Brief Historical Notes on Degiat Bahta Hagos and “The Bite of the White Snake”: Italian Colonialism and Native Resistance in Eritrea
By Elias Amare
[This essay was original written in 2011 for the online Eritrean discussion forum, Tsedal.]
Present generation of Eritreans are somewhat familiar with Degiat Bahta Hagos’s famous massé, (a form of traditional Eritrean Tigrinya oral poetry) “ጻዕዳ ተመን እንተነኺሱ” (“Bite of the White Snake”). However, its historical context and the late 19th-century anti-colonial resistance of Eritreans such as Degiat Bahta are less well known. The subject of this brief essay is to explore the embryonic roots of Eritrean nationalist struggle by focusing on a notable the historic event in 1894 and the personality of Degiat Bahta. In Tigrinya, Degiat is the short form of the feudal aristocratic rank of Degezmati.
In writing this article I referred to four sources:
1) Conversation with the poet/writer/researcher and currently director of the Cultural Department of the Ministry of Education, Solomon Tsehaye, as well as his book on Tigrinya oral poetry (2012), “Massen Melqesn Qedamot”;
2) Zemhret Yohannes’s two recently published books, “Italyawi Megza’eti ab Ertra” (Italian Colonialsm in Eritrea) and “Mekhete Antsar Italyawi Megza’eti ab Ertra” (Native Resistance Against Italian Colonialism in Eritrea) both recently published (2010);
3) “Degiat Bahta Hagos Segeneiti” by Azmach Gebremichael Girmu (ZeBeraqit) published posthumously by his son-in-law Berhane Abreha in 1997, and
4) Article published in Berhan Catholic newspaper in November/December issue 1994 on the centenary of Degiat Bahta’s death.
Solomon Tsehaye is an authoritative source who has done extensive and rigorous research on Tigrinya oral poetry of massé and melqes published as “ማሰን መልቀስን ቀዳሞት”(“Massen Melqesn Qedamot” — “Oral Poetry of the Forefathers”), the first of a projected three-volume work on the subject. He confirmed that the famous massé is indeed Degiat Bahta’s. According to Solomon, Degiat Bahta was not only a fierce warrior but also a gifted poet and skilled kirar/mesenqo player, and oral history indicates that besides “the bite of white snake” massé he had composed several other memorable massé and hilay songs. His brother, Sengal, on the other hand, who was the subject of the poem, was not himself known as a poet.
Azmach Gebremichael Girmu’s brief biographical monograph (published posthumously) is a gem of a book which provides much insight into the character and historical background of Degiat Bahta Hagos. As his son-in-law points out in the brief introduction of the book, it was not completed and ready for publication. The late Azmach Gebremichae only left hand-written notes in manuscript form. The published book is a bit disjointed and could have benefitted from significant editorial input. Still, it is a valuable book for its style, insight, and wealth of anecdotal information. Furthermore, the book gives historical background information that I have indicated above, which led Degiat Bahta to compose that memorable massé. It also confirms Solomon’s information on Degiat Bahta’s poetic prowess. A case in point is Bahta Hagos’s famous lamentation for his beloved cow named ኣሻሕ (ashaH) which was looted along with a large number of cattle and sheep and goats of the Tsen’adegle as punishment for their crime of refusing to pay tribute to Hatsey (Emperor) Yohannes of Tigray. At that time Ras Alula, as the Tigrayan king’s warlord and viceroy in Eritrea, descended to the Ala grazing area with a huge army and, as punishment for Bahta’s rebellion against Tigrayan hegemony, looted all the herd of the Tsen’A-Degle region. Bahta Hagos and his followers could not face Alula’s bigger and better-armed force and had to retreat and watch from afar their cattle being herded and sold in the markets of the highlands, and the remains herded to Tigray. Here’s how young Bahta Hagos then lamented the loss of his beloved cows ኣሻሕ (ashaH) and ዳዕቦ (da’Ebo) in this famous melqes:
ኣንቲ ኣሻሕ ላመይ፣ ዳዕቦ ላመይ፤
ደሓን ወዓል ዘይትብልኒ ከመይ፤
ተሳጊርኪ ክትሓልፍዮ ደመይ፤
ግብሪ ከይኸፍል ከም ቀደመይ፤
ግብሪ ከይኸፍል ከም ዓለመይ፤
ዓለወኛ እምበር ወጺኡኒ ስመይ፤
ኣንትን መዓል ኣሻሕ መዓል ዳዕቦ፤
ሓደ’ዶ ሰኣንክን ደርባይ ሓዊ ኩቦ፤
ኣሕለፍናክን ተጸጊዕና ጐቦ፤
ኣጥፋእናክን ኣሓና ሰኣን ጉቦ፤
ትግራይ ወሰዱኽን ክንዲ ካዕቦ።
