’This country is mine and no other nation can have it!’
It had happened. King Menelik II was now Emperor Menelik II.
With his rival killed and his armoury overflowing with modern guns, The ancient kingdom of Ethiopia seemed destined for prosperity.
But, friendship with Italy came with a price tag and when The Emperor wouldn’t dance to their tune, things got nasty.
Could an African Kingdom repel a modern European state?
This episode covers Menelik’s reign as Emperor, including the famous Battle of Adwa.
Selam, my friends, and welcome to Part Two, the final part of Savages@ Ethiopia vs. Colonization.
My name is Elliot Gates, the host of Anthology Heroes, the podcast sharing stories of defiance and heroism throughout history. Anthology of heroes is part of the Evergreen Podcast Network. And in today's episode, things are getting hot because King Menelik II has just become Emperor Menelik II. He had been cozying up to Italy for years now, and they'd spent a mint helping him take the top job. And now they expected some return on their investment. In part One, I gave a lightning fast walk through of Ethiopia's history, how it clung to its Christian identity in a Muslim world, and how it tried to establish contact with the rest of the Christian world over the centuries, with mixed results.
After setting the scene, we covered the early years of our protagonist. We went through Menelik's rise to the throne. We followed his diplomatic blunders and glossed over the type of man he was determined, inquisitive, and above all, hardworking. At the end of the episode, we followed along as he toppled the Emperor of Ethiopia, along with the help of the Italians, specifically their guns. I'd listen to part One first because I think it's important to understand how Italy came to be in Africa and to understand the relationships that Menelik carefully built with them. But if you like to dig into your meal before the cutlery comes out, by all means, let's get into it. Savages: Ethiopia versus Colonization part Two david and Goliath.
So it's about time we introduced, well, the villain of this story. Enter into the scene. Count Pietro Antonelli . Remember that name. He's going to come up a lot.
Pietro Antonelli was a middle aged Italian diplomat with a high hairline, dark eyes, thick moustache and a patchy beard. He's actually been in the background of our story for some time, but here's, when he really starts to come into his own. What do I mean by that? Well, Pietro Antonelli is about to convince two nations that really don't want to go to war with each other. To go to war with each other. Now that is one rubbish diplomat. Now, Antonelli had been on the scene, well, almost since day one. He was fluent in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, and by all accounts, Menelik, and he got along quite well. He knew Menelik personally. Over the years, he got to understand the man's ambitions, his strengths, his weaknesses, what he would compromise on and what he wouldn't, which is what makes this twist in the story so strange. Perhaps his actions can be explained by pressure he was feeling from a friend of his, a friend who had recently been elected Prime Minister of Italy, a man named Francesco Crispi.
Now, Crispi, with his enormous walrus mustache that dropped well below his bottom lip, was a real Italian patriot. Italy had only very recently been unified into one country, and Crispi had been one of the main men driving this, so he was a pretty big deal, and boy, did he know it. This guy had a hair trigger temper. If anyone dared to besmirch his country's honor, he blew up at anyone who dared to question Italy's right to lead the world as it did in the days of Caesar. He flippantly made suggestions of declaring war on France for daring to involve themselves in Ethiopia, and he entered diplomatic relationships with Portugal over a perceived insult to him in a half. He stated that he deserved more respect from this, quote, entirely unimportant country.
Apologies to any Portuguese listeners!
Crispi had a big ego and a lot of love for his country, but famous German ambassador Otto von Bismarck had it right when he said about the prime minister that he had a large appetite with poor teeth. And he said this because Italy wanted colonies. Colonies in Africa, colonies in China, colonies in Japan, wherever it could get them. But as far as European nations went, they weren't really on the level of France or England, and their ancient prestige as successes to the Roman Empire would only go so far.
With Crispi in the high office and Antonelli on the ground, the two believed that Ethiopia was ripe for the plucking. Menelik had always been courteous and respectful towards the Italians, and they seem to believe this translated into subservience. But Menelik was no pawn. In part one, we talked about how he kind of had two different personalities: one jovial, easygoing and almost lighthearted one. But as soon as someone was talking business, this wax coating melted away and left behind that hard, shrewd diplomat who already knew before the conversation started what he would compromise on and what he wouldn't.
