The Battle of Adwa, the battle that kept Ethiopia a free country
By dopper0189, Black Kos, Managing Editor
Peter Tosh - Black Dignity lyrics
Lift up thine head, o ye black dignity
And be ye lifted up, ye ever-loving black dignity
And let the King of kings enter thine heart
For in a little while and the wicked shall not be
They shall be cut off like the gra(ss)
And wither like the green herb
So trust in the Lord and do good
And wait patiently for Him
And verily thou shalt prevail
SelahI branches shall not wither
And whatsoever I do shall prosper
The Battle of Adwa was fought on March 1st 1896 between the Ethiopian Empire and the Kingdom of Italy near the town of Adwa, Ethiopia, in the Tigray province. Ethiopia’s victory in this battle sent shock waves around the world (“The pope is greatly disturbed,” reported The New York Times) and turned the narrative of colonialism on its head.
I first heard of this battle from listening to reggae music as a youth. The battle that kept Ethiopia a free black kingdom was a recurrent theme in roots reggae.
Prior to the 1850s, both modern Ethiopia and modern Italy didn’t really exist as nation states. But shortly there after, over the course of several decades, both nations began to take shape on maps. But even more importantly the nation state took shape in the minds of their citizens, as loyalty shifted from chieftains and princes jostling for power. As the 20th century dawned, Africa had been carved up among the European powers at the Berlin Conference.
The only two exceptions were the former America colony the Republic of Liberia in West Africa and Ethiopia (then still known as Abyssinia), in the eastern Horn of Africa region.
The newly unified Kingdom of Italy was a relative newcomer to the European imperialist scramble for Africa. Italy had recently obtained two African territories: Eritrea and Italian Somalia. Both were near Ethiopia on the Horn of Africa. Italy sought to increase its territory in Africa by conquering Ethiopia and joining it with its two territories. Menelik II the Ethiopian leader using diplomacy pitted Italy against its European rivals, all the while stockpiling weapons to defend Ethiopia against the Italians.
The Italians fortified several bases near the Red Sea and then gradually ventured inland. “Taking a page from the British book of colonial domination,” writes Theodore Vestal in The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism, they “pursued a policy of divide and conquer,” providing arms to any chiefs hostile to Yohannes IV, Ethiopia’s emperor until he was killed in battle in 1889. It was then that the Italians immediately moved to solidify their foothold by negotiating with the new emperor, Menelik II.
Menelik, from Ethiopia’s historically weaker southern region, owed much to his wife, Taytu. Raymond Jonas, author of The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire wrote heir marriage was “one of the great political unions of modern times.” She came from a wealthy northern family, which “added geographical balance to the ticket,” and she possessed a cunning political mind and a deep mistrust of Europeans.
The Treaty of Wuchalé, signed in both Italian and Amharic in May 1889, provided the pretext for the Battle of Adwa. Under the treaty, the Italians were given large swaths of land in exchange for a hefty loan of cash, arms and ammunition. “The pièce de résistance for the Italians,” writes Vestal, was the clause obligating Menelik to conduct all foreign affairs via Italy. “The Amharic version made such service by the Italians optional,” notes Vestal. Some have argued that Menelik was aware of the discrepancy, treating it as a convenient fiction that would deliver short-term gains (guns, money) before ultimately disentangling himself from it.
Italy formed its first colony, Eritrea, in 1890; two years later, the Italians persuaded Great Britain to recognize the whole of Ethiopia as a sphere of Italian interest. But in1893 Menelik denounced the Wuchalé treaty and any foreign claim to his dominions. Menelik repaid the loan “with three times the stipulated interest,” notes Vestal, but kept the guns.
Italy responded by annexing small territories near the Eritrean border, shipping over tens of thousands of troops and seeking to subvert Menelik’s power base by entering into agreements with provincial leaders.
The Italians believed they had tricked Menelik II into giving his allegiance to Rome in the treaty. Mistakenly, they believed him to be unsophisticated in the way the Europeans believed themselves to be. To the Italians surprise, the treaty was rejected despite their attempt to influence the king with 2 million round of ammunition. He would have none of it and denounced them as liars who had attempted to cheat himself and Ethiopia.
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. Menelik, a “master of the sport of personal advancement through intrigue,” according to Vestal, convinced the provincial rulers that the Italian threat was so grave that they must resist as a united force rather than “seek to exploit it to their own ends.”
When that failed, the Italians turned to the governor of colonial Eritrea, General Oreste 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, Menelik II had trapped a thousand or so of the Italian army and besieged them. He agreed to allow them safe passage if Italy would reopen negotiations with him 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 King 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. While Sun Tzu would have approved, 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.
After setting out confident in their battle strategy, the officers in charge of implementing the attack 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 Menelik II hastily moved his 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.
As battle waged around them, the generals of the various armies that had come together as a united Ethiopian force under Emperor Menelik II directed combat. Empress Taytu Betul, Menelik’s formidable wife, was no exception. Not only did she exhort the 5,000 men of her personal army to be more courageous, she also mobilized the 10,000 or so women in the camp to form a supply chain to transport jugs of water from a nearby stream to Ethiopia’s thirsty warriors.
Menelik’s army killed 3,000 Italian troops, captured another 1,900 as prisoners of war and seized an estimated 11,000 rifles, 4 million cartridges and 56 cannons. The emperor’s ability to assemble a force of at least 80,000, says Raymond Jonas, author of The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, and to organize and sustain them on a months long campaign was “unprecedented in 19th-century Africa.”
Taytu, not surprisingly, proposed harsh punishments for the Italian prisoners: Dismemberment, castration and execution were on her wish list. But her husband adopted a more strategic stance, says Jonas: “He realized the considerable bargaining leverage of the soldiers,” and used it to negotiate a treaty that recognized Ethiopia’s independence and included a considerable cash indemnity from the Italians.
