Maria Angela Ardinghelli – Italian Scientist and Translator (1730–1825)

During the time of Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi, there was another learned woman of mathematics and science. Maria Angela Ardinghelli was well-known during her time, although she has been overlooked from a historical perspective, or known simply as a translator of works by Stephen Hales. In fact, she was the only woman whose letters were read at the meetings of the Paris Academy of Sciences on a regular basis. Bertucci describes her as a de facto foreign correspondent of the scientific activities in Italy. She sent them meteorological data, natural history information about Naples, and reports of unusual medical cases.

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Ardinghelli’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished in Italy, having moved from Florence to Naples when the Medici family came to power. But Nicola, her father, married against his parents’ wishes and was punished accordingly. He was denied his hereditary titles and was restricted to a very modest fortune. Nicola and his wife, Caterina Piccillo, had two children, but Maria Angela’s brother died young, so she was raised an only child. Her father provided her with the best available tutors for her education. She studied mathematics, natural philosophy, English, French and Latin.

In 1734, Naples gained a new king, Charles of Bourbon, and became an autonomous kingdom for the first time in centuries. Charles wanted to revive the university and cultural life of the city. Fernando Spinelli, prince of Tarsia, organized a public library and museum at his palace, and one of Maria Angela’s tutors was curator of the “physics cabinet” and a teacher at the new Academia Spinella. In 1747, to celebrate the opening of the library and birth of the crown prince, Spinelli dedicated a celebration to the king in which guests recited poems. Maria Angela was one of the ladies who spoke, and astonished everyone by composing her poem in Latin.

The Palazzo Tarsia was known for experiments with electricity and its association with Newton. It was also a place where Maria Angela could safely pursue knowledge and display her own talents. There she was seen as the protégé of Della Torre and her other teachers, rather than a woman “experimenting alone with men in the dark.” (I’m not really sure what the distinction is, because she is depicted in at least one image, while engaged in experiments, as the only woman surrounded by men.)

The Spinella Academy was intentionally modeled on the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, and Maria Angela contributed to this association by dedicating her translation of Stephen Hales’s Haemastaticks to the former French ambassador, the marquis De L’Hôpital. However, her translations were much more than literary works; they were annotated texts where she added commentary in footnotes, the dedication and a section titled “To the Reader.” In this way she was able to evaluate the science without exposing herself to ridicule.

In the case of Haemastaticks, she worked with both the English original and the French translation by François Bossier de Sauvages, and even corrected the French translation. She translated De Sauvages’ footnotes, repeated his calculations, and wrote her own footnotes. She also bolstered her own credibility by corresponding with the author to clarify the text. She was careful not to overstep the boundaries of modesty by not presuming to take the same position as De Sauvage, who replicated Hale’s experiments with a view of challenging them, but still made her mastery of the concepts clear with her commentary. When she did report on her own experiments, she framed the discussion as an invitation to explore with her, by following her thought process, as opposed to a challenge to the authority of her male colleagues.

Maria Angela’s efforts were very successful. A positive review by Giovanni Lami in the Florence’s Literary News brought her to the attention of other Italians; Hale was enormously pleased and encouraged her to translate his Vegetable Staticks as well; even De Sauvages was pleased in the end because of the increase in his international reputation. She did translate Vegetable Staticks with the result of increasing her reputation in France as well as Italy.

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Her family was also supportive, and she began to host conversazioni which were well attended by both local academics and visiting foreigners. This is where she met Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French Abbé and physicist. Nollet and the academics at Palazzo Tarsia were both eager to solidify connections between Naples and France, so Della Torre introduced Nollet to Maria Angela.

Nollet was very impressed and spent several evenings at her home attending her conversazioni. They began a correspondence in which they exchanged academic works as well as discussing more personal matters, but he also encouraged his colleagues to correspond with her and to visit when they were in Naples. Their relationship was misunderstood by at least one colleague, partly because people had difficulty believing that a relationship between a man and woman, based on an interest in the physical world,  could be without “suggestive overtones.”

Not only was Maria Angela’s family supportive, but she was devoted to them as well and had no desire to travel herself. She turned down a marriage proposal from a French architect as well as an invitation to become tutor to the princesses at Versailles. But she was happy to be a contact for visiting academics who wanted to experience the natural history of Naples. Over time, she became a mediator between scholars in Paris and Naples and was relied on to circulate papers and information coming from Paris.

