PRESENTED FOR THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION OF THE VICTORY OF ADWA Howard University, Washington DC; Dusable Museum, Chicago, March 1996
By Ghelawdewos Araia
In this article, I will attempt to employ an Afrocentric perspective of history in light of the geopolitical vicissitudes of the 19th century that completely changed the African scenario vis-à-vis the survival of Ethiopian independence.
I have used Afrocentricism deliberately to uncover historical distortions perpetrated by Europeans in their attempt to portray Ethiopians and/or Africans as ‘ savages who needed European civilization for societal transformation.’ Afrocentricism is also directed toward Ethiopians who do not know that other Africans in the continent also waged major battles to preserve their independence but history was not on their side, as we shall see below.
It is indisputable that Ethiopians exhibited bravery and heroism unparalleled in the history of the Continent, if not the history of the world. But there are several factors that contributed to the Ethiopian victory at Adwa: state organization, level of development of mode of production (feudal aristocratic in this case), unity, pride, weaponry etc. Other Africans did not enjoy the combination of factors Ethiopians had at their disposal.
In order to fully understand the Ethiopian victory and why the Battle of Adwa was fought in the first place, we need to make a brief historical account of 19th century Africa and touch upon the African condition before the European colonial onslaught.
Africa Before the Advent of Colonization:
Most well-meaning historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and scholars of related disciplines have now acknowledged that Africa is the original home of the Homo Sapiens and that Africans are the custodians of civilization of antiquity and beyond. There is no doubt now that the great Egyptian civilization prevailed between 5,000 B.C. and 525 B.C. and then under alien domination till 30 B.C. This civilization that has captivated humanity today was followed by the Kush, Aksumite (Ethiopian), Carthaginian civilizations (roughly between 9th century B.C. and 9th century A.D.); the latter three great empires, in turn, were followed by the West African Empires of Ghana, Mali, Songhay and Kanem-Bornu (9th century –1600 AD); simultaneously, between the 13th and 17th centuries, the Swahili city-states of the Eastern Coast, Kingdoms of the Interior such as Monomotapa of Zimbabwe, the Changamir and other composite states of Southern Africa, Kingdoms of the Congo with its center at Pemba, Interlacustrine states of the Great Lakes Region (mainly Uganda) flourished. Mention should also be made of Moorish Spain where an Afro-Arab people civilized and transformed a relatively backward European setting between 711 and 1492. But after the latter date, the already creeping incipient capitalism in Europe would determine the fate of Africa. Neither Africans nor Europeans would anticipate the far-reaching impact of capitalist development in Europe. It is easier for us to examine, in retrospect, critically the impact of capitalism with its attendant manifestations of slavery and colonialism.
Between 1450 and 1850, Europeans abducted at least 13 million Africans as slaves and took them to the Americas and elsewhere. And to justify their actions Europeans had to portray Africans as savages, pagans, backward and underdeveloped. But with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution -age of machinery and mass production- slavery became obsolete; the capitalists needed natural and human resources (this time, cheap labor) to satisfy their insatiable appetite. Africa, then, must be colonized for that end.
Bismarck, chancellor of Germany, having declared Togo, Cameroon and South West Africa (Namibia) as his protectorates, called upon other European powers for the scramble of Africa; hence the Berlin Conference of 1884. It is in light of the latter objectives that we must now examine the Battle of Adwa.
Ethiopia’s Diplomacy and Struggle for Independence in the 19th Century:
The coming of Emperor Tewodros to power (1855-1868) coincided with European colonization of Africa; the Senegambia was taken by the French and the long Ashanti wars subsided; the French had almost completed the construction of the Suez Canal and Tewodros committed suicide while fighting the English in 1868.
Cognizant of Europe’s colonial interest, Tewodros had attempted diplomatic relations with Queen Victoria of England but failed; in 1863 he tried to establish relations with Russia, which also proved to be a fiasco. However, after Tewodros’ altruism, the British did not colonize Ethiopia.
