In March, 1896, the Ethiopian forces under the heroic leadership of Ras Alula, Ras Mengesha, Ras Mekonen, Etege Taitu, King Menelik II and other heros, surprised the world by defeating an Italian Army sent to attempting to invade, conquer, and colonize the proud nation and more importantly, be able to exploit its natural resources..

The Victory of Adwa, often referred to as Black’s Victory, is an important event celebrated nation wide to remember the sacrifice and price paid at the Battle of Adwa in 1996. The battle was carried out at the town of Adwa, central Tigray between Italy and Ethiopia. The Italians were fighting to colonize and the Ethiopians to protect their sovereign country. Ethiopia won the battle and it was a continental triumph which motivated millions of Africans and the Latin to fight for independence against colonizations.

The defeat of Italy by Ethiopia on March 1, 1896 at the Battle of Adwa, not only demonstrated the resilience and patriotism of Ethiopians but also made Ethiopia the steward of future hopes for the emancipation of the other nations that were subjugated under foreign rule. For example, Japan, used Ethiopia’s experience as its model and developed a strategy to fight against Russia in 1904. However, for a number of the European colonialists, when they heard that Italy was defeated by the heroic Ethiopian army at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, they were surprised and humiliated that members of the white race had lost. They suddenly had to rethink their ideas and policies about Africa being predominantly inhabited by primitive people that needed colonial rule in order to advance into a modern world.

The mistrust between the two nations had begun 7 years before during the signing of the Treaty of Wichale (or Uccialli) agreed to in principle in May of 1889. Menelik II agreed to provide to Italy land in the Tigray province in exchange for support in the form of weapons the Italians had been supplying him for some time. The Italians wanted more. There were two versions of the treaty to be signed, one in Italian, and one written in Amharic. Unbeknownst to the conquering King was the fact that the version in Italian had been altered by the translators to give Rome more power over Menelik II and his kingdom of Ethiopia.

The Italians believed they had tricked Menelik II into giving his allegiance to Rome in the treaty. Menelik II was willing to give them as much land as they need, including the whole of Eritrea and Tigray, as he believed that these people were a threat to his power. He was a Southern Showa king with free ride to the west and south parts of the country. His wife Etege Taytu and some of his advisers with bold national feeling however insisted on including the the ancient Kingdom of Axum, which houses the country oldest and most precious historical treasures, including the Ark of the Covenant. To the Italians surprise, the treaty was rejected with the push from such powerful members despite their attempt to influence the king with 2 million round of ammunition, which they knew he really like to have at the cost of their ‘little’ demand.

When bribery failed Italy did what so many nations have tried throughout history. They attempted to set up Ras Mangasha of Tigray as rival by promising to support him with money and weapons, and hoped he would overthrow Menelik II who had denounced Italy. Ras Mengesha and Ras Alula were however sons of Yohannes IV, who doesn’t, at all costs, wage his country. They are known for their national priority. Ras Alula is quoted to have said, when asked a little land on the east coast of Red Sea by the Italians that “The Italians will come to my country only when I became the Governor of Rom”. When that failed, the Italians turned to Baratieri, who had shown some promise in his handling of government affairs in Eritrea.

Baratieri was no stranger to battle and devised a good strategy to lure the Ethiopians into an ambush. There were three main problems with his strategy.

First, he had drastically underestimated the strength and will of the army facing him. Although aware he was outnumbered, the Governor of Eritrea believed the Ethiopians to be undisciplined and unskilled at the art of war negating the advantage in numbers. Certain he would have an advantage over the ‘savages’, he dug in his 20,000 troops and 56 guns at Adawa awaiting the King and his men.

In the meantime, the Ethiopian had trapped a thousand or so of the Italian army and besieged them. They agreed to allow them safe passage if Italy would reopen negotiations with Ethiopia concerning a peace treaty. The Italian government refused and in fact did the opposite, authorizing more dollars to pursue the war in Ethiopia. Their Nations’ pride had been hurt by the African lions and they sought to restore their ego and influence.

The second error Baratieri made was the assumption he could lure the Ethiopians out into an ambush. He did not think they had the tactics or knowledge of battle he possessed as an important leader in a civilized European nation. After a 3 month standoff his troops were out of basic supplies and he had to move forward or retreat. After a message came from higher up in the government calling him out as ineffective and unsure, he was pushed ahead to attack.

Baratieri’s third mistake of not understanding how poor his battle intelligence was became the most costly of his errors. The strategy he employed was to outflank the Ethiopian army under the cover of darkness and move in on them from the mountains above their camp. The Italian commander did not account for the extremely harsh terrain nor the lack of direction and difficulty in communicating with his men would have out in the wild country.