In spite of this support, not everyone welcomed women into intellectual circles and at some point Maria Angela began to publish anonymously. Bertucci suggests that it is likely related to the death of her father which occurred sometime before 1765. Without a male protector, she ran the risk of losing her respectability. She didn’t give up scientific work, however she had to be more circumspect about her image.

Maria Angela did marry, sometime after the death of her mother, prior to 1777. Her husband, Carlo Crispo, was a magistrate in Calabria, in the south of the Kingdom of Naples. She continued her correspondence with scholars in Naples and France, and helped Crispo expand his own circle of contacts. She was able to help him advance in his career, eventually moving back to Naples where she helped him with his work and gave up science.

She left Naples during the revolution of 1799, but returned during the Napoleonic era. Over the years she had continued to teach privately and had a respectable income which sustained her during her 24 years as a widow, before her death in 1825.

Note: I couldn’t find an image of Ardinghelli in the public domain. There is a medallion which was sculpted of her that can be viewed here.

Resources
Bertucci, Paola, “The In/visible Woman: Mariangela Ardinghelli and the Circulation of Knowledge between Paris and Naples in the Eighteenth Century“, Isis, Vol. 104, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 226-249.
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Isabella Bird Bishop: Travel as a Cure for Poor Health

Isabella Bird (source)

Isabella Bird (source)

As promised, more on the life of Isabella Bird Bishop. She was truly a world traveler, and although she loved it, her traveling life began out of necessity.

On July 11, 1868, Isabella Bird left her home in Scotland a very sick woman. Problems with her spine had flared up; she was depressed and had trouble sleeping. The trip was uneventful as she traveled to Australia and then New Zealand, but on her way back home via the United States, she would be revived, by a hurricane. The raw power of nature filled her with life. From that point on, Isabella spent most of the rest of her life traveling, and making up for what she saw as a selfish life by doing good works.

Isabella was born on October 15, 1831 in Yorkshire, England, to Edward Bird and his second wife Dora Lawson. Edward was a minister and it was a stern, but loving, household where Isabella and her younger sister, Henrietta, were taught the Bible and the importance of charitable works.

From a young age, Isabella was a sickly child. The family doctor prescribed outdoor activity, so her father began the habit of taking her with him to visit parishioners. She rode in front of him on his horse from about the age of three, until she was old enough to ride herself. On these short trips, Edward taught Isabella to appreciate nature, identify trees and plants, measure distance, and how to be an excellent horsewoman. In addition to learning botany from their father, Dora taught Isabella and Henrietta, called Hennie, a mix of subjects and the girls became avid readers.

At the age of 18, Isabella had a fibrous tumor removed from her spine. The surgery went well, but she didn’t improve quickly and, as was common during Victorian times, her doctor suggested travel. So in 1854, her father gave her £100 and sent her off to visit her cousins in Canada. He told her she could stay away as long as the money lasted. After visiting her family on Prince Edward Island, she traveled west to Quebec, Chicago and Cincinnati, then back though New England and home.

Isabella’s letters home were so vivid and engaging that her family urged her to have them published. She had been publishing articles since she was 16, so a friend put her in contact with John Murray, who not only agreed to publish the book, but became her life-long friend. The book, The Englishwoman in America, was an immediate success, but it wasn’t long before Isabella’s health began to decline again and she was off back to the United States. This time, at her father’s suggestion, to investigate the current religious revival.

The next ten years were difficult for the sisters and kept Isabella close to home. Their father died in 1858, and their mother in 1866. Isabella used the time  to publish her second book, The Aspects of Religion in the United States of America, about her trip to the United States, believing it was what her father would want her to do.

Henrietta Amelia Bird (source)

Henrietta Amelia Bird (source)

The sisters settled into a routine. Hennie moved to Tobermory, a village on the Isle of Mull, in the Scottish Inner Hebrides, where she kept the home fires burning while Isabella wandered. Isabella’s health was very bad at this time. In addition to her spinal problems, she was depressed and suffering from insomnia. She needed to take another voyage. Her first major journey after her parent’s deaths was to Australia and New Zealand, returning via Hawaii and the United States. It was during the passage to Hawaii that her vessel, the Nevada, was caught in the hurricane.

