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August 31, 2011 / qalbesa

an interesting story about Oromos went to south Africa in19c, Bisho Jarsa,cimtuun eessattu cimtuma.

Oromo slaves

How an Oromo  slave became
a South African teacher

Rowoldt Shell
of Cape Town

I heard this story in 2005. somebody  who went to south africa met Nivelle . He told him that he is from Ethiopia and Nivelle asked him if he knows the people he mentioned below . The man said no. Then Nivelle gave him a short account written in English by English man about all the slave taken from Oromia to South Africa. I got the document from that man but could not find any one  said to be back to Oromia. Before a week some body told me about a girl called Ayida who he said educated in south Africa and come back to Ethiopia long a go. I do not now if Ayida is among the people who Nivelle  is looking for now. Any how please help us by reading this story.the story is also on BBC network africa 25,augest.

Bishoo JaarsaNeville Alexander

Bisho Jarsa , trained as a domestic servant, went on to become a teacher

When Neville Alexander used to visit his
maternal grandmother Bisho Jarsa as a boy, he never suspected the extraordinary
story of how she had come from Ethiopia to the South African city of Port

Bisho was one of a group of Ethiopian
slaves freed by a British warship in 1888 off the coast of Yemen, then taken
round the African coast and placed in the care of missionaries in South Africa.

“We were overawed in her presence
and by the way she would mumble to herself in this language none of us
understood,” recalls Mr Alexander, now 74.

This was Ethiopia’s Oromo language,
Bisho’s mother tongue, which she reverted to as she grew older.

Mr Alexander, who was a political
prisoner in the 1960s, sharing Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, is today one
of South Africa’s most eminent educationists.

He remembers his younger siblings asking
their mother, Dimbiti: “What’s Ma talking about… what’s the matter with
her? What’s she saying?”

Their mother would respond: “Don’t
worry about Ma… she’s just talking to God.”

When he was in his late teens, his
mother told him about his Ethiopian origins but Mr Alexander thinks even she
may not have known all the details, which he only discovered when he was in his

He found out that the freed Ethiopians
had all been interviewed on their arrival in South Africa.

The story began on 16 September 1888,
when Commander Charles E Gissing, aboard the British gunship HMS Osprey,
intercepted three dhows carrying Ethiopians to the slave markets in the Arabian
port of Jeddah.

for maize

Commander Gissing’s mission was part of
British attempts to end the slave trade – a trade that London had supported
until 1807, when it was abolished across the British Empire.

their arrival in Yemen, the children were looked after by local families and

All the 204 slaves freed by Commander
Gissing were from the Oromo ethnic group and most were children.

The Oromo, despite being the most
populous of all Ethiopian groups, had long been dominated by the country’s
Amhara and Tigrayan elites and were regularly used as slaves.

Emperor Menelik II, who has been
described as Ethiopia’s “greatest slave entrepreneur”, taxed the
trade to pay for guns and ammunition as he battled for control of the whole
country, which he ruled from 1889 to 1913.

Bisho Jarsa was among the 183 children
found on the dhows.

She had been orphaned with her two
brothers, as a result of the drought and disease that swept through Ethiopia in
1887, and left in the care of one of her father’s slaves.

But the continuing threat of starvation
resulted in Bisho being sold to slave merchants for a small quantity of maize.

After a journey of six weeks, she
reached the Red Sea, where she was put on board one of the Jeddah-bound dhows
intercepted by HMS Osprey

The missionaries recorded detailed
histories of the former slaves, educated them and baptised them into the
Christian faith”

Her first memory of the British was the
sound of automatic gunfire blasting into the sails and rigging of the slave
dhow while she huddled below deck with the other Oromo children.

They all fully expected to be eaten as
this is what the Arab slave traders had told them would happen if they were
captured by the British.

But Commander Gissing took the Oromo to
Aden, where the British authorities had to decide what to do with the former

The Muslim children were adopted by
local families. The remaining children were placed in the care of a mission of
the Free Church of Scotland – but the harsh climate took its toll and by the
end of the year 11 had died.

