The year 1896 signifies an important moment in African history. In that year, on 1 March 1896, a historic battle between invading Italian forces and a strong Ethiopian army (under the leadership of Emperor Menelik II and his wife, Empress Taytu – sometimes spelt Taitu) took place. The result of this violent clash marked a turning point in the European colonial mission known as the Scramble for Africa. This battle is known as the Battle of Adwa.

What led to the battle?

The groundwork for the Battle of Adwa (Adwa being a town in the northern part of Ethiopia, which was then known as Abyssinia) was laid long before any blow was delivered. Seven years before the events at Adwa, the two countries signed a treaty known as the Treaty of Wichale (sometimes spelt ‘Wuchale’ in transliterated Amharic – a language spoken in Ethiopia – or ‘Ucciale’ or ‘Ucciali’ in Italian). The controversial 1889 treaty provided Ethiopia’s military with advanced European weaponry – namely cannons and muskets – as well as financial resources, in exchange for control of the northern territories of Hamasen, Bogos, and Akele-Guzai (modern-day Eritrea and northern Tigray, Ethiopia). While Italy sought to exploit the divisions and power struggles within the Empire stemming from the rich diversity of the Ethiopian people, its covert goal was to, in fact, colonise the whole Empire.

In an attempt to pull the wool over Emperor Menelik’s eyes, the treaty had been written in two languages – Amharic and Italian. The Italian version recognised Ethiopia as a protectorate, while the Amharic version stated that Ethiopia merely had the option to report to Italy when engaging with other European powers. When the discrepancies were realised, Emperor Menelik sought to address them through diplomatic means, to no avail. As a result, Emperor Menelik formally denounced the treaty in 1893.

Empress Taytu is said to have played a crucial role in refusing to cede sovereignty. In response, Italy attempted to extend a formal protectorate over Ethiopia, through force. When an Italian diplomat in Ethiopia warned Empress Taytu that rejecting Italy’s attempt to make Ethiopia its protectorate would potentially cause Italy to lose its ‘dignity’, she replied:

           We too must retain our dignity…you want other countries to see Ethiopia as your protégé, but that would never be. (Kassa, 2021)

The battle

Conflict arose, culminating three years later in a violent clash between the Italian imperial forces and the army of Ethiopia on 1 March 1896. Men and women from all over the country took up arms – literally and figuratively – to protect their nation’s sovereignty. Thus, the Battle of Adwa forced an otherwise diverse and divided people to come together in the fight against a common enemy, affirming their autonomy, self-worth, and self-reliance. Women, along with joining the battle in direct combat, further ensured that food, water, and care for the injured and wounded remained well in supply. Marching for almost a thousand kilometres, the logistics were incredibly demanding, not to mention, largely shouldered by women. 

Thanks to the diplomatic skills of Emperor Menelik and Empress Taytu, the two mobilised an enormous military force of about 100 000 troops, completely overwhelming the Italians who only managed 20 000. Empress Taytu, in particular, is recognised for her distinguished decisive leadership and military strategy skills. One of her genius interventions was to drive the Italians out of their fort without a single shot being fired, by simply shutting off their water supplies. Thirsty, the Italians were forced to retreat, and Taytu avoided a heavy death toll at the hands of frontal military combat.

The outcome and aftermath

The Battle of Adwa was concluded with Ethiopia’s landslide victory over Italy, an event which was echoed throughout the world and widely reported in international media, furthering Italy’s embarrassment amid various reactions in the West, ranging from shock to outrage. Not only did their defeat foil their plans to colonise Ethiopia, but it also dispelled the notion that African people lacked the ability to respond to European imperial invasion with sophisticated and advanced defensive strategies.

Ethiopia’s show of unity, across political, religious, and cultural lines (the very diversity Italy sought to exploit) has often fostered an image of what African unity (or Pan-Africanism) can yield. Hence, the victory penned a new narrative of what Africans could do on the world stage. The very fact that an African nation could successfully resist the advancements of a European coloniser caused an upset and a serious blow to Italy’s reputation amongst its Western peers. In contrast, Ethiopia earned itself an outstanding reputation and the victory was quickly recognised as a victory for all Black people around the world.

It is for this reason that the Battle of Adwa has remained such a powerful symbol of African resistance to European colonial pursuit, 125 years since it happened.

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