Commemorating The Victory of the Battle of Adwa (1896).

March 3rd, 2007 Print Print Email Email

Battle of Adwa 111th Anniversary (Victory of Ethiopia and the Whole Africa ) The 111th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, March 3, 2007, was commemorated by millions Africans around world.

adwa “Ethiopia decisively defeated an invading European army
and forced the architects of the Berlin Conference (who had carved up Africa
among themselves, like a birthday cake) to formally acknowledge the sovereignty
and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.” (88) Furthermore, it was both
the “birth and culmination of the struggle for freedom of the peoples
of the Third World; Dr. Paulos Milkias
   

The Battle of Adwa 111th Anniversary Edited by Dr. Getachew Metaferia and Dr. Paulos Milkias | March 3, 2007
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Ethiopian patriots in war regalia
The Battle of Adwa in 1896 is considered one of the most important events in modern African history. Its significance has been studied by numerous scholars most often in response to Italy’s failed attempt to secure Ethiopia as a protectorate. The Battle of Adwa counters the prevailing interpretation revealing that this limited framework minimizes the true significance of the battle and its role in world history. Editors Paulos Mikias and Getachew Metaferia argue, that a phenomenon such as Adwa is a complex nexus of various historical processes with wide-ranging but as yet not fully explored meanings. Their work, featuring an introduction, prologue, and nine solid chapters, dissects Adwa as a social, political, national, religious, and military event broadening its scope to begin a new evaluation of this African victory.
The prologue indicates how this story affects the past, present and future. It places Ethiopia’s origins in ancient history and the Bible. The editors link each of the historical ancient Ethiopia, including the Axumite Empire of Ezana, the Christian state of Zagwe, and the Solomonian Empire that traces its lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, to the emerging modern nation. This approach solidifies both context and contacts within world history. By focusing on the vastness of the territory that will become modern Ethiopia, they establish that these were people of different ethnic and religious affiliations that were still in the process of unification at the time of the victory at Adwa.

Emperors Tewodros II and Yohannes IV are central to the rise of Menelik II who will become the nation’s ruler shortly before the war with Italy. Both Tewodros, who ruled from 1855 to 1872, and Yohannes, who ruled from Tewodros’ death to 1889, were frequently engaged in military conflicts with regional rivals and European forces. Each died in battles that were influenced by European powers. Menelik, Yohannes successor, was a beneficiary of those conflicts. His ambitions to become emperor encouraged him to challenge the authority of both men by withholding allegiances and entertaining overtures from British and Italian envoys to gain their support. The Italians, who like the British and French, sought a colonial empire in the Horn of Africa approached King Menelik during Yohannes reign. Before the emperor’s death, Count Pietro Antonelli and Menelik agreed in principle to a document that would become the Treaty of Wuchalé. The document had numerous points, with the most important being the debated section authorizing Italy to be Ethiopia’s agent in the European world. Essentially, this made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. Emperor Menelik signed both an Italian and Amharic version of this treaty in 1889.

Theodore Vestal builds the case for the Battle of Adwa by recalling Italy’s involvement in Ethiopia in Chapter One: “Reflections On The Battle Of Adwa And Its Significance For Today.”? He suggests that the Italians underestimated Ethiopia’s rulers and European support for the treaty. In fact, Vestal sees Italy’s missteps as the cause for the war. While Italy’s colonization of Eritrea was minimally accepted, the expansion of the Italian role within local Ethiopian affairs was not. Military actions “fuelled the anger of the Ethiopian masses and leaders alike, who viewed the invasion as a threat to their nation’s sovereignty.”? (26) The forthcoming war can be seen as the foundation for true nationalism and the advent of the modern Ethiopian state. While the Berlin Conference establishes policies for non-military action between European parties in their quest for colonial empires, Vestal shows that it did not constitute uniform support for each nation’s colonial desires. In 1892, he hints that Britain supported Italy in Ethiopia more to keep France out of the region rather than to support Italian imperialism and national development. Additionally, the flaws in the Treaty of Wuchale’ were known before the war and it also raised the concerns of European competitors. The Russians, for example, denounced the treaty in 1894, and shortly afterwards Tsar Nicholas sent the Ethiopians rifles and ammunition.

