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Dossier Erythrée

Discussing ethnohistory: The Blin between periphery and international politics in the 19th century

Wolbert G.C. Smidt


Les pays frontaliers sont souvent soumis à des tensions en tous genres et peuvent être considérées comme des laboratoires pour des nouveaux projets politiques ou culturels. Le pays du peuple Blin, situé au centre-nord de l’Érythrée actuelle, en est un parfait exemple, tout particulièrement entre les années 1840 et les années 1880. À l’origine, ce pays était paisible du fait de son isolement, et la vie politique s’organisait de façon autonome, avec un minimum d’interventions extérieures. L’intrusion de l’Égypte, en 1840, dans la région adjacente du Taka, au Soudan, changea la donne. Dans les années 1850 des « brokers » de tous pays – religieux, comme des missionnaires catholiques, ainsi qu’académiques-explorateurs, comme des orientalistes – apparurent dans la région, immédiatement suivis des représentants de l’impérialisme occidental: les vice consuls britanniques et franc,ais du port de Massaoua. À la même époque l’Ethiopie réunie essaya de regagner son influence perdue sur ses régions frontalières et notamment la province de Hamasen, dont les Blins du Bogos étaient traditionnellement les vassaux. L’expansion de l’Egypte au Soudan avait pour conséquence des raids violents et récurrents sur le territoire des Blins, ce qui donna l’occasion aux consuls et missionnaires – et leurs collaborateurs académiques concernés – d’intervenir, de déclarer le peuple Blin sous leur protection, et de libérer des femmes et des hommes Blins qui vivaient sous le joug de l’esclavage. Les orientalistes, les missionnaires et les consuls apparurent aux Blins comme les vecteurs d’une seule et même idée: l’inclusion des Blins dans une sphère d’influence européenne. Ils relevèrent activement les défis qui s’offraient à eux de toutes parts. Pendant que les Blins du Bogos acceptaient leur allégeance aux /Hamasen, ils assurèrent aussi leur protection internationale en se convertissant massivement au catholicisme. Les Blins du /Hal/hal se convertirent à l’Islam, afin de parer aux raids futurs des vassaux du Soudan Égyptien. Cet article vise a montrer que la stratégie principale des Blins a été de participer activement à la nouvelle présence des pouvoirs dominants, que ce soit sur le plan politique ou religieux, et que cette adaptation leur a permis de préserver leur système très sophistiqué d’autonomie interne, fondé sur une confédération non centralisée, un réseau reliant entre eux les différents chefs Blins.

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The study of borderlands

1So far, classical historiography in the Horn of Africa has focused almost exclusively on the centre of the Christian Ethiopian kingdom. The Ethiopian kingdom (calling itself Ityop'ya, which refers to the Aithiopia of the Bible1, ruled by a Christian neguse negest (Ge'ez: 'king of kings') and his princely governors and feudal vassals, appealed to historians either fascinated by hegemonic powers2 or attracted by this quasi-medieval feudal kingdom of most ancient origins, a living witness of eras long forgotten in Europe – forgotten Christianity, forgotten heroes, forgotten feudal lords. Yet, local history and ethnohistory3 deserve more attention and, as such, the history of borderlands and peripheries stands as a particularly promising field of inquiry. Accordingly, central to the study of Eritrea is an approach attuned to the importance of those regions and peoples who were submitted by the Empire (or integrated in other ways) and differed, culturally, religiously and politically from the center. The history of these sites and societies has not been mapped out yet. Writing the history of peripheries implies discussing the merger of identities, often said to exclude each other. It means studying the creative responses elicited by cultural and political institutions to challenges by neighboring powers and ethnic groups. Peripheries are particular geographical sites where social transformation is best observed. Lying inbetween greater powers, their political situation is often a rather precarious one. Peripheries are places where cultures intersect and interact. This accounts for the fact that they consist in a "laboratory" for new political or cultural projects and solutions. To attend to these regions is to illuminate social change and its constructive and disruptive effects. As regions of challenge and change brought in response, peripheries are precisely where history takes place.

2Little has been written so far on such regions in the Horn of Africa. Alessandro Triulzi’s book on the Beni Shangul (1981) stands as a pioneering work. Borderlands often combine traits of more than one dominant culture, and develop creative political responses to threats against local stability. In a sense, the whole Erythraean area can be framed in these terms4.