Emperor Yohannes the IV (1872-1889) who succeeded Tewodros had to shoulder a mammoth responsibility to preserve Ethiopian independence. Yohannes was totally preoccupied in battles with his alien foes (1875, 1876 with the Egyptians, 1885-1887 with the Italians, 1889 with the Dervish Mahdists).
In 1877, Yohannes attempted to establish relations with Russia in an effort to get modern arms. Unlike Tewodros, Yohannes was successful in the positive response of the Russians, thanks to an ambitious Cossack by the name of Nikolai Ivanovich Ashimov who befriended Ethiopia and who influenced the Tsar to assist Ethiopia.
“Ashimov would pursue objectives, “says Joseph Guy Burgess,” “to unify and strengthen Ethiopia against the advance of Italy and Britain… through a joint Franco-Russian effort, [he] intended to obtain modern arms for Ethiopia in quantities hitherto unknown in Northeastern Africa.”1 Ashimov in fact came to Ethiopia in 1885 and met Emperor Yohannes. Two years later, Yohannes sent an Ethiopian delegation with a gift to Tsar Alexander. Also in 1888, Yohannes sent an Ethiopian delegation headed by Ashimov to Jerusalem to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
While Yohannes tried hard to get Russian assistance, he also sought Ethiopian unity in order to ward off his enemies. The coming of the Italians to Massawa and the uncertain position of Menelik were a matter of great concern to Yohannes. In his letter to Menelik, Yohannes declared that “the Italian deception and bad faith will never cease…. they are not serious people but intriguers. They have come to seek aggrandizement but with the aid of God they will depart humiliated, discontented and with honor lost before the entire world. If we remain united we can conquer not only the fiacchi Italians but also other strong nations.”2
Ethiopians never accepted alien presence on the coastal plains of the Red Sea, but the Italian aggressors moved from Massawa to the interior after 1886. Ras Alula confronted them and Count Salimbeni was captured; the Ras and the Emperor wanted to confine the Italians to Massawa, but in 1887 when the Italians again tried to move into the interior the battle of Dogali ensued where the Italians were routed and Ethiopians proved victorious.
After Dogali, Yohannes was still suspicious of Menelik and he is believed to have told him, “your Italian friends were people of little valor” (i suoi amici Italiani sono gente che val poco)3
The Italians also hoped (and had the impression) that Menelik would cooperate with them against Yohannes. In a letter written to Antonelli (March 11, 1887) by Robilant, Minister of Foreign Affairs, it included the following interesting enclosure:
1) “Is Menelik disposed to give, in an opportune moment, effective cooperation against Johannes? 2) What should eventually be the useful effort of such cooperation? 3) Failing effective cooperation, will he take such an attitude as to occupy part of Yohannes’ forces in the south or will he be absolutely neutral in the conflict?”4
Menelik, however, as shrewd as he was, summoned Antonelli to his palace and admonished him that the Italians should not have taken Massawa without first consulting Emperor Yohannes. But on October 20, the Italians still tried to neutralize Menelik by promising him an offer of five thousand Remington rifles, which he did not accept.
Ashimov and party again came back to Ethiopia in January 1889; this time they met Menelik, King of Shewa, in Addis Ababa. Menelik trusted the Russians more than the French, for the latter had colonial interests and the former did not. There is no doubt that the Russians sincerely assisted Ethiopia but it was not out of pure morality based on Orthodox Christianity as some contemporary historians thought. Even the good-intentioned Ashimov was of the opinion that a new Moscow be established on the Red Sea.
The Russian Mission to Ethiopia was dubbed Imperial Russian Geographical Society. We know for sure that Russia’s interest in Ethiopia, in the final analysis, was to curtail English control of the Nile and the Red Sea. However, Mashkov Federov, an advocate of Russian Imperialism, tells us that ” … the Russian Government sought to prevent the Western powers from establishing their influences in Ethiopia and violating the political sovereignty and boundaries of that country.”5
The Treaty of Wuchale, Battle of Amba Alagie & Siege of Mekelle
The treaty of Wuchale was signed between Ethiopia and Italy on May 2, 1889. According to Article III, the initial border demarcations between Ethiopia and the newly formed Eritrean colony included only Arafali, Halai, Segeneiti and Asmera. In Bogos (the Keren area), Adi Nefas and Adi Yohannes were to be under the Italians.