Antonelli was about to meet the latter.
n a letter explicitly calling out the borders of Ethiopia as he saw them, to Britain, Germany, and Italy. Menelik bluntly let the world know, quote “if powers at a distance come forward to partition Africa between them, I do not intend to be in a different spectator.” In other words, Italy. We've got a good thing going here, but you try and do what you're doing with the rest of Africa here, we're going to have a problem. He saw his alliance with Italy as a treaty between two equals, while Italy saw him as a junior vassal who just needed to learn his place. Things started off promisingly. With the old emperor now dead, a new agreement was needed to formalize Ethiopia's relationship with Italy. Menelik believed this to be just a tick box exercise. Dot the I's, cross the t's, and maybe update his title to Emperor.
So in the little town of Wichale, a treaty was written up by Antonelli and signed by Menelik. As the ink dried, perhaps the two men embraced. It seemed like the start of a beautiful friendship between Italy and Ethiopia. Prudent as always, Menelik went through his copy of the treaty with a fine toothed comb. He looked for any gotcha clauses, but he found nothing because there was nothing to find…… In his version.
You see, there were two versions of this treaty, one written in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, and the other written in Italian. Makes sense, right? Now, you would assume these treaties would be the same, and they almost were, except for a single sentence nestled innocently under Article 17 of the treaty. And you know what they say never ask a Brazilian about 2014 World Cup, never ask an Aussie about the emu wars, and never ask an Ethiopian about Article 17. According to Harold G. Marcus, whose biography of Menelik I've relied on heavily for this episode, the Amharic version of the treaty in Article 17 said the following:
Quote “the Emperor of Ethiopia, for all matters that he wants with the kings of Europe, it is possible for him to communicate with the assistance of the Italian government.” End quote.
While the Italian version said:
quote “his Majesty the King of Ethiopia, consents to avail himself of the Italian government for any negotiations which he may enter into with all powers or governments.” End quote.
Did you spot the difference? It's subtle, but it's there. The Italian version meant that all business, trading, partnerships, whatever, anything to do with Europe Menelik, must go through the Italian offices. If a country is unable to decide matters without the authorization of another, it's subservient to that country. Italy now believe Menelik and Ethiopia were their vassal. Their junior partner. Their colony. Now, American Italian are very different languages, and maybe you're thinking this was probably just a translation error, but as you'll see, Antonelli’s conduct would prove this was no mistake.
With Menelik proudly looking over his fresh new treaty, one of his palace clerks got hold of the Italian copy and instantly clued on Article 17, he pointed out the line and told the Emperor, quote: “that one may not weigh one quarter of a dollar now, but in a year's time it can be heavier than 1000 tons of lead” End quote. Alarmed, Menelik summoned his trusted friend Antonelli, who wriggled out of responsibility, claiming, and I'm paraphrasing here, that his role was that of a humble postman. All he was doing was delivering the treaty, so how could he try and swindle him even if he wanted to, blaming the cleric for causing mischief? Menelik had the man stripped of his position and his possessions confiscated. If only he had listened.
In the next few months, as Menelik prepared for his coronation, relations strengthened again with the Italians. The emperor gave some concessions to the expanding Italian colony of the north, a move that was unpopular with both his people and his government, but one he deemed necessary. The Italian government looked with glee upon their expanding colony. God willing, the markets of Rome would soon be awash with cheap coffee beans grown in their very own colony. The only problem was what to do next. One minister suggested turning the colony into a huge military barracks, a launching pad for future conquests into Africa. The world was their oyster, and it seemed their puppet emperor would dance to whatever tune they told him to.
In mid 1890, Menelik opened a letter from Queen Victoria. The letter was a formality, really, explaining that as per the Wacharlie Treaty, Britain would now conduct their affairs with Ethiopia through Italy instead of directly.
A second letter from Germany arrived soon after that said the same. It seemed the Italian government had been telling anyone that would listen about their new arrangement. Menelik was furious. He dusted off his copy of the treaty and found nothing that bound him to Italy. Once he calmed down, though, he suspected this would be an easy fix. He'd known Antonelli for a long time now, and this was just a misunderstanding easily sorted. No harm, no foul. Antonelli was out of the country at this time, so he sent another senior diplomat in his place. And far from the usual warm welcome that Menelik usually showed diplomats, the man found the emperor in no mood for hospitality. He wanted this thing sorted, and he wanted it done now. Well versed in the Ethiopian language, this new diplomat poured over both treaties, holding one paper next to each other and reading word by word. He gulped and swallowed. Menelik was correct. There was a definite mistranslation, though he may not have announced it publicly. In his diary, the diplomat wrote, quote, “the Amharic translation clearly does not correspond with the Italian text, and then goes on to say, the king, (meaning Menelik) then assured me that Antonelli always explained it in such a way that the king was not obligated to observe this article, but could if he wished.” End quote.