Yet the key point in the chapter was, not only did the military victory humiliate the Italians, it countered Italian comments that the Ethiopians were barbarians. Ethiopia went to great lengths to be fair in a difficult situation. Before the war, Menelik repaid the loans provided by the treaty, and afterwards allowed the Italians safe passage out of Ethiopia. Further, Vestal argues that Menelik wanted peace and did not pursue the Italians and allowed them to remain in Eritrea.

While installing national pride and unity, Menelik’s victory did have a price. His failure to remove the Italians from Eritrea became one of the nation’s greatest problems. It set the tone for the hostile relationships between the two regions which most see as part of Ethiopia.

Similar themes are echoed in the next chapter, “The Battle of Adwa: The Historic Victory of Ethiopia over European Colonialism.”? In examining Italy’s interests in African colonization, Paulos Milkias notes the similarities in the development of the two countries during the nineteenth century. However, he makes the obvious point that Italy used colonization as part of its unification process.

This chapter does an excellent job of analyzing the famed Treaty of Wuchalé and how it led to the Italian-Ethiopian war. Milkias places the conflict within cultural values as well as diplomatic ones. The deception in paragraph XIX of the treaty, which has a different meaning in Italian than it does in Amharic, illustrates the immorality of the Italians. Not only did Count Antonelli betray Menelik’s trust, the entire affair reveals the alleged superiority that the Italians believed they had over their African allies. This racial superiority is compounded as Menelik discovers that many of the European nations, including England and Germany, honored the treaty despite being made aware of its improper wording.

Menelik had no choice but to dissolve the treaty in February 1893. In the process he and Empress Taytu forced Count Antonelli to reveal his attempt to deceive the Ethiopian ruler. While the Ethiopians pressed for peace, they also prepared for war. The Italians offered another treaty on January 18, 1896. However, this was a more stringent one with the cession of Tigray and more formal protectorate status. Again, the Ethiopians refused. When the war began, it was solely because the Italians had to save national pride and its place in the European community.

Milkias offers pages of details about the battle and the resolve of the Ethiopians to save their homeland. Some 20,000 of the Ethiopian 90,000 troops fought without guns, yet they defeated a superior European army causing a loss of nearly 70% of its troops. Ethiopian women, led by Empress Taytu also played a role in the battle. The women provided water and medical care to the troops, and Taytu led her own forces in the course of the fighting.

In conclusion, Milkias posits that the battle of Adwa is important because it was “a victory for the underdog, a victory for right over wrong.”? (37) He wrote: “they decisively defeated an invading European army and forced the architects of the Berlin Conference (who had carved up Africa among themselves, like a birthday cake) to formally acknowledge the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia.”? (88) Furthermore, it was both the “birth and culmination of the struggle for freedom of the peoples of the Third World”¦sending out the message for self respecting human beings, it is infinitely better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees.”? (88) Chapter Three, Dejazmach Zewde Gabre-Selassie’s “Continuity and Discontinuity in Menelik’s Foreign Policy,”? “¦[discusses] a new foundation by critically examining Menelik’s entanglements with local rulers including Emperor Yohannes and Europeans, especially the Italians”¦.Menelik emerges skillful and lucky in his endeavors”¦. Following his coronation, Menelik continues the pattern of secret diplomacy, but does so with both local rulers and European powers. The chapter gives additional credit to Empress Taytu who plays a role in these diplomatic missions. The treaty changes the course of these actions, forcing Menelik to appeal more to Ethiopia’s local rulers. Menelik’s ultimate victories over the Italians rests on his ability to get these rulers who were interested in gaining their own power to turn against foreign interests and stand solely with him. This coalition wins two key victories leading to Adwa. At Adwa, the victory not only creates the ideology for Ethiopian independence, but for Ethiopian nationalism. The great victory also ignites the “scar of Adwa”? that will haunt Italy for four decades.

