Historian, author and commentator Professor Richard Pankhurst talks about the renowned intellectual, statesman, diplomat and Ethiopia’s first western trained physician, Hakim Workneh Eshete (also known as Dr. Charles Martin). In an article published in the Capital newspaper, the most prolific writer on Ethiopian historical matters reviews two recent books that saw the light of the day on the historical figure.
Hakim Workneh, aka Dr Charles Martin, was the first Ethiopian I ever met, and the first Ethiopian doctor to give me medical advice – albeit only once or twice during my childhood. Hakim Workneh, who was an important figure in Ethiopian history, is the subject of two recent biographies. He came from a prominent Gondar family that, for one reason or another – we do not know precisely why – was attached to Emperor Tewodros’s court at Maqdala.
The family was there at the historic moment when Robert Napier’s expedition launched its assault on the Emperor’s citadel.
Workneh, then about three years old, was in the care of his aunt, herself little more than a child, who, on hearing the noise of battle, fled the scene. This was not surprising, as an Ethiopian royal chronicle of this time reports that the commotion was terrible.
Workneh meanwhile realizing that he had been abandoned by his guardian, rushed about like a mad thing, looking for anyone he knew – but to no avail.
The British, seeing him in this condition, jumped to the conclusion that he must be an orphan. This, given the large number of Ethiopians killed in the preceding fighting, was not an unreasonable supposition.Several British officers, feeling a sense of responsibility for the assumed “orphan” – and lacking any way of ascertaining his identity, thought it best to take him back with them to India, from where their expedition had emanated. There, they proposed to give him a Christian education. Though already baptized in Ethiopia, the waif was accordingly re-baptized in India – and was educated at the expense of two British officers, Colonels Chamberlain and Martin. He was accordingly re-named Charles Martin.
In the years that followed, Martin, as we must now call him, received a good education, partly under the auspices of the British-based Church Missionary Society, from which he learnt the “golden rule” to “do as you would be done by”. He went to school in India, Burma and Britain. This enabled him to qualify in due course as Ethiopia’s first modern-trained physician and surgeon. His story is told in two recent monographs. The first, in Amharic, is thus widely accessible in Ethiopia. It is by Ato Tadele Bitul and is entitled YeAzazh Hakim Warqnah Eshetu YeHiwyot Tarik (Addis Ababa, 2000). The second, by Professor Peter Garretson, entitled A Victorian Gentleman & Ethiopian Nationalist. The Life & Times of Hakim Warqnah, Dr. Charles Martin (James Currey, London, 2012). Professor Garretson had access to Hakim Workneh’s diaries and was thereby able to provide a more in-depth account of this remarkable son of Ethiopia.
On acquiring his medical qualifications Martin, accepted a medical post with the British colonial administration in Burma. This assured him relative prosperity, but tied him to British employment. He did not however forget his Ethiopian identity – and dreamt of one day visiting his ancient motherland.
The opportunity to do just that seemed to strike in March 1896 when Menelik defeated the Italians at the battle of Adwa, and there appeared a possibility of a European-trained physician being sent out to treat the Ethiopian wounded, who were entirely lacking in modern medical facilities. The young Ethiopian patriot took the leave to which he was entitled, packed his bags, and set forth for Africa, but travelled only as far as the port of Zeila in the then British Somali Protectorate. There, his leave from the Burma-based British medical service expired – and he felt obliged to abandon his planned journey to his beloved, but seemingly elusive Motherland. All, however, was not lost, for while in Zeila he met the British Commissioner, John Lane Harrington, who was subsequently appointed the first British envoy to Ethiopia. He told Menelik of his medical compatriot in far-off Asia. The Emperor, a great modernizer, was naturally much fascinated – and facilitated Martin’s eventual home-coming.
All this, dear reader, was a far more complicated story than I present to you here. Suffice it to say that Martin was discovered by his Ethiopian family from whom he learnt that his original name was Workneh. He duly entered Menelik’s service – which posed no small problem as employment in Ethiopia was traditionally rewarded by land grants rather than a monthly wage to which the good young Ethiopian doctor was accustomed to in Burma and India.
Workneh, as we now know him, nonetheless elected to return to Ethiopia, and on retiring from British Colonial Medical Service decided to settle there for good. He gradually emerged as one of the country’s great modernizing spirits.
Workneh, who subsequently entered the service of Ras Teferi Mekonnen (the future Emperor Haile Selassie), accompanied the latter on his ground-breaking European tour of 1924. A notable advocate of modern education, Workneh was critical of the Egyptian teachers in the old Menelik School, founded by the monarch of that name in 1908, and urged Teferi to establish a more modern Europe-oriented school: the Teferi Mekonnen School at which he served as administrator. He was a keen supporter of English rather than the prevailing French, as Ethiopia’s foreign language of instruction.
Workneh was one of the foremost Ethiopian opponents of slavery and the slave trade, and on being appointed governor of Chercher Province, in the east of the country, did much to bring both these institutions in that region to an end. All in all, he gained a reputation as a progressive administrator.
He is however probably best remembered, as I remember him personally, as perhaps Ethiopia’s ablest and most loyal pre-war diplomat – who was appointed as his country’s Minister, i.e. Ambassador, to Britain in 1935, now seeming so long ago. As such his views on the evolution of Anglo-Ethiopian relations (reproduced by Garretson) are worthy of attention.