The Struggle against Colonialism: Ethiopia’s Experience to Virtual Loss of Independence

Painting depicting Battle of Adwa | Unknown Ethiopian artist | October 2, 1930 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1871 was the year for Italy. After so many ups and downs, Italy had finally managed to unify its independent states and was successful in establishing the Italian kingdom. It was also the same year when Italy had felt the anguish and anxiety from not participating in the colonial scramble for Africa. The scramble for Africa, the heyday of which was from 1881 to 1914, was the division and colonization of African countries by European powers and was mainly dominated by Britain, France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, and Portugal, which were all successful in occupying vast territories in Africa and were able to expand to the different regions of the continent. Italy also shared the same dreams and passion for expanding and prospering through colonial imperialism, but knew it had to be done with extreme caution.

In the scramble for Africa, two countries had managed to keep their sovereignties, Ethiopia and Liberia. Liberia had a strong association and history with the United States. The United States had started the country as a place to send freed slaves back to Africa earlier in the century. Italy, of course, was not interested in starting a war with the US over possessing Liberia, so it was finally left with the only option for conquest: Ethiopia. In 1869, prior to Italy’s unification, Britain offered Italy the colony of Eritrea. Eritrea was a protectorate of Britain that was captured from the Egyptian garrisons and was later offered to the Italians as their first colony in Africa. This changed everything. Eritrea, which was a rich fishing region, was also an outlet to one of the most profitable trading ports, and not to mention, it was also a close neighbor to Ethiopia, which made it a great place to start.1

While Italy was busy getting prepared to pursue Ethiopia as a colony, Ethiopia was dealing with an external rebellion from the Mahdist Sudan, and to make matters worse, its internal stability was at its lowest. The ruler, King Yohannes, had uprisings from regional nobles demanding autonomous rule, like that of Menelik, King of Shewa. Menelik and Yohannes were not on the best of terms.2 In 1888, Yohannes grew suspicious of Menelik’s intentions to plot against him, and so he marched to Shewa to fight Menelik, but Menelik had heard of Yohannes’s intentions and sent a messenger disguised as a monk to meet Yohannes before he reached Shewa. The messenger told Yohannes about his dream not to attack Menelik, and instead guided him to fight the Mahdist in Matamma. Yohannes was a religious man and he believed what the messenger had said, which worked well for Menelik. Italy at this time was confident that the chaos had kept Yohannes busy, and so, on January 26, 1887, the nations had their first confrontation at the Battle of Dogalie, which was concluded with the victory for the Ethiopians.3 Italy was frustrated with this loss but had not lost hope just yet, and patiently waited for the right moment to come back. And that opportunity came on March 10, 1889, with a triumph. News came to the Italians that King Yohannes had died.

After the death of the King, rumors of his succession began to grow. Who would take the throne? Who would it be? Would it be the illegitimate son of Yohannes, Mengesha, or the decedent of the wise Solomon, Sahle Maryam, who would later be known as Menelik II? Menelik had the support of the Italians from the beginning.4 He had signed the treaty of neutrality with the Italians back in 1887 that pledged not to get involved in the Battle of Dogalie. He had been continuously plotting with the Italians for the exchange of firearms to strengthen his claim to the throne once Yohannes was gone. And so it was. The coronation of Menelik was a success for both Menelik and the Italians, for they knew that it would be much easier to take over Ethiopia if their candidate rose to power.5 Things seemed to be mutually beneficial for both the Italians and for Menelik II, and they later agreed that this relationship should also be put on paper in a formal treaty, just in case. Thus resulted in the Treaty of Wuchale, or Ucchali, in Italian.

The Wuchale treaty was signed by Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia and Count Pietro Antonelli of Italy, in the small town in Ethiopia named Wuchale; it was written by the Italians in two distinct versions: an Italian version and an Amharic version, and it guaranteed the abolition of slavery, an increase in commerce and trade, and the peace and stability between the two countries.6 In the nineteenth century, treaties between independent European and African states was a rare thing. This treaty between Italy and Ethiopia was a sign of the respect Ethiopia had gained among the Europeans.

