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Ethiopia Resists Colonization 1896

On May 1, 1896, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and his army fought the Italian forces in the Battle of Adwa. The Ethiopians decimated the Italians and scored a spectacular victory by using rifles and bullets they had received from the Italian government. Ethiopia became the first African state to successfully resist European colonization and defend its independence.  This event is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during this time.

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Ancient Ethiopia

The Kingdom of Aksum was founded in AD 100 in the area now occupied by northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Christianity first arrived during the 4th century and quickly spread throughout the kingdom. Since the Aksumite churches had strong ties with the neighboring Copts of Egypt (and their supposed belief in monophysitism), Rome was quick to brand the Ethiopians as heretics. As Islam spread throughout eastern and northern Africa, Aksum became increasingly isolated. Despite the isolation, the Ethiopians managed to develop their own unique brand of Christianity. It became the dominant religion throughout the kingdom’s existence.

In the late 13th century, the Solomonic Dynasty (whose heirs claimed direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) started to rule Ethiopia. For many centuries, the Ethiopian church maintained a relationship with Jerusalem. In 1441, the Ethiopians briefly broke their isolation by sending delegates to the Council of Florence. Jesuit missionaries first entered its borders in 1554 and again in 1603. The Jesuit interlude abruptly ended, and the kingdom remained in isolation until the Scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Because of its people’s fierce independence and its rulers’ willingness to match European cunning, Ethiopia became one of the two African states which escaped European colonization during the 19th century.

Ethiopia and Italy During the Age of Imperialism

For many centuries, the interior of the African continent was not as attractive to the Europeans as the Mediterranean coast or the Cape. This would change when missionaries and explorers (such as James Bruce, David Livingstone, and Henry M. Stanley) made the dangerous journeys into its interior. They brought back news of exotic people and mysterious places with plenty of resources. Eager to strike it rich, European colonial governments followed the path of the missionaries and explorers. King Leopold II of Belgium made the first move by claiming the Congo and by establishing Belgian colonies in the area in 1876. This pushed the French to claim a section of central Africa as its own. It was followed by other European powers, bringing about the mad Scramble for Africa.

In 1855, the Ethiopian Empire emerged from division and was united under the leadership Emperor Tewodros II of the Solomonic Dynasty. The kings who ruled the various Ethiopian provinces grudgingly acknowledged Tewodros as their overlord until his death in 1868. He was succeeded by the ruler of the province of Tigray, King Yohannes IV, as emperor of the Ethiopian Empire. The equally ambitious Menelik II ruled the province of Shewa in the south and proved to be Yohannes’s  rival in the dominance of the Empire. To curb Menelik’s power, Yohannes first had him imprisoned for ten years before sending him back to his own domain.

The Scramble for Africa intensified during the reign of Yohannes and Menelik. Britain had South Africa and Zimbabwe and was extending its influence in Egypt and Sudan. France, meanwhile, had claimed Algeria, large areas of West Africa, as well as most of the islands in the Indian Ocean. In 1862, France signed treaties with the local rulers of Djibouti (later French Somaliland) to counter British presence in the Red Sea. Italy, a country that was united only in 1861, soon entered the race to acquire its own colony. The latecomer’s target was the Ethiopian Empire.

Italy’s first contact with the Ethiopian Empire was in 1869 when the Rubattino Shipping Company established a small trading port in Assab (present-day Eritrea). Realizing their potential, King Menelik then made overtures to the Italians and soon befriended them in exchange for arms. The Italian government soon took over the management of Assab in 1882 with some encouragement from Britain.

In 1885, Italy sent two military expeditions to Massawa in Eritrea. It soon became clear to Menelik that Italy had colonial ambitions of its own and it put him on edge. Emperor Yohannes, meanwhile, experienced firsthand Britain’s unreliability as an ally. The emperor had counted on the British to get rid of the Egyptian garrisons in the coast so Ethiopia could finally gain access to the Red Sea under the Hewett Treaty of 1884. But instead of entrusting it to Yohannes, the British authorities disregarded him and pushed Italy to occupy the coast to safeguard a portion of the Red Sea from the French.

To contain Italian colonial ambitions, King Menelik decided to set his grievances aside and swore allegiance to Emperor Yohannes so they could put up a united front. He also remained friendly to the Italians who were his main (if not only) arms dealer (a decision which proved prudent many years later). On January 26, 1887, both sides finally came to a head when Italian troops started heading west of Massawa and into the Ethiopian interior. Ras Alula, a governor under Emperor Yohannes, was able to hold the Italians back and rout them in the Battle of Dogali.