With Taytu (and other Ethiopian generals) urging Menelik to consolidate their victory by advancing into Eritrea and expelling the Italians from the continent, Menelik once again took a more measured response. Jonas argues that here too he got it right: “He’d already done an amazing job of holding together his army over huge distances, but it’s hard to say whether he could have managed all the way to the coast” — especially when more troops would be arriving from Italy. Either way, Menelik’s decision formalized the divide between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The decisive victory at Adwa affirmed Ethiopia’s sovereignty and showed both Africans and Europeans that colonial conquest was not inevitable. In Italy, isolated protests erupted to decry the very idea of colonialism, but these were met by a more widespread desire for revenge. Eventually the Italian government decided to hang on to Eritrea and play at being better neighbors with Menelik. (That said, Italy’s national shame over its defeat had a lot to do with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia four decades later.)
While Adwa continues as a source of great pride for Ethiopia, it has not brought the kind of prosperity Taytu and Menelik would have hoped for. The country evaded colonization, but it has never achieved democracy, and the current government’s policy of ethnic federalism is the antithesis of Menelik’s vision of strength through unity. But since taking office in April, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has fired corrupt civil servants, freed political prisoners and normalized relations with Eritrea.
How an Ethiopian Army Taught Invading Italians a Lesson — Ozy.com
Battle of Adwa: Encyclopedia Britannica
The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism by Theodore Vestal
The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire by Ramon Jonas
Battle of Adwa — Wikipedia
News round up by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
A white supermajority of the Mississippi House voted after an intense, four-plus hour debate to create a separate court system and an expanded police force within the city of Jackson — the Blackest city in America — that would be appointed completely by white state officials.
If House Bill 1020 becomes law later this session, the white chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court would appoint two judges to oversee a new district within the city — one that includes all of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, among other areas. The white state attorney general would appoint four prosecutors, a court clerk, and four public defenders for the new district. The white state public safety commissioner would oversee an expanded Capitol Police force, run currently by a white chief.
The appointments by state officials would occur in lieu of judges and prosecutors being elected by the local residents of Jackson and Hinds County — as is the case in every other municipality and county in the state.
Mississippi’s capital city is 80% Black and home to a higher percentage of Black residents than any major American city. Mississippi’s Legislature is thoroughly controlled by white Republicans, who have redrawn districts over the past 30 years to ensure they can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote. Every legislative Republican is white, and most Democrats are Black.
This year, Black History Month has taken on added significance.
The month, which honors the achievements of Black people in American history, has shined a light on restrictive laws that make it harder for teachers to talk about race in school. Liberal lawmakers throughout the country have criticized these laws as efforts to placate white conservatives who want to gloss over the country’s past.
White parents, though, have demanded that local school boards pare back discussions on race because they don’t want their children to feel bad.
The effort to squash the discussion of race in school has had success. At least 42 states have passed or introduced legislation containing restrictions on talking about race, according to Education Week, which keeps a running total of the effort. The restrictions affect teachers from kindergarten through college.
“The current classroom censorship efforts are an unprecedented attempt to silence discussions and instruction about systemic racism and oppression in this country,” Leah Watson, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program who focuses on classroom censorship efforts, told theGrio.
Cuffed. Face down on the pavement. Police guns pointed at his head. Fernando Perez thought: “I’m about to get killed.”
It was 2015, and in Perez’s hometown of Baltimore, people were protesting the death of Freddie Gray who died there of fatal neck and spine injuries sustained while in police custody. Perez, was outside with friends near his home when a swarm of police officers showed up. “They came so deep with guns drawn, guns in our faces, telling us to get down, being aggressive, slamming us down,” says Perez. “It was chaos.”
Perez said the police told him they suspected the group was responsible for a break-in and cuffed them. It wasn’t until a sergeant arrived and de-escalated the situation that the officers released them. Some officers were part of the Gun Trace Task Force, an “elite” anti-crime unit assembled to take guns and violent criminals off the streets.
The unit was so corrupt that it became the target of an FBI investigation, and eight officers went to prison for a number of charges including extortion, robbery and overtime fraud. “They targeted everybody,” says Perez. “If you had a hoodie on, they targeted you. If you’re Black, they targeted you.”
What happened to Perez bares some similarities to the police beating incident that killed Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, last month. It involved five now-former officers of an “elite” anti-crime unit — Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION). These units are prevalent in metropolitan police departments that create them as their solution to increased violent crime and gun violence. Memphis launched SCORPION in 2021 for that reason. But experts and community leaders contend they’re ripe for brutality, corruption and lax oversight within their respective police departments, leading to harm Black people.
Joyce Banda, a former president of Malawi, hailed the “love affair” between Ukraine’s leader and its people as she promised to help Kyiv identify African countries badly needing the country’s grain exports.
Beginning work as one of Ukraine’s three “grain ambassadors”, the ex-president described Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s wartime direction as “an inspiring story”, part of an effort to boost Kyiv’s standing in Africa, where Russian influence remains strong.
Her job, she said, was “a mammoth task” because climate breakdown was badly affecting parts of Africa “like the northern part of Kenya, that didn’t get rain at all the past season”, meaning they need more help than ever with food security.
Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest grain exporters, and a main supplier to several African nations, but Banda said the country’s profile on the continent had minimal, as was her own understanding of its strategic position.
“Personally I didn’t know that Ukraine produces 10% of the global grain that we require”, Banda said. Now, as part of her ambassadorial role, she would seek to identify the parts of Africa most at risk of famine to help the European country organise supply to them.
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