As Menelik strewed over the contentious line, the Italians pushed harder on the northern borders of their colony. The emperor found himself under a barrage of accusations, not just by his ministers, but also by his wife, Taytu. Usually in his court, she chewed out her husband for his idleness. Quote “King John, (meaning EmperorJohn. The guy that Menelik ousted) never wanted to cede an inch of territory. He fought against the Italians and fought against the Egyptians for this principle. He died for this. And you, after such an example, wish to sell your country? Who will want to tell your story?”
Things were heating up for Menelik as he realized being the emperor was in all fun and games. But there was one nation who couldn't give a toss what Italy said was theirs. The Russians. Looking for a colony of their own, the Russian ambassadors received a warm welcome from Menelik. The two countries were both Orthodox Christian nations, followers of the Eastern Church that had once had its home in Istanbul rather than in Rome. And Mother Russia, not wanting to leave one of their Orthodox cousins out in the cold, dropped off a couple of shiny new cannons. Just in case.
Menelik’s frustration grew and grew as the responses he received from the Italians moved from dismissive to arrogant. His letters, though polite, were firm. He made it clear look, Article 17 is not a thing, so stop trying to make it one. Quote, “This country is mine, and no other nation can have it!” In public and with his government, when he mentioned the treaty, he referred to it as, quote, “something humiliating for my kingdom” and began to muse over the idea of publicly denouncing it.
If he did this, he would be really leveling up the conflict. It's today's equivalent of airing your dirty laundry on LinkedIn. To announce to the international community, italy has tried to swindle us would be a scathing diplomatic insult. But he was running out of options. His government, his wife and his people were growing more agitated about their predicament by the day. The once blossoming friendship was withering. Fast.
Back in Italy, Count Antonelli was receiving more and more letters from his diplomat on the ground. Over and over again, the diplomat stressed to him that this line in the Italian treaty should be altered to match the Ethiopian one, and that Menelik was well within his rights to request it.He told Antonelli that the tension was building and the Emperor's patience was wearing thin. Antonelli, who obviously had read a little too much of Donald Trump's ‘Art Of The Deal’, decided that this was a good opportunity to squeeze the Emperor even more!
He directed the diplomat to fob off the Emperor first, pointing out that the translation of Article 17 came from one of the Emperor's men - which isn't true, Antonelli himself did it. And based on this, he concluded that even if there was an error, that the fault lay with the Emperor.
Secondly, he insisted that the treaty could not be changed for five years without Italy suffering a, quote, “grave humiliation.”
And thirdly, that if the Emperor wished to make some changes, he should cough up some land for Italy, almost as a little kickback, a way of saying sorry for the inconvenience.
Think for a minute how eternally frustrating this must have been for Menelik. He had done everything in his power to make sure he didn't get screwed by the Europeans. In his own hands, he held a treaty that he was following, and he was effectively being told, “Sorry, bro, should have learned Italian to make sure we weren't swindling you. Better luck next time. Hand over some land”.
Imagine if you took a phone plan out, signed a contract and got a call saying “actually, you need to pay four… ten times the price! You'd say thats ridiculous. I've got a signed contract!” And the salesman would say to you “Sorry, in my contract, written in Russian, it says something different. So you've got to follow that”. As frustration grew and grew within his counsel, his wife Taitu spoke up, and for the first time, mention the W word, Quote “I am a woman and do not love war, but rather than accept this, I prefer war.” end quote
While his counsel and wife stoked the flames of war, Menelik knew better than all of them. For an African power to go to war with Europe was almost suicidal… He had guns, lots of them, but obviously Italy, as the provider of them, had more. They also had much more big guns, cannons, early machine guns, that kind of thing. Pressure was building, and back in Rome, the matter was taken before parliament. After hearing both sides of the argument, the King of Italy decided that Italy had not become the protectorate over Ethiopia based on this treaty.
All of this was getting a bit too hot for the recently united country. Wars were expensive, and if their colony was destroyed in this process, that would be very expensive, not to mention all the money that they had poured into Menelik's reign. They had a friend in the area, so why risk it all for one clause that they could easily sweep this under the rug. Sure, the royal courts of Europe might sneak a little old Italy getting outplayed by an African power, but they'd soon forget. Reluctantly, the order was given for the treaty to be amended. The troublesome article was to be removed and replaced with another line stating that Ethiopia could not be put under the protectorate of any other European nation. If Italy couldn't have them, no one could.
Not perfect, but an improvement for sure.