In Hawaii, Isabella discovered the ease of riding astride rather than side-saddle, a habit which she continued while exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains in the United States. There she visited mining camps and pioneer settlements where she joined in the work. She also met a man named Jim Nugent, “a man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry.” It was a romantic time, but Jim drank and was moody, so Isabella’s practical nature took over and she left for home. Six months later, Jim was shot and killed by a man on the ranch where she had stayed.

Back in Scotland, Isabella met a man with more sticking power. In addition to preparing two more books for publication, one about the six months she spent in Hawaii, the other about her time in the Rocky Mountains, she found time to take a botany class. There she met Dr. John Bishop, a physician ten years her junior.

John Bishop was very different than Jim. He was gentle, calm, and well respected as a physician. The kind of man who has a stabilizing influence on those around him. He soon became the sister’s physician. Intrigued by Isabella’s intelligence and boldness, it also wasn’t long before he fell in love with her.

Isabella Bird Bishop in Manchurian dress c. 1899 (source)

Isabella Bird Bishop in Manchurian dress c. 1899 (source)

When John proposed in 1877, Isabella told him that she wasn’t the marrying kind, but he wasn’t put off. She wanted to keep their friendship as it was and wrote that he “behaved beautifully” when she told him no. So, rather than commit herself to marriage, Isabella took another trip. This time to Japan, Singapore and on to the Malay Peninsula. There she rode an elephant for the first time and had an unusual dining experience with apes.

Following her usual pattern, Isabella wrote two books about her journey, a two volume work on Japan and a book about her Malay adventures. These would be the last based on letters home to Hennie. In 1881, Hennie became ill and died of typhoid fever. Isabella was distraught, however, while still in mourning, later that year she married John.

Her biographer, Anna Stoddart, was of the opinion that Isabella would never have married had Hennie lived. Pat Barr suggests that she originally refused his proposal because of possible restrictions on her travel while she was still of child-bearing age. Regardless, their life together wasn’t long. Isabella was ill for most of the time, and when she recovered, she nursed John, who had developed pernicious anemia. He died shortly before their fifth anniversary.

Isabella was at loose ends. She had always had someone to make a home for her, but now she became transient. At one point, she took a nursing course in London, but when she tried private nursing, it didn’t work well for her. Finally, she settled on the idea of establishing missionary hospitals. Her books had sold well and Isabella was financially secure. Over the remaining years of her life, she donated money to found five missionary hospitals, one in memory of Hennie in Pakistan, one in memory of John in Kashmir, and three others in China.

Although Isabella gave money and left the building and administration of hospitals to others, this gave her an excuse to travel. So in 1889, she was off again to the East. This time she began in India and Pakistan, traveled up to Kashmir where she spent time with Tibetans, traveled with sheep caravans, and had one of her servants arrested as a murderer. (Isabella knew nothing of his past until he was apprehended. When asked to check her belongings to see if anything was stolen, she refused because he had behaved admirably with her, although he did have a tendency to scare the villagers.)

After descending from the Tibetan plateau, she made the acquaintance of a British major who was headed to Persia on a mission. He invited her to come along. This resulted in a 500 miles ride from Baghdad to Tehran and geographical survey of southern Persia. When they parted ways, she embarked on a 1000 mile ride through western Persia, Kurdistan and Armenia, finally returning home via steamer from Constantinople.

Isabella at Shàntóu, Guangdong province, China (source)

Isabella at Shàntóu, Guangdong province, China (source)

Isabella took one more trip to Asia. Between 1894 and 1897, she traveled to Japan again, then on to Korea and China. In China, she journeyed down the Yangtze River and once again to the border of Tibet.

Now in her sixties, she stayed active, taking classes, giving lectures, and of course writing books and articles. Almost all of her books were best sellers and she had become quite well-known, so she had considerable correspondence as well. As she neared her death, one of the most difficult things for her was not being able to hold a pen to write for any length of time. But, before that time came, Isabella had one more trip in her.

At the age of 69, Isabella surprised everyone by taking a 1000 mile trek through Morocco. She visited a number of cities and even met the Emperor, although it had to be “secretly managed,” and wrapping up the trip with a visit to the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains. She described the scene where she met the young Sultan, where he and his officials were all dressed in pure white.

“I standing in front below the steps of the throne, bare-headed and in black silk, the only European woman who has ever seen an Emperor of Morocco I as I am the first who has ever entered the Atlas Mountains and who has ever visited the fierce Berber tribes. When I wished the Sultan long life and happiness at parting, he said that he hoped when his hair was as white as mine, he might have a much energy as I have!”