Harold Marcus’ essay returns to the questions of racial discourse that are an integral part of the volume. It is a short but influential piece”¦.His focus explores a sampling of European writings. The sources indicate differences in religion, skin color, and intelligence. While many found the Ethiopians lacking in cultural values, it is important to note that after the battle, impressions of the Ethiopians had a marked improvement. Yet, Marcus concludes, “”¦even in its hour of greatest triumph, Ethiopia was not afforded full equality.”? (237)

Chapter Four, “Adwa 1896: Who Was Civilized And Who Was Savage?”? by Negussay Ayele continues to explore the concept of European racism found in the first two chapters. Ayele examines racism used to justify colonization, the war with Ethiopia, and continued European resentment of Africans after Adwa. It places Adwa at the end of centuries of European and African struggles as it serves as a turning point in these confrontations. While viewing many of the issues considered in the first two chapters, it adds useful and needed details to enhance the immorality of the Italians and the Treaty of Wuchalé. Ayele provides the treaty’s twenty provisions and carefully scrutinizes the flaws and controversial points in the document. He also covers the magnanimity of Menelik following the war to show that the Ethiopians were the civilized party in this defining chapter of African history.

Getachew Metaferia essay comprises chapter five. “Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and its Role in the Pan-African Movement,”? places Ethiopia in the center of Pan-Africanism that emerges in the late nineteenth century. He convincingly argues the connections between Ethiopia and numerous political movements in modern history. His work examines the historical images of Ethiopia, the growth of Pan-African movements throughout the Diaspora, Ethiopia’s ties to socio-political and religious movements, and current prospects of Ethiopianism. In many respects, this is the best chapter of the work as it offers rich examples that are hard to refute. Metaferia illustrates how Menelik became a role model for those in the Diaspora. He sparked the first legitimate invitation for Disaporans to come back home (to Africa). This connection enamored blacks to support Ethiopia when Mussolini attacked it during World War II, and led to the enthusiastic support of Haile Selassie during and after the war. Selassie, too, invited those in the Diaspora to return to Africa and was a spiritual champion for African independence. Additionally, Selassie convened the Pan African conference in 1958 and founded the Organization of African Unity in 1963.

In Chapter Six, Richard Pankhurst uses the Times of London to gauge European reaction to the Battle of Adwa. “British Reactions to The Battle of Adwa; as Illustrated by the Times of London for 1896,”? is another examination of the persistence of European racism and concepts of superiority to justify colonial designs. Pankhurst introduces the material by focusing on a 1895 Times article suggesting that the French were secretly willing to support the Ethiopians over the Italians. Though the alleged pact was denounced by the Paris Temps, the Times acknowledged that while the French were not happy with Italy as a rival, they would not side with an African nation over an European one.

However, once the war began, the attitude towards the Italians began to waver. The trickery of the treaty was noted, but Italy was still favored “qualified only by a criticism of Italian tactical mistakes.”? (223) Menelik’s honorable actions earned the Ethiopians a distinction between itself and other African nations. (222) In such a light, the paper admitted “Ethiopia was a civilized power both in her methods of warfare and in her diplomacy.”? (223)

Pankhurst stresses that the British periodical was concerned with the actions of other European nations to protect its nation’s investment in Africa. It was fearful of French involvement throughout the continent and Russian support for the Ethiopians. Yet, when the Italians published a Green Book that blamed its failure on the lack of support from the British, the Times had to respond. Pankhurst concludes that the British paper insisted that it was loyal to the Italians as the two countries were related by common interests “too deep and solid to be affected by petty questions in remote parts of Africa.”? (227) Such a statement, he concluded revealed the true motives of the paper and British government.

“Contemporary Ethiopia in the Context of the Battle of Adwa, 1896,”?is the title of Chapter Eight. In this section, Mesfin Araya posits “Adwa represents a bold critique on the current ethnic politics in Ethiopia”? and “Adwa has its own contradictions which still plague Ethiopia; contradictions whose resolution is also contained in Adwa itself.”? (240) At the heart of this chapter is the spirit of Adwa to sustain the Ethiopians during the Italian occupation of World War II, the role of the ruling class to unify during Adwa leading to both national and class unity, and Menelik’s failure to pursue the Italians into Eritrea and eventually attempt to unify this section with the rest of the nation. Araya argues that the Ethiopians did not compliment the “military Adwa”? with the “intellectual Adwa.”?(225) As a result, the nation evolved into a socialist government that continues to maintain a stranglehold on its true development. According to Araya, the nation failed to apprehend its realities in ways that identify the real aspirations and “possibilities embedded in their life circumstances.”? (225)

