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The great ethnic migrations (ca. 1520-1660)

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The Adalite Wars of 1524-1543 accelerated the era and events of the Great Ethiopian Ethnic Migrations of the period 1520 to 1660, during which the following vast and diverse tribal and ethnic groups of Ganz, Gudela, Wetogira, Gadabicho, Alaba, Kabena, Ulbarag, Silti, Sheshago, Malge, and Bushe (the Hadiya-Sidama people) ; of Itu, Arsi, Kereyu, Wollo, Tulama, and Mecha (Baretuma-Borana Oromo people); of Derasa, Damot, Gafat, Enariya, Bosha, Adal, and of Somali peoples partially or totally moved from earlier positions in Southern Ethiopia.

In detail the events took place as follows. First, as the consequences of the foregoing two concomitant events of the Adalite Wars of 1524-1543 and the Great Ethnic Migrations of 1520-1660, the ancient and indigenous people of Bali, Dawaro, Adal, Sharka, Fatagar, Maya, Damot, Gafat, Bosha, Enariya, Conga, and Bizamo either totally disappeared from their ancestral lands or were assimilated by the new nomadic immigrant tribes of Oromo, Somali, and Afar.

Then, the various ancient Hadiya-Sidama groups of Gadayco, Gudela, Diho, Hadabo, Ganz, Saga, Gab, Kabena, Gogala, Alaba, Ulbarag, Silti, Wetogira, Sheshago, Malge, Bushe, and Mareko permanently left their ancestral region of today’s southern Shewa and northwestern Sidamo where they had began a process of assimilation with the local peoples of Gurage, Kembata, and Derasa (Gedeo).

As a direct consequence of these two large movements, the three nomadic groups of Oromo, Somali, and Afar underwent expansion both in the central, and western regions of the subcontinent.

This continued until the seventeenth century. Because of its great scope and magnitude, the process and progress of the migratory expansion of the Oromo nomads is specially detailed in the following paragraphs.

As has been said above, since the Adalite War of 1524-1543 the three ethnic groups of Oromo, Somali and Afar had become increasingly important elements in the subcontinent.

The ethnic name of Somali was vaguely mentioned for the first time within the tributary sultanate of Adal during the reign of Ethiopian King Yishaq (1414-1429). In the Adalite War of 1524-1543, many of the Somali tribal groups like Habr Magadi, Harti, Girri, Merehan, Gorgorah, etc. appeared for the first time east and south of Harar and played active parts in the war.

The name Afar (Danakil) was mentioned for the first time in the 13th century by the Arab geographer Ibn Said (1214-74). Like the Somali, the Afar were the subjects of Adal and played active parts in the Adalite War of 1524-1543.

The Oromo people appeared for the first time in the history of the subcontinent in the sixteenth century under the name of “Galla”. All extant documentary, linguistic and traditional evidence unanimously indicates that various tribal groups of the Oromo people under the two main branches of Borana and Baretuma began their migratory expansion from their homeland in the south somewhere between the Ganale River and Lake Abaya in what is not Sidamo.

Sometime between 1520 and 1620, the Baretuma tribes migrated towards the east and northeast over the ancient lands and peoples of Bali, Dawaro, Adal, Argoba, Fatagar, Yifat, Angot, reaching as far as Lasta and the southern frontiers of Tigrai, while the Borana tribes went towards the north and Midwest over the ancient lands and peoples of Hadiya, Sharka, Maya, Waj, Shewa, Amhara, and Jimma in the Gibe-Didesa area. The spectacular events of the Oromo migration and settlement were the result of the following series of internal and external forces and factors.

The internal factors which played decisive roles in the migratory expansion and settlement of the Oromo pastoralists were their particular tribal institutions and customs, and the functions of the gada system, luba warfare, gudafacha acculturation and mogassa assimilation of strangers without linguistic, cultural, or ideological distinction or prejudice.

In the sixteenth century, the gada system was a particular socio-economic system of the Oromo people in which all male members of the society were organized into five age groups known as the Mucha, the Elman, the Gurba, the Qundala, and the Luba divisions, which provided training, and labour according to the age and sex of the male population.

However, “They have neither king nor master like other peoples, but they obey the luba during a period of eight years; at the end of eight years another luba is made, and the first gives up his office. They do this at a fixed time, and luba means those who are circumcised at the same time.”

This classless and stateless society of the Oromo nomads ritually organized and trained all its male members in the art of special warfare known as the luba warfare, that is, a sort of guerrilla warfare, for a total period of 40 years, divided into five equal sets of generational age groups each covering eight years.

Since they had no system and mechanism of class division, exploitation, and oppression in their pastoral society that did not have a state organization, the Luba warriors of the Oromo people either killed or assimilated their defeated enemies in the sixteenth century.