The strategy for the Battle of Adwa was set as follows:

  • Negus Tekle Haymanot Tessma of Gojjam (with 4-5,000 soldiers) was positioned to attack the enemy from the right Column and was assigned to take the right flank, while Ras Alula Engida was stationed to attack the incoming Italian army from the left wing. The central position was occupied by Rasses Makonnen Wodemikael and Ras Mikael of Wollo (with 15,000 soldiers) and Mengasha Yohannes and Dezazmatch Balach of Mech Oromo and Empress Taytu (with 5000 forces), Ras Wele (with 10,000 soldiers), who were rendered invaluable assistance by Ras Gobena and, Ras Wolde of the Yejju Oromo, Fetawrar Gebeyehu and Fetwrari Tekle of Wollega, Ras Abate of Shoa. Other Ethiopian patriots were assigned to attack the incoming Italian army from the center. Emperor Menelik was encamped with 35,000 forces covered in the area from the town of Adwa out to Abba Girma and north onto the slopes of Selloda.
  • On the other hand, General Oreste Baratieri, the commanding officer of the Italian army in Ethiopia and governor of Eritrea, planned an aggressive (provocative) advance -movement. The army would advance in three columns, followed by Baratieri and his staff, and a fourth reserve column led by Gereral Ellena. General Dabormida’s column was assigned to take the right flank so that he would move to occupy the northern pass between Entecho and Raio. General Albertone’s left column would move to occupy the southern pass between the peaks of Raio and Semayata. General Arimondi’s brigade was stationed to occupy the army’s center column. Thus 4076 soldiers squared against the Ethiopian army. The advance was designed to take place at night in order to minimize the risk of detection and ambush.

After setting out confident in their battle strategy, the officers in charge of implementing the attack from the Italian side learned how poor the rough sketches they had were. It was dark and cold in a high mountain pass in February and it was doomed. Divisions of Italian soldiers became confused, lost, and disorganized. Through the confusion a two mile gap in their battle line was opened and the Ethiopians rushed in cutting the Italian attack in two. Baratieri had failed to claim the high ground and Ethiopian forces hastily moved their artillery in above the attacking soldiers. Able to lob shells down upon the invaders, the Ethiopians raced to seize the advantage but the Italians held their ground and at mid morning it looked as if they may be able to win in spite of all the difficulty they had encountered.

Considering retreat, Menelik II was persuaded by his advisors to commit to the battle an additional 25,000 soldiers he had been holding in reserve. Those additional troops proved to be the difference in the outcome of the ferocious melee. Having fought hundreds of battles to protect their homeland, Ethiopian warriors attacked with a ferocity the Italians couldn’t have imagined. Taking hardly any prisoners, the victors of Battle of Adwa killed 289 Italian officers, 2,918 European soldiers and about 2,000 askari. A further 954 European troops were missing, while 470 Italians and 958 askari were wounded. Some 700 Italians and 1,800 askari fell into the hands of the Ethiopian troops.

With the victory at the Battle of Adwa in hand and the Italian colonial army destroyed, Eritrea was King Menelik’s for the taking but no order to occupy was given. It seems that Menelik II was not interested in including Eritrea in his map. A repeated request was coming from Ras Alula and Ras Mengesha to further destroy the Italians and take control of Eritrea. Menelik II was interested to restore the peace that had been broken by the Italians and their treaty manipulation seven years before. In signing the treaty, Menelik II made sure his foreign affairs were not to be made through Italy, but showed no interest in bringing Eritrea and some parts of Tigray back, despite all the bloody sacrifices. In fact he wanted the Italians keep closer to the border between Eritrea and Tigray, so that they will keep Ras Mengesha of Tigray busy defending. This will solve the risk of his power from the Tigreans.

The confrontation between Italy and Ethiopia at Adwa was a fundamental turning point in Ethiopian history. Although the Victory of Adwa was not the only glorious one fought agains colonials, it marked a clear point of independent Ethiopia. More importantly, the concept of seizing Ethiopia remained in the Italian psyche, so that when fascist Italy once more dreamed of empire in the 1930s, it again embarked upon an attempt to conquer Ethiopia. And, in that campaign, even though they met with initial success, it was once again an overreaching of Italian resources and Italy was thrown not only out of the Ethiopian heartland but also out of Eritrea. Thus, less than 50 years after Adwa, Eritrea, too, was restored to Ethiopia.

This defeat of a colonial power and the ensuing recognition of African sovereignty became rallying points for later African nationalists during their struggle for decolonization, as well as activists and leaders of the Pan-African movement. As the Afrocentric scholar Molefe Asante explains,

After the victory over Italy in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African State. After Adowa, 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.

On the other hand, many writers have pointed out how this battle was a humiliation for the Italian military. For the Italians Adwa became a national trauma which demagogic leaders strove to avenge. It also played no little part in motivating Italy’s revanchist adventure in 1935. The victory “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.

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