This concept blends nicely into Chapter Nine: “Ethiopian History and Critical Theory: The Case of Adwa.”? Maimire Mennasemay’s ideological essay serves as a fitting conclusion. He begins by challenging the idea that the “?uniqueness of Adwa lies not in the defeat of a European power by an African country, but in the fact that Adwa is, to use Alain Badiou’s term, “a Truth-Event,”? a singular event that exceeds the circumstances out of which it emerges such that what appears impossible becomes real, giving rise to radically new political problems.”? (253) This approach considers collective memory and critical theory to fully understand Adwa. He urges readers to look beyond Eurocentric analysis of events, especially Marxist models. In many ways he is contesting the current state of Ethiopia as well as the European context for Adwa. Instead he suggests that Adwa is an unfinished battle tied to the quest for national unity and freedom and equality.

Milkias and Metaferia have compiled an impressive volume. It is filled with important information and makes for a great read. Many of the chapters read as if they were written solely for this collection and at points it flows easily from one selection to the next. “¦

The strength of the collection rests in its ability to visualize the multiple meanings of Adwa. As highlighted in chapter nine, Adwa is an internal and external event. Adwa elevated Menelik and Taytu into national heroes and world icons. The treaty illustrated how Europeans underestimated the intelligence and global awareness of African peoples. It changed the course of Ethiopian history because it stemmed the flow of European colonization, and gave birth to the world’s only true independent black nation.

For generations of Africans born after 1896, on the continent and throughout the Diaspora, this battle represents the spiritual victory of black people over the forces of evil. It gave hope to the generation of those fighting against colonialism and for freedom in Africa, in the Caribbean, and the rest of the Third World. Adwa set the stage for the New Negro, Negritude, Pan African, and Black Power movements. And in many respects, the spirit of Adwa contributed to the success of the American Civil Rights Movement.

The above was extracted from The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism,” Edited by Paulos Milkias and Getachew Metaferia.

New York: Algora Publishing, 2005
xi-320pp. and maps.
Reviewed in Horn of Africa Journal, Rutgers University
Reviewer: Dr. Leslie Wilson
Professor of History
Montclair State University

The Battle of Adwa as a “Historic” Event
By Donald N. Levine

There are three reasons why we commonly refer to some happening as a historic event: either it occurs for the first time; it has significant consequences; or it is symbolically important. As a first time event, Emperor Menelik’s cession of the Bogos highlands to Italy in 1889 has been described as historic, as the first time that an Ethiopian ruler ever voluntarily ceded territory to a foreign power. In the same vein, Abebe Bikila’s victory in the marathon race in the 1960 Olympics at Rome was historic, as the first time that an Ethiopian won a gold medal.

We also designate events as historic when their consequences significantly alter the shape of subsequent history. The conversion of King Ezanas to Christianity in the middle of the fourth century was historic in this sense because it redirected Ethiopia’s entire cultural development. Similarly, the protection given to disciples of the Prophet Mohammed by the Ethiopian king in the seventh century was a historic event. It led Mohammed to advise his followers to spare Ethiopia from the jihad of Islamic expansion that took place soon after. Likewise, the killing of Emperor Yohannes IV by Sudanese Mahdists in 1889 was historic because it opened the way to the ascendancy of an emperor from Shoa. Even when events have no significant direct consequences, we tend to call them historic when they symbolize important national or universal human ideals. The suicide of Emperor Tewodros II had little political consequence, his rule was over, whether or not he was captured alive by the British but it came to symbolize a sentiment of preferring death over demeaning captivity.

