This collection of archival materials is an important body of original source materials for the political-economic and social history of imperial Ethiopia prior to the Revolution of 1974 that had ended centuries-old monarchical rule in that country. As Ethiopia was one of the few African countries that had not been under colonial rule, and therefore did not undergo significant restructuring of its social and political system, the records of government even during relatively recent times provide highly useful insights into the workings of the system over a much longer stretch of time. Being an agrarian country in which sedentary plough-based cereal agriculture has been dominant, control over land and rural labour have been key indices of social structure and political power in Ethiopia. However, despite the long history of writing based on an indigenous script, not much has survived by way of original documents from the distant past.
These archives are the largest and the most valuable collection of materials on land administration produced after the Imperial system began to operate as a bureaucracy early in the last century. The majority of the documents date from the period between 1941 and 1974 but they hold the key to understanding a pre-modern indigenous political and economic order that made it well into the later part of the twentieth century without fundamental alteration. Also adding to the value of these documents for an understanding of much earlier times is the fact that both state and non-state actors facing challenges of one kind or another sought to justify their actions or defend their positions by invoking authority from the distant past. In some instances, these argumentative pieces include copies of written materials that are no longer available elsewhere, some dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Information that these materials provide for the political-economic and social history of historic Ethiopia is tremendous. They contain extensive documentation of how the imperial system drew on a mix of old and new approaches to land and labour rights in order to generate and use economic and political resources. They also contain much information on the social consequences of an aggressively redistributive system of land and labour administration, including eviction, displacement, and forced movements of people. They also reflect the views and actions of a great variety of people who benefited or suffered from allocations and reallocations of land and labour rights. These are reflected in such documents as fiscal and police records, proceedings of administrative courts as well as protest petitions by individuals and communities.
Due to the challenges they have faced since the early 1970s, these documents have been rendered virtually unusable by scholars. Having been generated by several ministries and agencies of the imperial regime, they were brought together in the late 1960s when the regime sought to centralise management of land tenure and achieve greater control over the socioeconomic relations that arose from it. In the early 1970s, following the overthrow of the monarchy by the military, the documents were cast aside and stored in a poorly built warehouse with other material where they suffered deterioration. Shortly after the collapse of the military regime in 1991, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa University moved all the materials to a depository in a university-owned compound, but this only provided shelter and shelving. Nothing has been done since to protect them from further deterioration or to put them in some order, much less to make them available for students and researchers.
These materials are under imminent and present danger of being totally lost. The buildings in which they are kept are essentially mud houses with corrugated iron roofing and are highly vulnerable to instant destruction in the event of fire. The houses of the depository are in bad repair with very poor ventilation and are highly vulnerable to dampness and pest infestations.
This project will organise and prepare for digitisation these endangered archival materials. An inventory of the documents will be created and the documents will be separated from a variety of other archival materials with which they have been combined. The most important will be identified, for digitisation and safer keeping during a future major project. Samples of the selected documents will be digitised.