That was in 1901, and Isabella’s energy began to decline. She reached the point where she couldn’t write, but her mind was clear and she received visitors and many letters from all over the world to keep her company. Isabella Bird Bishop died on October 7, 1904, having lived a very full life.

Isabella at Tangier in 1901 (source)

Isabella at Tangier in 1901 (source)

Resources
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller
The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bishop) by Anna M. Stoddart, 1908, at Internet Archives
A Curious Life for a Lady: The Story of Isabella Bird by Pat Barr
“Obituary: Death of Mrs. Isabella Bishop”, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, Volume 36, Jan 1904.

Isabella Bird Bishop: Riding Elephants and Dining With Apes – In Her Own Words

Isabella Bird (source)

Isabella Bird (source)

Isabella Bird Bishop was truly a world traveler. During her life she visited places as diverse as New England, Australia, and the jungles of East Asia. In 1878, she left Scotland for a trip to Japan, moved on to Singapore, and then spontaneously decided to go to the Malay Peninsula. The excerpts below are taken from her book The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither. (The Golden Chersonese is an old name for the Malay Peninsula.)

BRITISH RESIDENCY, KWALA KANGSA, February 16.

“This is rather exciting, for I have had an unusual journey, and my circumstances are unusual, for Mr. Low, the Resident, has not returned, and I am not only alone in his bungalow in the heart of the jungle, but so far as I can learn I am the only European in the region.”

Riding an Elephant

“Before I came I dreamt of howdahs and cloth of gold trappings, but my elephant had neither. In fact there was nothing grand about him but his ugliness. His back was covered with a piece of raw hide, over which were several mats, and on either side of the ridgy backbone a shallow basket, filled with fresh leaves and twigs, and held in place by ropes of rattan. I dropped into one of these baskets from the porch, a young Malay lad into the other, and my bag was tied on behind with rattan. A noose of the same with a stirrup served for the driver to mount.”

“This mode of riding is not comfortable. One sits facing forward with the feet dangling over the edge of the basket.* This edge soon produces a sharp ache or cramp, and when one tries to get relief by leaning back on anything, the awkward, rolling motion is so painful, that one reverts to the former position till it again becomes intolerable. “

“Certainly I always dreamed that there must be something splendid in riding on an elephant, but I don’t feel the least accession of dignity in consequence.”

“One time the driver went off to gossip, the elephant “turned into the jungle, where he began to rend and tear the trees, and then going to a mud-hole, he drew all the water out of it, squirted it with a loud noise over himself and his riders, soaking my clothes with it, and when he turned back to the road again, he several times stopped and seemed to stand on his head by stiffening his proboscis and leaning upon it, and when I hit him with my umbrella he uttered the loudest roar I ever heard. My Malay fellow-rider jumped off and ran back for the driver, on which the panniers came altogether down on my side, and I hung on with difficulty, wondering what other possible contingencies could occur, always expecting that the beast, which was flourishing his proboscis, would lift me off with it and deposit me in a mud-hole.”

Eventually, the elephant refused to go any farther and Isabella had to walk the remaining distance to Mr. Low’s house at Kwala Kangsa. The driver told her it was a “wicked elephant”, but others later told her it was sick.

Isabella's first elephant ride (source)

Isabella’s first elephant ride (source)

An Unusual Dining Experience

“I was received by a magnificent Oriental butler, and after I had had a delicious bath, dinner, or what Assam was pleased to call breakfast, was “served.” The word “served” was strictly applicable, for linen, china, crystal, flowers, cooking, were all alike exquisite.”

“My valise had not arrived, and I had been obliged to redress myself in my mud-splashed tweed dress, therefore I was much annoyed to find the table set for three, and I hung about unwillingly in the veranda, fully expecting two Government clerks in faultless evening dress to appear, and I was vexed to think that my dream of solitude was not to be realized, when Assam more emphatically assured me that the meal was “served,” and I sat down, much mystified, at the well-appointed table, when he led in a large ape, and the Malay servant brought in a small one, and a Sikh brought in a large retriever and tied him to my chair! This was all done with the most profound solemnity. The circle being then complete, dinner proceeded with great stateliness. The apes had their curry, chutney, pineapple, eggs, and bananas on porcelain plates, and so had I. The chief difference was that, whereas I waited to be helped, the big ape was impolite enough occasionally to snatch something from a dish as the butler passed round the table, and that the small one before very long migrated from his chair to the table, and, sitting by my plate, helped himself daintily from it. What a grotesque dinner party!  What a delightful one! My “next of kin” were so reasonably silent; they required no conversational efforts; they were most interesting companions. “Silence is golden,” I felt; shall I ever enjoy a dinner party so much again?”