The speech of Emperor Haile Selassie to the League of Nations in 1937 is often called a historic address, even though it did nothing to change the course of history, because it came to symbolize the moral weakness of Western democracies in the face of fascist expansionism and the need for a stronger world organization empowered to provide collective security. The Battle of Adwa in 1896 qualifies as an historic event in all three senses of the term. As a historic first, it represented the first time since the beginning of European imperial expansion that a non-white nation had defeated a European power. The Battle of Adwa in 1896 also had two fateful consequences the preservation of Ethiopia’s independence from Italian colonization, and the confirmation of Italy’s control over the part of the country Italy had named Eritrea in 1890. Both consequences had repercussions throughout the twentieth century. Italy experienced her defeat at Adwa as intensely humiliating, and that humiliation became a national trauma which demagogic leaders strove to avenge. It also played no little part in motivating Italy’s revanchist adventure in 1935. On the other hand, Italy’s continued occupation of Eritrea gave her a convenient springboard from which to launch that invasion. A generation later, tensions stemming from the protracted division of historic Ethiopia into two parts one under European governance, one under the Ethiopian Crown culminated in a long civil war, and the eventual secession of Eritrea as an independent state in 1993. In addition to these actual historic consequences, the Battle of Adwa was historic because it acquired symbolic significance of many kinds. In some instances this symbolism itself came to exert a certain influence on the course of events.

Adwa’s Symbolism in Other Countries In Europe, the short-term symbolic significance of the Ethiopian defeat of Italy in 1896 was that it served to initiate a process of rethinking the Europeans’ image of Africa and Africans. During the nineteenth century Africa had come to be viewed in increasingly pejorative terms, as a continent of people so primitive they were fit only for European rule. Ethiopia did not escape such swipes. British officers called Ethiopia a nation of savages and Italian officials described it as a nation of primitive tribesmen led by a barbarian. The British Foreign Office supported the provocative move of ceding Zula to Italy, expecting that Yohannes would protest by attacking them and then easily be punished for imagining that Ethiopians were equal to white men. Kaiser Wilhelm responded to Emperor Menelik’s announcement of his accession to the throne with insulting language. The stunning victory at Adwa required Europeans to take Ethiopia and Africa more seriously. It not only initiated a decade of negotiations with European powers in which nine border treaties were signed, it made Europeans begin to reconsider their prejudices against Africans. It came to symbolize a rising awareness among Europeans of African political resources and yearnings and an increasing recognition of indigenous African cultural accomplishments.

In Japan, Ethiopia became appreciated as the first non-Caucasian power to defeat Europeans, an achievement the Japanese were to duplicate in warfare against Russia in 1904. This appreciation led to a sense of affinity that bore fruit for decades thereafter. Ethiopian intellectuals looked to Japan as a model for modernizing their ancient monarchy; the Meiji Constitution served as a model for the Ethiopian Constitution of 1931. When Italy invaded Ethiopia again in the mid-thirties, many Japanese citizens (if not the regime formally) expressed solidarity with Ethiopians, sending shipments of many thousands of swords to help Ethiopians in their plight. In Africa, the Battle of Adwa inspired other kinds of symbolism. For a number of colonized Africans, the Ethiopian victory at Adwa symbolized the possibility of future emancipation. Black South Africans of the Ethiopian Church came to identify with the Christian kingdom in the Horn, a connection that led South African leader James Dwane to write Menelik for help in caring for the Christian communities of Egypt and Sudan. The victory at Adwa made Ethiopia visible as a beacon of African independence, a position that inspired figures like Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya in the early years of the African independence movement, as well as leaders in the West Indies like George Padmore and Marcus Garvey from Jamaica. Adwa as a Symbol of Ethiopia’s Tradition of Independence Within Ethiopia itself, Adwa symbolized many things, some of which had positive consequences for her development while others did not. Internally, as abroad, it symbolized Ethiopia’s proud commitment to freedom from foreign domination. Of the many emblems of Ethiopia’s historic independence, Adwa is perhaps the most visible and the most dramatic. The spirit of Ethiopians’ defiant protection of their land from outsiders manifests itself in many forms. There is the apocryphal story of Emperor Tewodros, who is said to have ordered the boots of some visitors washed before they embarked on a ship back to Europe, saying: “Far more precious than jewels is a single drop of Ethiopian soil.” There was the refrain I used to hear young braves chant at festive times, jabbing dula (stick) up and down as they danced and sang: Min alle, Teqel min alle? Ageren le sew, ageren le sew, alsetim alle! (What did Teqel [Haile Selassie's horse name] say? I won’t give my country to foreigners, he said.)

