Date: Sunday 6 June, 2021
Time: 11am EST (5pm South African time)
In the late 19th century, British warships liberated two consignments of Oromo slave children in the Red Sea and took them to Aden. At Aden the children were taken to a Scottish mission at Sheikh Othman north of Aden for safe-keeping. At Sheikh Othman the missionaries interviewed the children about their experiences from cradle to the coast, using a structured set of questions and resulting in 64 rare first passage narratives. Many children died from debilitation and illness and the missionaries had to select a healthier institution for their care, well-being and education: Lovedale Institution in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. One of these Oromo children at Lovedale was Bisho Jarsa whose eldest grandson was Neville Edward Alexander, an intellectual, outspoken radical and political activist.
Background to the Oromo people in Ethiopia
In the 1880s, the East Cushitic Oromo people dwelt in a plurality of principalities situated to the south and south-west of old Abyssinia. The Oromo were united in language, religion and political culture, most notably their unique democratic system of gadaa. There had long been enmity between the Oromo people and old Abyssinia. In his pursuit of the Abyssinian imperial throne, the King of Shewa, Sahlé Mariam (later Emperor Menelik II) expropriated the lands of the Oromo and raided them for livestock and enslaved people.
With his increased territorial hegemony and the monies accrued from the profits of this slave trade, which enabled him to purchase arms, Sahlé Mariam was able to entrench himself as the most powerful figure in Abyssinia and was crowned Emperor Menelik II in 1889. Many of the children’s narratives reflect his role in their capture and enslavement. Since their effective colonisation by Menelik II, the Oromo (the largest ethnic group in modern Ethiopia) have remained marginalised as a political and economic minority.
When the Oromo children arrived at Lovedale in 1890, they were no longer enslaved, but theirs was, nonetheless, a form of forced migration.