Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Battle of Adwa

by Hibist Kassa

On March 2, 1896, the Battle of Adwa marked a turning point in the Scramble for Africa. The battle was triggered over different interpretations of the Treaty of Wuchale between the Italians, Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taytu. Italy was claiming territories by exploiting divisions and power struggles in the Empire, even reaching to Asmara in present day Eritrea. While Italy sought to exploit these divisions, it had a covert agenda to colonise the whole Empire.

The Italian version of the treaty stated that Ethiopia is a protectorate. Emperor Menelik II who had read the Amharic version (that is the current official federal language), had only agreed to engage with European powers through Italy, and recognised the colonisation of Eritrea. When the discrepancies were realised, Menelik hesitated and sought diplomatic means to address the matter. Empress Taytu rejected it entirely and insisted this was a direct threat to Ethiopia’s sovereignty. The rejection of the treaty was the excuse the Italians needed to launch an all-out invasion. Menelik and Taytu they were able to mobilise an immense military force of about 100 000 troops, overwhelming the Italians who had 20 000.

Lords, serfs and slaves from all over the Empire marched to confront the Italian invaders in what had been recognised as common threat. The Battle of Adwa forced an otherwise divided people to organise in common cause. Women organised to join the battle in direct combat, and to ensure supplies of food, water and care for the injured and wounded. They all had to march for almost a thousand kms! The logistics and care work of war immense and largely shouldered by women.

For the Adwa victory to be decisively won, the diverse and divided people had work through their contradictions, and by doing so affirmed their self-worth, autonomy and self-reliance of black Africans across the world. This feat was achieved through the diplomatic skill of Emperor Menelik and Empress Taytu, and laid an important foundation of the indigenous modern state in Africa.

Empress Taytu in particular was distinguished in her own right as a fierce and decisive leader and key military strategist in the Adwa battle against Italians. One of her brilliant interventions was to avoid a heavy death toll with a frontal military combat with Italians holed up in a fort by simply shutting off their water supplies. Without a single shot fired, the thirsty Italians were forced out of their fort, quickly ending the siege.

Most importantly, Empress Taytu rejected a ploy by Italy to force Ethiopia to be a protectorate of Italy. When an Italian diplomat in Ethiopia warned that doing so might cause Italy to lose its “dignity”, the Empress replied: “We too must retain our dignity…you want other countries to see Ethiopia as your protégé, but that would never be.”

Artwork showing Emperor Menelik alongside Empress Taytu who marched to the frontline with her pistol, behind her is a woman also marching on foot

Below is an article from the Ethiopian Embassy in South Africa which also marked the Battle of Adwa with a series of lectures.

1896 Battle of Adwa, a Victory for Ethiopianism and Pan Africanism

By the Embassy of Ethiopia in Pretoria

In the aftermath of the Berlin Conference in 1884/85 and the height of the “scramble for Africa”, Ethiopia remained the only sovereign state in Africa. Italy, as a late comer to the scramble, had to attempt its luck on Ethiopia which triggered a major military clash between an Ethiopian army and the invading Italian forces on March 2, 1896.

The legendary battle was concluded with a resounding victory of the Ethiopian forces defending its sovereignty and effectively thwarting Italy’s attempt to build its Empire in Africa. The victory was won with the heroic leadership of Emperor Menelik II and the strategic military thinking of Empress Taytu Betul which impeccably built a united and formidable alliance across ethnic, religious, cultural, language, gender and geographical divide.

The victory—the first crushing defeat of a European power by African forces—earned Ethiopians an outstanding reputation and was quickly recognized as the victory of all black people around the world. In fact, especially for Africans in the continent, one way of paying tribute to Ethiopia’s role to Pan-Africanism and African independence had been adopting Ethiopia’s tricolour national flag into their flags and emblems.

125 years later, this emblematic victory still holds an important place in the hearts and minds of Africans and the black people all over the world as an illustration of not only the wonders Africans have accomplished in the past but also can do in their future.