It is after this confrontation with Ras Alula around 1880 that Bahta Hagos was forced to flee his homeland of Sengeiti and seek refuge in Rora Habab with the then chief of the area, Kentibay Hamed Hassen, who gave Bahta protection and promoted him to the title of Kentiba. For almost eight years, the two chiefs fought together against Alula and Tigrayan hegemony in Eritrea. After Hatsey Yohannes’s defeat at Metema by the dervish Mahdist forces of Sudan and Alula’s withdrawal from Eritrea, the Italians continued their encroachment from the coast of Massawa towards the rest of Eritrea in the late 1880s. In this they were assisted by the terrible famine known as ዘመን ኣካሒዳ (“zemen akaHhida” — the time of betrayal), which had ravaged the entire country on top of Alula ‘s devastating pillage and continued war. Many Eritreans went down to Massawa to receive grain supplies from the Italians. In 1888, Bahta Hagos, along with many other Eritrean notables, submitted to the Italians and accepted their “protectorate” in return for which the Italians supplied them with arms and grain relief.
Bhata Hagos was favored by the Italians as he had converted to Catholicism (the majority of TsenAdegle district had earlier embraced Catholicism, it must be noted) and also had the credentials of being a skilled warrior who was also a fierce opponent of Tigrayan hegemony. With his ample supply of Italian arms and a relatively larger army, Bahta Hagos consolidated his power-base in Akele-Guzai and was promoted to the rank of Degezmati (Degiat) and appointed as ruler of the region. Initially, of course, the Italians favored him because of their larger aims of using Eritrea as a springboard for furthering the colonialist expansion into Ethiopia. It is to be remembered that they had faced a stunning defeat at Dogali in 1886 at the hands of Ras Alula. One must also take into account that Eritrean history of that period was marked by constant infighting and rivalry among Eritrean notables of that period. The ascent from Italian-controlled Massawa to his home base of Segeneiti was not easy for the young and ambitious Degiat Bahta Hagos, and he had to face many rivals and contenders in several battles before he vanquished all of them and reached his ancestral homeland of Senegeiti. When Degiat Bahta held a celebratory feast of his ascendancy to power in Segeneiti by 1889, he still was opposed by a rival clan of Sengeneit (Adi kentiba) who held a counter feast just to spite him.
Thus, initial reaction of Eritrean traditional rulers to Italian expansion was divided between collaboration and resistance. The Italians were able to subdue the scattered resistance of some of the noblemen of Akele-Guzai, Seraye and Hamasien in the highlands with the help of allies such as Degiat Bahta and others. Many of the early resisters were either killed in battle or imprisoned in Massawa, the infamous Nakhura island, and Asseb. Much later, when the tide turned against him and Degiat Bahta realized the true objectives of Italian colonial expansion, just before his last standoff at the battle of Halai, he lamented the imprisonment of his compatriots in his other famous melqes:
ሰብ ዓሰመ ኣንቱም ሰብ ዓሰመ፣
ኣጥፋእናኩም ልቢ ምስ ሓሰመ፣
ደለናኩም ነገር ምስ ጸገመ።
[O you people of Asseb
We lost you when the heart was bitter
Now we seek you in times of need.]
To come to the massé of “The bite of the White Snake,” by 1893 the Italians, having crushed all significant resistance to their colonial expansion in Eritrea, started to expropriate fertile land from the peasantry (around 400,000 hectares all in all). This did not sit well with Degiat Bahta Hagos and the rest of the Eritrean population. Prior to this, the Italians had approached Degiat Bahta to help them recruit young men and women from every household in his fiefdom into their colonial service. Their enticing offer was to claim their intentions as benign whereby the young Eritrean men and women would be taken to Italy for orientation and training of Italy’s “great civilization” and upon their return to Eritrea find them gainful employment in the service of the empire. Degiat Bahta rebuffed this seemingly generous offer as he was not fooled that the real intentions of the Italians was to use the young Eritrean men as conscript soldiers and the young Eritrean women as concubines for Italian officers.