However, this treaty had its flaws. Article XVII of the Wuchale treaty seems to have been the Italians’ way of stirring up trouble, in order to make possible their next imperialistic move. Article XVII claimed to give Ethiopia the option to use Italy as an intermediary in dealing with other European powers. However, the Italian version of the treaty’s Article XVII, unlike the one in Amharic that Menelik retained, actually made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. When Menelik found out that he had been tricked, he rejected the agreement, and the result was an inevitable war. Menelik was a wise ruler. He remembered how the British army with modern equipment had crushed the Ethiopian army within minutes of the start of the battle, and he was not about to let the same thing happen again.7

Original image in Amharic of the Wuchale treaty | Abebe Hailemelakob | 2007 | Commercial printing enterprise | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

After the Treaty of Wuchale, things were never the same. The environment was tense. The period of “no peace no war” reigned in the Ethiopian empire. Menelik was a coward and a myth in the eyes of the Italians. Nothing was said or done. It was a quiet game well played, but little did they know what Menelik had in store for them. Menelik spent six years recruiting soldiers. He knew that Ethiopia did not have a national army, but he knew when in times of need the people were obliged to serve their country. Menelik courted the Muslim dervishes, sending gifts of horses and coffee, putting aside religious differences, and prioritizing their common background with the slogan “I am black, and you are black; let us unite to hunt our common enemy.” And in September 1895, Menelik had officially ordered all Italians to be dismissed from Ethiopian territory immediately.8

The calls to arms started with the drumming, which stopped all work and all conversation. Then the proclamation was made. Within minutes men were riding off in all directions to relay the news. Shields, lances, rifles and ten days’ supply of food were the requirements of the soldiers; women started to prepare thick bread cakes, horns filled the air, rifles were stuffed, swords were strapped to the hips following Ethiopian customs, and they moved toward established rendezvous points on the appointed day. All able-bodied men answered the calls to arms.9

Fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers all waved goodbye to their loved ones, some of them knowing this would be their last time seeing one another, others anticipating that they would reunite once again. The march began. Men pressed onward. They marched surrounded by the din of drums, horns, and songs, finally reaching the place where the battle of the century was about to be held: Adwa.10 Adwa is a small town located in northern Ethiopia and is a junction to the road north to Asmara in Eritrea.

March 1 could not have come fast enough for the Ethiopians and on the day of the battle the Italians had received news that Menelik and his wife would be attending church to commemorate St. George’s day and that they wouldn’t be able to advance early, and so, the Italians took advantage of this incident. When Menelik heard of the early advancement of the Italians, he turned around and told his informants, “Only when the service has ended will the Ethiopian army be ready for war.”11 After the service had finished, the entire Ethiopian army was ready to fight, and at the crack of dawn, they marched out to the war field in Adwa carrying altar tablets of St Mary’s and St. George’s, whose feast day happens to be on March 1. They believed that God was on their side. The Italians thought this would be a battle easily won, given that the Ethiopians had no national army and no modern firearms. But the Ethiopians surprised them with 100,000 troops. Nevertheless, although the Ethiopian army was massive, it did not have skilled soldiers but rather was made up of farmers and peasants. Similarly, the army had no modern firearms or rifles and it was safe to say that the odds were not in their favor.

Image of Ethiopian warriors at St. George’s Cathedral, Addis Ababa | March 15, 2017, | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The battle immediately became explosive and violent.12 It was also long, lasting from March 1 to March 2. Ethiopians lost one-third of their army, but Italy, on the other hand, lost about two-thirds, granting victory to the Ethiopians. The loss reached Rome days later. Italian citizens, like most Europeans, were simply shocked. They could not comprehend what happened. Citizens in Italy even marched out to the streets holding a slogan ”VIVA DE MENELIK, VIVA DE ETHIOPIA,” which means “long live Menelik, long live Ethiopia” respectively.