The Erythraean borderlands

3In the second half of the 19th century, this region was subject to a most dramatic reorganization of local political structures, which preceded and, to some extent, prepared later Italian colonization. My research on the pre-colonial history of the Erythraean area (started in 1999) tries to combine historical anthropology with political history – both based on documentary and field research5. International interferences (within the framework of rapidly growing imperialistic interests) responded to local developments within and among quite ancient local ethnic groups, and reciprocally. In order to locate sources (e.g., diplomatic reports from Massawa, letters of local leaders, reports of European settlers), I visited archives and libraries in Eritrea, Ethiopia, France, Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, among others. While carrying out fieldwork in Eritrea and in Tigray, I got access to oral tradition.

4To write a "History of Eritrea" before the foundation of the Colonia Eritrea in 1890 would certainly be anachronistic. But it makes sense to describe the pre-colonial history of this Red-Sea-region in other respect: for centuries, this area has been a periphery of both Ethiopia and its Arabic neighbors, e.g. the Ottoman Empire. As a range of interconnected borderlands, it has a longer run history of its own, albeit not in a modern national sense. Later, after the cession of Massawa to Egypt in 1865/66 by the Sublime Porte, a phase started, in which large swathes of contemporary Eritrea’s territory became successively part of a single larger administrative unit6.

5The Tigrinnya-speaking provinces Hamasen7 and Akkele-Guzay, the Blin-speaking Bogos lands (the country of the Blin8) and the tigrephone Barka played a decisive role in the process of Egyptian unification of autonomous regions and ethnic groups.

The country of the Blin in the 19th century

6The Blin are an ethnic group located in the Northern Eritrean highlands and, for the greatest part, living in and around the city of Keren and north of it in the region of Halhal. They speak the Cushitic language, Blin, a branch of Agew (Central Cushitic), which is mainly spoken in Ethiopia. Scholars have studied them since the 1850s9. Hence, one would expect the Blin to be thoroughly known by today. Yet, knowledge on them is fragmentary and sometimes confused. This is partly due to the fact that, as a rather small ethnic group (max. 100,000 members today – a figure including non-Blin-speakers who still identify themselves as Blin), they always entertained close connections with the dominating neighbors, diverse Tigre groups and Tigrinnya speakers. Thus, obfuscated by these dominating cultures, they lost visibility.

7Since the 1850s, not only were they studied, but they also acquired relevance in Red Sea international politics. Virtually every report emanating from French or British diplomatic representatives residing in Massawa contains information about the “Bogos lands”. As stated in a letter sent by a number of Bogos chiefs to the French government in the 1860s, they had lived isolated and peacefully for about two hundred years, that is, after they got separated from the Christian Ethiopian kingdom due to the latter’s loss of power and territorial extension10. They complained about having lost peace following the establishment of the Egyptians in nearby Sudan.

8In effect, under the rule of Mehmet Ali, in the early 19th century Egypt had become a regional power and virtually independent from the Sublime Porte. The Sudanese kingdoms were subsequently annexed. In 1840 Kassala (today the Sudanese border town on the road to Eritrea) was founded by the Egyptian administration. The Barka lowlands (named after the river Barka, Arabic Khor al-Baraka), mainly populated by the autonomous Beni Amer herders and diverse Tigre groups, were officially included into the province of Taka, with Kassala as its administrative centre. As the Beni Amer did not submit, this annexation remained rather theoretic. However, in the 1840’s and 1850’s the Egyptian troops’ recurring raids eventually reached the areas of the Blin. Harassed by raiding neighbors too, especially the Beni Amer, the Blin were subject to mounting pressure on their habitat in their agricultural extensive, fertile highlands. The northern group in Halhal succumbed and converted to Islam.

The ethnic subgroups of the Blin

9To clarify the diverse ethnic (self-) designations of the Blin (in Western tradition Bilin, in Tigrinnya Bilen, Bileyn), which are sometimes confused in the literature, I shall now go into some details. "Blin" stands for the Agew (Central Cushitic) language of the diverse Blin groups, and is nowadays used as an ethnic term to refer to all these groups, lumped together. Originally, the term "Blin" might only have been a name serving to designate an important sub-group11, which by extension lent its name to their language itself.