A map of the Malay Peninsula from James Low, 1836 (source)

A map of the Malay Peninsula from James Low, 1836 (source)

More to come about Isabella’s life and travels in another post.

Source
The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither by Isabella Bird Bishop at Internet Archive

7 Women Explorers You Should Know

I’ve become interested lately in women who are travelers and explorers. They have been motivated by different things, including adventure, exploration, study of cultures, or simply to exert their independence.  I’m planning several posts about individual women, but in the mean time, here is a list of 7 travelers you may not know.

Imagined portrait of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (source)

Imagined portrait of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (source)

Jeanne Baré (1740-1807), possibly the first western woman to sail across the Pacific, was a member of a round the world expedition led by the French explorer Bougainville. She disguised herself as a man and went on board as the valet to a man named Philibert Commerson, a doctor and botanist. Baré, whose name is sometimes spelled Baret, turned out to be an excellent botanist, and years later was granted a pension by the French government for her work as Commerson’s assistant. It’s not clear whether or not Commerson knew of her disguise, was complicit, or was in fact her lover, but when they reached Tahiti, the natives had no doubt about her gender and exposed her. Baré left no record of her own, but Bougainville says that she finished her voyage “very agreeably.”

Lady Hester Stanhope (source)

Lady Hester Stanhope (source)

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), after serving as chief of the household and hostess for her uncle, British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, set sail for the Middle East in 1810, never to return. After being shipwrecked on Rhodes and losing all of her possessions, she chose to dress like a man, possibly to avoid having to wear a veil. In 1815, she convinced the Ottoman authorities to let her excavate at Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Controversially, when they unearthed a seven-foot marble statue, she ordered the workers to smash it and throw it into the sea. She eventually settled in Sidon, on the coast of present day Lebanon, where she lived until her death.

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for collecting (source)

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for collecting (source)

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858) was an Austrian traveler, author, and member of the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. Her father allowed her to wear boys clothing and participate in sports; he also gave her an education typically given to boys. Her first long trip was to Palestine and Egypt when she was five years old, but further travel had to wait until she had raised two sons. Beginning in 1842, Pfeiffer traveled extensively, eventually visiting the Middle East, Scandinavia, South America, Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Greece, South Africa, North America, and Madagascar. She financed her travels by writing very popular books about her journeys and collecting specimens for museums in Berlin and Vienna.

“Many will perhaps believe that I undertook so long a journey from vanity. I can only say in answer to this . . . that nothing but a natural wish for travel, a boundless desire of acquiring knowledge, could ever overcome the hardships, privations and dangers to which I have been exposed.” ~ Ida Pfeiffer in A Woman’s Voyage

Rose de Freycinet (1817-1820) dressed in men’s clothes to accompany her husband, Louis de Freycinet, on a trip around the world, aboard the Uranie. At least initially. Her husband had command of the ship, but was commissioned by the French navy, and it was illegal for women to travel aboard French naval vessels. Once at sea, there was nothing the navy could do until they reached the next port of call. Even then, no action was taken and Rose continued her journey, becoming the first woman to document an around-the-world voyage, through her diary. Her journal wasn’t published until 1927 in France and the first English translation was produced in 1962.

Alexandrine Tinné c. 1850 by Henri Auguste d'Ainecy Montpezat (source)

Alexandrine Tinné c. 1850 by Henri Auguste d’Ainecy Montpezat (source)

Alexandrine Tinné (1835-1869) was a Dutch explorer and wealthy heiress. After her father’s death, Alexandrine and her mother traveled extensively in Norway, Italy, the Middle East and Egypt. In 1862, they traveled with Theodor von Heuglin and Hermann Steudner on an expedition, into what is today South Sudan, which produced important scientific results, but ended with the death of several of the party due to illness, including Alexandrine’s mother. Refusing to return to the Netherlands, she remained in Cairo taking short trips for the next several years. In 1869, Alexandrine attempted a journey into the Sahara toward Lake Chad. Her goal was to meet the Touaregs, nomads of central Africa. However, she didn’t make it, because on August 1st, she was murdered, struck twice with a sword and left to bleed to death. Her body was never found.

