The Battle of Adwa: When Ethiopia crushed Italy!

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March 2014 marked 118 years of the historic victory of Ethiopian forces over an aspiring imperial power, Italy, soon after the shameful Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 that cut up Africa and divided its territory and resources. Pusch Commey takes us down memory lane.

The Battle of Adwa (also known as Adowa, or sometimes by the Italian name Adua) was fought on 1 March 1896 between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy near the town of Adwa, Ethiopia, in Tigray

 The Battle of Adwa (29 February-1 March 1896) is of huge significance for Africa in that the decimation of the continent could not be completed. Ethiopia turned out to be the last man standing.

So thorough was the defeat of Italy by Ethiopia, that there were violent riots all over the country, and it resulted in Italy being forced to pay indemnities to Ethiopia and recognise its borders. It is thus not by chance that Ethiopia hosts the African Union headquarters, and serves as an inspiration to Africans all over the world on how to stand up to bullies.

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It all began with the Treaty of Wuchale, a cooperative agreement between Ethiopia and Italy. But the devil was in the interpretation. Most significantly, Emperor Menelik II, who claims lineage from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, had the good sense to have his own language version of the treaty, in Amharic.

In the Italian version, Rome claimed that Article 17 meant Ethiopia had relinquished its foreign policy to Italy and thus had become a protectorate. This was disputed by the Amharic version, which clearly stated that Italy and Ethiopia would cooperate on foreign affairs.

Italy then used this as a casus belli to wage war on Ethiopia, which responded ferociously. In a landmark speech made to the nation, Emperor Menelik II made this declaration:

“Enemies have now come upon us to ruin our country and to change our religion. Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging into the country like moles. With the help of God, I will not deliver my country to them. Today, you who are strong, give me your strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer”.

Of equal significance is the role played by Menelik’s wife, the Empress Taytu Betul, who stood firmly by her husband by telling the Italian envoy, Antonelli:

“We have also made it known to the powers that the said article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. Like you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be.” 

Empress Taytu Betul: the Great Ethiopian Empress who Said ‘NO’ to Colonization

What can be achieved by a Africa United was demonstrated by the Battle of Adwa. Ethiopia as a country was divided, as many ethnic groupings swore allegiance to their own chiefs (or Ras). When things came to a head, Emperor Menelik was able to convince all of them to put aside their differences and contribute 100,000 troops to face down the invaders. Prominent amongst them was Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Sibhat of Tigray, Ras Wale of Yejju Oromo, and Ras Gebeyehu, who died fighting at Adwa. Empress Betul was the commander of a cavalry.

Italy was completely humiliated. The Italians made many tactical errors in the mountains of Adwa, against a determined and valiant Ethiopian force. A key moment in the battle came when Brigadier Dabormida, the Italian commander, under siege from Ethiopian artillery, decided to withdraw.

Dabormida’s brigade had moved to support Brigadier Albertone but was unable to reach him in time. Cut off from the remainder of the Italian army, Dabormida began to fight while retreating towards friendly positions. 

However, he inadvertently marched his command into a narrow valley where the Oromo cavalry, under Ras Mikael, slaughtered the brigade, shouting Ebalgume! Ebalgume! (“Reap! Reap!”)

Dabormida’s remains were never found, although his brother learned from an old woman living in the area that she had given water to a mortally wounded Italian officer, “a chief, a great man with spectacles and a watch, and golden stars”.

The remaining two brigades under a Baratieri were outflanked and destroyed piecemeal on the slopes of Mount Belah. Menelik watched as Gojjam forces under the command of Tekle Haymonot made quick work of the last intact Italian brigade. By noon, the survivors of the Italian army were in full retreat and the battle was over.

Italian defeat

The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner; Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4-5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded.

Two Italian soldiers captured and held captive after the Battle of Adwa.

In their flight to Eritrea, the Italians left behind all of their artillery and 11,000 rifles, as well as most of their transport.As the historian Paul B. Henze notes: “Baratieri’s army had been completely routed while Menelik’s was intact as a fighting force and gained thousands of rifles, pistols and a great deal of equipment from the fleeing Italians.”

Public opinion in Italy was outraged.The historian Chris Prouty offers a panoramic overview of the response in Italy to the news:

“When news of the calamity reached Italy, there were street demonstrations in most major cities. In Rome, to prevent these violent protests, the universities and theatres were closed. Police were called out to disperse rock-throwers in front of Prime Minister Crispi’s residence. Crispi resigned on 9 March. Troops were called out to quell demonstrations in Naples. 

“In Pavia, crowds built barricades on the railroad tracks to prevent a troop train from leaving the station. The Association of Women of Rome, Turin, Milan and Pavia called for the return of all military forces in Africa. Funeral masses were intoned for the known and unknown dead. 

“Families began sending to the newspapers letters they had received before Adwa in which their menfolk described their poor living conditions and their fears at the size of the army they were going to face. King Umberto declared his birthday (14 March) a day of mourning. Italian communities in St. Petersburg, London, New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires and Jerusalem collected money for the families of the dead and for the Italian Red Cross”.

Forty years later, in 1935, still stung by this ignominious defeat, Italy’s fascist leader Mussolini, who was aligned with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, took advantage of the advent of the Second World War to invade Ethiopia, complete with chemical weapons, bombs, tanks, and aircraft. 

Italy threw in 595 aircraft to Ethiopia’s 3, as well as 795 tanks to 3. They occupied Ethiopia for five years, and were again flushed out by Emperor Haile Selassie with the help of Allied forces, in the main the British army.

The prominent African-American historian, Professor Molefi Asante, opines on the significance of Adwa: “After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African state. After Adwa, 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.” 

Source: New African|| By Advocate James Pusch Commey
This article was originally published in the New African Magazine. Read the original article here.

2 Comments

  1. hmmmmm,D Ethiopians are strong-willed,focused,nd determined,d battle of Adwa was truly dat of ignominious defeat,nd d role played by Empress Taytu Betul,she was a great Amazon indeed…Ethiopians all rejecting d obnoxious colonial rule which wld av relegated dem to nothingness..their culture,beleifs,traditions nd etal would av all being swept away by d shackles of colonialism..it was indeed a great war dat left Europeans bewildered but gave hope n prestige to Africans…Bravo!!!!

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