It seemed like at the 11th hour, the two nations had taken the board out of the gun. But Antonelli, the rascal, smelt…. opportunity. You see, as the Italian parliament debated on how to resolve the situation, Menelik, in isolation, had come up with his own compromise to put the matter to bed. He was proposing that both nations keep their own copy of the treaty and follow it based on the wording in their own copy. How this would have worked on the ground is anyone's guess. But the right thing to do at this point would have been for Antonelli to tell the emperor, “hey, it's been agreed. We'll amend the treaty, we'll shake hands and we'll move forward”
But Antonelli decided he had Menelik over a barrel!
The emperor was finally bending on Article 17! Time to push him even harder. Imagine the prestige if he, Count Antonelli, forced this man into submission. So, throwing his hands up in the air, Antonelli pulled the boy who cried wolf routine, dramatically announcing to Menelik that as nothing could be resolved, he may as well leave his court. Menelik, alarmed that he was now looking at a full rupture in the relationship, quickly drafted a change to the treaty that annulled Article 17 entirely. Once Antonelli read the new treaty, which was almost in line to what the king of Italy had approved, the count's sense of self importance had been pricked.
He stormed into Menelik’s grand tent mid-feast and demanded to speak with the Emperor immediately. Accusing him of treachery, he made up his mind to pull the entire Italian mission out of Ethiopia. Perhaps Menelik had been a little sneaky trying to push through this amendment, but Antonelli had forced him into a corner. If he had just done his job and been straight with the Emperor instead of trying to force his leverage, none of this would have happened.
Overstepping his boundaries as a diplomat, Antonelli launched into a tirade against Menelik, concluding a long speech with, quote, peace was no more between Ethiopia and Italy. The Emperor and his entourage were shocked, but before any of them could speak, his fiery wife Taytu stepped up and shot back this scorching monologue at the diplomat. Quote, “start your war next week if you wish. No one here will be scared of your threat. Go carry out your wish, and we will deal with whatever transpires. Do not fool yourself into thinking that there is nobody around here who would commit his feet to the gravel and his chest to the spear in order to save his country. It is not death but honor for anyone to shed blood for his country. So let it not be nightfall and too dark for you to travel in order to consummate what you have bragged about. And we, of course, shall await you right here”.
As the Italian staff watched Antonelli sever the last threads of friendship with the Emperor, one wrote the following day in his diary about the man, quote “blind and stubborn to the end of negotiations he rushed, when it was neither necessary nor opportune to do so. He had insane optimism while his failure was certain.” end quote.
Antonelli's obsession with one-upping Menelik, had made an enemy out of someone who had bent over backwards to be a friend. As Menelik watched the members of the Italian mission march out of his capital he knew grim times were on the horizon. War was coming, and his nation was not ready for it.
As Article 17 haunted Menelik's nightmares, the rest of Ethiopia had not stood still. A new parasite had wiped out almost all bullocks and cows in the nation. Cattle was currency as much as food, and this epidemic, combined with a plague, resulted in an extraordinarily severe famine. Fields were cracked and dry, and one traveler noted that he walked for 7 hours through a desert that just a few years ago was brimming with corn as far as the eye could see. Cannibalism rippled through villages, and grubs, berries and worms became a luxury.
Compounding the problem was that Menelik’s exports now had nowhere to go. With the Italian's cold on him. He cozied up to the French to make use of their seaport. Italy leant on France not to overstep their boundaries with Ethiopia. But Menelik was a gifted statesman, and one way or another, he kept the export path open. At least one pretender for the Ethiopian throne was courted by Italy. Essentially, Italy tried to use the man as leverage against Menelik, saying, “hey, we could give this guy some guns.
It worked for you, didn't it? Think about that.” But Menelik gor to the man first, convincing him not to be another pawn on Italy's chessboard. After three frosty years, the Italians began to signal that they were ready to sit at the negotiating table again. And when I say sit, I mean just sit, because the diplomats had nothing more to give. No concessions, no changes, nothing. But why? Who would be so lacking intact? To think that all of a sudden the Emperor, who had refused the article over and over again, would suddenly be in favor of it. I'll give you a clue. It starts with an A. That's right. Count Antonelli had been promoted! In the foreign ministry of the Italian government, he was now solely responsible for colonial affairs. What an appointment, right?
And wouldn’t you know it, three years out of Ethiopia had taught him nothing.
He just told the ambassadors, “maybe try rewording the article, trick him into signing something that is effectively the same agreement, just written out differently”. I can honestly not wrap my head around this guy. How many times did he need to be told no? The man seemed to be so unbelievably optimistic about leverage, which he just did not have. And there's undeniably a racial element here. I mean, would this guy try this on the British or the French? Not a chance in hell. But the Ethiopians are well, they're an African power. We don't need to award them the same courtesy. Menelik coolly received the delegation, and when he found out that they had nothing else to add, he kicked them back to the curb. While Antonelli tugged as hard as he could at the rope of war, their colony in Eritrea began to run into hard times. The same plague that had wiped out the heads of cattle in Ethiopia rippled through the settlement.