Annie Taylor c. 1902 by William Carey (source)

Annie Taylor c. 1902 by William Carey (source)

Annie Royle Taylor (1855-1922) was a British explorer, Christian missionary, and the first western woman known to have visited Tibet. She joined the China Inland Mission in 1884 and was stationed in Lanzhou on the border of Tibet. However, she was recalled due to poor health. Coming from a wealthy family, Taylor didn’t need the support of the Mission, so after recovering, she went on her own to India, then to Sikkim to study the Tibetan language at a Buddhist monastery. In 1889, she and a young man named Pontso, who had converted to Christianity, traveled to Tianshui in China, where they established a mission. Several years later, in 1892, Taylor and Pontso entered Tibet and attempted to reach Lhasa. The cold was bitter and there was dissension in her party, but they managed to get to within a three day journey of Lhasa before the authorities apprehended them. A year later, she organized her own mission, the Tibetan Pioneer Mission, but it fell apart within a year. Taylor was persistent however, and in 1904 joined the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet.

Mary Kingsley, from her book "West African Studies", published in 1901 (source)

Mary Kingsley, from her book “West African Studies”, published in 1901 (source)

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) was an explorer and writer who traveled extensively in West Africa. As with many young women during the 19th century, she was largely self-educated through her father’s library, where she preferred books on science and about explorers. After nursing both of her parents, who died in 1892, she was left with an inheritance which allowed her to travel. She chose West Africa, and during her initial trip to Sierra Leone and Angola, lived with local people and learned survival skills for the jungle. Her second trip was devoted to studying traditional religious practices and collecting zoological samples. On returning to England, Kingsley lectured frequently about African life and culture. She was critical of missionaries for their attempts to convert the African natives and force them to change aspects of their culture such as polygamy, and to some extent of British Imperialism, although her views are still debated today.

Resources
Forster, Honore (January 2000), “Voyaging Through Strange Seas: Four Women Travellers in the Pacific”, National Library of Australia News
West African Studies by Mary Kingsley at Internet Archive
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller
Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis

Zewditu I – Empress of Ethiopia

Empress Zewditu (source)

Empress Zewditu (source)

Zewditu I, Empress of Ethiopia, was the first internationally recognized female head of state in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. She reigned from 1916 to 1930 and was the first Ethiopian Empress regnant since Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba, as well as the last Empress regnant.

Born on April 29, 1876, Zewditu was given the name Askala Maryam at her baptism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. Her parents were Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa and his consort Weyziro (Lady) Abechi, although, she was raised primarily by her father and his consort Baffana, because of her mother’s death when she was young. She had an excellent relationship with her father and also with the woman her father married, and who became Empress, Taytu Betul. Menelik had three acknowledged children, Zewditu, her older sister Shewa Regga, and a son who died in infancy.

Beginning in 1886 at the age of ten, Zewditu had three political marriages which were short lived, beginning with Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, heir of Emperor Yohannes IV. This was an attempt to cement an alliance between the two rulers which didn’t last, but Araya Selassie died two years later without any children by Zewditu and she returned to her father’s home. In spite of the conflict, Yohannes had high regard for Zewditu and sent her home with a valuable gift of cattle.

The next two marriages ended in death and divorce. In 1900, Taytu arranged a marriage between her nephew, Gugsa Wale, and Zewditu. Gugsa Welle was a poet and book lover, and the marriage appears to have been happy. Zewditu had no surviving children, although she had a daughter by her second marriage who died in 1895 at age four.

Menelik II (source)

Menelik II (source)

In 1899, Yohannis IV died at the Battle of Metemma and Menelik took the Emperor’s throne as Menelik II, making Zewditu a possible fourth in the line of succession. The first two candidates were deemed unsuitable by Menelik, the third was Lij Iyasu, the son of Menelik’s oldest daughter, followed by Zewditu. After having a stroke in 1908, Menelik named Lij Iyasu as his heir, but because he was only 13 he also appointed Tessema Nadew as regent. However, Empress Taytu undermined his choice, hoping to substitute Zewditu or her husband Ras Gugsa Welle, Taytu’s nephew, as successor.