With respect to Menelik’s reputation, it partly overcame the resentments he had stirred up by ceding Bogos to Italy in exchange for help against his competitors in Tigray. As a historic assertion of Ethiopia’s independence, Adwa also reverberated with memories of Ethiopia’s experience as a long-lived independent polity. Its symbolism thereby encompassed a layer of meaning that alluded to the historic depth of the Ethiopian nation. It revived memories of earlier achievements and yearnings. At the same time, Adwa may have served to give Ethiopians a false sense of confidence about their position in the modern world. In showing themselves and the world that they could defeat a European invader with their own resources, the 1896 campaign may have led them to think that their traditional resources could be adequate in an era in which war would be waged with tanks and airplanes. It gave encouragement to isolationist and conservative strains that were deeply rooted in Ethiopian culture, strengthening the hand of those who would strive to keep Ethiopia from adopting techniques imported from the modern West”resistances with which both Menelik and Ras Teferi/Haile Selassie would have to contend.

Adwa as a Symbol of Multi-ethnic Cooperation The symbolism of multi-ethnic collaboration evoked by the Battle of Adwa has been less visible than its role in symbolizing Ethiopia’s tradition of independence. Yet in some ways the former was the most remarkable and meaningful aspect of the entire episode. Although members of different ethnic, religious, and regional groups had been interacting regularly in Ethiopia for more than 2,000 years”through trading, intermarriage, common ritual observances, pilgrimages, and political competition”from the perspective of Ethiopian history, Adwa offers the most dramatic instance of multi-ethnic collaboration before the 20th century. This is because it gave expression to a great outpouring of national patriotism, foreshadowing the great patriotic struggles of 1935-41. Even from the perspective of modern world history, Adwa represented a relatively rare struggle for national independence waged by a coalition of diverse ethnic groups.

Twenty-five years earlier, Adwa had been the scene of a protracted battle between Dejazmatch Kasa, who would become Emperor Yohannes IV, and the reigning emperor, Tekle Giorgis II, formerly Wag Shum Gobeze. What the 1871 Battle of Adwa symbolized was the age-old struggle among different regional and ethnic groups for dominance. Yohannes, like Tewodros II before him, came to the throne determined to reunify the empire, which had been fragmented following the invasion of Ahmed Gragn and subsequent divisive developments. Although Yohannes did not live to see it, the 1896 Battle of Adwa was a tribute to his vision and to the thoughtfulness and determination with which he sought to unify Ethiopia while respecting the local jurisdiction of regional kings and lords so long as they remained faithful to the national crown. Those who would deny Ethiopia’s long existence as a multi-ethnic society must be embarrassed by the facts of the Adwa experience.

If the empire consisted of nothing but a congeries of separate tribal and regional groups, how then account for the courageous collaboration of 100,000 troops from dozens of ethnic groups from all parts of the country? How then explain the spirited national patriotism of such diverse leaders as Ras Alula, Ras Mengesha, and Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Dejazmatch Bahta of Akale Guzae, Wag Shum Guangul of Lasta, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Negus Tekle-Haymanot of Gojjam, Ras Gobena and Dejazmatch Balcha of the Mecha Oromo, Ras Wole of the Yejju Oromo, Fitawrari Tekle of Wollega, Ras Mekonnen of Harer, as well as Ras Gebeyehu (who died fighting at Adwa) and Ras Abate of Shoa? Of course, deeply rooted antagonisms and persistent rivalries among different factions beset Ethiopia throughout the 19th century. And yet, as historian Sven Rubenson has written, “at the crucial moment, Menelik commanded the loyalty of every important chief in the country.” The Battle of Adwa became and remains the most outstanding symbols of what, a half-century later, a British colonel would describe as the “mysterious magnetism” that holds Ethiopia together.

Donald N. Levine, Ph.D.,
The Peter B. Ritzman Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago.
This article is also published in ONE HOUSE: THE BATTLE OF ADWA, Nyala Publishing.

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