The Italian colonists began to move further in land envious of the fertile farming grounds that the Ethiopians had. The local villagers, who had actually helped these guys settle in, began to turn on them. The us versus them, black versus white mentality really began to show here.
“One recovers from the bite of a black snake, but never the bite of a white snake” was a motto thrown around as Ethiopians began to band together and fight back against the encroachment. These guys had been bickering and fighting for thousands of years. It was like sibling rivalry. But these white settlers, they were a different story.
As relationships soured with the locals, the Italians fanned out across Menelik’s empire, looking for wayward warlords to join their side. While they found some, they were surprised to find out that many of Menelik's traditional enemies, as in people who he had fought on the battlefield, would not betray him. Menelik had been one step ahead and convinced many regional powers. “Hey, you may hate me, that's okay. But if the Italians topple me, your kingdom and all others will go next. Back me up, and we can keep running things our way”. With money, promises, marriages, or threats. He knitted a rough patchwork of alliances with him as the thread that bound them all together.
Christians, muslims, and pagans of every tribe woke up to the fact that their way of life was endangered, and this was to be Menelik’s greatest achievement and something the Italians really did not count on.
The drums of war began to sound as disgruntled locals cut Italian telegraph lines and burnt down isolated buildings. Menelik began to muster his forces and encouraged the chieftains who ran the borderlands to fight back. He promised big rewards and promotions for anyone who could keep the Italians at bay. He had a huge army, but mustering it was going to take a while. He had to make sure all the chieftains, even those who didn't like him very much, would still agree to answer his call. Meanwhile, at the borders, the Italians brought in their big guns and churned through anything the local chieftains could muster. These easy victories began to lull them into a false sense of security, the way this militia buckled and ran, at this rate, all of Ethiopia would be theres in a few weeks.
But a captured Ethiopian prisoner gave the Italian commander an ominous warning. And I love this one, he tells the general quote “for the present, you have been victorious because god willed it, but wait a month or two, and you will see Menelik soldiers, they are as many in number as locusts!” The guy commanding the Italian forces was a man named Oreste Baratieri. Baratieri was a romantic imperialist. Like prime minister Crispi, he'd cut his teeth fighting to unify his homeland of italy, and now was ready to stamp down the authority of it wherever it could go.
With a fluffy mustache, small circular spectacles, and a chest covered with military medals, he looked something like an italian Teddy Roosevelt. Throughout africa, Baratieri had won skirmish after skirmish, which, of course, the Italian press talked up. With a healthy dose of narcissism and a bit of old colonial racism, the trumped up general was feeling very full of himself when he announced to the cheering crowds in italy that he would bring back this troublemaker, this, Menelik, in a cage. Deliberately conjuring up the old stereotype of Africa being a bunch of naked black people throwing spears and living in huts. He assured the public that this campaign would be over soon and that Ethiopia was not a real country, but a bunch of tribes led by this barbarian king. As war began to seem inevitable, Italy stepped up pressure on the european powers to butt out.
Menelik’s request for aids began to fall on deaf ears. First, Russia, their orthodox brothers, announced that they were out. Then, finally, France, Menelik’s closest friend in Europe, came to a compromise with Italy, promising to leave Ethiopia to its fate if Italy didn't interfere with their colonies. The ancient state of Ethiopia stood alone, the last African state led by an African….
Again and again, Menelik tried to accommodate Antonelli, but now he was backed into a corner and with no other options, he knew the time for words was over. On the 17 September 1895, Menelik's call for mobilization ebbed and flowed through pamphlets, word of mouth and proclamations all across Ethiopia:
“Enemies have now come upon us to ruin the country and change our religion! Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging into the country like moles! With the help of God, I will not deliver up my country to them! Today, you who are strong, give me your strength. And for you who are weak, give me your prayers.”
The last time the Emperor had sent out a call like this, it was to fight a fellow Ethiopian, and the response was not great. This time, though, he was asking his people to defend their country against invaders. The waves of white colonization were lapping at the feet of their sacred homeland, and the response was triumphant. Menelik's words found their way into every distant village. From the mountains to the streams, a steady column of men marched out to answer his call, marching with whatever they had to the muster point.