What made the defeat even more difficult for Italians to comprehend was that, during a visit to Rome before the decisive battle, Baratieri, who was also governor of Italian Eritrea, asked Parliament to approve more funds so that he could “annihilate” the Ethiopians, and he boasted that he would return with Emperor Menelik inside a cage.13

Page from an old French newspaper, “Le Petit Journal,” depicting Menelik at the battle of Adwa | October 31, 2009 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Menelik’s victory over the Italians was a remarkable achievement. It boosted the integrity and respect for Ethiopia with the European powers and also strengthened his mandate at home. Additionally, after the victory of Adwa, a new treaty was offered, the Treaty of Addis Ababa, which was signed in October 1896. It abolished the Treaty of Wuchale and re-established peace. The Italian claim to a protectorate over all of Ethiopia was thereafter abandoned, and the Italian colony of Eritrea, finally delimited by a treaty of peace, was reduced to a territory of about 200,000 square km (80,000 square miles). Italy was also forced to pay several millions of Lira in compensation before releasing prisons of war, and then providing the Ethiopian kingdom with a period of peace. The battle also served as an inspiration to the other African countries to fight against colonialism and win their independence, and it was one of the greatest victories against colonialism and white supremacy.14

  1. Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1974 (London: James Curry; Athens: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 1991), 56.
  2. Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1974 (London: James curry; Athens: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 1991), 59.
  3. Bahru Zewde, A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1974 (London: James curry; Athens: Ohio University Press; Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press, 1991), 57.
  4. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011 ), 71.
  5. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 73.
  6. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 73.
  7. Milton Allimadi, “#Real Wakanda: Sheroes and heroes of Adwa,” New York Amsterdam, March 8, 2018, 29.
  8. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 112.
  9. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 113.
  10. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 115.
  11. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 181-183.
  12. Ali Orou Sourou and Abdel Aziz, “The Battle of Adwa,” Infantry, November/December 2011, 24.
  13. Milton Allimadi, “#Real Wakanda: Sheroes and heroes of Adwa” New York Amsterdam, March 8, 2018. 34.
  14. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the age of empire (Cambridge Massachusetts; London England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 271.

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28 Responses

  1. It is crazy to see that a small African coubtry was able to fight back and hold their own against a large European country such as Italy. This article was very interesting to read, as I was unaware of how this all came about. I enjoyed the details and all the thought put into this article, it kept me intrigued throughout the entire thing!

  2. I really enjoyed this article as I was not well educated about Ethiopia and everything it had to go through to gain independence. I had not known alot about Ethiopian history and I am glad to have read this because it taught me something I had not previously known. I admire King Menelik as a leader as he was to not fall for the Italian Kingdom’s lies and unfair treaty. It was kind of inspiring to see how the two seperate different religions were able to come together and fight for their freedom.

  3. The story was very interesting from beginning to end, as it demonstrated the importance of a country’s determination to become independent through the abuse and oppression of a foreign country. The leader Menelik led its people into victory after they had been tricked and manipulated. Here we are able to visualize the effects of colonialism and the devastating results it can cause even after becoming independent. Colonialism leaves marks in a country that are very difficult to recover from and therefore many nations in transition have that problem.

  4. I really enjoyed this article! I had never heard the story of Ethiopia and its fight for independence. Menelik sounds like he was a very famous and honorable leader who truly cared for and loved his people. Because of his bravery and intellect, Ethiopia was able to not only fight back against their colonizers but also win victory over them.

  5. One of the first things I learned in my middle eastern history course is how western-centric history tends to be. I had not idea that such a huge and memorable battle had taken place in Ethiopia. The most impressive part – to me, at least – is how the two religious sects managed to set aside their differences for their freedom. This battle and this victory was also a huge victory for human communication.

  6. King Menelik was a truly impressive ruler, being able to see through the Italian Kingdom’s false promises and unfair treaty, and even after that, acting upon it to secure his nation’s independence at a time where many African nations were falling to the hands of the European powers. What I found most interesting was the Italian Citizens marching in the street, praising the nation which defeated their own. I’ve heard of Italy’s defeat before, but I’d never learned about that detail.

  7. The pictures you added to this article helped illustrate its theme. I had no prior knowledge about Ethiopian history so this article was a very interesting read. The “no peace no war” period was really interesting and the author did a good job in showing how Menelik handled it. The article was very well written and the picture captions did a very good job at contextualizing the pictures.

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