicinity, he arranged marriage relationship with the Naib aristocrats of Hirgigo (greater Massawa). Similarly, in order to control the Semien-Gondar area, he established relations with Weizero Yewibdar and begot a child from her; by employing such clever and astute relations, he ensured that under his rule Tigray proper was from Massawa in the east to Semien/Gondar in the west; and to the south up to Alwaha Milash (in present-day Wollo around Woldia) and to the north present-day Eritrea including Akel-Guzai, Seryae, and Hamassien.

 

In Tigray, Subagadis’ sisters greatly contributed in cementing unity and solidifying the political base of their brother by marrying aristocrats of their own measure. For instance, Weizero Senbetu entered into Aiba, not far from Hawzien; Weizero Tsebela went to Guhalat/Haramat; Weizero Brur married and moved to Aide’oor; and Weizero Tabetu married Degezmati Dimtsu of Enderta, lived at Feleg Da’ero and out of the marriage relationship she begot Ras Araya and Weizero Silas. Tabetu was married again to Shum Tembien Baymot, but her daughter Silas was married to Shum Tembien Mirach and gave birth to Kassa Mircha, future Emperor Yohannes of Ethiopia. The last, but not least, sister of Sunagadis, Weizero Hadero was married to Ato Amha of Ag’udi. The marriages of these women was made by design, but they too, in turn and by default, constructed a formidable connective tissue that played a major role during the heyday of the Zemene Mesafint. 

 

Subagadis was also in consultation with Coffin and Salt, British diplomats and travelers, for more effective relations with the European powers; in this regard, he had a distinct advantage vis-à-vis his opponents not only in terms of obtaining matchlock muskets but also recognition as the prince of Ethiopia by the Europeans.

 

Subagadis was humble and down to earth; he was conferring aristocratic titles such as Ras (Amharic) or Raesi (Tigrigna), the highest title in the Ethiopian nobility ladder; a title just below the ‘king’. However, he maintained ‘Degezmati’, a title below Raesi for himself when even his subordinates obtained higher titles; he was a man of justice and at one point known as ‘friend of the poor people’ not only in Tigray but throughout Ethiopia where the other princes governed. Subagadis was also known for his achievements in finding cities such as Atsbi, Endaselassie, and Adwa. The latter town was initially planned out by Raesi Andehaimanot but the real architect of Adwa was Subagadis, and by the time he consolidated power, he made Adwa the business capital for all Ethiopia while Adigrat retained its status as the political center. On top of conducting business and trade at Adwa, however, Subagadis also used the city for ceremonial purposes such as rewarding local dignitaries and/or appointing governors (e.g. the Bahri Negash of present-day Eritrea) of districts and provinces; the newly appointed officials were granted, among other things, the famous Ethiopian aristocratic shirt known as Qemis in Amharic and Qemish in Tigrigna (in most instances, a robe made out of silk) and an embroidered cape made out wool or cotton. The Qemish should not be confused with its present usage to mean loose garment or women’s skirts.

 

On top of finding administrative and economic centers in Tigray, Subagadis as a pious Christian and staunch supporter of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church constructed churches at Adigrat (Qirqos and Medhane Alem), Atsbi (Silassie or Trinity), and Adwa (Medhane Alem); the Medhane Alem (Redeemer of the World) at Adwa built by Subagadis is still serving the local Christian congregation; he was also patron of the Gunda Gunde monastery in Irob, Agame, where his remains were laid to rest following his death at the Battle of Debre Abbay.

 

Nature was also in favor of Subagadis during his reign of thirteen years because of sufficient rainfall and abundant crops everywhere. Oral tradition has it that Subagadis was praised and loved by his people in his dominion, and with respect to abundant crops, as documented in my debut book (1995), the following Tigrigna song was popular all over Tigray and present-day Eritrea:

 

                             ንኣንጭዋ ግብሪ ሃብዋ

                             ንኣንጭዋ ግብሪ ሃብዋ

                             ሱባጋድስ ሊኢኹዋ

 

Roughly translated, it means:

 

                             Pay Tribute to the mouse

                             Pay tribute to her,

                             She is Subagadis’ harbinger5     

 

As already stated above, Subagadis unequivocally claimed the Red Sea as the sovereign territorial waters of Ethiopia, and as beautifully captured by Ato Belai Gidey, Subagadis said, “Because this sea is our throat, we must diligently defend it from any enemy encroachment; and when I die bury me on the shores of the sea, and if you can’t place my remains facing towards the sea.” 6

 

Subagadis, popularly known as Abba Gerai by his horse name, ruled his dominion with rules and regulations based on the ancient Ethiopian Fetha Biher (“Justice of the Nation”), and as a result the people revered and loved him, and it is for this apparent reason, when he was killed at the hands of Mariye forces, the whole of Gondar, Gojjam, Wollo, Tigray, and present-day Eritrea cried for him. This is not surprising because he was governor of Tigray and prince of Ethiopia, and history has affixed to his reign, “the golden age of Tigray”.7 Subagadis has become an embodiment of the Tigrayan psyche and is always remembered on social events including weddings and major holidays; the famous Ethiopian honey wine or mead is associated with his name; in fact to this day the people in Tigray metaphorically address the mead as መሴ መሴ ናይ ሱባጋድስ Mesie Mesie nay Subagadisye, meaning the Mies or honey wine is of Subagadis. Incidentally, the best Ethiopian honey wine is to be found in Adigrat and its vicinity. On top of the wine obsession and grandeur associated with Subagadis, his persona is depicted positively by local traditional singers and recited by oral history narratives. His name lives on as if his ghost refuses to die and rather enjoys the everlasting presence on his behalf!!

 

Notes

 

1.    Gebreyesus Abay, መሰረት ዓሌት ህዝቢ መረብ ምላሽ (Origins of the Peoples of Eritrea)

2.    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabagadis_Woldu

2a. Abba Tesfai Medhin,  History of Irob People https://irrob.org/tarik-irob-by-abba-tesfai-medhin

3.    The nickname of Degiat Hagos, son of Subagadis, was ሜዳ ፀበቦ (Mieda Tsebebo) and in Tigrigna, it literally means “the plain field is inadequate for him”

4.    The list of Subagadis’ genealogy was compiled by Mulu Berhan Asefa, who lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, but two men including Ato Hailu and Ato Suba are missing from my own family tree chart that I reconstructed via research.

5.    Ghelawdewos Araia, ETHIOPIA: The Political Economy of Transition, University Press of America, 1995, p. 4

6.    Belai Gidey Amha, አክሱም አዲስ አበባ፡ ኢትዮጵያ፡ 1995, pp. 156-168

7.    For further information on Subagadis, his sons and grandsons, see also Tale of Agame (ወግዒ ዓጋመ) at www.africanidea.org/Tale_of_Agame.pdf  compiled by Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia

 

 

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