xxxxxAfter occupying Eritrea and Somaliland in north-east Africa in the late 1880s, the Italians sought  to gain control of Ethiopia in order to join up these two colonies. In 1889, having made the Treaty of Wuchale with Emperor Menelik II, they doctored the Italian version of the agreement and claimed that this gave them a protectorate over his land. Menelik denounced the treaty, however, and, aware that both France and Russia would supply him with arms (they wanted his support for their own colonial ambitions!), he chose to fight for his country’s independence. The Italians - some 18,000 strong - invaded in late 1895, but their three columns, having become separated during a night march to the battlefield, were overwhelmed by the constant attacks of an Ethiopian force of more than 80,000 men. Their defeat at the Battle of Adowa in March 1896 marked the first major defeat of a European colonial power by an African people. As we shall see, this victory enabled France to invade southern Sudan in order to unite their colonies across Africa and control the headwaters of the Nile, vital to the well being of Egypt and its British masters. In response, however, the British re-conquered the Sudan by their victory at Omdurman in 1898, and, later in the year, sent an army to confront a French military force at Fashoda on the Upper Nile. The so-called Fashoda Incident was to bring France and Britain to the brink of war.




Map (Horn of Africa): licensed under Creative Commons – Baratieri: date and artist unknown. Battle of Adowa: date and artist unknown – British Museum, London. Victory: illustration (subsequently coloured) from a French newspaper, 1896, artist unknown. Map (Eritrea): considered to be in the public domain – https:// Map (Eastern Africa): from Mussolini: date and artist unknown. Menelik II: date and artist unknown – British Museum, London.

xxxxxBecause their country was not unified until 1861, the Italians were late joining in the scramble for Africa. It had its beginning in 1869 when an Italian shipping company bought the rights of Assab Bay on the West coast of the Red Sea. The Italian government, having failed, as we have seen, to acquire the North African state of Tunisia in 1881, bought out these rights the following year, and by 1890 had officially established the colony of Eritrea, its first possession on the African continent. Fairly small in size by African standards, but holding an important strategic position near the entry to the Red Sea, this territory was bordered by the Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and the French colony of Somaliland in the south-east. And during the same period - the late 1880s - a protectorate was acquired over the northern part of Somalia, another territory in the region known as the Horn of Africa. This possession - Somaliland - was gradually extended southwards, despite some resistance, and the port of Mogadishu was made the capital of the colony in 1892.

xxxxxIt was around this time that the Italians sought to extend further their territory in this remote north-eastern corner of Africa. They aimed to gain control of Ethiopia in order to join up their two coastal territories. For this purpose they had cultivated a friendship with Menelik of Shewa, a major contender for the Ethiopian throne, supporting his cause and supplying him with rifles. Even before he was crowned Negusa Nagast - King of Kings - in November 1889, they had persuaded him to sign the Treaty of Wuchale in March of that year. This recognised the Italian colony of Eritrea and defined the diplomatic relationship between the two countries. However, the Italian version of the treaty differed significantly from that written in the native language, and, by its wording clearly made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. On coming to power, Menelik objected to this rigged interpretation, but all the European powers save France and Russia (both, as we shall see, supporting the emperor for their own colonial ambitions) accepted the Italian version. By 1894 all relations between the two countries had been severed. The Ethiopian leader had to accept this verdict or fight. He amassed a quantity of modern arms - a great deal coming from France and Russia - and chose to fight in the First Italo-Ethiopian War.

xxxxxGiven that he was taking on a powerful European nation, this was indeed a brave decision. However, because of the very real threat to the country’s independence, he succeeded in winning over the vast majority of his feudal nobles, and this enabled him to field a much larger army than the Italians expected. Putting his trust in God - Ethiopia had been a Christian nation since the 4th century AD - he called upon the strong to support him and the weak to pray for deliverance. Meantime, the Italians were confident of a victory over the barbarians. The army commander General Oreste Baratieri (1841-1901) (illustrated) vowed that he would bring Menelik “back in a cage”. In September 1895 both armies assembled near the town of Adowa, just across the border from Eritrea, and waited for the other to make a move. The Ethiopians managed to muster a force of some 80,000 men, the majority armed with spears and shields, and the Italians fielded nearly 18,000 troops including a brigade of Eritrean askari (soldiers). Many of these men were inexperienced conscripts, and much of their equipment was outdated or unsuitable for the terrain in which they were fighting. Both sides had the support of artillery (about 50 pieces each), and the Ethiopians had 8000 cavalry, drawn from the fierce Orono tribe. The Battle of Adowa was about to begin.