10In local terminology, the Blin inhabitants of Halhal were called, after their ancestor, Ta’a-qur, “the children of Ta’a”12 [Ta’a being the apic ancestor] (variants: Ta-qur, or, in Tigre, often used by the Blin themselves, Bet Tawqe, Bet Taqwe, or even Beni Ta’a). Their southern neighbors, the Bogos13, with their centre in the city and ancient central caravan post of Keren, stayed nominally Christian for most of them, but also got under pressure - raiding groups and armies reached them from the Sudanese lowlands and later the Abyssinian highlands. They were called Bet Gebre Tarqe (or, in pure Blin, Gebre Tarqe qur or Tarqe-qur). Taken together, the inhabitants of Halhal and of Bogos were known as Halhale Bogos (cp. KOLMODIN, 1915), especially by neighboring Tigrinnya-speakers (sometimes simplified into Bogos, incorrectly meaning all the Blin), before the self-designation Blin was generally adopted in the course of the 20th century.

11The internal political structure of the Blin seems to have remained unchanged for centuries. Their traditional law (the best known being that of the Keren area, the Fetha Mogareh14) retains characteristics of the ancient law of the Ethiopian kingdom, which, in turn, had been influenced by the Byzantine Empire's Roman Law in late antiquity. Christianity was remembered in Blin society (called Kistan by Muslim neighbors, i.e. “Christian”), but there were almost no priests to convey knowledge on the doctrines of the Church. Political leadership rested in the hands of chiefs of kinship groups, who acted autonomously. Leaders depended on their own families, who were bound not only by their genealogical links to other leading groups, but also by their duties to their vassals. The hierarchical Blin society encompassed a large number of leading families (shmagile, literally “elder”) and vassals (mostly called tigre, “vassal”) – following the model of neighboring Tigre-speaking groups. However, in assemblies bringing together representatives of all Blin groups, questions of law and other matters of mutual concern were discussed by all Blin kinship groups, thus representing both social strata. Every representative of a Blin sub-group could act quite autonomously – a fact which prevented any great leader to emerge and dominate all other Blin groups. This, again, reinforced the general need for collaboration among all groups, despite repeated internal conflicts15. The Blin formed a sort of loose confederacy which also included non-Blin groups. The neighboring small Tigre-group Bet Juk, located in the 'Anseba valley (MIRAN, 2003), was closely associated with the Blin, at least until the 1880s, to the extent that they practically became part of their confederacy. This formula provided for mutual help in crisis situations, including attacks by raiders.

12Most Blin were living in small rural settlements, scattered over “Halhale Bogos”, but also controlled a trade center which quickly rose to importance during the 19th century – and this added a new aspect to their originally mainly rural identity and socio-cultural organization. The caravan post of Keren – also the centre of the Catholic Bogos mission dating from the 1850s – became a sort of urban centre at an early stage, like the port of Massawa well before and the (later colonial) capital of Asmera a bit later. One effect of such far-reaching transformation was that Keren became a multiethnic center, where many languages were spoken. In the process the first urban identities developed. An unusual feature – that is, for the Horn of Africa – was that a few merchant families started picking family names, a commonplace phenomenon in urban centers elsewhere, especially in medieval Europe. In the Horn of Africa, however, family names were largely unknown, the second name normally being the name of the father, and the third, if at all used, the name of the grandfather. Now urbanized families emerged, who adopted names referring to their origins. For instance, the Keren family Habash chose this very name as an allusion to their origin from the Christian Tigrinnya highlands. Merchants from Keren also settled in the port of Massawa and selected the family name Karani (“from Keren”).

The Blin in 19th century imperial and religious politics

13A closer look into the involvement of the Blin in international politics reveals some interesting details, which foreshadow late 19th century-colonisation. The arrival of a French-sponsored Catholic mission in the early 1850s in Keren had a lasting influence on the future of the Blin, especially those of Bogos.

14In an attempt to respond to the growing British influence in the Red Sea area, the French had sent a consul to Massawa by the 1840’s. Their friendship seemed to appeal to the Blin. When Blin elders complained over attacks perpetrated by Muslim neighbors coming from Egyptian territory16, the French managed to exert enough pressure on the Egyptian government to extract generous compensations. This did not put an end to raids, but from that time onwards the Blin resorted to the services of the Christian powers present in the area to shield themselves from such attacks. In one instance, the British too advocated that Egyptians paid compensations.