The Italians guessed that Menelik could gather around 30,000 warriors, or at very maximum, 60,000. They assumed this quaint tribal king's army would be a chaotic mix of spears, shields, old guns and perhaps a few of the Remingtons they'd sent him over the years. Based on this, Baratieri was allocated very, very little money for the campaign and only 10,000 men, which his government said would be more than enough.
Baratieri had become a victim of his own vanity. He had downtalked the Ethiopian army so much that his government believed he could defeat them was almost no resources. As the army lined up, Baratieri gave Menelik one last opportunity for peace. He waved in the Emperor’s face the accursed Article 17, along with a shopping list of other things he'd have to give up.
These insanely unrealistic terms show just how little they thought of Menelik’s army. To Italy, the war was already a foregone conclusion. Obviously, they would be victorious. European armies didn't lose to African ones. That's just the facts. Letters had even begun to circulate, discussing how they would carve up Ethiopia after they'd beaten the Emperor.
But as Italian scouts began to trickle into the area, Baratieri began to get very hot under the collar. His worst case scenario of the Ethiopian army, at 60,000 men, had been blown out of the water! Menelik’s combined army was at smallest 70,000 and probably around 100,000!
Baratieri knew he had made a mistake, but he was in too deep now. He had bragged about how easily he could crush this barbarian king and now the public expected him to do just that. The pressure from his friend Crispi was even more intense, accusing his old friend of cowardice, he ordered Baratieri to just finish off Menelik. And do it ASAP.
The Italian army sat on a well defended hill, waiting for the Ethiopians to attack. The hill was the last trump card barrier he had. If the Ethiopians stormed his well defended position, the advantage they held in numbers would melt away. But Menelik had learnt this lesson and did not take the bait. As their food supplies began to dwindle, Baratieri suggested tentatively the possibility of a tactical retreat, but was immediately shouted down by his generals.
They requested, or demanded, I suppose, the right to advance. One of them patriotically told the commander, quote, “Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to (meaning as opposed to) a dishonorable retreat, end quote. This whole thing is very ironic because, although Baratieri didn't know it, the Italian government had actually made up their mind that he was to be replaced. In fact, another general was at this very moment making his way to the front lines to inform Baratieri of the changing command. Menelik’s forces were running very low on food, and if the Italians had retreated, the Ethiopian army would have had almost no hope of besieging them. With no food, they probably would have had to disband and things may have gone very, very differently. But that's fate for you, isn't it? So before sunrise on the 1 March 1896, the Italians marched towards a battle they didn't need to fight, in a war that didn't need to be waged.
From the get go, Baratieri’s plan was sketchy. His army was split into thirds and they would march through the night, link up and surprise the enemy before the sun came up. The night march itself was a mess. Ethiopia was a rough country. Narrow pathways, sheer mountains and boggy streams slowed progress. Compounding the problem were the maps the Commanders that were using. Most were guided only by hand drawn maps Baratieri had sketched up for them the night before. The worst part is, they weren't even accurate. It was like one of those mazes that you get on the back of McDonald's placements. The columns criss crossed through farms, up and down hills, through scrubs, over gorges. Many of the soldiers must have been already spent before a single shot was fired. One of the three columns arrived at the hill that they had been told to wait at…. At least they thought it was that hill.
Unfortunately, Baratieri had mislabelled the hill on the map. They handed the map to the Ethiopian guides, who told the commander “errr… we know that hill and this isn't it….” So unsure whether the General had mistaken the name or the landmark, they decided on the latter and marched to the real hill according to the guides.Now nowhere near the battlefield, they found themselves on the edge of the city of Adwa and perhaps decided that they were meant to be threatening it?
I've read some conflicting sources that say this was the intended objective but have also read others say that this was an accident and that they were in the wrong place entirely. Whatever the case, there was now an entire army column missing in Baratieri’s lines. As the sun came up, words soon reached Menelik that the Italians were on the move.
He was astounded! What? Why? Was it a trick?
The Italians only needed to wait them out and they would win. Why were they marching towards them? Word spread and the Ethiopians dashed around camp, grabbing their uniforms and stuffing a bit of food into themselves as priests performed a quick communion for the man heading to the front lines. Menelik and Taitu rushed to a nearby church to pray. The queen was bent low with a heavy stone tied around her neck, another Ethiopian tradition when performing a particularly desperate prayer. Then rushing out, they too took their place in lines. It was in God's hands now.