By August 28, 1889, however, the Italians took over all of Hamassien, Seraye and Akele Guzai and on October of the same year, the Italians notified their European partners that they have formally established a protectorate over Ethiopia by referring to Article XVII of the Wuchale Treaty. The messages conveyed by the Italian and Amharic versions of the Article were mutually contradictory:
His Majesty the King of the Kings of Ethiopia consents to employ the government of his majesty the King of Italy in treating all matters that may arise with other powers and governments.
The Amharic word corresponding to the Italian consente was ye-cha-la-che-wal which the Italians interpreted as “to suffer with patience” instead of supporte as the Ethiopians would like it to be; supporte in the context of assistance or cooperation was the Ethiopian word Aga-zi-net where the Italians translated as ‘stewardship’.
But it is not a question of semantics or lack of honest interpretation. The Italian version clearly make Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy and the latter, a latecomer into the Scramble of Africa badly wanted colonia Italia Africa orientale. And to realize its colonial ambitions, Italy would not respect Ethiopia’s sovereignty.
Ethiopians strongly resented Italian intentions and Menelik just waited for the Traverssi Mission that came to Addis Ababa on February 1893 with two million cartridges (as per the Treaty) and then on February 27, he openly denounced the Treaty of Wuchale.
The Italians were now confused and were not sure how to move in their dealings with Menelik. On the one hand, the cabinet in Rome “intended to withdraw the boundaries of the colony to a triangular line between Massawah, Asmara and Keren, to give up the land south of Skitet /Schitet [Shiketi] to Abyssinia, and the land west of Keren to the Dervishes.”6 On the other hand, an agreement concluded between Italy and England in Rome (May 5, 1894) completely wiped out Ethiopia from the map of Africa.
Meantime there were tensions among Tigrayan chiefs in northern Ethiopia and Antonelli hoped that Tigray could serve as a buffer zone to the Italians, but Menelik had dealt secretly with Ras Mengesha and Ras Alula. In this secret dealing, Tigray was to be divided up among Mengesha, Alula, Seyoum and Mesheshawork. Ras Mengesha was to administer the Western part of Tigray, Seyoum (supporter of Menelik) to take over Agame (district of Ras Sebhat) and Mesheshawork, a part of Tigray and parts of Eritrea.
Ras Sebhat organized his Agame forces and defeated ‘Shum’ Seyoum and the latter resigned. And “having reconquered Agame for himself [Sebhat] owed allegiance to no body.”7 Moreover, “Ras Sebath and Alula were plotting against the Italians and were said to be on the verge of renouncing all allegiance to Mengesha himself.”8
Sebhat and Alula’s rebellion, however, did not materialize in light of Mengesha’s strong influence. In fact, Alula was pardoned but Sebhat was imprisoned at Amba Alagie.
The Italians had begun their campaign against Tigray on December 15, 1894; they had appointed Hagos Teferi to administer Agame, but by March 1895 Mengesha had mobilized his Kitet forces to check Italian movements around Belessa and Akele Guzai. While Baratieri was stationed at Kenafna in Seraye, Toselli was to make advances with his 4th Native Battalion to Mai Meghelta and Ameglio was to concentrate on Hawzien. These forces encountered the Tigrayan Kitet at Debri Aila, secured temporary victory and declared that Tigray was annexed as part of their territory.
After Debri Aila, the Italians released Sebhat from Amba Alagie and stationed their forces there on November 13th, apparently to check the movements of Ethiopian forces. On the 24th of November Major Toselli joined the Italians at Amba Alagie with some 1800 Sebhat’s forces.
Menelik and the Ethiopian forces had come very close to Amba Alagie without the knowledge of the Italians. The Ethiopians employed all sorts of deception, misinformation and psychological warfare to intrigue the Italians. In fact at 3 a.m. on December 7, 1895 Ras Olie’s 7000 strong had begun attacking Ras Sebhat’s positions; at 9:45 a.m. Ras Alula and Ras Mengesha attacked the right flank of the Italian forces, and the English Road (built during the British expedition of 1867/68) was controlled by Ras Mekonnen and Ras Michael’s forces.
