It’s ‘Basha’ with Ethiopian cap, not Muslim with kopiah, says historian

Ethiopians wear T-shirts featuring Emperor Menelik II in Addis Ababa. A historian says the cap worn by Speedy is similar to what the emperor and his chieftains wore back in the day. (Facebook pic)

(FMT) – Basha Felika is a man very much in the news these days.

Never heard of him? Well, Basha Felika means Commander Speedy and that was the title given by Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia, now modern-day Ethiopia, to the late Captain Tristram Speedy.

Speedy, who came under the spotlight in the Timah whisky controversy, not only played a significant role in Malayan history but also in the history of early Ethiopia, says historian Bahru Zewde.

Zewde, an emeritus professor of history at Addis Ababa University who has written extensively about modern Ethiopian history, said Basha Felika was the title given by the emperor for Speedy’s services to the country.

Bahru Zewde. (African Academy of Sciences pic)

Zewde was particularly piqued by comments over the Timah controversy that Speedy donned a Muslim kopiah on the label of the whisky bottle.

“The cap he is wearing was commonly used by Ethiopian chiefs, including Emperor Menelik II. His headdress has nothing to do with a Muslim cap,” he told FMT in an email.

Emperor Menelik II was a highly regarded figure in Ethiopian history, and a giant statue of him sitting on a horse can be found in Addis Ababa. It was erected in memory of an 1896 battle when he led his army to victory over Italian forces.

Zewde said Speedy played an important role when a conflict broke out between the British Empire and Abyssinia in 1867.

Emperor Menelik II used to rule Abyssinia, now modern-day Ethiopia. (Facebook pic)

“He accompanied the British punitive expedition against Emperor Tewodros. One lasting result of this journey was that he took guardianship of the emperor’s son, Alemayehu, after his father committed suicide when faced with being captured by the British.

“Prince Alemayehu later died in England and was buried at the royal cemetery of Windsor castle,” he said.

Accounts of Speedy’s life showed that he had sent Alemayehu to study in England.

In Malaya, Speedy was also superintendent of police in Penang in 1871 and later instrumental in quelling the Larut Wars. In addition, he is credited with the naming of Taiping, after splitting Larut into two between warring Chinese triads.

Winepak, the distiller of the Timah whisky, has faced flak over its choice of name but has pointed out that it simply means “tin” in Malay, honouring the metal’s role in the country’s economy. Malaya was once the world’s largest tin producer.

Captain Tristram Speedy’s image as seen on the Timah whisky bottle.

It said Speedy’s portrait on the bottle was to recognise him as the first to have introduced the whisky culture in Malaya.

However, some people claimed it sounded like a shortened version of the Arabic name Fatimah. Others also said the image featured on the bottle looked like a man wearing a “kopiah” or a Muslim skullcap.