xxxxxBaratieri took the first step. He moved a column forward to occupy the town of Adigrat and, having put to flight an enemy attack, surged forward to occupy the mountain fortress of Amba Alage. In military terms this appeared to be an impregnable position, but wave after wave of Ethiopians then attacked up the steep slopes, and after six hours and heavy loses the summit was reached and the fortress overran. Only 400 men of the garrison of 2,000 managed to escape. The commander Major Toselli was killed in the battle, and was likened by the Italians to the British soldier General Gordon of Khartoum, a white hero who had died in the service of his country in the heart of the Dark Continent. Worse was to follow. Those who escaped fled to Mekelle and this town was quickly besieged by a large Ethiopian force in January 1896. The town’s water supply was cut off and, only after Baratieri had agreed to renegotiate all aspects of the conflict, was the garrison allowed to withdraw. But the following month the “negotiations” as far as the Italians were concerned was simply a demand that the emperor accept the Treaty of Wuchale and this, as they knew, would not be acceptable.

xxxxxBy the end of the month both armies were once again drawn up around the town of Adowa. By this time, however, both sides were quickly running out of food supplies. The Italians were on half rations, and the huge Ethiopian army was having to live off the land and little was left for its survival. Reluctantly Menelik decided he needed to start disbanding his force on the 2nd March. Unfortunately for Baratieri (as it turned out), goaded by his government to take action in order to avenge the defeats at Amba Alage and Mekelle, he chose the 1st of March 1896 for his all-out assault.

xxxxxHis plan was to keep one column in reserve, and to send the three others, commanded by Generals Albertone, Arimondi and Dabormida, to take up the heights overlooking the Ethiopian forces. The advance was made during the night of the 29th February, and this proved the downfall of the campaign. Because of the rugged nature of the terrain and the lack of accurate maps, all three columns lost their way and their contact with each other.

xxxxxAt first light Albertone made a wrong turn and marched his men directly towards the Ethiopians, encamped at the base of Mount Enda Chdane Meret. For three hours they were bombarded and charged repeatedly by Ethiopian warriors. Then Menelik committed his 25,000 imperial guard to the battle, and the Italian troops were overrun and put to flight. Meanwhile on the right flank the column led by General Dabormida had become separated from the remainder of the Italian forces and in making a dash for the fortified position of Sauria was caught in the narrow valley of Mariam Shavitu. With little space to manoeuvre the Italians were slaughtered almost to a man by the Orono cavalry, a tribe noted for their horsemanship and ferocity. The centre columns with the reserve forces commanded by Baratieri, fared no better. They were outflanked on the slopes of Mount Bellah and destroyed piecemeal by a much larger enemy force attacking from the front and both flanks.

xxxxxBy noon all those who had survived the onslaught were in full retreat. Close to half the Italian army were killed or wounded during the battle. Those who were captured were forced marched to Addis Ababa and repatriated on the payment of a large indemnity by the Italian government, put at ten million lira. Left on the various fields of battle were all the Italian artillery - 56 pieces -, more than 11,000 rifles, and most of their transport. As one might expect, given the tactics employed, the Ethiopian casualties were heavy - some 10,000 dead and double that number wounded.

xxxxxForxthe Italians the battle of Adowa was a complete and humiliating defeat, and it produced violent and widespread protest throughout Italy. At the Treaty of Addis Ababa in the October the Italian government was obliged to accept unconditionally the sovereignty and independence of Ethiopia. This, it seems, is all that Menelik wanted. He might well have gained more, but he chose not to carry the war further by driving the Italians out of their colony of Eritrea. A number of reasons have been put forward for that decision. His troops were battle weary, supplies were running low, there was a serious lack of horses, and fresh Italian troops were on their way. But above all, he realised that for the Italian people the loss of Eritrea would turn a colonial debacle into a national crusade, and then his country’s independence would certainly be lost.