After the expropriation of huge tracts of land all over Eritrea, the last straw came when the Italians demanded that Degiat Bahta hand over the “old” rifles in the possession of his sizable army with the pretext that they would be replacing them with better modern rifles. Matters reached the height of confrontation when Degiat Bahta rejected this demand and, on 14 December 1894, imprisoned the arrogant Italian officer at Segeneiti, one Tenente Sanguinetti of “va bene Bahta Sengeiti” fame. It is around this time when some in Degiat’s family, chief among whom were his son Lij Gebremedhin and his younger brother Kentiba Sengal, counseled appeasement and a non-confrontational approach, that Degiat Bahta composed his famous massé of “no antidote for the bite of the white snake”.
ዝጠዓመ እንተጠዓመ ጓና ነይምሹ፣
ኣንታ ሰንጋል ሓወይ እምብዛ ኣይትዓሹ፣
ወደይ ገብረመድህን እምብዛ ኣይትዓሹ፣
ገመድ ኣሎ ቅሩብ ተፋሒሱ፣
ባጽዕ እግሩ ዓሰም መተርኣሱ፣
ሓወይ ንኡስ ሰንጋል እምብዛ ኣይትዓሹ፣
ጻዕዳ ተመን ድሕሪ ነኺሱ፣
ደላሊኻ ዘይርከብ ፈውሱ።
[However nice the alien is no comfort
Sengal my brother do not be fooled
Gebremedhin my son never be fooled
There is the rope ready for your hanging
Its front in Massawa its rear in Asseb
Little brother Sengal never be fooled
For once the white snake bites
Its antidote you will never find.]
A few days later, the final clash took place on 18 December 1894 between the Italian forces at Halai and the forces of Degiat Bahta. The Degiat and his army, estimated between 1,500 and 2,000, fought fiercely for over three hours. The Berhan newspaper article estimates the number of the Italian colonial forces at 3,500 — the ones at the garrison of Halai, and the combined reinforcement battalions that came from both Asmara and Ghinda’e. So, there is no doubt that the Italian colonialist forces vastly outnumbered and outgunned Degiat Bahta’s forces. Degiat Bahta, on the other hand, had issued the “kitet” war call to arms that went all the way to the Shimejana area, the entire Akele-Guzai all the way to Seraye. So, it is not inconceivable that his forces could have reached as high as 2,000.
Just as Degiat Bahta’s forces were about to break through the Italian garrison at Halai, however, a battalion of Italian reinforcement arrived and ambushed his forces from behind. Outnumbered and outgunned by the Italians, Degiat Bahta fell in that fateful battle. When his fallen body was later picked up after a week by peasants of the area for proper burial, it was found he had sustained seven bullet wounds while fighting gallantly. His defeated forces retreated, with a contingent of 500 warriors led by his brother Kentiba Sengal fleeing to Tigray where they were given refuge by Ras Mengesha. Another contingent led by Degiat Bahta’s son, Lij Gebremedhin, retreated to the Seled area in the Akele-Guzai region of Eritrea. For a while he tried to continue the resistance until he too had to flee and take refuge in Tigray where he stayed until 1904. Both Sengal and Gebremedhin later returned to Italian-controlled Eritrea, accepting Italian amnesty and being promoted in turn to the rank of Degezmati.
In conclusion, though the battle of Halai resulted in defeat of Degiat Bahta’s resistance in pure military terms, it was however a defeat from which the Eritrean people and future generations drew inspiration for continued defiance and resistance to any form of colonial oppression. The resistance at Halai, along with other clashes of the period, as well as the famous prison break from Nakhura island was the embryo of Eritrean national consciousness and the beginning of century-long anti-colonial struggle which ended with Eritrea’s final independence on 24 May 1991. In the immediate aftermath, it also put a halt to the Italian colonial program of vast land expropriation and settlement in Eritrea. By 1895, the Italian parliament heatedly debated the ambitious colonial settlement program and finally put an end to it.