The Ethiopian forces had simply overwhelmed the Italians and by 12: 40 p.m. the Italians began to retreat but they were unable to secure a safe retreat for the rear was occupied by Alula’s forces. On top of this, without the knowledge of the Italians and Ethiopians, Ras Sebhat had secretly and mysteriously moved out from Amba Alagie and his whereabouts was unknown.
About 500 Ethiopians died and there were 1300 casualties on the Italian side including 20 Italian officers. The best Italian officers such as Toselli, Scala, Manfredo, Anghera were killed. Most of the Ethiopian combatants had to encounter an up hill battle and the Italians who had a distinct advantage of strategic positions at Amba Alagie were nonetheless defeated. Italian survivors of Amba Alagie are believed to have said, “The Ethiopians were as many as ants and the earth seemed unable to support them.”
General Baratieri conceded to the Ethiopian victory and had the following to say:
The whole political edifice, indispensable to our colonial defense, was shattered to its foundation, and to some extent fell to the ground, increasing the boldness, confidence, strength and pretensions of the enemy.9
After Amba Alagie, Baratieri abandoned Tigray and ordered Galliano to Garrison at Mekelle with some 2000 soldiers. The Italian Garrison was stationed at Enda Yesus.
On the 11th of December Ras Mekonnen was negotiating with the Italians but on the 19th, Ethiopians had surrounded the Italians and cut them off from Adigrat. On the 20th Lt. Moltedo made the first cannon shots and on the 23rd the siege of Mekelle had begun in earnest, but serious fighting began on January 7 (Ethiopian Christmas day) and continued till the 20th of that month.
Meantime Ras Mekonnen sent a letter to Galliano, which reads:
I have not come to make war on a little fort such as you command; we are many, and have no fear of your guns. Remember Amba Alagie and the end of Toselli; give over the fort to me and do not let us spill blood uselessly. I will consider the question of having you accompanied as far as Massawah, and of sending your baggage there.10
At the siege of Mekelle, Ethiopians had three major advantages: 1) Sheer number and courage, 2) control of the water supply and 3) artillery fire range of 4500 meters as opposed to 3850 meters of the Italians.
Between January 8 and 11, Ethiopians had dug trenches in Enda Yesus itself, and on the 9th, l0th and 11th of January, they had continuously attacked Italian positions in the Fort. In all these attacks, the Ethiopians have used weapons captured from Toselli’s forces at Amba Alagie.
On the 19th, the Italians knew that they lost the war and hoisted a white flag. They lost two wars against the Ethiopians but they still couldn’t believe how the “barbarian” Ethiopians defeated them. Listen to this eyewitness account of the siege of Mekelle:
For half an hour the attack was pressed home with indomitable pluck by these semi-savages, who still believed that they could rush a scientifically fortified wall in the face of guns and magazine rifles.u
After the defeat of the Italians at Mekelle, Menelik sent a letter to King Umberto of Italy. The following are extracts of the letter:
In order to give proof of our Christian faith, as was our desire, we have sent out, with all their belongings, escorted by Ras Mekonnen and in good health, those who were in the Fort of Enda Yesus, though they were worn out by thirst, hard pressed, surrounded and almost trampled under our feet.12
Before the second Italian defeat, Ras Mekonnen had offered Galliano a safe retreat from their garrison. The Mekonnen/ Galliano letters adequately express both Ethiopian determination and Italian rigidity.
Ras Mekonnen’s letter to Galliano:
Come stai? Io sto bene grazie a Dia, i tuoi sol dati stanno bene. A nome del mia Imperatore to prega di lasciar libero questa terreno a1 trimenti mi costringi a fare 1a guerra. Sono molto dolente di dover spargere sangue cristiano. Ti prego precio d’andartene coi tuo soldati. Tuo amico Maconnen.
