Did you know Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II was the first African to drive a car in 1907?

Mildred Europa Taylor Jun 9, 2020 at 04:00pm

June 09, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

June 09, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History

Menelik II began adopting European industrial technology and modernity before becoming the first African to drive a car in 1907. Photo: amhara kings

Reigning from 1889 to his death in 1913, Emperor Menelik II is known for his territorial expansion and creation of modern Ethiopia. Most notably, he is remembered for leading Ethiopian troops in a decisive victory at the Battle of Adwa against forces of fascist Italy. Successfully defeating the Italian forces, this became the first victory by an African country over a colonial power.

This later strengthened Ethiopia in its diplomatic relations with other European powers as sources say more and more westerners started to travel to Ethiopia looking for a trade, mineral exploration concessions, farming, and hunting. And it was during this period that cars were taking to the roads in Europe.

In Ethiopia, Menelik II had also begun adopting European industrial technology and modernity; he would found the first modern bank in his country and introduce the first modern postal system, telephone and telegraph.

In the 1890s, he negotiated the construction of a railroad to his capital, Addis Ababa. The railroad construction from Djibouti, then a colony of French Somaliland, started in 1894 but work halted in 1902 following rivalry between the French and British partners. What is more, Menelik II had suspicions of the European investors, according to the book African History through Sources.

Amid the rivalries and suspicions, Menelik II, who had acquired European products like watches, guns and phonographs, made it known that he was interested in a car; this was in 1907. When Europeans got word of it, they began challenging themselves as to who would be the first to satisfy the wish.

Bede Bentley, a British veteran of the South African war and the occupation of Somali rose to the challenge. Holding discussions with managers of the Armstrong Siddley company, they agreed to provide Bentley with an eighteen-horsepower vehicle, which he shipped to Djibouti before driving it through the mountains and desert to Addis Ababa.

It took Bentley and his team including a mechanic, Somali interpreter and a brindled bulldog seven months to make the trip. Already struggling with heat, sand, thirst, wild beasts and starvation, the team also had to face off with natives who did not want foreign machines to ruin their caravan trade. Thanks to the armed escort provided by the Ethiopian army, and caravans that gave them basic necessities, they finally arrived in Ethiopia to the joy of Menelik II.

The team presented the automobile gift to the emperor in the courtyards, a significant moment that brought out the court and its European emissaries. Menelik II, in an “enormous clergyman’s hat” and “black robes of rich silk set off with red,” inspected the automobile before Bentley chauffeured him over the good roads that had already been constructed around the capital. Sometimes going at top speeds, the emperor timed the journeys with his watch. An account states that at a point, the Lion of Judah took the wheel himself for the first time. 

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Menelik II inspecting the vehicle

These rides did not begin without an “ordeal”, though. As the 1913 book To Menelik in a Motor-Car stated, before the King of Kings went for his ride, Bentley gave a short lecture as to the working of the automobile with Menelik II paying rapt attention. Right after the explanation, he remarked through his interpreter, Hohler: “Yes, yes. He does not look like an anarchist who has come all this way to kill me; and the machine does not seem so very dangerous, as I have been told.”

“I have been told almost daily for the past month, that the moment I sat in the car I should be blown up. When I said I thought that was foolish, for those in the car would be blown up with me, I was told that perhaps, instead of blowing me up, I should be driven over a precipice, and that those who drove the car had practiced jumping off at the last moment,” the 62-year-old said while assuring Bentley that he did not think he looked like one who could do any of those things.

To see the car in action, two members of the court were chosen; they were taken to the marketplace place and back, about two miles off. Throughout the trip, they “clutched nervously at the sides of the car and at each other absolutely speechless from fright,” according to the 1913 book by Clifford Hale.

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Photo: Pinterest

But Menelik II did the exact opposite when he sat beside the chauffeur Reginald Wells for his drive. As was the custom, he was escorted by an army of soldiers, both cavalry and infantry but they were soon left behind.

“The old man had much sounder nerves than his Ministers, for, as the speed increased, he began to laugh like a boy, and was soon urging Wells to go faster and faster,” the 1913 book writes.

“Wells, nothing loath, responded with full-speed ahead, and presently they were flying along on top speed, for Wells, watching the august presence beside him with one eye, to see how much he could stand, gradually let the car out to full throttle, and the old Emperor sat laughing and puffing for breath, with his goggleless eyes streaming, as happy as a schoolboy, while the now galloping escort was left somewhere on the horizon.”

Eventually becoming the first African to drive a car, it would take years, somewhere in the 1920s, for lorries to become common in Africa, especially in Senegal where they were used to transport groundnuts to the railway.

By the 1930s, records say some wealthy individuals, particularly in West Africa and East Africa, began driving cars even before properly surfaced roads became common in the 1950s. 

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