One of the primary strategies of the Italian colonizers during the invasion was to exploit the rich diversity of the Ethiopian people, though that proved rather futile. Ethiopians have always believed that the victory of Adwa would have been unthinkable had we been a divided nation along religious, racial or political lines. International scholars too have noted that the exceptional unity Ethiopians have demonstrated was the core driver of this preeminent African victory that reversed the history of colonialism in the continent. In his book “The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire”, historian Raymond Jonas had this to say:

It was a national epic, the founding event in the modern life of the nation. The stately northward march of Menelik and Taytu not only consolidated their rule but called upon the Ethiopian people—Tigrayans, Shoans, Oromo, Welayta, and others—to set aside their differences and, in recognizing a common enemy, recognize a common nationhood. Nations, if they are to endure, are defined not by religion, ethnicity, or race but by the scale at which freedom can reliably be defended. Only on the scale of Ethiopia itself could resistance have succeeded.

It is within this context, therefore, that the Ethiopian community under the auspices of the Ethiopian Embassy in Pretoria, celebrated the victory of Adwa to intensify and renew our commitment towards a more united Ethiopia and Africa. The 125th celebration of the Adwa victory under a banner, “Adwa: An Emblem of Unity in Diversity”, will run for the whole month of March. Against this backdrop, the Embassy organized a virtual dialogue under a theme: “The Victory of Adwa: Implications for Ethiopian Unity and Sovereignty and Pan-Africanism”.

The victory of Adwa, Ethiopianism and Pan-Africanism

The victory of Adwa has left a lasting impression not only on Africans in the continent but also Afro Cubans, Haitians, Afro Brazilians, Jamaicans, the Rastafarian community and other Africans in the Diaspora. In 1897, Dr Benito Sylvain – a Haitian journalist and diplomat – visited

Ethiopia to congratulate Emperor Menelik II on his victory. Dr Sylvain later became one of the

founders and organizers of the first Pan-African congress in London in 1900. The ultimate pride that the black community took from the Adwa victory is manifest in Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement and the subsequent development of Pan-Africanism as an idea and a movement.

In the decades that followed, the black community drew lessons and inspiration from this historic victory in their struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid. They armed themselves with self-belief and self-reliance to engage in resistance movements. It is precisely for this reason that Adwa is considered a turning point in the modern African history.

Reiterating the significance of the struggle of the people of South Africa, the late President of South Africa and the legendary anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela had this to say in his 1992 address to the Free Ethiopian church of Southern Africa:

Fundamental tenets of the Ethiopian Movement were self-worth, self- reliance and freedom. These tenets drew the advocates of Ethiopianism, like a magnet, to the growing political movement. That political movement was to culminate in the formation of the ANC in 1912. It is in this sense that the ANC we trace the seeds of the formation of our organization to the Ethiopian Movement of the 1890s.

Equally important is the speech delivered by the late Ghanaian President Dr Kwame Nkrumah at a State Dinner in honour of Emperor Haile Selassie in Accra on 1st December 1960, where he said:

Ethiopia, because of her existence as an ancient and free state in Africa and the oldest continuously independent country in our continent, has always stood as a symbol of our political aspirations as a people. Ethiopia, in our minds, has stood for African freedom, African independence, African dignity and African self-respect. Even when we were not free, the struggle of Ethiopia to maintain her independence and integrity was regarded by us as our struggle. We always felt that so long as Ethiopia remained free, there was hope that we too would be free.

Besides the emotional and historical significance of the victory of Adwa to the emancipation of black people around the world Ethiopia has also strategically leveraged its political independence and territorial sovereignty to extend its support to Africans in their bitter struggle for independence. In the aftermath of the liberation of quite a number of African countries, Ethiopia – through the able leadership of Emperor Haileselassie – once again played a crucial role in bridging the ideological gap between the newly independent countries in the course of forging a continental organization. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established in May 25, 1963 and Addis Ababa provided a permanent home for this Pan African organization of the people of Africa.

Ethiopia’s long history of civilization, uninterrupted statehood, and ancient history of international diplomacy along with its contributions to the emancipation of the people of Africa have placed the country in a pivotal position to project Pan-Africanist leadership for the decades to come.



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