Galliano’s letter to Mekonnen:
Come stai? Io sto bene grazie a Dio. I miei sol dati stanno benissimo. Come spero sia altrettanto dei tuoi. Il mio Re ha ordinato che io stia qui ed io non mi mouvero. Fa pure quello che credi e to avverto che qui con me ho degli ottimi fucili e dei buonissimi cannoni. Tuo amico Gal1iano.13
If we roughly translate the two letters, Mekonnen at the behest of Menelik suggested to Galliano that he would guarantee him a safe passage so long if he is willing to leave the terrain, and he also assured him that he does not want to spill Christian blood; Galliano, on the other hand, responded by saying that his King told him to stay and not to move anywhere, although he boasted that he ‘wanted to avert the use of his fine cannons.’ Interestingly both of them were pretending by addressing each other as tuo amico, ‘your friend.’
On January 24 the Italian garrison marched out of Mekelle and joined other Italian forces at Edaga Hamus, but the Italians never learned from their experiences at Amba Alagie and Mekelle. In fact, Baratieri and his colleauges boasted that they “have 20,000 European troops trained and well armed. What danger could there possibly be from any barbarian nation against so large a force.”? 14
After the siege of Mekelle was over, Ethiopia still sought to resolve the Ethio-Italian conflict diplomatically. One of the Ethiopian leaders Ras Mengesha, for instance, pleaded in vain to Britain to come to the Ethiopian side. In his letter to Queen Victoria, dated 28 August (23 Nehase E.C.), 1895, Mengesha writes:
To Queen Victoria, Queen of Kings, Empress of the Great Red Sea–From Ras Mengesha, son of King John, King of Kings of Zion and Ethiopia … the former friendly relations between your kingdom and the kingdom of Ethiopia have not been changed. But now the Italians have occupied my country. I beg your majesty will not be unmindful of the old friendship which exists between your government and my father which he advised me to maintain .15
Baratieri moved his forces against the Ethiopians by moving from Edaga Hamous to Mai Gebeta and ultimately to the mountain of Soria on the 13th of February, now facing directly the Ethiopian forces at Adwa.
A day before Baratieri reached Soria, however, i.e. on the 12th of February, Ras Sebhat and Hagos Teferi defected and began to fight the Italians were terrified and the Ethiopian camp was overwhelmed with joy.
According to the Italians, “ ras Sebat e degiac Agos, abandonano le nostre posizione e passano can seicento uomini nell campo di Menelik.”16 Indeed, Ras Sebhat and Dejach Hagos abandoned the Italian position and took with them 600 men to the camp of Menelik.
Sebhat’s forces soon grew to 1500 and most critical was that he dispatched an Awaj (proclamation) to the people of Agame to rebel against the Italians. Sebhat had also a distinct advantage of knowing the topography and the communication lines of the Italians. On 13th and 14th of February Sebhat’s forces occupied Se’eta Hill and Mt. Alequa. Now the Italian garrison at Adigrat moved against Sebhat. Lieutenants Cisterini, Deconcilis, Negretti, and Caputo were out to attack Sebhat, but with the exception of Cisterini, all were either captured or killed.
The Italians have now acknowledged that there was a major problem confronting them in Agame: quella straordinaria atmosfera di tensione, this was an extraordinary tension of atmosphere.17 And as the Italians themselves aptly put it, following Sebhat’s orders, “La rivolta scoppiava nell Agame,”18 (the rebellion of the people of Agame) swept the eastern zone of Tigray.
The Italians had every reason to be disturbed by the defection of Ras Sebhat and the rebellion of Agame, because as Augustus Blandy Wylde observes, “the Agame peasantry are a most war-like race, and are noted as very good shots with the gun. Before firearms were introduced, they were equally noted for throwing the spear and shooting with the bow and arrow.”19
As Berkeley put it Baratieri “could not possibly have foreseen the subtle diplomacy of Ras Sebath and Agos Tafari, to whom the failure of his communications was chiefly due.”20 In fact, Baratieri as blind as he was (let alone foreseeing subtle diplomacy of the Ethiopians) prepared to wage yet another major war with the Ethiopians.
