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Today In African History: The First Italo-Abyssinian War: Battle of Adwa; When Ethiopia Completely Crushed Italy

Ethiopia officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It shares borders with Eritrea to the north and northeast, Djibouti and Somalia to the east, Sudan and South Sudan to the west, and Kenya to the south. With nearly 100 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world, as well as the second-most populous nation on the African continent after Nigeria. It occupies a total area of 1,100,000 square kilometres (420,000 sq mi), and its capital and largest city is Addis Ababa.

Emperor Menelik II and Ethiopia’s Imperial Succession

Menelik II is crowned emperor, in 1889, after a time of great turmoil in the region – both internally and outside Ethiopia’s borders.

Three decades of internal upheaval have led to a strengthening of central control, but this has not been achieved by Menelik’s royal dynasty. By the early 19th century his ancestors have become little more than token emperors in a feudal system which has collapsed into anarchy. Order is restored in mid-century by one of the powerful barons, who after defeating his northern rivals proclaims himself emperor in 1855 as Theodore II. In 1856 Theodore marches south against Haile Malakot, king of Shewa and a member of the Solomon dynasty.

Haile Malakot dies during Theodore’s invasion of his territory, whereupon Theodore takes with him as a hostage Malakot’s 11-year-old son, prince Menelik. The boy lives the next twelve years in virtual imprisonment until, on the death of Theodore in 1868, he becomes one of three claimants to the throne. From 1872 he bides his time during the reign of a stronger rival, John IV. He is finally crowned after John dies, in 1889, in battle against a Muslim army invading from the Sudan.

Aggressive followers of the Mahdi in the Sudan are only one of the external dangers facing the new emperor. Equally threatening are the European imperialists now staking out their claims on the Red Sea coast, and in particular the Italians.

Of all the African powers, only the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia remained completely free from European domination by the end of the 19th century. This was no accident of history; Ethiopia secured its sovereignty by inflicting a decisive and humiliating defeat upon the Italian invaders at Adowa (or Adwa) on March 1, 1896. The battle at Adowa was, at the time, the greatest defeat inflicted upon a European army by an African army since the time of Hannibal, and its consequences were felt well into the 20th century. As an example of colonial warfare on an epic scale, it cannot be surpassed. As an example of the twin follies of arrogance and underestimation of one’s enemies, it should never be forgotten.

Ethiopia has existed as a political entity since biblical times. The ancient Greeks gave the name ‘burnt face’ to the peoples who inhabited the little known regions south of Egypt, and it is from the Greek that the name Ethiopia is derived. Bisected by the great Rift Valley that runs the length of the African continent, Ethiopia encompasses fertile mountainous highlands of moderate climate and unbearably hot lowlands that fall below sea level in some places.

Christianity came to the Ethiopians in the 4th century AD and was adopted with a fanatical passion. A rich, sophisticated and thriving culture developed among the Ethiopians, producing among its many treasures beautiful illuminated Bibles in the ancient language of Geez, the only written language native to Africa. The advent and aggressive spread of Islam, however, drove the Ethiopians deeper into their isolated mountainous highlands, and there they remained for the next 1,200 years.

First Italo-Abyssinian War: The Battle of Adwa! Italy’s Terrible Defeat.

Today, March 2nd, 2017, marked 121 years of the historic victory of Ethiopian forces over an aspiring imperial power, Italy, soon after the shameful Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 that cut up Africa and divided its territory and resources.

The Battle of Adwa (29 February-1 March 1896) is of huge significance for Africa in that the decimation of the continent could not be completed. Ethiopia turned out to be the last man standing.

So thorough was the defeat of Italy by Ethiopia, that there were violent riots all over the country, and it resulted in Italy being forced to pay indemnities to Ethiopia and recognise its borders. It is thus not by chance that Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters, and serves as an inspiration to Africans all over the world on how to stand up to bullies.

It all began with the Treaty of Wuchale, a cooperative agreement between Ethiopia and Italy. But the devil was in the interpretation. Most significantly, Emperor Menelik II, who claims lineage from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, had the good sense to have his own language version of the treaty, in Amharic.

