Mikael Argawi (1848-1931), a Falasha or Ethiopian Jew, was the first Ethiopian Protestant missionary. Whilst he was still an infant his mother died in an epidemic. His sorrow-stricken father became a hermit, leaving Argawi, who was scarcely three years old, in the care of Johann Martin Flad, a German missionary who had founded a Protestant mission station for the conversion of the Falashas at Kobela near Jenda, in the province of Begemder.
Argawi attended the small mission school and acted first as the personal servant of Mrs. Flad and later as nursemaid to her children.
When the missionaries fell into disfavor with the Emperor Theodore (1855-1868), who suspected them of reporting unfavorably on him, Argawi, then still a youth, remained loyal to them. In 1863 he accompanied Mrs. Flad and her children, as well as the other missionaries, to Gondar whither they had been summoned by the Emperor in the absence of Martin Flad. During the subsequent period of imprisonment of the Flads and the other missionaries, Argawi rendered them valuable service as a messenger and in many other ways, though they did not risk sending him out of the country with any messages for fear of what might befall him if he were caught.
When in 1866 the Emperor sent Flad to London as an emissary to Queen Victoria he took Argawi with him to Europe at the suggestion of the British Consul Cameron.
As Argawi was too young to enter the Missionary Training School at St. Chrischona, Switzerland from which Flad had set out for Ethiopia, he entered an orphanage at Weinheim near Heidelberg, Germany. He was a diligent pupil and soon achieved a good command of the German language and developed fine handwriting. At the school there was an emphasis on religious instruction and agriculture.
A countess, who had recently lost her son, volunteered to pay for Argawi’s clothing, and Mrs. E. Potts, an English convert, who had offered to pay the salary of a number of missionaries began to support Argawi, at Flad’s suggestion, and continued to pay his school fees and upkeep for years.
In 1869, at the age of 20, he completed his preparatory schooling at Weinheim and entered the four-year course for missionaries at St. Chrischona. A group of young Falasha converts who had reached Jerusalem by attaching themselves to British officers returning after the defeat of Emperor Theodore at Magdala in 1868, had been sent to St. Chrischona from Jerusalem by the Protestant bishop Samuel Gobat–the first missionary to work among the Falashas in Ethiopia–as they wished to return to Ethiopia as missionaries.
Argawi became their interpreter and guide. The group consisted of three other Falasha converts: Agashe and the brothers Samani and Sanbattu; Gobau Derba, formerly an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and later famous as Kantiba Gabru, Mayor of Gondar and interpreter to Emperor Menelik (King of Shoa, 1865-1889, Emperor of Ethiopia, 1889-1913), Hailu. another former Orthodox Christian with a knowledge of Geez, who later died of a lung disease; and two Gallas: Tchekten, the cup bearer of Emperor Theodore, and his friend.
Towards the end of 1873 Flad set off with Argawi and the other Ethiopians who had completed their studies at St. Chrischona reaching Massawa in December and Metammah in January, 1874. In April of that year at an audience with Emperor Yohannes (1871-1889), Flad was told that foreign missionaries would hence forward not be permitted to enter the Empire, but that the Ethiopians who had come with him could continue the conversion of the Falashas. After 20 days Flad was escorted out of Ethiopia. Argai and Sanbattu remained in charge of the old mission station near jenda where they were assisted by the first important converted Falasha, Debtera Beru; Agashe and Samani settled in Asseso near Gondar.
Argawi and his fellow missionaries undertook many journeys among the Falashas using Bibles, religious pamphlets and tracts which Flad had translated into Amharic in earlier times and which had been printed at Chrischona. Over the years they claimed the conversion to Christianity of some 2,000 people.
In 1881 a plan for the meeting between Flad and the Ethiopian Missionaries at Metemmah, on the Egyptian-Ethiopian boarder failed because of the disturbed political situation but fifty-six boxes of religious literature reached the missionaries safely. They included 500 Bibles and 1,000 New Testaments carried on twenty-one camels.
It was then decided that, since a conference of missionaries could not take place in Ethiopia, Argawi, as leader of the mission in Ethiopia, should be brought to Europe. This plan, conceived in 1882, could not be put into effect until 1885.
Argawi was invited to England and after spending a few days with his old benefactress, Mrs. Potts, he joined Flad in the summer helping in the proof-reading of the third edition of the Amharic Bible on which Flad had been working for five years, on behalf of the British and Foreign Bible Society in London, and which was to be the first printed Amharic Bible in one volume.
After visiting religious communities in Southern Germany and Switzerland, including St. Chrischona, Argawi returned to Ethiopia at the end of the year armed with many copies of the new Bible, Testaments and tracts, as well as the salaries of all Mission employees in Ethiopia for 1885-1886.
The following years were years of hardship for Ethiopia. On the one hand Italians and Dervishes were threatening the frontiers; on the other the worst famine in Ethiopian recorded history swept the land for some three years beginning n 1889. These events severely handicapped Argawi’s work. In addition, the Orthodox priests made difficulties for him and on one occasion had him thrown into prison for 14 days: he was accused of leaving the country without the Emperor’s permission and of being a Protestant and hater of the Virgin Mary.