After a series of strokes, Menelik became paralyzed and Iyasu was acknowledged as heir, but he wasn’t considered the best choice for Emperor. He was impulsive, egocentric and prone to be cruel. After Tessema Nadew died in 1911, Iyasu refused another regent. During the next few years, there were several coup attempts as well as an attempt to poison Iyasu. Finally, in December of 1913 Menelik died, but when informed of the death, Iyasu continued playing a mock battle game. He also refused to allow any form of public mourning for the Emperor.

Empress Taytu and Zewditu were both immediately expelled from the palace, but it was a month before word of the death made its way to the aristocracy. Iyasu was uninterested in the day-to-day running of the government, which continued under his grandfather’s cabinet of ministers and Fitawrarri Hapte Giorgis Denagde, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and minister of war. Many of his activities were deemed dangerous to the future of the country, especially during WWI, and his frequent trips away from the capital gave the ministers time to plot his downfall. On September 27, 1916, Iyasu was deposed in favor of Zewditu and she was proclaimed Empress by the nobility and the church.

Although Zewditu was proclaimed “Empress, Queen of Kings, Elect of God, and Lion of Judah,” she initially wasn’t allowed to exercise power alone. Her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed heir to the throne and regent. Also, distrustful of the Empress Dowager Taytu and her relatives, the aristocracy forced Zewditu to separate from her husband. Gugsa was sent to the north and eventually given the governorship of Beghemidir, although he was denied the title of king.

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Iyasu escaped arrest and went into hiding. His father King Michael of Wollo raised an army and declared war, but was defeated quickly and made to pay homage to Zewditu. Iyasu was found a few months later, and imprisoned at Sellae. Zewditu made sure that both Iyasu and his father were treated with dignity and kept in luxury, although Iyasu always referred to her as his “poor naive aunt” for her kindness.

Zewditu’s reign was a constant struggle between the reforming impulses of Ras Tafari and the more conservative wishes of Zewditu, Fitawrarri,the cabinet and the Orthodox Church. In the face of the colonizing of the African continent, Ras Tafari believed that modernization was the key to remaining independent. The conservatives disagreed and took a more isolationist stance. In many ways Zewditu was caught between the two. She was racked with guilt from taking the throne. Devoted to her father, she saw Iyasu’s reign as his stated wish and felt she had gone against that.

As time went on, the conservatives, who had put Ras Tafari in the position as regent, pressed him to consult Zewditu before instituting reforms. They also put pressure on her to resist him. Eventually, Ras Tafari had had enough, and with the support of the Mahil Safari military division, forced her to disband the cabinet of ministers and allow him to put his supporters in their places. He then was able to put reforms into place such as the abolition of slavery and entry into the League of Nations.

These reforms were of little interest to Zewditu who was a pious woman. She retreated into a life of prayer and penance. She was responsible for building several churches, hosted a visit by the Patriarch of Alexandria, and visited the Empress Dowager Taytu often. By 1928, there was little power left to the conservatives and a small uprising was unsuccessful. Zewditu was compelled to grant Tafari the title of Negus, and he was in effect the ruler of Ethiopia.

One final attempt was made when Ras Gugsa Welle raised an army against Negus Tafari and marched for Addis Ababa. Zewditu frantically tried to get him to back down, but he refused. Negus Tafari sent an army north and they met on the Anchiem plain on March 31, 1930. Tafari, now having access to modern military methods, flew planes over Ras Gugsa’s army, first to drop leaflets declaring Gugsa a rebel and promising excommunication from the church for those who participated, and second to drop a bomb. By the end of the day, Ras Gugsa’s army was defeated and he was dead.

Two days later, on April 2, Empress Zewditu also died. She suffered from diabetes and at the time was ill with typhoid, however, speculation about the cause of her death continues today. She was fasting for Lent which may have weakened her, then she was submerged in cold holy water to reduce her fever. Some say she died of shock from this treatment, others say that she died of grief when she was informed of the death of her husband. Still others say that she was poisoned as soon as victory was assured. However, there is no firm evidence to back up these theories and later her Swiss doctor gave her cause of death as diabetes.

Regardless of how she died, Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Zewditu, was greatly mourned and remembered for her piety, generosity, and devotion to her father’s memory. She was also the only monarch in over a century to be given a state funeral after which she was laid to rest in the Masoleum Church of St. Mary Ba-eta with her father and Empress Taytu.

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

 

Resources
Empress Zewditu – Queen of Kings
Zewditu, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia