The Battle of Adwa that shook Africa

OmarZ Sub-Saharan Africa

Battle of Adwa

Battle of Adwa, the first and second battalion of riflemen on Mount Rajo, March 1, 1896. War in Abyssinia, Ethiopia, 19th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

The 1st of March, 2015, was the 119th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa in which the Ethiopian Empire defeated the Kingdom of Italy. Not only did this battle secure Ethiopia’s sovereignty but ensured its unique status of being the only African nation not to be colonised following the ‘Scramble for Africa’. The victory at Adwa which resulted in Ethiopia’s victory in the first Ethiopian-Italian war, would also comprise one of the few but notable battles and wars where a non-European army successfully defeated a more technologically advanced European army.

The significance and impact of the victory was not isolated in Ethiopia but resonated globally as it dented notions of African inferiority against the superiority of white Europeans. However, the victory of Adwa would result in unforeseen consequences for Ethiopia and its neighbours. Nevertheless, Adwa remains a great source of pride for Ethiopians and Africans to this day as African scholar Molefe Asante explains:

‘’Ethiopia became emblematic of African valour and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority.’’

The events leading to Adwa were the culmination of increased Italian aggression following the signing of the Treaty of Wuchale by both Italy and Ethiopia in 1889. The treaty granted Italy the Northern Ethiopian regions of Bogos, Hamasen and Akale-Guzai which are now part of modern day Eritrea and Tigre. Article XVII of the Amharic version stated that the Emperor of Ethiopia ‘could’ conduct all foreign affairs through Italy. However, in the Italian version, the word ‘must’ was used, thereby officially rendering Ethiopia a protectorate under Italy. Emperor Menelik rejected the treaty in 1893 which was met with a military response as Italy began annexing small territories past the Mareb River, which was demarcated as the border for Eritrea.

The Italians were successful in defeating the first series of rebellions and battles lead by Ras Mengesha, the Ras (Amharic equivalent of Prince or Governor) of Tigray in 1894 and 1895. Menelik began summoning a large army and armed them with modern weaponry which had been sold by the British and French in the past four years since the rejection of the treaty. The Ethiopians went on to win the next series of battles which caused the Italians to fortify themselves in their garrisons in Tigre. In January 1896, Menelik managed to mobilise his army and marched towards the Italian positions. Outnumbered and low on food rations, the Governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baterieri, initially chose not to engage Menelik in battle, however the Italian government ordered Baratieri to attack.

The Italian army comprising of 17,700 soldiers and 56 artillery pieces, advanced towards the mountainous terrain north of the town of Adwa. Menelik’s army was approximately 120,000 strong, consisting of 82,000 men with rifles, 20,000 with spears, 8000 cavalry and 50 artillery pieces. The Ethiopian army attacked the Italians in repeated waves in three separate attacks. The Italian army began to fall in disarray after one Italian brigade overshot its rendezvous point and the second brigade – which had marched to cover the retreat of the first – itself became engaged in battle. Clearly overwhelmed, the remaining Italian survivors retreated towards Eritrea.

The victory at Adwa was primarily due to the sheer size of Menelik’s army but also due to Menelik’s calculated preparations and foresight in stockpiling modern weaponry. Mistakes on the part of the Italian Generals whom used inaccurate maps also contributed to the defeat. Furthermore, a team of 50 Russian military advisors played a small part in advising Menelik in his plans. The team had been sent after Menelik sent a diplomatic mission to Russia to request for military support.

News of the embarrassing defeat at Adwa and the subsequent failure in the first Ethiopian war was met with a mixture of anger and jubilation. Protests and riots occurred in several Italian cities against the government of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi. Students from the University of Rome chanted ‘Viva Menelik!’ in their protests. For leftist and anti-colonialist groups, Adwa would support their cause to end Italy’s colonial ambitions and their aims were met with increased public support as a petition signed by 100,000 was drawn up calling for an end to Italy’s colonial project.

