#REALWAKANDA: Sheroes and heroes of Adwa

Milton Allimadi | 3/8/2018, 12:36 p.m.

The narrative of European military invincibility was again disrupted by Ethiopia’s spectacular victory over Italy at the great Battle of Adwa in 1896.

A huge Ethiopian army under the command of Emperor Menelik II, Empress Taytu Betul and a host of Ethiopian princes annihilated a 17,000-strong army commanded by five Italian generals and other senior officers. The heavily equipped Italian army included thousands of Eritrean fighters—Eritrea was then under Italian control. What led the two nations to the battlefield was Italian treachery. Italy had concluded the Treaty of Wuchale, or Uccialli as the Italians spelled it, with Emperor Menelik in 1889. The treaty gave Menelik the “option” to use Italy as an intermediary in dealings 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 discovered the deceit, he rejected the agreement. The result was inevitable war. Menelik was a wise ruler and also had the counsel of his remarkable wife, the Empress Taytu. The emperor remembered how a British invasion army led by Gen. Robert Napier, equipped with modern weapons, crushed the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II’s army in 1867. Menelik was not about to repeat the same mistake. He used the next six years to build up his army’s arsenal of modern weapons.

The Italians, under Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, were emboldened by earlier victories in the region, as documented in The New York Times. In 1890, Crispi sent an invasion force that conquered Eritrea and other territory that were also claimed by Ethiopia. On that occasion, The New York Times published a triumphalist account of the war of aggression. “The Italians in Africa: Results of Crispi’s Brilliant Policy,” The Times proclaimed in the headline of a Feb. 2, 1890, article lauding the invasion. “Declaration of a Protectorate Over King Menelick’s Domains—Europe’s Astonishment,” the headline concluded. The article was a melodramatic celebration of European imperial assaults on Africa. Italy, according to the Times article, “had achieved triumph upon triumph in Africa,” and there had been a surrender by “all the tribes.” The Italians had defeated Ras Alula Engida, a renowned general. European writers referred to him as the “Garibaldi of Abyssinia,” after Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famed general and politician who fought in the many wars leading to the unification of Italy in 1871.

When the Italians occupied Adwa in northern Ethiopia after penetrating the country from Eritrea, the Times Feb. 2, 1890 article claimed “the natives” welcomed them as liberators. “Europe now marvels and perhaps scarcely credits its own eyes. Italy in Adowa!” the Times article continued. “Is it true or is it a dream? Nothing in the world has the power to drive the Italian troops from their central position.” Still, the editors must have realized that even at the height of 19th century European Imperial conquest of Africa, it was highly hypocritical for a leading newspaper in a “democratic” society to so blatantly endorse brutal, unprovoked aggression—even if the victims were mere “savages,” as the Times elsewhere described the Ethiopians.