Africa’s resistance against European Imperialism – The Battle of Adwa
Exactly one hundred and twenty-four years ago on the 1st of March 1896, the Ethiopian army of Emperor Menelik II and Italian forces clashed in Adwa about 1000 km north of Addis Ababa.
This victory ensured the sovereignty of Ethiopia against an Italian conquest geared towards establishing an empire in Africa and consequently the first defeat on a European power by African forces after the Berlin conference of 1885 that sought to balkanize the African continent.
In the years prior to this decisive battle, the Italians had supported Sahle Miriam of Shewa with modern weaponry and ammunition that he used to incorporate smaller kingdoms into modern Ethiopia. After the death of Emperor Yohannes IV, Sahle Miriam stepped up to claim the title of Emperor, taking the name Menelik II.
Evidence of cooperation between Italy and Menelik II could be found in the Treaty of Ucciali, signed on May 2, 1889, which included Italy’s pledge to provide financial support to Ethiopia and Ethiopia’s recognition of Italy’s claim over the neighboring coastal colony of Eritrea.
A dispute arose from the interpretation of Article 17, while Menelik II interpreted as meaning that Ethiopia could choose to utilize the Italian government in dealing with other foreign powers, Italian premier Francesco Crispi interpreted it as meaning that Ethiopia must utilize the Italian government, thereby implying the declaration of an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia.
Menelik first retracted in September 1890 the treaty’s ambiguous Article 17 and then, in September 1893, rejected the treaty altogether. Menelik II, conscious of the Italian troops in the neighboring colony of Eritrea, began preparing to combat any attempt by the Italians to impose dominion militarily, which they initiated by early 1895.
Menelik’s forces, which numbered more than 100,000, were well armed with modern weaponry. Menelik, however, shrewdly downplayed this military strength by leaking false reports indicating a much smaller number of troops under his command and by spreading rumors that there was widespread discord among his forces.
On February 28 Italian premier Francesco Crispi sent a telegram with the intention to spur his soldiers into action. The next day, Baratieri the commander of the Italian forces in Eritrea convinced to engage in battle, advanced to Adwa with 14,500 men against an Ethiopian army of some 100,000.
Six thousand Italian army were killed and four thousand were taken as prisoners of war by the Ethiopians. Five thousand Ethiopian troops were killed and eight thousand wounded in the battle a number greater than Italy’s losses, but a small percentage of all Ethiopian forces.
Menelik’s triumph over the Italians provided him authority with the other European powers. The Ethiopian kingdom experienced a period of peace in which it was able to expand its territories and flourish.