Italy’s venture into Ethiopia came at a heavy public cost of over $1 million dollars.  A New York Times article published later on July 5th, 1896 wrote of a rumour that Humbert I, the King of Italy, even considered abdicating if the war did not end. On the 9th of March, the government of Crispi collapsed and the right and left formed a coalition government under Antonio di Rudini. In October the same year, the coalition government signed the treaty of Addis Ababa which recognised Ethiopia as an independent and sovereign nation. Ethiopia had safeguarded its freedom and independence.

The victory at Adwa was not only felt in Italy but reverberated globally. The British Newspaper The Spectator, noted the racial dynamic in the defeat stating that ‘The Italians have suffered a great disaster…greater than has ever occurred in modern times to White men in Africa’. Russians demonstrated solidarity with the Ethiopian people by donating to the Russian Red Cross. Adwa became a symbol of pride for Africans both in Africa and in the diaspora. Benito Sylvain of Haiti visited Ethiopia in 1904 to celebrate Haiti’s 100th anniversary of independence. Sylvain felt a connection with Ethiopia as his country was home to the first successful slave revolt in 1804 which lead to the establishment of Haiti. Pan-Africanist writers such as W.E.B. DuBois would even base their own model of an African state on Ethiopia. African-Americans saw the victory as recognition of their self-worth and altered the racist representations of Africans as inherently inferior.

With the benefit of hindsight and as is the case with history, it has been seen that the victory of Adwa brought unforeseen consequences to the region. It has been argued by historians such as Donald Levine, that the victory encouraged some of the isolationist groups within Ethiopia. Levine states that Adwa gave Ethiopians ‘a false sense of confidence about their position in the modern world’, which also ‘led them to think their traditional resources could be adequate’. As a result there was a reduction in imports of military technology from Europe. The victory at Adwa also played a role in the British recolonizing the Sudan, which had freed itself from Anglo-Egyptian rule under the leadership of Muhammed Ahmed ‘’Al-Mahdi’’ at the Battle of Khartoum (1885). Ethiopia’s act of asserting its sovereignty caused concerns amongst the British over their economic interests in Egypt (then a British protectorate) and the Suez Canal. Since Ethiopia was the source of the Blue Nile which supplied 80% of Egypt’s water, any threat to the source of the Blue Nile would have ramifications for the British-puppet Khedive government in Cairo.  For the Italians, the battle of Adwa was a national and historical humiliation and would later inspire Benito Mussolini to retake Abyssinia in the 1935 Abyssinia Crisis. The inaction of the League of Nations to assist a fellow member state would encourage Adolph Hitler, the future leader of Nazi Germany, to re-militarize the Rhineland in 1936.

A lingering question that remains on the Battle of Adwa is why did Menelik not capitalise on his victory and liberate Eritrea from the Italians? There are three main reasons which explain this. Firstly, Menelik’s forces were close to depleting their food rations and had already depleted the food supplies of the farming populace in the Tigre region; therefore there was insufficient food for a campaign to retake Eritrea. Secondly, Menelik’s main priority was the preservation of the independence of his newly consolidated Empire. Menelik did not want to risk overextending his gains and was concerned that if he attempted to recapture Eritrea, it would provoke the Italians into sending more forces against Ethiopia. Historian David Lewis puts it succinctly by stating that ‘’a sweep into Eritrea would force the Italian people to turn a bungled colonial war into a national crusade”. Lastly, Menelik held a disregard for the Tigrean people whom he didn’t identify as Abyssinians. In addition he feared a reoccupation of Tigrean-inhabited territories would increase Tigrean political aspirations for independence.

In modern day Ethiopia, Adwa is celebrated as a national holiday and signifies the prestige that Ethiopia holds among its own people and in Africa. The Battle of Adwa must be seen in the light of other historical events such as the Haitian Revolution (1804), the Battles of Little Bighorn (1876), Isandlwana (1879) and Khartoum (1885). These were successful cases of colonised and oppressed people, who defeated superior armies in their goal to liberate themselves and assert their independence.