15Religion was traditionally identified with political alliance. The conversion of many inhabitants of Keren and surrounding villages to Catholicism led to a growing identification with French influence. In a letter, the Blin leaders even call their territory a "devlet fransa" (Ottoman Turkish for “French province”). French settlers arrived and cultivated tobacco. The French government de facto accepted to exert a weak protectorate over the Blin people, which was managed by the French consul residing in Massawa. Simultaneously, however, the traditional leader of Hamasen, from the local Deqqi Teshim dynasty, would still regard the Bogos lands as his dependency. A curious, but interesting manifestation of their ambiguous political status is the fact that in the late 1860’s the leader of Hamasen appointed a local French settler as governor (a post which consisted mainly in tax collection). In sum, from the 1840’s onwards, the Blin, preserving their age-old local political autonomy, had to accept their quasi-incorporation into the Egyptian province of Taka, while remaining a dependency of the Christian province of Hamasen. To the former was added the establishment of a French protectorate. Stemming from the French “protection of Oriental Christians” (here, Catholic converts), this status was subsequently coined into the terms of “our protectorate over Bogos” – a process readily observed in the French documents written in Massawa over these years.

16Yet, neither the French government resolved to make active use of the mission, nor the French settlers and the converts to establish a true colony. They actually disappeared from the scene after Germany defeated France in 1870. New insecurity erupted, making it necessary to find a new “protector”. In July 1872, the Blin were occupied by large Egyptian military forces from Massawa and formally included into East-Sudan. Interestingly enough, the Egyptian governor responsible for the operation was one of the scholars who first described the Blin in the 1850s (MUNZIGER, 1859; see also MUNZIGER, 1864); he then married a Blin woman, and now turned into a local “Erythraean” politician: Werner Munzinger, the son of the former Swiss Head of State Joseph Munzinger.

17The Blin unknowingly acquired a certain salience in European debates on international politics in the Red Sea area (SAPETO, 1857; MUNZIGER, 1864; ÍSSEL, 1876; de RIVOYRE, 1885; TRAUB, 1888–89). More than once the “Bogos” contributed to hectic exchanges of diplomatic notes between European powers on the “Bogos question”: Egypt claimed Bogos which connected the Sudanese province of Taka with the port of Massawa, and so did emerging Ethiopia, basing its argument on the old vassal-relationship of the Bogos with Hamasen. At the time when the Ethiopian Empire extended again and stabilized under the reign of ase Yohannes IV (ruled 1872-89), raids by ras Alula Qubi, the new governor of Mereb-Mellash (central Eritrea, mainly Hamasen), threatened the political and economic stability of the Blin. After the occupation of Egypt by the British (1882) and the emergence of a powerful rebel state in the Sudan, the Mahdiyya, the British and Egyptian officials were ready to give up Bogos. For a short time, the area was actually ceded to the Christian Ethiopian State under Yohannes IV, according to the belief that this would contribute to a greater stability in the region (1884/85)17. However, shortly thereafter the Italians took over Massawa (1885) and, having struck alliances with a number of local ethnic groups like the Tigre-speaking Habab in Sahel (1887), they peacefully annexed Keren (1888). Thus, the Blin again changed their political affiliation and became an important territory, the province of Senhit, part of the new “Colonia Eritrea” (proclaimed in 1890).