The missionaries sought an alternative
home for them, eventually settling on another of the Church’s missions, the
Lovedale Institution in South Africa’s Eastern Cape – on the other side of the

Bisho and the rest of the children
reached Lovedale on 21 August 1890.

The missionaries recorded detailed
histories of the former slaves, educated them and baptised them into the
Christian faith.


Nivelle Alexander

Her real liberation was not the British
warship but the education she later received in South Africa”

Quote Neville Alexander

Life was tough here too, however, and by
1903, at least another 18 of the children had died.

In that year, the Lovedale authorities
asked the survivors whether they would like to return to Ethiopia.

Some opted to do so, but it was only
after a protracted process, involving the intervention of German advisers to
Emperor Menelik, that 17 former slaves sailed back to Ethiopia in 1909.

The rest had by this time married or
found careers and opted to stay in South Africa.

Bisho was trained for domestic service,
but she must have shown signs of special talent, because she was one of only
two of the Oromo girls who went on to train as a teacher.

In 1902 she left Lovedale and found a
position at a school in Cradock, then in 1911 she married Frederick Scheepers,
a minister in the church.

Frederick and Bisho Jarsa had a
daughter, Dimbiti. Dimbiti married David Alexander, a carpenter, and one of
their children, born on 22 October 1936, was Neville Alexander.

By the 1950s and 60s he was a well-known
political activist, who helped found the short-lived National Liberation Front.


If you know these people – the freed
slaves who decided to return home in 1909 – please use the form below to let us

  • Aguchello Chabani
  • Agude Bulcha
  • Amanu Figgo
  • Baki Malaka
  • Berille Boko Grant
  • Dinkitu Boensa
  • Fayesse Gemo
  • Fayissa Umbe
  • Galgal Dikko
  • Galgalli Shangalla
  • Gamaches Garba
  • Gutama Tarafo
  • Hawe Sukute
  • Liban Bultum
  • Nagaro Chali
  • Nuro Chabse
  • Rufo Gangilla
  • Tolassa Wayessa

He was arrested and from 1964 until 1974
was jailed in the bleak prison on Robben Island.

His fellow prisoners, Nelson Mandela and
Walter Sisulu, were fascinated by his part-Ethiopian origins but at the time,
he was not aware that his grandmother had been captured as a slave and so they
could not draw any comparisons with their own fight against oppression.

So what did he feel when he found out
how is grandmother had ended up in South Africa?

“It reinforced my sense of being an
African in a fundamental way,” he told the BBC.

Under apartheid, his family was
classified as Coloured, or mixed-race, rather than African.

“We always struggled against this
nomenclature,” he said.

He also noted that it explained why he
had often been mistaken for an Ethiopian during his travels.

The strongest parallel he can draw
between his life and that of his grandmother is the role of schooling.

“Her real liberation was not the
British warship but the education she later received in South Africa,” he

“Equally, while on Robben Island,
we turned it into a university and ensured that all the prisoners learned to
read and write, to prepare them for their future lives.”

Do you know any of the 17 people who
returned to Ethiopia in 1909? If you do, please use the form to contact the



Leave a Comment
  1. paulos / Oct 10 2011 5:33 pm

    I would like to know what happened to the rest who remained in South Africa. Some might have managed to contact their families at home.
    If this has happened, it may be possible to find some of their original localities in Oromia. All Oromos have detailed knowledge of their ancestry many generations back so relatives might not be difficult to trace.
    Generally speaking though, the names suggest either central or western Oromia.

  2. Biranu Urgessa / Oct 19 2011 1:17 pm

    it is attention deserving story!

  3. D. Nagarii Guyyoo / Jul 2 2012 8:41 am

    yes i really heard the story which i haven’t expect to hear from South Africa which proves to me that Oromo’s are the wisdom society who were overlooked

  4. Marga Bilisa / Nov 4 2012 12:03 pm

    this history shows oromo can have many discrimination from gov’t

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