The Battle of Adwa, March 1, 1896:
On February 29, 1896 Baratieri had moved close to Ethiopian positions. The four Italian Brigades ordered to take positions were the Native Brigade of General Albertone, the First Infantry Brigade of General Arimondi, the Second Infantry Brigade of General Dabormida and the Third Infantry Brigade of General Ellena.
According to Carta Demonstrativa Del Terreno E Delle Truppe In Movimento Nella Battaglia Di Adua 1 Marzo 1896 (in Roberto Battaglia), Dabormida’s Brigade was on the right flank, Albertone on the left and the two Brigades of Arimondi and Ellena in the middle; the Ethiopian forces (opposite the Italians) of Ras Mekonnen, Wagshum Guangul, Ras Mengesha Yohannes, Ras Alula and Mengesha Atikim were on the left flank; Ras Micheal and Ras Olie in the middle; Emperor Menelik, Empress Taitu, Fitewrari Gebeyehu and Negus Teklehaimanot on the right.
The Ethiopian forces demonstrated a great sense of unity at Adwa, but as Wylde and other contemporary observers witnessed, the Ethiopian troops were essentially organized based on ethnicity:
Menelik and Taitu with Shewan and Oromo forces from the south and south-west; Ras Mekonnen with Shewan and Harari troops; Ras Olie with the Amhara and Oromo of Wello; Ras Michael with Wello Oromo army; Ras Mengesha, Ras Alula, Ras Sebhat and Dejach Hagos Teferi with the Tigrayan forces; Wagshum Guangul with the Amhara troops of Wag and Lasta and King Teklehaimanot with the Gojjami Amharas.
The Ethiopian forces were 70,000 strong, the Italians were a mere 17,700 armed men; the Ethiopians knew the topography very well, the Italians were strange aliens in the wilderness of Adwa and its vicinity; the Italians thought that Ethiopians would not fight on a Sunday (March 1 1896 was a Sunday), but Ethiopians were ready for the battle; the Italians thought that Ethiopians did not know about their movements, but Ras Alula’s spies had brought the information and Alula had dispatched the news to all Ethiopian positions.
The battle started at 6 a.m. The forces of Emperor Menelik, King Teklehaimanot, Ras Michael, Ras Mengesha attacked and encircled Albertone’ s troops; the latter were virtually annihilated. At 8:15 a.m., while Baratieri was trying to figure out the problem, Ethiopians already surrounded the Italian forces.
At 10:45 a.m. Albertone’s forces shot their last rounds and hand-to-hand combat had begun; Ethiopians simultaneously attacked Arimondi’s Brigade and the troops of the latter fled in disarray. Due to wrong paths taken, Albertone and Arimondi never met and Baratieri was unable to coordinate movements of the Brigades; the Italians also wrongly misplaced Kidane Mihret (their rendezvous point) on the map and never detected that there were 15,000 Ethiopian troops at Mariam Shewito alone.
By 12 Noon everything was over. More than six thousand Italian men were killed, 2,000 wounded, 2,000 made prisoners and more than 2,000 fled in the face of Ethiopian onslaught. Albertone surrendered, Arimondi and Dabormida were killed.
Major Gamerra, commander of the 8th Native Infantry had this testimony in his account of the battle:
Here is a new hurricane of 25,000 men who, together with the others, were let loose against us – it was the hurricane which would presently overwhelm, disperse and annihilate the Native Brigade.2l.