The loss at Dogali was a humiliation for Italy, but it stubbornly held onto its ambition to colonize Ethiopia. Menelik remained cordial with the Italians while he was consolidating power. During this time, he was also preparing for any eventuality by stockpiling Italian arms. In November 1888, however, Yohannes and Menelik had a falling out and war seemed inevitable. The Italian envoy Count Pietro Antonelli encouraged Menelik to escalate the hostility to a civil war and promised to supply him with rifles and bullets. In truth, Antonelli was counting on using the distraction so that Italians troops could occupy the highlands. The king saw through the scheme, but he cautiously allowed the Italians to continue meddling in Ethiopian internal affairs so he could stockpile arms.

The promised rifles did not appear until December of 1888. By then, the civil war had been averted when the Mahdists of Sudan declared war on Yohannes. The emperor died in battle in 1889 against the Mahdists, and (after some struggle with Yohannes’s heir) was succeeded by Menelik as emperor. The new emperor soon gained recognition from Italy in the Treaty of Wichale which both parties signed in 1899. In the Treaty, Menelik agreed to cede what is now modern Eritrea to Italy in exchange for money plus rifles and heavy artillery.

The First Italo-Ethiopian War

Emperor Menelik lead the Ethiopian army in the First Italo-Ethiopian War.

Little did the two parties realize that a mistake in translation would spark the First Italo-Ethiopian War in 1896. In the Italian document of the Treaty, Article 17 specified that the Italian government would serve as Ethiopia’s sole representative in its foreign affairs. This was contrary to the Amharic version which simply stipulated that Ethiopia could ask for assistance with the Italian government anytime. The mistake (deliberate or not ) was discovered when diplomatic letters to foreign governments were sent from Shewa when Menelik was crowned as emperor in late 1889. To his rage, he found that the foreign governments rebuffed him and told him to direct his letters to Italy as Ethiopia was now its protectorate. Emperor Menelik realized his mistake and was quick to disavow the Treaty in 1894.

A rift formed between the two countries formed because of the Treaty, but Italy still provided the emperor with arms to curry his favor. Little did they know that the same weapons would be used against them later on. Local elites who did not favor Menelik also resented Italy’s encroachment, so they decided to set aside their grievances and submit to Menelik. This allowed the emperor to consolidate power and strengthen his army to prepare for a war with Italy.

The First Italo-Ethiopian War started with skirmishes between the Tigray army led by Ras Mengesha and the Italian soldiers stationed in Eritrea in 1895. Ras Mengesha finally succeeded in luring General Oreste Baratieri and his troops into Ethiopia proper. The emperor then roused the anger of Ethiopians by declaring that the Italian troops and their Eritrean reinforcements were trespassing on their land.

On March 1, 1896, General Baratieri and Emperor Menelik’s troops finally met in Battle of Adwa. Baratieri was prepared to wait until Menelik’s troops became weak, but he was relentlessly harassed by the Italian Prime Minister Crispi’s nagging telegrams from Rome. The general also heard rumors that a more capable Italian commander was on his way to Adwa to relieve him. His ego now stung, he rashly decided to prove his skills by ordering his army to attack Menelik’s forces on February 29, 1896. By March 2, his badly outnumbered troops were routed by the Ethiopians. 4,000 Italian and 2,000 Eritrean soldiers died that day. Thousands more were either wounded or taken as prisoners of war by the Ethiopians.

Although the Ethiopian death toll was far lower than that of the Italians, Menelik dared not gamble his victory away and immediately retreated to Addis Ababa. After the humiliating defeat, Italy was finally forced to recognize Ethiopia’s independence. Prime Minister Crispi, on the other hand, was forced to resign from his position immediately after news of the fiasco reached Italy. Ethiopia became the only African country to successfully resist European colonization.


Picture by: UnknownPankhurst, Richard. Ethiopia Photographed: Historic Photographs of the Country and its People Taken Between 1867 and 1935 p. 52, Public Domain, Link

Jones, A. H. M., and Elizabeth Monroe. A History of Ethiopia. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Zewde, Bahru. A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855-1991. 2nd ed. Oxford: James Curry, 2001.


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