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.
So the article offered moralistic rationalization to justify the invasion. The Times invoked “The White Man’s Burden”—the alleged duty to civilize the “” that European colonizers invariably proclaimed as they seized territory in many parts of Africa. “We could not thus speak, however, if the program of Italy in Africa was one of pure conquest, because exploits exclusively military are in too great opposition to the sentiments of progress, of peace, of work, of companionship, that should form the pivot of modern life,” the article claimed. “But instead, we may rejoice in and applaud this conquest of civilization and Christianity over barbarians and savages, over unbelief, over habits of ferocity, over brutal ignorance of every human law, religious, social and civil.”
These assertions were of course hollow, especially with respect to Ethiopia, a country where Christianity became the official religion in 330 A.D. Toward the end of the Times article celebrating conquest, the true motives behind Italy’s aggression finally emerged, in words that succinctly summed up the reasons behind Europe’s entire imperial assault on the continent: “The water roads of Africa and the large commercial arteries in the hands of Italy signify that they are also in the hands of the civilized world, which can now introduce, without fear, the benefits of commerce, of exchange, of relations of any and every sort, and in short time, produce the best profits from the immense natural wealth existing there.”
The celebration was premature. When Italy finally moved to conquer all of Ethiopia in 1896, Menelik II was prepared. He had mobilized a sizable army and had also imported arms, including artillery, from Russia. The dispute over the Treaty of Wuchale was finally resolved on the battlefield. The fighting started at 6 a.m., March 1, 1896, and by noon, it was all over for the Italians.
This time around, the good newspaper, The New York Times, offered a mournful tone. “Italy’s Terrible Defeat,” the Times proclaimed, in the headline of a March 4, 1896, article about the Battle of Adwa. Of course, there was nothing terrible about this decisive confrontation for the Ethiopians. Both Emperor Menelik and his wife led their forces into combat. The empress commanded an army of 6,000 men.
In an army formed from an alliance of princes who were often at war with each other, one of Menelik’s commanders, Ras Mikael, reputedly yelled “Ebalgume! Ebalgume!” or “Reap! Reap!” as he plunged into the Italian lines. Ras Alula Engida, one of Menelik’s leading commanders, now avenged his earlier defeat at the hands of the Italians. The overall losses inflicted on an original invading army of 17,000 were staggering: 2,918 Italian noncommissioned officers and men were killed; 2,000 African soldiers from Eritrea, or askaris, fighting for Italy were killed; 261 Italian officers were killed; 958 askaris and 470 Italians were wounded; 954 Italian soldiers were permanently missing; and, 56 cannons and 11,000 rifles were captured.
The dead included two Italian generals, Giuseppe Arimondi and Vittorio Dabormida. Major General Matteo Albertone was captured. Many of Menelik’s generals wanted the Ethiopian army to pursue the panic-stricken Italians and wipe out survivors as they fled toward the colony of Eritrea. Menelik knew the cost of maintaining his own large army if the conflict became protracted and overruled the recommendation.
Italians could not comprehend what had happened in Africa and the national establishment refused to accept the defeat. Instead, the campaign’s commander in chief, General Oreste Baratieri, was blamed for “poor military strategy” by the Italian government and newspapers. Every possible excuse was entertained. The Italians refused to credit the Ethiopians with military genius. The Ethiopians suffered heavy losses, too. But it was their country and they were willing to make sacrifices to defend and liberate it.
The New York Times reported that reinforcement from Italy was to be quickly sent to Africa. The political conditions were so grave that Pope Leo XIII canceled a major diplomatic banquet to celebrate the anniversary of his coronation. The Italian government was completely destabilized by the defeat, the Times reported, and its survival was in jeopardy. “The present campaign against the Abyssinians threatens to become one of the most disastrous in which the Italian arms have ever taken part,” the Times reported, “and what the final outcome will be, it would not be hard to predict.”
The New York Times article added, “Among the many reports current today was one to the effect that Gen. Baratieri had committed suicide, being unable to endure the humiliation of his defeat.” This report turned out to have been inaccurate. Baratieri led the hasty flight after the rout, losing his pince-nez in the process.
Italian citizens, indeed, most Europeans, were simply incapable of conceptualizing what had occurred in what they had been taught was “darkest” Africa. All the racist literature and myths about white supremacy they had consumed had never hinted at the possibility of such a catastrophe in Africa. Ethiopia’s victory undermined, at least for some time, the lessons Italians had been taught about African inferiority and backwardness.
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, had been awarded the Order of the Red Eagle. He, too, had been compared to Garibaldi. Baratieri 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.
Italian journalists stoked the national bloodlust by endorsing the war-of-conquest campaign in newspaper articles, much like British newspapers had encouraged Gladstone to send General Gordon to the Sudan 12 years earlier. However, when commander Baratieri returned to Africa, the “savages” refused to cooperate. Menelik, 51, riding on horseback, exhorted his troops while Empress Taytu unleashed her reserve army. The Ethiopians tamed the European general. Italy court-martialed Baratieri for “cowardice.” He was, however, acquitted.
The Italians had been defeated before in war but never at the hands of Africans. Riots broke out in the streets of Rome. Perhaps there were some fears that the Ethiopians would pursue the defeated troops back to Italy to ransack and occupy their capital. Eventually, the Italian government did collapse. The war officially ended with the Treaty of Addis Ababa Oct. 26, 1896, which also annulled the Treaty of Wuchale.
The Ethiopians forced Italy to pay several millions of lira in compensation before releasing the captives.
It was one of the greatest victories against imperial intrusion in Africa and a blow against the narrative of white supremacy.
Milton Allimadi is a writer, an author and publisher of the Black Star News. This article is re-edited Chapter 7 of his book “The Hearts of Darkness, How White Writers Created the Racist Image of Africa.”