The Blin as a peripheral group

18The case of the Blin epitomizes a specific instance of borderlands. Their constant change of alliances, including of religion, helped them preserve their inner cohesion and their local cultural traditions within a framework of growing involvement in regional conflicts18. Until the arrival of the Egyptians in the area, the Blin appear to have lived a rather calm, but isolated life. Within a few years they got involved in regional power struggles and international imperialism. The responses the Blin elicited to this new situation stemmed from their already age-old position as a borderland people – culturally linked with the Christian highlands of Abyssinia, politically autonomous, and neighbors to Muslim groups. These responses demonstrated a great capacity of adaptation and accommodation. By effecting quick changes of religious affiliations, which went hand in hand with the constant change of political alliance, the Blin transformed, and thus preserved their conscience of “Blin-ness”. Challenge and change seem to have been an integral part of the group's identity before the advent of imperialist expansion. This proved to be the most appropriate response in a situation where only changes of affiliations could save them from complete assimilation into other groups. Only by accepting these changing affiliations, that is, a partial assimilation, the group's internal structure could be preserved. This adaptive strategy was the most productive response to the issue of safeguarding the socio-political and cultural identity of the group. Identity, in this case, was not defined only or mainly by religion or language (many Blin being Tigre – oder Tigrinnya-speakers), but by the Blin’s internal political system, based on a loose confederacy led by elders and relying on genealogical networks. The 19th century was the “laboratory” in which Blin-ness derived from the idea of membership to a genealogically linked network. The heir of a Blin is a Blin. The lineage carries the duty to and the offer of alliance. A Blin is the one who defends the Blin because he is a Blin, whatever language he speaks and whatever God he worships19. This seemingly tautological definition is based on a simple and stable concept: Blin society is modeled after the idea of an extended family, in which the “We-group” is formed out of inheritance – one of the strongest possible responses of a traditional society to cultural and political challenge. In fact, 19th century’s transformations never challenged this dimension of society. Well into the 20th century, local autonomies remained unchanged under every government, and local affairs were in the hands of widely autonomous networks of leaders. The sense of belonging assumed the practical dimension of mutual solidarity and help – a powerful stabilizing factor.

19Many Blin participated to the Eritrean liberation struggle, both as fighters and as intellectuals. The aspiration to Eritrean independence nicely fitted in with the older dream of an open and tolerant Blin society, trading with everyone in all languages necessary, while preserving its internal autonomy. Only at the end of the 20th century were local-patriotic feelings challenged by the rise of a modern independent state of Eritrea – the latter fearing nothing more than lack of control. While issues of language and religion did not alter the stability of Blin society in the 19th century, the challenges posed in the 21st century might well demand new solutions20.

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Abbadie (Antoine d’)

1890: Géographie de l'Ethiopie, Paris

Abbebe Kifleyesus

2000: “Bilin, Speaker Status Strength and Weakness”, Africa, Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell'Istituto Italo-Africano (Roma), no. 1, p. 69-89

Adhana Mengeste-ab

1988: “Ancestor Veneration in Blean Culture”, in: Taddese Beyene (ed.): Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies. University of Addis Ababa [26-30 November 1984], Vol. 1, Addis Ababa - Frankfurt am Main, p. 747-50

1990: “Yohannes IV and Keren”, in: Taddese Beyene – R. Pankhurst - Shiferaw Bekele: Kasa and Kasa. Papers on the Lives, Times and Images of Téwodros II and Yohannes IV (1855-1889), Addis Ababa, p. 247-52

Caulk (R.)

2002: “Between the Jaws of Hyenas”, A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia (1876-1896), ed. by Bahru Zewde, Wiesbaden (Aethiopistische Forschungen 60)

Douin (G.)

1933-41: Histoire du règne du khédive Ismail, 3 vols., Le Caire

Erlich (H.)

2005: "Pre-Colonial Eritrea", in: S. Uhlig (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 2 (D-Ha), Wiesbaden, p. 358-59

1996: Ras Alula and the Scramble for Africa, A Political Biography: Ethiopia & Eritrea 1875-1897, Lawrenceville – Asmara

Favali (L.)

2005: “Fet/ha Mägare/h”, in: S. Uhlig (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 2 (D-Ha), Wiesbaden, p. 533-34

Hildebrandt (J.M.)

1875: „Erlebnisse auf einer Reise von Massûa in das Gebiet der Afer und nach Aden”, Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin 10, Berlin, p. 1-38, here pp. 14, 27

Íssel (A)

1876: Viaggio nel Mar Rosso e tra i Bogos, Milano

Kolmodin (J.)

1915: Traditions de Tsazzega et Hazzega, vol. 2: Traduction Française, Upsal (Archives d'études orientales 5, 2)

Lusini (G.)

2003: “Belen Sägädä”, in: S. Uhlig (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 1 (A-C), Wiesbaden, p. 524–25

Marcus (H. G.)

1995: The Life and Times of Menelik II, Ethiopia 1844-1913, Lawrenceville, 2nd ed.

Ghaber (M.)

1993: The Blin of Bogos, Baghdad 1993

Miran (J.)

