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How the Ethiopians defeated the Italians in the Battle of Adwa in 1896

AFRICA
By James Kamau Kamau | June 28th 2021

Ethiopian raw meat delicacy. Legend has it that this centuries-old tradition was a wartime invention by fighters hiding out in the mountains that needed quick meals without attracting the attention of the enemy with fire, smoke, or smell.

"The Italians should come to Sahati only if I could go as Governor to Rome.”- Ras Alula

A horsey statue of Ras Alula welcomes you to the Ethiopian city of Mekelle in the Tigray region, 792 kilometers on road from Addis Ababa and almost two hours on a flight.

Alula is a celebrated general who led the Ethiopian army in many battles against intrusion by Sudanese, Egyptians and notably the Italians in what is known as the "Battle of Adwa." The Mekelle airport is also named after him.

Ethiopia is never shy to monument such historic achievements; these proudly dot the country towns.

The widely celebrated Battle of Adwa was fought on 1st March 1896 where Ethiopian soldiers defeated Italian troops to become the first African country to subdue its would-be colonizers. This battle turned Ethiopia into the symbol of redemption and freedom for black people and many icons like Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley, George Padmore drew inspiration from it.

Every Ethiopian I had a meal with talks passionately about this victory. My Ethiopian host in Mekelle could not hold back his pride while narrating how the battle happened. The passion with which he spoke ignited my interest to learn more than my history teacher Bosire Raymond taught. Furthermore, my hotel is just a few short miles from Adwa, so why not?

Cactus fruit in the streets of Addis Ababa. It grows abundantly in many parts of the arid and semi-arid Tigray region. There has been increased interest in the cactus pear as food and animal feed due to its drought resistance.

The making Menilek II

Way before the Europeans’ arrival, Ethiopia was an aggregate of semi-independent kingdoms, which were presided over by the Ethiopian emperor. At the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-5, the European countries divided Africa among themselves with Italy being given Ethiopia because they already had control over Assab port since 1882.

From there, Italy moved slowly inland but experienced immense resistance from the Kingdoms. The death of Emperor Yohannes IV during the war with the Sudanese army on March 10, 1889, presented the Italians with an opportunity of influence. There was great disorder as his potential successors fought for ascendancy.

The Italians supported Sahle Maryam, the King of Shewa from Tigray to acquire modern weaponry which gave him military strength over smaller Ethiopian kingdoms so as to secure his claim to emperor title. He was crowned and took the name Menilek II.

At the start, the ties of cooperation between Italy and Menilek II were further cemented by the Treaty of Wichale (Ucciali) on May 2, 1889, when Italy made a promise for a loan to Ethiopia while granting Italy rule over the neighbouring coastal colony of Eritrea.

The statue of General Ras Alula at the airport in Ethiopia’s second-biggest city, Mekelle. The celebrated General served under emperor Yohannes IV and emperor Menilek II, playing significant roles during the Egyptian invasion of 1875 and the Italian defeat at Adwa in 1896.

The good times did not last long after Article XVII of the Treaty of Wichale was found to have some version discrepancy. The Italian version made Italy the medium for Ethiopia’s foreign relations, whereas the Amharic text had it that Ethiopia could "choose" to utilize the Italian government in dealing with other foreign powers. In essence, the Italian version implied the declaration of Ethiopia as an Italian protectorate.

Rallying Ethiopians to defend their country

After many attempts, on September 1893, Menilek II withdrew from the treaty altogether and started preparing to combat any attempt by the Italians to force dominion. He called on all Ethiopians to defend their country, family, and religion. He ordered every capable person to fight and those incapable to pray for victory.

Menilek II mobilized a 100,000 strong army from every tribe. He shrewdly downplayed this military strength by leaking false reports that his army was smaller and was suffering from widespread discord. Based on this propaganda, Italians occupied the northern Ethiopian city of Amba Adigrat but Menelik forces swung to action and crashed them.

A restaurant in Mekelle. Centuries-old culture, religion, and achievements are artistically showcased across the country.

Rome's command was furious with this defeat and mobilized its forces, taking a position in Eritrea. None of the two armies wanted to attack first as both had huge essential supplies deficiency, especially food. At the time, Ethiopia was still recovering from the rinderpest virus outbreak of 1888-1892 that killed up to 90 percent of the country's livestock causing devastating famine, which is locally referred to as Kifu Ken, (the evil day).

The battle of Adwa

Despite the misgivings, the Italian governor and military leader of Eritrea, Gen. Oreste Baratierihe gave the order for his 20,000 Italian and Italian-trained native troops armed with cannons and machine guns to advance into Adwa. In response, on March 1, 1896, (Ethiopian calendar, Yekatit 23, 1888 (also known as the day of Saint George), the Ethiopian priests carried the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, to the battlefield.

The warriors took position accompanied by Etege Tayitu Bitul, wife of Emperor Menelik, a fearless strategist that led 6,000 horse soldiers to the war front employing traditional music and war chants that motivated the fighting spirit of the warriors. Ras Alula was assigned to block the arrival of Italian reinforcements. By the end of the grisly battle, these traditional warriors, farmers, and pastoralists as well as women, overwhelmingly defeated a well-armed Italian battalion. Some records have it that roughly 6,000 Italians and 5,000 Ethiopians were killed. The Ethiopians also captured 1,900 Italians and 1,500 Askari (African soldiers serving in the Italian armed forces).

The Ethiopian victory at the Battle of Adwa was big news the world over leading to a change of government in Italy and the resignation of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi following public protests. The two countries entered negotiations that resulted in the Addis Ababa Treaty. The treaty declared the unconditional acceptance of Ethiopian independence and sovereignty.

As I prepare to leave my work mission in Ethiopia, I joined my host Kibreab Abera Lomencho and Mikias Melak for a feast of raw meat in celebrating this African victory and the commemoration of the American Juneteenth. Ethiopians conducted their elections on June 21 and 22, 2021 and I hope they will make Africa proud again.

Mr Kamau is a Humanitarian Accountant who is widely travelled across Africa, Asia, Europe, North and South America. He is passionate about culture, history, economics, and current affairs.

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