In the Italian version, Rome claimed that Article 17 meant Ethiopia had relinquished its foreign policy to Italy and thus had become a protectorate. This was disputed by the Amharic version, which clearly stated that Italy and Ethiopia would cooperate on foreign affairs.


Italy then used this as a casus belli to wage war on Ethiopia, which responded ferociously. In a landmark speech made to the nation, Emperor Menelik II made this declaration:

“Enemies have now come upon us to ruin our country and to change our religion. Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging into the country like moles. With the help of God, I will not deliver my country to them. Today, you who are strong, give me your strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer”.

Of equal significance is the role played by Menelik’s wife, the Empress Taytu Betul, who stood firmly by her husband by telling the Italian envoy, Antonelli: “We have also made it known to the powers that the said article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. Like you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be.” 

What can be achieved by an Africa United was demonstrated by the Battle of Adwa. Ethiopia as a country was divided, as many ethnic groupings swore allegiance to their own chiefs (or Ras). When things came to a head, Emperor Menelik was able to convince all of them to put aside their differences and contribute 100,000 troops to face down the invaders. Prominent amongst them was Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Ras Wale of Yejju Oromo, and Ras Gebeyehu, who died fighting at Adwa. Empress Betul was the commander of a cavalry.

Italy was completely humiliated. The Italians made many tactical errors in the mountains of Adwa, against a determined and valiant Ethiopian force. A key moment in the battle came when Brigadier Dabormida, the Italian commander, under siege from Ethiopian artillery, decided to withdraw.

Dabormida’s brigade had moved to support Brigadier Albertone but was unable to reach him in time. Cut off from the remainder of the Italian army, Dabormida began to fight while retreating towards friendly positions.

However, he inadvertently marched his command into a narrow valley where the Oromo cavalry, under Ras Mikael, slaughtered the brigade, shouting Ebalgume! Ebalgume! (“Reap! Reap!”).

Italian defeat

The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner; Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4-5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.

In their flight to Eritrea, the Italians left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their transport.As the historian Paul B. Henze notes: “Baratieri’s army had been completely routed while Menelik’s was intact as a fighting force and gained thousands of rifles, pistols and a great deal of equipment from the fleeing Italians.”

Public opinion in Italy was outraged.The historian Chris Prouty offers a panoramic overview of the response in Italy to the news:

“When news of the calamity reached Italy, there were street demonstrations in most major cities. In Rome, to prevent these violent protests, the universities and theatres were closed. Police were called out to disperse rock-throwers in front of Prime Minister Crispi’s residence. Crispi resigned on 9 March. Troops were called out to quell demonstrations in Naples.

“In Pavia, crowds built barricades on the railroad tracks to prevent a troop train from leaving the station. The Association of Women of Rome, Turin, Milan and Pavia called for the return of all military forces in Africa. Funeral masses were intoned for the known and unknown dead.

“Families began sending to the newspapers letters they had received before Adwa in which their menfolk described their poor living conditions and their fears at the size of the army they were going to face. King Umberto declared his birthday (14 March) a day of mourning. Italian communities in St. Petersburg, London, New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem collected money for the families of the dead and for the Italian Red Cross”.

Forty years later, in 1935, still stung by this ignominious defeat, Italy’s fascist leader Mussolini, who was aligned with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, took advantage of the advent of the Second World War to invade Ethiopia, complete with chemical weapons, bombs, tanks, and aircraft.

Italy threw in 595 aircraft to Ethiopia’s 3, as well as 795 tanks to 3. They occupied Ethiopia for five years, and were again flushed out by Emperor Haile Selassie with the help of Allied forces, in the main the British army.

The prominent African-American historian, Professor Molefi Asante, opines on the significance of Adwa: “After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African state. After Adwa, Ethiopia became emblematic of African valour and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority.”

Credit: wikipedia, historyworld, newafricamagazinehistorynet


Written by How Africa


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