How Ethiopia Beat Back Colonizers in the Battle of Adwa

At the end of the 19th century, European powers trod on Africa, brutally colonizing one country after another. Italy, for its part, has targeted Ethiopia. But when his troops attacked on March 1, 1896, near the town of Adwa, they were overpowered by a large and well-armed Ethiopian force. By winning this decisive victory, Ethiopia not only secured its own independence, but also inspired the anti-colonialist movement.

As early as the 1400s, European nations made inroads into Africa, largely to facilitate the transatlantic slave trade. Yet, for centuries, tropical diseases and shipping problems confined most of their activities to coastal areas. By 1870, by which time the slave trade had died down, Europeans controlled only about 10% of the continent.

The “Rush to Africa”

By 1885, however, the so-called scramble for Africa was fully underway, with the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal carving up virtually the entire continent. between them. At the height of colonialism, only Liberia, created for the resettlement of free American blacks, and Ethiopia remained independent.

Relatively new to the game, Italy began its colonial military exploits in 1885, when, with the encouragement of Britain, it occupied the port of Massawa on the Red Sea. From there it spread along the Horn of Africa, establishing the colony of Eritrea – on land formerly controlled by Ethiopia – and also occupying much of present-day Somalia. Its military presence was particularly strengthened after a battle in 1887, when some 500 Italian soldiers were killed in an ambush.

“At that time, to be a great power, you needed at least two things,” says Haile Larebo, an associate professor at Morehouse College who specializes in African colonial history. “You need a navy…and you need colonies.” He adds that the Italians “simply imitated others”, like the British and the French.

In 1889, Italy signed a treaty with the Emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik II, which recognized the Italian claim to Eritrea in exchange for the loan of arms and money. But a major disagreement arose, exacerbated by differences between the Italian and Amharic versions of the text, over whether the treaty had turned Ethiopia into an Italian protectorate, with no control over its external affairs.

Menelik and Taytu Betul prepare the defense

King Menelik of Ethiopia surrounded by his chiefs of arms.

King Menelik II surrounded by his chiefs of arms.

Menelik, who claimed descent from the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, and his wife, Taytu Betul, a wise opponent of European expansionism, prepared to defend their sovereignty. In addition to securing modern weapons, they launched a public relations campaign with the help of several Europeans sympathetic to their cause.

The Swiss-born engineer Alfred Ilg, for example, who served as Menelik’s de facto chief of staff, helped modernize the country’s infrastructure and, on trips to Europe, is said to have promoted Ethiopia as “the Switzerland of Africa”. Other Europeans published admiring articles about the Ethiopian court, sometimes calling the devout Menelik “the Christian monarch of Africa”. Menelik became something of a celebrity and later even exchanged phonograph messages with Queen Victoria of England. “He’s a down-to-earth monarch,” says Haile, with a “charming” and “magnetic” personality.

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Menelik calls for mass mobilization

During his rise to power, Menelik had viciously mutilated rival Ethiopians, branded slaves with the sign of the cross, destroyed mosques and encouraged looting. Nonetheless, with the Italians presenting a common threat, Menelik united the country’s grumpy provincial leaders behind him. When he called for a mass mobilization in September 1895, he was able to raise around 80,000–120,000 troops, with men pouring in from almost every region and ethnic group in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, Italy had advanced about 250 miles from Addis Ababa, the newly founded Ethiopian capital. Menelik, accompanied by Taytu, led his army north on what would become a five-month march totaling almost 600 miles. As Raymond Jonas, author of The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, writes, Menelik covered more ground than William Tecumseh Sherman on his march to the sea or than Napoleon on of his ill-fated invasion of Russia.

In December 1895 and January 1896, the Ethiopian army annihilated an advanced Italian column at Amba Alage, then besieged an Italian fort at Mekele, forcing its surrender largely by implementing Taytu’s strategy of cutting off the ‘water supply. The Ethiopians then slipped past the entrenched Italian main force and moved towards the Adwa region. All along, Menelik reportedly spread false rumors, downplaying the size and cohesion of his troops. “It’s one of the greatest campaigns of the 19th century,” Jonas said in a 2012 podcast.

Aware of his lack of food, water, and accurate maps, Italian commander Oreste Baratieri considered retreating to Eritrea. But, on February 25, 1896, he received a telegram from Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi essentially urging him to action. His subordinate generals also pushed for a decisive engagement, prompting Baratieri, who had previously vowed to bring Menelik back to Italy in a cage, to advance three brigades.

Italians make full retreat, Ethiopia establishes independence

When fighting broke out on March 1, the Italians and their African auxiliaries quickly found themselves disorganized, outnumbered, and exposed in inhospitable terrain. By the end of the day they were in full retreat, leaving behind their artillery and about 3,000 prisoners. “[Menelik] outsmarted and overwhelmed the Italians in every aspect,” says Haile. Many women contributed to the victory, serving as water distributors, medical care providers, prison guards and morale boosters. Taytu herself commanded her own personal army.

Overall, the Ethiopians inflicted a casualty rate of up to 70% (while also suffering relatively heavy casualties). They brought the Italian prisoners back to Addis Ababa, in what Jonas calls a “racial turn of the tables that put whites at the mercy of blacks in significant numbers for the first time.” Well treated, they are gradually released, while on the other hand, the Africans fighting alongside the Italians would have had their right hand and left foot amputated.

In the aftermath of the battle, Crispi’s government collapsed and Baratieri was put on trial. (He was acquitted.) Additionally, Italy agreed to recognize Ethiopia’s independence, as did other European powers, who negotiated with Menelik to settle the country’s borders.

Menelik’s win also had bigger consequences. Prior to Adwa, according to Haile, Europeans generally viewed Africans as primitive savages, all of whom would be ruled and eventually displaced by Europeans. But afterwards, says Haile, Europeans were forced to take “Africans much more seriously”, even as racist attitudes remained entrenched.

Italian forces then returned under Benito Mussolini and briefly occupied Ethiopia using warplanes and chemical weapons. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian resistance endured as a “beacon” for future African independence movements, Haile explains, along with the concept of Pan-Africanism. It has also indirectly influenced pop culture: in the Black Panther movies and comics, for example, the fictional Wakanda is portrayed as the only African nation never to have been colonized.

“Really,” Haile said, “the foundation of all this is Adwa.”

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