As battle waged around them, the generals of the various armies that had come together as a united Ethiopian force under Emperor Menelik II directed combat. Empress Taytu Betul, Menelik’s formidable wife, was no exception.
Not only did she exhort the 5,000 men of her personal army to be more courageous, she also mobilized the 10,000 or so women in the camp to form a supply chain to transport jugs of water from a nearby stream to Ethiopia’s thirsty warriors.
The Battle of Adwa, on March 1, 1896, sent shock waves around the world (“The pope is greatly disturbed,” reported The New York Times) and turned the narrative of colonialism on its head. Menelik’s army killed 3,000 Italian troops, captured another 1,900 as prisoners of war and seized an estimated 11,000 rifles, 4 million cartridges and 56 cannons.
The emperor’s ability to assemble a force of at least 80,000, says Raymond Jonas, author of The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, and to organize and sustain them on a monthslong campaign was “unprecedented in 19th-century Africa.”
Prior to the 1850s, Ethiopia and Italy didn’t even exist, but over the next few decades, as chieftains and princes jostled for power, the two nations began to take shape in the minds of their inhabitants. By the time Italy arrived in Africa, a bit late to the party, most of the spoils had already been divvied up among the more established European powers. Except, that is, for Ethiopia — geographically and culturally a tougher prospect — which remained unclaimed in the Scramble for Africa.
The Italians fortified several bases near the Red Sea and then gradually ventured inland. “Taking a page from the British book of colonial domination,” writes Theodore Vestal in The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism, they “pursued a policy of divide and conquer,” providing arms to any chiefs hostile to Yohannes IV, Ethiopia’s emperor until he was killed in battle in 1889. It was then that the Italians immediately moved to solidify their foothold by negotiating with the new emperor, Menelik II.
Menelik, from Ethiopia’s historically weaker southern region, owed much to his wife, Taytu. Their marriage, says Jonas, was “one of the great political unions of modern times.” She came from a wealthy northern family, which “added geographical balance to the ticket,” and she possessed a cunning political mind and a deep mistrust of Europeans.
The Treaty of Wuchalé, signed in both Italian and Amharic in May 1889, provided the pretext for the Battle of Adwa. Under the treaty, the Italians were given large swaths of land in exchange for a hefty loan of cash, arms and ammunition. “The pièce de résistance for the Italians,” writes Vestal, was the clause obligating Menelik to conduct all foreign affairs via Italy. “The Amharic version made such service by the Italians optional,” notes Vestal. Some have argued that Menelik was aware of the discrepancy, treating it as a convenient fiction that would deliver short-term gains (guns, money) before ultimately disentangling himself from it.
Italy formed its first colony, Eritrea, in 1890; two years later, the Italians persuaded Great Britain to recognize the whole of Ethiopia as a sphere of Italian interest. It all came tumbling down in 1893, however, when Menelik denounced the Wuchalé treaty and any foreign claim to his dominions. Menelik repaid the loan “with three times the stipulated interest,” notes Vestal, but kept the guns.
Italy responded by annexing small territories near the Eritrean border, shipping over tens of thousands of troops and seeking to subvert Menelik’s power base by entering into agreements with provincial leaders. Menelik, a “master of the sport of personal advancement through intrigue,” according to Vestal, convinced the provincial rulers that the Italian threat was so grave that they must resist as a united force rather than “seek to exploit it to their own ends.”
Unite they did — bringing us back to the bloody Battle of Adwa. Taytu, not surprisingly, proposed harsh punishments for the Italian prisoners: Dismemberment, castration and execution were on her wish list. But her husband adopted a more strategic stance, says Jonas: “He realized the considerable bargaining leverage of the soldiers,” and used it to negotiate a treaty that recognized Ethiopia’s independence and included a considerable cash indemnity from the Italians.
With Taytu (and other Ethiopian generals) urging Menelik to consolidate their victory by advancing into Eritrea and expelling the Italians from the continent, Menelik once again took a more measured response. Jonas argues that here too he got it right: “He’d already done an amazing job of holding together his army over huge distances, but it’s hard to say whether he could have managed all the way to the coast” — especially when more troops would be arriving from Italy. Either way, Menelik’s decision formalized the divide between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The decisive victory at Adwa affirmed Ethiopia’s sovereignty and showed both Africans and Europeans that colonial conquest was not inevitable. In Italy, isolated protests erupted to decry the very idea of colonialism, but these were met by a more widespread desire for revenge.
Eventually the Italian government decided to hang on to Eritrea and play at being better neighbors with Menelik. (That said, Italy’s national shame over its defeat had a lot to do with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia four decades later.)
While Adwa continues as a source of great pride for Ethiopia, it has not brought the kind of prosperity Taytu and Menelik would have hoped for. The country evaded colonization, but it has never achieved democracy, and the current government’s policy of ethnic federalism is the antithesis of Menelik’s vision of strength through unity.
In recent months, however, the founder of modern Ethiopia may be resting more comfortably in his ornate mausoleum: Since taking office in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has fired corrupt civil servants, freed political prisoners and normalized relations with Eritrea.