The retreating Italians were followed by “the Abyssinians who chased the fugitives to Entischo camp, which also fell into their hands. The survivors from the Italian center were then attacked by the Agame population and many cruel massacres took place.”22
The Italians never thought they were going to be defeated and humiliated by a black people. Throughout their diplomatic and expeditionary gesture they were extremely arrogant and they never understood the Ethiopian psychology embedded in pride. In order to understand the Italian misconduct in Ethiopian affairs, it is suffice to track back to Antonelli’s dealings with Menelik and Taitu. Addressing an Ethiopian audience, where Menelik and Taitu were also present, Antonelli had the following to say: “Italy cannot notify the other powers that she was mistaken in Article XVII, because she must maintain her dignity,” and Taitu replied “We also have made known to the powers that the said Article as it is written in our language, has another meaning. As you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented as your protectorate, but this will never be.”23
Had Italians listened to Taitu and understood the Ethiopian readiness to sacrifice anything for their freedom, they could have spared their troops from demise at Adwa. But since they were too shortsighted, a month and half before Adwa, they took it for granted that they were going to implement their protectorate over Ethiopia. In their Condizione De Pace, a peace proposal (precondition to peace rather) submitted to Ethiopia on January 18, 1896, they had enumerated the following rather instructive items:
1. The Neguse Negast and his Rases should acknowledge Italian rule.
2. All Ethiopia was to be an Italian protectorate
3. No concessions (land, commerce etc) to foreigners without Italian approval
4. Investiture of all Rases to be approved by Italy
5. Ethiopia’s customs and duties to be administered by Italy; Ethiopia’s money to be coined at Italy’s mints
6. No loans should be contracted without Italy’s consent
7. Italians to be permitted to buy lands
8. All disputes were to be referred to Rome for settlement
9. The Negus and Rases would be obliged to join in defense of Italians territory in Africa with all their means and forces when called upon to do so. 24
Adwa and Its Aftermath and How It Affected European Politics:
As indicated above, far from realizing the Condizioni De Pace, the Italians were routed at Adwa and forced to flee as far as Massawa. They first swallowed the bitter pill and then had to live with Adwa’s nightmare. At the diplomatic front, the Italians and other Europeans had to accept reluctantly one sovereign nation in Africa.
The victory of Adwa had a wide ramification in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean and the United States. News of the victory had reached South Africa, Somalia and Yemen; in the latter two countries the people welcomed the defeat of the Italians and the colonizers were worried that Adwa could be inspirational for the colonial people to rise up.
In the United States, Adwa symbolized as beacon of hope to African Americans although the U.S. would be officially segregated two months after the victory of Adwa; in Haiti, the first black republic in the Western hemisphere, African pride was once more regenerated: in fact, in the tradition of Toussaint, Desalin and Christophe, after the victory of Adwa Benito Sylvain went to Ethiopia in 1897 to congratulate his Ethiopian brethren.
In Italy political turmoil galvanized Italian cities and the Chamber of Deputies. Major papers such as the Times of London, the Chicago Associated Press, the Washington Post and the New York Times covered the victory of Adwa and its aftermath.
I went to the New York Public Library and requested the March 1896 issue of the New York Times. Thanks to archives and documentation, I had the opportunity and pleasure to read the microfilm of the issue I requested. Here are some of the extracts of the New York Times of March 7, 1896:
“Italy’s Wrathful Mobs” is the title of the news coverage and there are pictures of Emperor Menelik and Empress Taitu
*Smashing windows and resisting the police and soldiers
* Radicals Shout Menelik’s praise
* Opposition everywhere to Expeditions of New Troops against the Abyssinian Victors
* Proposition of members of the right to withdraw from the colony
* Excited Radical Socialist & Republican Socialist members of the Chamber of deputies cried “Long Live Menelik “ “Long Live Anarchy”
* Socialist Deputies issued a manifesto for the call of troops from Abyssinia; Socialist riots in Sicily
* At Pisa students demonstrated “Down with Crispi, Give us back our soldiers”; they burned copies of the Tribuna and Nazione, government organs
* A mob at Milan smashed the windows of the Railway Station to prevent troop dispatch to Africa
* The prefect in Milan issued a proclamation to prohibit the gathering of people
This issue of the New York Times also reported the condition of the Italians who fled from Adwa to Adigrat. The highlight was ‘Troops in a Trap in Adigrat: besieged by Abyssinians and with provision for Three Days’; the detail information reads as follows: the Daily News will tomorrow publish a dispatch from Rome saying that 2, 000 Italian troops who escaped from recent slaughter inflicted upon the army in Abyssinia took refuge in Adigrat, which place is now besieged by the Abyssinians. The position of the Italians is desperate. There is in the town a supply of provisions sufficient for only three days.