As the last soldiers scrambled in position, a cheer erupted through the camp: “For the motherland, for the faith!” By 06:40AM Barrettieri heard scattered rifle fire and sent another one of his comments to the hill where he expected this other one to be. When they found the spot deserted, they too, kind of wandered around looking for the lost column… All three army divisions now had almost no protection on their flanks. By 08:00AM the battle had effectively split into three. As we mentioned, the Italians were outnumbered. But Menelik also had the advantage with big guns, better quality cannons, thanks at least in part, to Mother Russia.
Even though the Ethiopian troops were not a regular standing army by European standards, there were veterans of lots of battles against each other. And here they were, fighting for their homeland. Morale was high. Women, inspired by Queen Taytu ran the gauntlet through the battle, carrying much needed water and orders to the troops.
When Baratieri climbed the tallest mountain he could find to see what on earth was going on, his eyes must have almost popped out of his skull. Mama mia!
Trying desperately to bring some cohesion, he received word from one of his commanders that he was, quote “holding out his hand” to another commander. Know what that means? No? Well, neither did Baratieri! Scratching his head. He guessed that it meant that the two armies were about to link up... But it didn't… Menelik, who, according to a few sources, may have even had a few Russian strategists guiding him on the day brought his cannons forward and opened fire! The carnage was so intense that the locals named the spot “Mindibdib” meaning cut to pieces.
By 10:30AM one Italian commander had been captured and another had been killed. There was no winning this.
The calls for retreat were given. Heavy guns were put in position to cover the Italians, but Menelik's troops swarmed them. What did that capture prisoner say? Menelik's men were like locusts! The orderly retreat quickly fell apart and turned into an every-man-for-himself scramble away from this field of death. The Ethiopians suffered heavy casualties as they chased away the retreating Italians, but there was no denying the result.
It was an absolute victory for Menelik.
The battle of Adwa was a massacre. It should really have never been fought for. For the Italian government so sure in the success against these people the casualties were eyewatering!
About a third of the entire army was dead, with a great deal more wounded, at about a 50% casualty rate. For comparison, the most brutal war fought by Napoleon and what was considered to be a very, very large casualty rate was just shy of 30%! Adwa would turn out to be one of the most, if not the most bloody battle of the colonial era.
As ragged Italian prisoners limped back to their colony of Eritrea, Menelik was in a perfect position to follow up his victory. He had them on the back foot, and historians have been critical of the Emperor for holding back. Some point out that Menelik could have gained the seaport that he had wanted all his life. Imagine that: no more relying on any Europeans for exporting. But this would have meant besieging strongholds, which we've already said was not something the Ethiopians were particularly good at. It also meant kicking them when they were down. Europeans were prickly about their reputation on the world stage and Prime Minister Crispi even more than usual.
But even with Menelik's restraint, there was no way Italy could dress this up as anything but a disaster. They'd set out to punish what they saw as a disobedient vessel king in order to avoid the embarrassment of altering a treaty that they had written in bad faith, and now that vassal who had tried and tried to avoid battle had just annihilated them.
Europe was laughing, but Ethiopia was laughing more. A popular saying at this time goes, quote "What kind of fools are there in Europe? Why do they make their weapons of death and give them to us?! With guns they have bought, with cartridges they have bought, Menelik has roasted and exploded the foreign barley!"
In Italy, it was a time for soulsearching. The public howled, for the head of Prime Minister Francesco Crispi. The man who had promised them an easy war, was forced to step down in disgrace. His dreams of Roman Empire 2.0 shattering into a thousand pieces. general Oreste Baratieri, who once assured the cheering crowds of Rome that he would bring back Menelik in a cage, was court martialed.
The military court wanted to know how he managed to screw things up so badly. He was acquitted, but his days of giving orders were done and he retired into obscurity.
Meanwhile, for the Italian public and the European public in general, what were they to believe? If black people were inferior to Europeans and those inferior people had just wiped the floor with them in battle, what did that mean?
Bruce Vandervort, author of “wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa”, said it best when he wrote, quote
"It was the realization that their belief in their superiority over the "blacks" was an illusion.
A whole swaggering ethos.. of conquest was shattered before the eyes of soldiers who saw thousands of human lives snuffed out in a few hours in a strange and hostile land with no possibility of defense, who succumbed before a people who had been reduced to semi-savages in their eyes, who were beaten by an African army depicted right up to the eve of battle as disorganized, poorly armed and incapable of formulating a strategy."
The Times of Britain, who had before described the Ethiopian nation as a quote “barbarous foe” whose army was nothing more than, quote, “undisciplined and ill armed savages” now printed that the Ethiopians were, quote “a civilized power, both in the way that they made war and the way they conducted diplomacy”.