2004: Facing the Land, Facing the Sea: Commercial Transformation and Urban Dynamics in the Red Sea Port of Massawa, 1840s-1900s, PhD dissertation, Michigan State University, Department of History

2003: "Bet /Ğuk", in: S. Uhlig (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 1 (A-C), Wiesbaden, p. 550-51

Munzinger (W.)

1859: Ueber die Sitten und das Recht der Bogos, Winterthur

1864: Ostafrikanische Studien, Schaffhausen

Nadel (S. F.)

1944: Races and Tribes of Eritrea, Asmara

Pollera (A.)

1966: The Native Peoples of Eritrea, Asmara (tr. of Pollera A., 1935: Le Popolazioni Indigene dell’Eritrea, Bologna)

Reinisch (L.)

1882: Die Bilin-Sprache in Nordost-Afrika, Wien (Sitzungsberichte der Philosophisch-Historischen Classe der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften 94, 2)

1883: Texte der Bilin-Sprache, Leipzig

1887: Die Bilin-Sprache, vol. 2: Wörterbuch der Bilin-Sprache, Wien

Rivoyre (D. de)

1885: Aux pays du Soudan, Bogos, Mensah, Souakim, Paris

Rubenson (S.)

1978: The Survival of Ethiopian Independence, London – Addis Ababa (2nd ed.)

1994: Tewodros And His Contemporaries 1855-1868, Lund (Acta Aethiopica vol. 2), no. 145 (p. 236-37)

Sapeto (G.)

1857: Viaggio ai Mensa, ai Bogos e agli Habab, Milano 1857

Smidt (W.)

2006: „Erythräa – Eritrea, Kurze Entstehungsgeschichte bis zur Ankunft der Deutschen Aksum-Expedition“, in: St. Wenig (ed. in collaboration with W. Smidt, K. Volker-Saad and B. Vogt): In kaiserlichem Auftrag: Die Deutsche Aksum-Expedition 1906 unter Enno Littmann, vol. 1, Verlag Lindensoft 2006 (Archäologische Forschungen, German Archaeological Institute, KAAK)

2005: “Before Eritrea, Before the Diaspora: Habesha in Exile and on Missions Abroad in the 19th Century”, Eritrean Studies Review vol. 4, no. 2, 1-36 (= Eritrea Abroad: Critical Perspectives on the Global Diaspora, edited by T. Redeker Hepner and B. Conrad)

2003: “Bilin ethnography” – “Bilin history”, in: S. Uhlig (ed.), Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 1 (A-C), Wiesbaden, p. 585-88

2003: “The St. Chrischona Pilgrim-Mission’s Private Archives as a Source for Eritrean History: From a Romantic Quest for ‘Ormania’ to the Establishment at the Erythraean Coast”, Eritrean Studies Journal 2, 1/2, Asmara, May-December, p. 39-58

Traub (P.)

1888-89: « Voyage au pays des Bogos et dans les provinces septentrionales de l'Abyssinie », Bulletin de la Société géographique neuchâteloise 4, p. 96-191

Trimingham (J. S.)

1952: Islam in Ethiopia, London – New York - Toronto

Triulzi (A.)

1981: Salt, Gold and Legitimacy: Prelude to the History of a No Man’s Land, Bela Shangul, Wallagga, Ethiopia (ca. 1800-1898), Napoli

Yishaq (Y.)

2000: Nigisinet hagera Midri Ba/hri (Ertra), tarikh deggiyat Haylu "Abba Galla" ('The rule of the land of the Midri Ba/hri (Eritrea), the history of deggiyat Haylu "Abba Galla"'), Asmera