xxxxxAs it was, the triumph of the Ethiopians - the first victory of an African nation over a European colonial power - was to serve as a powerful spur for African nationalism in the years to come. The one and only surviving African state now became a symbol of African valour and hope. In the meantime, however, this unique victory at Adowa had immediate repercussions upon the situation at ground level. Russia, for example, by its friendship with France and its generous support of Ethiopia, was now hoping to gain a foothold on the African coast - close to the Red Sea - as a counterweight to Britain’s hold on Egypt and the Suez Canal. And the French now had even more to gain. Having assisted Menelik in saving his kingdom, they were now able to use Ethiopia as a jumping-off ground for a military invasion of the Sudan, with the active support of Ethiopia itself. For long they had harboured the idea of joining their colonial possessions together from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, and the control of southern Sudan - and the Upper Nile that went with it - would provide them with the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Furthermore, it would threaten Britain’s hold on Egypt and put an end to its dream of a “red line” of possessions stretching from Cairo to Cape Town. At the same time, however, the British, fully aware that this scheme was in the offing, were planning to foil it by re-conquering the Sudan and taking control of the upper waters of the Nile. As we shall see, the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, by which Britain regained the Sudan, and the Fashoda Incident that followed - wherein British and French colonial interests collided and clashed - was to bring Britain and France to the brink of war and - strange to tell - a pact of friendship.

xxxxxIncidentally, the Battle of Adowa was the major encounter in the First Italo-Ethiopian War. The second one (sometimes known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War) occurred in October 1935 - forty years later - when the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (illustrated), on the pretext of a border dispute, invaded Ethiopia. The country was subdued by May 1936, and annexed to the recently created Italian East Africa. Seized in order to give Italy “a place in the sun”, it was also seen as revenge for the humiliation suffered at the hands of the Ethiopians in 1886. In 1941, during the Second World War, the Italians were driven out by British Empire forces and resistance fighters, and the country regained its independence. ……


xxxxx…… At the end of the war in 1896 a small number of Italian prisoners were tortured, and some 800 Eritrean askaris had their right hands and left feet cut off, the punishment meted out to traitors. Many of these died from their wounds. ……

xxxxx…… Russia’sxinterest in this part of Africa had its beginnings in 1889 when a Russian soldier of fortune named Nikolai Ivanovich Achinov (b.1856), with the half-hearted support of the Tsar and certain elements of his government, landed at Sagallo in French Somaliland with a small party of settlers. They took over an abandoned fort and named their settlement “New Moscow”. The French were not unduly alarmed at their arrival until Achinov refused to acknowledge their authority. They then complained to the Tsar who, anxious for Russia to maintain good relations with the French (as a friendly power in Europe and an ally against British imperialism), promptly disowned him and left him and his party at the mercy of the French. They bombarded the fort, killing seven of the party, and then sent the remainder back to Russia. Having won the goodwill of the French, the Russians then joined them in supporting the Ethiopians, motivated by the long term hope of gaining a foothold in this part of Africa.

xxxxxMenelikxII (1844-1913) was a highly intelligent man who exploited the greed of the colonial powers - notably Italy, France and Russia - to his own advantage. By playing one off against the other he received the necessary assitance to double the area he had inherited and crush the invasion of a major European power. Made emperor in 1889 he spent the next twenty five years expanding and modernising his territory. With foreign assistance he improved road and rail and telegraph communication, built hospitals and schools, established a state bank, and introduced a national currency. In the mid-1890s he created Addis Ababa as his capital city. During the years leading up to the war with Italy he had the foresight to import a large quantity of modern arms, the bulk from France and Russia, and this enabled him to retain his country’s independence, the only nation to do so during the European scramble for Africa.



Menelik II