But my favorite quote comes from Denis De Riviore, who decided a Caucasian army had not lost to a black army because - drum roll please - Ethiopians were not black! This is him writing about the Ethiopians, quote “men of quick intelligence, with pure traits, although bronze, with an elegant appearance, with graceful courage and with civilized customs”. He then goes on to say, very scientifically, based on this, they were in fact members of the, quote “great Caucasian family”.
Have you ever heard of something so ridiculous, anything to cling on to that racial superiority, right? There's so much of this stupid nitpicking where writers scramble to grade the Ethiopians on this savage versus civilized scale. I won't go through all of them.But, for example, one guy declares Ethiopia's, quote “a civilized nation of immense intelligence” but he puts in this caveat underneath, saying that they're the only civilization that don't wear trousers or shoes. Thanks for clarifying.
It took six months after Menelik's bloodbath at Adwa for the Italian diplomats to finally agree to annul the treaty of Wuchale, including the accursed article 17, the line that had caused so much trouble.
With Adwa behind him, the emperor dedicated himself to keeping his country independent. His time on the battlefield was done, and now he found himself under a different kind of assault. Ethiopia had become a linchpin between many different European powers, namely the French and the British, and Menelik expertly played the great powers off each other. His public policy was one of more or less neutrality. But in the dimly lit negotiation chambers, he made private treaties with all of them. Each one of them was cleverly written to be as noncommittal as possible, as in nothing that would drag him into a war and instead vague promises like “providing support”. During these years, this was a sign of a true statesman, someone who knew how to operate and thrive as this little cog in a highly complicated diplomatic machine. As the years went on, Menelik’s health began to fail. The bright eyes often remarked upon by foreign diplomats had begun to fade with age. But still he worked himself hard, never stopping from sunrise to sunset. He busied himself with schematics of trains and typewriters, and was amazed when someone explained an Xray machine to him. After asking if one could be brought over for him to see in person, the diplomat nervously told the emperor that the device may frighten the priests and more conservative people of his court. The thought of priests running from the room in terror after seeing their own insides had Menelik roaring with laughter.
As the emperor's traditional enemies began to die off. He was quick to divide their possessions between their children, reducing the importance of regions and helping centralize his rule. He made sure that he was the only person in Ethiopia with access to the artillery, cannons, mortars, early machine guns. The emperor kept these under literal lock and key, loaning them out to provincial commanders only in special circumstances and keeping tabs on who had what for how long.
But as the new century rolled around, old European friends who knew Menelik in his youth noticed there was something different about the man. His dark black hair and tidy beard had greyed obviously, but more than that. He began repeating things that he'd said at the start of the conversation, a doctor examined the emperor and found that he was showing early signs of dementia and had already had several mild strokes.
While there's no cure for aging, the doctor advised the emperor that he must simply slow down. He was not a young man anymore, and he needed to rest more often. But still the ailing emperor pushed on, insisting that he still personally hear the pleas and petitions of commoners, as if he was some village chieftain instead of a ruler of a large country. Although he refused to hand off any duties, he did begin to allow councilors and aides to assist him while performing them. This proved to be very valuable for the men to observe how the emperor kept the state humming along. By mid year 1910, the emperor was more or less brain dead, the victim of numerous heart attacks and strokes. He was awoken in the late morning, watered and fed, placed in a chair near the window, and put back into bed at the end of the day.
And for about three years he lingered in this state before finally passing away in his bed. At around 69 years of age.
Menelik’s position in history is more or less unique. While other African monarchs manage to defeat European powers in battle, Menelik is the only one who managed to retain true independence for his kingdom. And although the man's spirit and energy have a lot to do with this result, the victory at Adwa also demonstrated what could be achieved when differences were put aside. Remember, a good portion of Menelik’s army were made up with men who did not like him. Some had gone to war with him in the past, some were from a different religion. But whatever it was at that very moment in time, they put their differences aside and achieved a pretty incredible victory.
In modern Ethiopia, the battle of Adwa is celebrated yearly, accompanied by presidential speeches and parades. The parades feature the traditional colors of Ethiopia yellow, red and green, colors that would eventually be a kind of template for other African nations who had wrestled independence from Europe. Today, twelve African countries feature variations of the Ethiopian colors. A pan African movement with roots that can be traced directly back to the bloody fields of Adwa.
I think historian Raymond Jonas said it best when he wrote, quote
“Adwa still stands as witness to what ordinary Africans can do when they come together. Nations, if they are to endure, are defined not by religion, ethnicity, or race but by the scale at which freedom can reliably be defended. Only on the scale of Ethiopia itself could resistance have succeeded.”
This has been, Anthology Of Heroes. Thanks for tuning in.