The particular tribal system and practice by which the Oromo people used to adopt strange individuals as members of their families and society is called gudafacha. Mogassa is the particular institution and tribal law of the Oromo people by which they used to accept and assimilate alien people and groups as members of their own society without distinction or prejudice in duty and privileges.

In short, in the sixteenth century, the Oromo people and their Luba warriors undertook massive programmes of ethnic adoption and assimilation of the neighbouring ethnic groups in many parts of the country by their two particular social institutions of gudafacha and mogassa, and rapidly increased the size of their population in the country in a comparatively short period of time.

Of course, the foregoing Oromo social institutions, systems, and laws were not the only forces and factors which contributed decisively to their migratory expansion and settlement throughout most parts of the subcontinent of North-East Africa between 1520 and 1620.

The decisive factor which contributed to the spectacular success of the Oromo migration and settlement was the protracted event of the Adalite War of 1524-1543 which weakened both the local sultanates and the central Hatse Government of Ethiopia on the eve and during the former’s migratory movements.

Under these internal and external conditions, the nine successive Luba groups or generations of Melbah, Mudana, Kilole, Bifole, Michle, Harmufah, Robale, Birmaje, and Mulata, organized and led the migratory expansion of the Oromo tribes from Borana in the south, to Adal in the east, Tigrai in the north, and Dembia and Gojam in the northwest, and to Enariya in the west during the last eight decades of the sixteenth century.

First, during the Melbah Luba, (1520-1530) from Borana they crossed the Galana River and reached Western Bali. Second, between 1530 and 1538, under the leadership of the Mudana Luba, they completed the occupation of Bali. Then, between 1538 and 1546, during generational rule of the Kilole Luba, they occupied Dawaro from Bali.

Between 1546 and 1554, under the leadership of the Bifole Luba, they overran the province of Fatagar, and between 1554 and 1562, under the leadership of Michle Luba, they overran the province of Waj in the Zway-Awash area from Fatagar.

Then, between 1562 and 1570, the Harmufah Luba made incursions into the northern provinces of Angot, Amhara and Begamdir.

Later between 1570 and 1578, the Robale Luba devastated Shewa, and made incursions across the Abay River into Eastern Gojam. Between 1578 and 1586, the Birmaje Luba made a series of incursions into the provinces of Dembia in the northwest and Damot and Gafat in the Midwest, in the Abay, Mugar, and Gibe area. Then, between 1586 and 1594, the Mulata Luba made a series of raids into Shewa and Eastern Gojam.

As can be seen from these events, by the time the Adalites were defeated and expelled from the Northern Highlands in 1543, the provinces of Bali and Dawaro in the southeast were already occupied by the Oromo migrants.

After the defeat of the Adalite uprisings, all attempts made by kings Galawdewos (1540-1559) and Sarsa Dengil (1563-1597) to control the pastoral tribes of Oromo were futile.
However, Susenyos (1605-1632), the founder and the father of the Gondarian kings carefully transformed the Oromo tribal systems of Gada and the Luba warfare into the feudal system of rule and warfare.

In his childhood around 1580, prince Susenyos was captured and adopted as a gudafacha son by a certain Oromo during the Birmaja Luba (1578-1586) and, during his captivity, the former mastered the Oromo language and their system of Luba warfare.

In 1586, at the age of 18 he was liberated from his Oromo captivity and taken the court of Sarsa Dengil. After the latter’s death in 1597, the usual successional and civil war occurred in the country.

During this time, Susenyos fled to the Oromo people and became their leader and the Luba warlord by disguising himself. Between 1605 and 1607, with the decisive aid of the Oromo soldiers, he managed to destroy his enemies and seize the Hatse throne of Ethiopia in Gojam, and he became the founder and father of the Gondarian kings who ruled Northern Ethiopia between 1605 and 1855, and until the rise of Tewodros II in 1855.

After Susenyos in disguise became their tenth Luba leader sometime in the late 1590s, the Oromo pastoral system of Gada began to disintegrate, and the Oromos started to integrate into the feudal system, state and society of Ethiopia.

After he became King as a result of their decisive military assistance, Susenyos, in the 1610s and 1620s fought, defeated, and turned the direction of the Oromo advancement from the Northern Highlands of Tigrai, Begamdir, Dambia, and Gojam back to the south, southeast, and towards the mid west.

After their eventual expulsion from the Northern Highlands by Susenyos, the Oromo people consolidated their occupation of the southern, eastern, and central regions of the country, and began to advance towards the Midwest over the lands and peoples of Damot, Gafat, Jimma, Enariya, Bosha, Bizamo, Conga, Kafa, Mocha, Anfilo, etc. in the West.

(Source: National Atlas of Ethiopia)


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