When the Dervishes overran the Mission station, Argawi with his pregnant wife, daughters and mother-in-law were forced to flee to Belesa. Shortly afterwards Argawi’s only son, Menker, was born. Salaries were no longer reaching Argawi because of the occupation of Massawa by the Italians, and the missionaries found themselves in dire straights.
Argawi travelled to Massawa to make sure his letter appealing for help was duly dispatched. Flad was so moved by the description of the terrible conditions facing the missionaries that in February, 1890, he called a conference which he himself attended, at the Swedish mission in Monkulo near massawa. Eight Ethiopian missionaries including Argawi managed to attend; he reported that they all took heart for further work as a result.
The death of Debtera Beru in the same year increased Argawi’s responsibilities. The cattle plague was followed by typhus and cholera epidemics whilst caterpillars and locusts destroyed the crops. Argawi’s reports· 1891-1892 describe the decimation not only among missionaries but throughout the land. Internal warfare added to their difficulties as did the fact that money was no longer reaching them from overseas and they had no alternative means of support.
From Debra Tabor, where they had taken refuge, the missionaries moved to Abuna Harra where there were greater possibilities of proselytizing, but conditions grew from bad to worse. ln 1892 Argawi went again via Massawa to Europe to consult Flad and recover his strength.
The Mission Committee decided to send Flad once again to Monkullo despite his advancing years. For the ninth time he journed to Abyssinia and conferred with ten workers in March, 1894. It was decided to re-open the old stations in Dembea and Argawi was appointed official leader of the Mission.
Shortly afterwards Argwi and his friends travelled to Addis Ababa to obtain written authorization from Emperor Menelik for their work. This was granted. Alfred Ilg, Menelik’s Swiss Minister of State, attempted to interest Argawi in government service but Argawi declined, preferring humble mission work. Upon his return to the mission, Argawi was given the honored title of Alaqa by the Governor of his home province who was Emperor Mene1ik’s son-in-law.
Further difficulties arose for Argawi during Lij Yyassu’s reign and during the First World War when contact with Germany was severed. However, money for the mission’s work continued to reach the station.
During his regency, Ras Tafari, future Emperor Haile Sellassie, gave permission to missionaries to operate freely among all non-Christian people in Ethiopia. In 1922 Martin Flad’s son, Friedrich, after an audience with Ras Tafari, called a conference in Addis Ababba which Argawi, however, could not attend, because of ill health though Friedrich Flad was.able to meet Argawi’s old friend Kantiba Gabru. With a written authorization and the Emperor’s encouragement, Flad travelled to Jenda. Aragwi’s son, Menker, showed Flad around the remains of his father’s first mission station where Flad himself was born.
Argawi at first declined Friedrich Flad’s invitaion to visit Germany and Switzerland once again, but was, persuaded to go at the age of 75, in order to help him with the publication of Blatengueta Heruy’s version of the New Testament in popular Amharic. This had been kept safely by Pastor Svenson in Asmara for ten years, away from the Orthodox priests who wished to destroy it, but Svenson had grown too old to complete the work himself and had asked Flad to take over. With the promise of Argawi’s help Flad agreed.
In July, 1923 Argawi celebrated his “fifty-years of service” jubilee at the St. Chnschona Mission but immediately afterwards started work with Flad on Heruy’s New Testament at St. Légier near Vevey in Switzerland.
Blatengueta Herouy’s translation was based on the revised Amharic Bible, though Heruy also knew English and had made use of the English Authorized Version too. It was Flad’s task to check this text against the basic Greek version, and Argawi then rendered corrections in the popular Amharic idiom used by Heruy, and recorded these in his beautiful handwriting. This work took Argawi and Flad more than one year. In the course of the year Blatengueta Heruy, then Ethiopian Foreign Minister, visited them. He was at this time representing Ethiopia at the first Assembly of the League of Nations in Geneva. Argawi and Herui became close. friends. As the manuscript had been purchased by the Swedish Mission, printing became possible.
In the course of the winter 1924-1925 the Director of the Swedish Mission in Ethiopia took the corrected manuscript back to Addis Ababa where it was printed with parallel Greek and Amharic texts at the Imperial Press.
In the autumn of 1924 Argawi returned to Jenda for the last time via Jibuti and Addis Ababa. In the capital his friend Blatengueta Heruy presented him to Ras Tafari who received him graciously and gave him money for the homeward journey. His son Menker accompanied him from Addis Ababa to Jenda. One year later he received two young trained co-workers from Chrischona – Brothers Baur and Heintze to help in the mission. The wife of Heintze née Flad, was a grand-daughter of Martin Flad’s wife whom Argawi had served with such love as a boy.
Mikael “Alaqa” Argawi died at Jenda on June 27th, 1931.
This article, “Mikael Argawi: Ethiopia’s First Protestant Missionary,” published in the Ethiopia Observer volume 10, no. 3 in 1966, was written by Rita Pankhurst, university librarian of Haile Selassie I University for many years and editor of many academic books and university theses.