Remembering Adwa : An African Victory

116 years ago war drums were beating in the city of Adwa in Ethiopia, as Ethiopians marched north to defend their country from the Italian aggression. At the time, Europeans were scrambling to colonize Africa for its wide untapped resources and Italy set its sight on East Africa. Located near the strategic red sea, controlling the area would boost the status of Italy as an international power with considerable influences, had it not been for the brave Ethiopians who fought bravely to protect their land. At the time Ethiopia had a stable kingdom ruled by Atse Menelik and his strong wife Etege Taitu from the center of the country at the current capital Addis Ababa.

The Italians started to occupy coastal areas in current day Eritrea and continued to expand their territory towards the center of the country. Menelik decided to peacefully engage with the Italians so that they will respect the sovereignty of his kingdom. After that the two governments signed a treaty known as “Wuchale treaty” accepting each other’s authority. Little did the Ethiopians know that the Italians used a double meaning word which was translated differently into Amharic in one controversial article. The infamous Article 17 states

His Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia can use the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for all treatments that did business with other powers or governments.

The italian translation of the article used a word which infers obligation,”must”, in place of the optional “can”. The Italian interpretation that makes Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy was firmly rejected by Atse Minilik.

Difference in this articles led to threats coming from the Italians for forceful occupation while Ethiopians affirmed their unwavering commitment to defend their freedom. There were a number of negotiation efforts so that the looming war, over the treaty issue, could be avoided but they all failed. As the war was fast becoming inevitable, the Ethiopian spirit was captured in these two famous quotes; Empress Taitu’s statement to the Italian messenger

We have also made known to the Powers that the said Article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. As 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. I am a woman and I do not love war, but rather than accepting this [Article 17 of the Wuchale Treaty] I prefer war.

and King Menelik’s announcement to his people

… At this time an enemy has crossed our God-given seashore boundaries with the aim of destroying our country and altering our religion. While I restrain my response because of the plague that has consumed animals and the famine that has exhausted our people, the enemy continued to advance by digging our land like a mole.
But now, with God as my shield, I shall not surrender my land to the enemy. O people of my land, I do not think that I have been unjust to you heretofore, and neither have you failed me. Now I ask all of you who are able-bodied to help me with your strength. If you are physically infirm, give your moral support for the sake of your children, your wife, and your faith….

The Italians tried every way possible to convince Menelik to accept their superiority over him and ended up fruitless. So they made the decision to show some fire power and crush the Ethiopians rather than agree to a dishonorable exit from the area. The war started at 9:00am on Feb 29, 1886 and ended after a full day of battle costing 12000 fatalities, 10000 injuries and 3000 captured prisoners. Ethiopian army won the battle and the Italians retreated back leaving most of their artillery. The New York Times reported the victory of Ethiopians from Rome as follows,

In the mean time, the Abyssinians flushed with success made an energetic attack up on the whole Italian front and envelop both wings. The Italians made a desperate resistance but could not withstand the attack and finally were given orders to fall back. 

The defeat that marked the first victory of black Africans over European colonisers caused an uproar in Italy and augmented the independence struggle in the rest of Africa. Italy finally signed an agreement on October 26 annulling the Wuchale treaty and recognising the independence of Ethiopia.

History is who we are  and why we are the way we are. [wikipedia, NYT ]


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