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1This, however, is a self-designation, which was adopted at a comparatively late moment. The Aksumite kingdom started to identify the highland-centre of the kingdom with the biblical Aithiopia only in about the 4th century, after the kings had converted to Christianity and the Bible had become the central reference book for politics and culture. The biblical Aithiopia, however, originally rather meant the Sudanese kingdom of Meroe or Nubia or simply the areas of the "blacks" south of Egypt; the term was coined long before Aksum came into existence.
2Characteristically, the eminent historian and specialist of modern Ethiopian history, Harold G. Marcus (Michigan), never discussed in any detail the history of populations of the peripheries. He rather focused on great personalities and actors of history such as the Emperors Haile Sellassie I. and Menilek II, the conqueror of the southern kingdoms and ethnic groups (e.g. Marcus, 1995). However, an approach confined to the subject of the centre tends to remain content with writing history from this sole perspective. Easily blocked out is that "multi-faceted" countries such as Ethiopia are marked by a plurality of historical identities. Regions that were part of the Empire from time to time, and then again part of other polities or autonomous, are misrepresented as simply "Ethiopian". This has also been the case with the Blin.
3This article was the basis for my presentation on the importance of ethnohistory for modern research on culture(s) at the “Workshop su ‘Etiopistica oggi’”, Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”, 25 March 2004. It is based on archival research, especially in the ministère des Affaires étrangères, Paris (Consulat de Massouah), in 2001, and research carried out in the Blin area (Keren) and with Blin informants in Eritrea during my research trip of 1997/98 and my field research in summer 2000 and January 2001. I thank CEFAS for the financial help, which made the latter trip possible. Special thanks should go to my main informant Awet Ermias Eyasu from Keren for his explanations and all his help during my stay in Eritrea, and to Nair Fessehatzion, Sweden, for his explanations on Blin terminology and genealogy.
4To avoid confusion with today's Eritrea: The term “Erythraean area” should describe the culturally closely interconnected and also quite diversified borderlands between the core of the Christian Ethiopian kingdom and the Red Sea, i.e. the “Mare Eritreo” (as it was sometimes called in 19th century Italian), “Erythräische See” (old-fashioned German) or “Ba/hre Eretra” (a term used in the Ge'ez Bible). All these terms derive from Latin “Mare Eritreum” and Greek “Erythra thalatta” (= the Red Sea and Indian Ocean). – The Pseudo-Greek “Erythraea” already appeared as a geographical term in the 1870s, similar to “Abissinia Eritrea” in the 1880s. Originally “Erythraea” meant, rather vaguely, both the Red Sea and the adjacent areas (on the African shore). For the use of that geographical term see Hildebrandt, 1875, pp. 14, 27. For the Italian term “Abissinia Eritrea” see Sapeto, Íssel, NN., 1885, “Gl’italiani...” [based on a conference with Giuseppe Sapeto and Arturo Íssel], p. 188-98. – The choice of the name “Colonia Eritrea” for the Italian Red Sea colony (proclaimed in 1890) is evidently influenced by the earlier use of the adjective “Eritrea” (meaning “Erythraean”); instead of calling their colony “Colonia del Mar Rosso”, the Italians chose the more romantic term, thus somehow recalling ancient Rome.
5Volume to be published in 2007 (forthcoming).
6There is now a number of Eritrean books on that topic published in Tigrinnya (e.g. Yis/haq Yosef, 2000), but very few in European languages. See for one of several possible perspectives Erlich, 2005, pp. 358-59, and his book on ras Alula (1996); a most excellent work from the Massawa perspective is Miran, 2004; for an overview over Eritrean history until 1906 see Smidt, 2006. Further publications on that period include: Smidt, 2003, pp. 39-58 (based only on missionary archives, which are quite rich, but limited in perspective). See also my biographical study focusing on the same pre-colonial period: Smidt, 2005, pp. 1-36. The best studies on the neighboring (and sometimes dominating) powers Ethiopia and Egypt, from which one can learn most about pre-colonial Eritrea are Rubenson, 1978 and Douin, 1933-41; see also Caulk, 2002.
7Its leader ras Woldenki'el in the 1870s allied himself for some time with the Egyptians (1876-79). For that time, he took refuge in the Egyptian Bogos country, running his yearly raids on his province Hamasen; his inherited province was mostly under control of chiefs appointed by the Ethiopian Emperor.
8Often “Bogos” has been used as a synonym for “Blin”. Strictly speaking, this is not correct. The northern Blin are the inhabitants of Halhal, the southern Blin those of Bogos (with Keren as their main city). To identify and refer to the area of the Blin in the 19th century, Europeans started to call it (and adjacent regions) “Bogos lands”.
9E.g., Munzinger, 1859; Sapeto, 1857.
10Letter to Emperor Napoléon III., 21 April 1864, in which they also formally asked to become a French Protectorate (more on this odd episode below); reprinted in Rubenson, 1994, no. 145 (pp. 236-37).