The New York Times of Sunday, March 8, 1896 clearly reveals how the Ethiopian victory influenced European politics:
“For months International affairs have been growing more and more unsettled here in Europe, and now Italy’s tragic misadventure has thrown them altogether out of balance. If the battle of Adowah was fought on the slopes of the Alps it could have wrought more blind confusion and diplomatic panic.
“Italy itself in its wild agitation typifies the nervous convulsion which has all its neighbors shaking
“Whatever happens, it seems clear that Crispi cannot come back. The sanest observers in Rome reflect the belief that nobody can succeed him and hold his place who does not agree to make peace with Menelik and withdraw the Italian forces to the portion of the Red Sea littoral about which there is no dispute with him…. King Humbert has declared that he will abdicate rather than consent to such a step.
“… German papers which speak for the German Foreign Office all urge Italy not to hesitate for a moment, but to redouble their energies to wipe out this blot on her prestige and conquer Abyssinia at all hazards.”
The Germans were of course hypocritical in advising Italy to “conquer Abyssinia at all hazards,” for they themselves were able to get hold parts of Namibia only because the Herero-Nama conflict created fertile ground for their success. And it is a well-known fact that they were avoiding the Ovambo, for the latter were fiercely resisting them. The Germans did not penetrate Ovamboland till 1906.
Contrary to the German advice, and as reported by the New York Times of March 10, 1896, far from re-conquering Abyssinia, “official reports confirm advices of losses in Abyssinia” and rather suggested “evacuation from Kassala.”25
Adwa without doubt witnessed a major Ethiopian victory in the last quarter of the 19th century and as a result Ethiopian independence was preserved. Post-Adwa Ethiopia was a more united nation; never in the history of Ethiopia had Ethiopians demonstrated unity and resolve of such magnitude to fight against a common enemy. In the final analysis, however, the Adwa victory is not just an Ethiopian victory; in a broad historical context, Adwa symbolizes a victory of African people, in the Continent and in the Diaspora.
And now, just before we commence the Third Millennium, at a time when African independence culminated in the freedom of South Africans from the shackles of Apartheid, and when there is a growing sense of unity among Africans and people of African descent, we have every reason to observe the centennial of Adwa not only as symbol of African freedom but also as beacon for the reemergence of African civilization.
1. Burgess, Joseph Guy. Ethiopia’s Diplomacy and the Struggle to Preserve its Independence 1855-1900, Ph.D. thesis, 1980
2. Work, Ernest. Ethiopia a Pawn of European Diplomacy, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1935, p. 61
3. Work, Ernest, Ibid p. 70; Documenti Diplomatici, No. XV, p. 264
4.Work, Ernest, Ibid, p. 69
5.Burgess, Joseph Guy, Ibid, P. 244
6. Berkeley, G. F-H. The Campaign of Adwa and the Rise of Menelik, Negro University Press, New York, 1969 (first published in 1901), p. 59
7. Berkeley, G. F-H, Ibid, p. 30
8. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 57
9. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 124
10. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 195
11. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 208
12. Berkeley, Ibid
I3.Battaglia, Roberto. La Prima Guerra d’ Africa, Giulio Einaudi Editore, second edition, Torino, 1958, p.682
14. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 226
15. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 232; Quoted from the Italian Green Book
16. Battaglia, Roberto. Ibid, p. 699
17. Battaglia, Roberto, Ibid, p. 699
18. Battaglia, Ibid, p. 701
19. Wylde, Augustus Blandy, Modern Abyssinia, Metheun and Company, 36 Essex Street W-C, London, 1901
20. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 249
21. Berkeley, Ibid, p. 292
22. Wylde, Ibid, p. 209
23. Documenti Diplomatici, No. XVII (1820-2ll, Part 3, p. 56, doc. III
24. Work, Ernest, Ibid, p. 148
25. The New York Times, Microfilm, March 7, 8, and 10, 1896