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In the late 19th century, the European powers ran roughshod over Africa, brutally colonizing one country after another. Italy, for its part, targeted Ethiopia. But when its troops attacked on March 1, 1896, near the town of Adwa, they were overpowered by a large and well-armed Ethiopian force. In winning this pivotal victory, Ethiopia not only secured its own independence, but also inspired the anti-colonialist movement.

As far back as the 1400s, European nations made incursions into Africa, largely to facilitate the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Yet, for centuries, tropical diseases and navigational challenges restricted most of their activities to coastal areas. In 1870, by which time the slave trade had subsided, Europeans controlled only about 10 percent of the continent.

The 'Scramble for Africa'

By 1885, however, the so-called Scramble for Africa was fully underway, with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal carving up virtually the entire continent among themselves. At colonialism’s peak, only Liberia, created for the re-settlement of free Black Americans, and Ethiopia remained independent.

A relative newcomer to the game, Italy began its colonial military exploits in 1885, when, with Britain’s encouragement, it occupied the Red Sea port of Massawa. From there, it spread out along the Horn of Africa, establishing the colony of Eritrea—on land formerly controlled by Ethiopia—and occupying much of present-day Somalia as well. Its military presence particularly ramped up following an 1887 battle, when some 500 Italian soldiers were killed in an ambush.

“At that time, to be a big power you need at least two things,” says Haile Larebo, an associate professor at Morehouse College, who specializes in African colonial history. “You need a navy…and you need colonies.” He adds that the Italians were “simply mimicking others,” such as the British and French.

In 1889, Italy signed a treaty with Ethiopia’s emperor, Menelik II, who recognized the Italian claim to Eritrea in exchange for a loan of arms and money. But a major disagreement arose, exacerbated by differences between the Italian and Amharic versions of the text, over whether the treaty had turned Ethiopia into an Italian protectorate, without control of its external affairs.

Menelik and Taytu Betul Prepare Defense

King Menelik from Ethiopia surrounded with his chiefs of arms.

King Menelik II surrounded with his chiefs of arms.

Menelik, who claimed to be descended from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and his wife, Taytu Betul, a shrewd opponent of European expansionism, prepared to defend their sovereignty. In addition to securing modern weapons, they launched a public relations campaign with the help of several Europeans sympathetic to their cause.

Swiss-born engineer Alfred Ilg, for example, who served as Menelik’s de facto chief of staff, helped modernize the country’s infrastructure and, during trips to Europe, reportedly promoted Ethiopia as “Africa’s Switzerland.” Other Europeans published admiring articles about the Ethiopian court, sometimes referring to the devout Menelik as “Africa’s Christian monarch.” Menelik became somewhat of a celebrity, and, later on, even traded phonograph messages with England’s Queen Victoria. “He’s a down-to-earth monarch,” says Haile, with a “charming” and “magnetic” personality.

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Menelik Calls Up Mass Mobilization 

During his rise to power, Menelik had viciously mutilated rival Ethiopians, branded slaves with the sign of the cross, destroyed mosques, and encouraged pillaging. Nonetheless, with the Italians presenting a common threat, Menelik united the country’s fractious provincial rulers behind him. When he called for a mass mobilization in September 1895, he was able to raise around 80,000 to 120,000 troops, with men pouring in from almost all of Ethiopia’s regions and ethnic groups.

Meanwhile, Italy had advanced to within about 250 miles of Addis Ababa, the newly founded Ethiopian capital. Menelik, accompanied by Taytu, led his army north on what would become a five-month march totaling nearly 600 miles. As Raymond Jonas, author of “The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire,” writes, Menelik covered more ground than either William Tecumseh Sherman on his March to the Sea or Napoleon on his ill-fated invasion of Russia.

In December 1895 and January 1896, the Ethiopian army annihilated a vanguard Italian column at Amba Alage and then besieged an Italian fort at Mekele, forcing its surrender in large part by implementing Taytu’s strategy of cutting off the water supply. The Ethiopians next slipped past the main, entrenched Italian force and moved on to the Adwa area. Throughout, Menelik allegedly spread false rumors, downplaying the size and cohesiveness of his troops. “This is one of the 19th century’s greatest campaigns,” Jonas said on a 2012 podcast.

Cognizant of his lack of food, water, and accurate maps, Italian commanding officer Oreste Baratieri considered retreating into Eritrea. But, on February 25, 1896, he received a telegram from Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi essentially goading him into action. His subordinate generals likewise pushed for a decisive engagement, prompting Baratieri, who had earlier vowed to bring Menelik back to Italy in a cage, to advance three brigades.

Italians Make Full Retreat, Ethiopia Establishes Independence

When the fighting broke out on March 1, the Italians and their African auxiliaries quickly found themselves disorganized, highly outnumbered, and exposed in inhospitable terrain. By day’s end, they were in full retreat, leaving behind their artillery and roughly 3,000 prisoners. “[Menelik] outsmarted and outflanked the Italians in every aspect,” Haile says. Many women contributed to the victory, serving as water distributers, medical care providers, prison guards, and morale boosters. Taytu herself commanded her own personal army.

Overall, the Ethiopians inflicted a casualty rate of up to 70 percent (while also suffering relatively heavy losses). They brought the Italian prisoners back to Addis Ababa, in what Jonas calls a “racial turning of the tables that put whites at the mercy of blacks in significant numbers for the first time.” Treated well, they were gradually released, whereas, in contrast, the Africans fighting alongside the Italians purportedly had their right hands and left feet amputated.

In the aftermath of the battle, Crispi’s government collapsed and Baratieri was put on trial. (He was acquitted.) Moreover, Italy agreed to recognize Ethiopian independence, as did other European powers, which negotiated with Menelik to settle the country’s borders.

Menelik’s victory had farther-ranging consequences as well. Before Adwa, according to Haile, Europeans generally thought of Africans as primitive savages, who would all be ruled over and eventually displaced by Europeans. But afterwards, Haile says, Europeans were forced to take “Africans much more seriously,” even as racist attitudes remained entrenched.

Italian forces later returned under Benito Mussolini and briefly occupied Ethiopia with the help of warplanes and chemical weapons. Nonetheless, Ethiopian resistance endured as a “beacon” for future African independence movements, Haile explains, as well as the concept of Pan-Africanism. It also indirectly influenced pop culture: In the Black Panther movies and comic books, for example, the fictional Wakanda is portrayed as the only African nation to never be colonized.

“Really,” Haile says, “the foundation of all this is Adwa.”

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