11The 1840s' Basque traveler Antoine d’Abbadie notes that a subgroup living north of the Bogos in the plains West of the `Anseba river was called Blin. However, it is established that, as early as in medieval times, the Tigrinnya-speakers identified a big Agew group living north of Hamasen with the “Bilen”; the 14th century leader of the Adkeme Milga' was called Bilen Segede, literally 'the conqueror of the Blin' (see Lusini, 2003). It is quite plausible that, due to the hierarchical socio-political organisation of the Blin ethnic group, the term "Blin" originally meant a leading group, the other Agew groups in the area being their serfs.
12Reinisch, 1887, p. 24. (NB: The phonetically wrong use of the spelling “Bilin” by European scholars originates from this publication; Reinisch, however, used special diacritica, which made clear that the two “i” are different, a trait forgotten later. I suggest therefore to give up the spelling “Bilin” and replace it by “Blin”, which is much closer to how the members of the group pronounce their name themselves; it is also used by Mikael Ghaber, a Blin himself).
13See, e.g., Mikael Ghaber, 1993.
14See Favali, 2005, compare also Munzinger, 1859.
15Blin historiographical tradition summarizes this experience as follows: There had been great feuds between competing Blin kinship groups, but they were always completely set aside at the time of attacks perpetrated by non-Blin. Historical detailed studies yield a slightly different account than the aforementioned: attacks against one group (e.g. by Barka slave raiders in the 1850s) often did not result into action taken by other Blin groups. But it remains true that Blin networks were far-reaching and many Blin groups who were normally living independently from each other could assemble and offset an attack by "outsiders". Also, decisions regarding change of political affiliations, that is, aiming at enhancing Blin collective security, like the decision to join the French Empire (see below), were taken collectively.
16Chiefs of Bogos to Vice Consul Lejean, 1 January 1863, in: Rubenson, 1994, no. 119 (= p. 204−205).
17By the so-called Hewett Treaty (1884).
18The latest publications on the Blin from the point of view of social and historical anthropology are: Abbebe Kifleyesus, 2000, p. 69-89; Smidt, 2003, p. 585-88. See also Adhana Mengeste-ab, 1988, p. 747-50, and Id.: 1990, p. 247-52.
19It is most typical for Blin families that the patronymal names of a person show different religious affiliations, which does not affect at all his/her belonging to Blin society. This stands in sharp contrast with neighboring Christian Tigrinnya-speaking highlanders, where many define belonging through religious affiliation. There might be an Iyasu Abdallah Kiflu – showing that the grandfather was a Christian, the father a Muslim, and the son a Christian again. In a given family, cousins (regarded as “brothers” by the traditional society) might be Christians and Muslims, a fact which does not affect their relationship – and their obligation for mutual help.
20A great potential lies in the Eritrean policy to respect local culture and language. Local languages are taught at school. It is believed that the one who masters his "own" language will more easily master other languages. The multi-linguist reality of Blin society is acknowledged and even positively valued. Even in a situation of great economic pressure and political insecurity, at the very local level, people used to chose their rural representatives for local decision-making bodies. Though transformed, the Blin political society endures. However, due to economic pressure and to military conscription, youngsters are leaving their regions of origin. The traditional networks of belonging might be replaced by new political structures, which may make the ethnic dimension of identity and culture less and less important. An aspect illustrating Blin peripheral position is the modern discussion over which script should be adopted for the language. In the 1960s Eritrean autonomy was subsequently destroyed and the official Ethiopian language Amharic started to dominate. However, the Blin language remained prominent in rural areas. Especially in communications among Blin, one switched actively to the Blin language, as an expression of the strong identification with the ethnic group, thus also underlining the strong connection between both speakers (I thank my informant Awet Ermias Eyasu for his explanations on this subject). During a short period of reform, teaching in local languages was discussed and reading material developed in Blin language. The fidel script (used by Ge'ez, Amharic and Tigrinnya) was adapted; a consonant not known to these Ethio-semitic languages (ng) got its own newly created sign. However, language committees set up by the Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) later gave up this idea. A general Latin letters system, which was to be applied to all non-Ethiosemitic languages of Eritrea, including Blin, was introduced. This is yet another example of changes affecting Blin language and, possibly, identity.
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Wolbert G.C. Smidt, « Discussing ethnohistory: The Blin between periphery and international politics in the 19th century », Chroniques yéménites [En ligne], 13 | 2006, mis en ligne le 08 octobre 2007, consulté le 27 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Wolbert G.C. Smidt

Hamburg University

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