‘If powers at a distance come to partition Africa, I do not intend to be an indifferent spectator...’
By the late 1800’s, Ethiopia was the only African state not yet colonized by Europeans.
As France and Britain gobbled up nations like Oreos, Italy decided they wanted a bit for themselves.
Through the centuries, Ethiopia had endured as a Christian oasis in a Islamic world, but could it survive Colonisation?
This episode follows the life of Emperor Menelik II, an Ethiopian hero.
Its the 11 February 1855. In the east African nation of Ethiopia,a celebration was taking place. Through a little army camp in the northeast of the nation a grand procession of soldiers marched. A huge army, 25,000 strong, on their way to submit to the new Emperor. Reclining on his gilded throne, padded out with decadent cushions and flowing carpets, the man of the hour sat and waited.
700 of his own men lined the hot, dusty street. Decked out in pristine military uniforms, they all stood to attention, ready for anything. Clutched against their chest, each man held in their hands a machine, a machine that had almost single handedly won The Emperor his throne.
The Remington repeating rifle.
Gone were the days of spears and oxhide shields. Gone were bows, arrows and lances. This sleek, deadly killing machine was the future. Whoever had these had power. Whoever had the most had the most power. There was nothing else to it.
As the approaching army marched into the town center, the Emperor saw the man he'd been waiting for.
Walking at the head of the 25,000 strong army was their King. He was dressed almost as lavishly as the Emperor, but was stripped naked to the waist with an enormous boulder slung around his neck. The two men had been rivals initially, but the Emperor's arsenal, overflowing with Remington's far outpaced his own..
The King had voluntarily submitted. There was no point fighting. He knew the game. Now he approached to submit himself and his nation, the boulder forcing him to stoop with each step. He had a good reason to fear him, because the man approaching the Emperor was Menelik II. Fate had been on the Emperors side, but as the King bowed deeply before him, both men knew that their places could have easily been switched. The Emperor knew this man was one to be watched.
You're listening to the Anthology of Heroes podcast, part of the Evergreen Podcast Network.
And this is the story of Menelik II. Obsessively interested in guns and technology, he would be the first man to truly unify Ethiopia, turning it from a patchwork of loosely aligned states into something of a modern nation.
Soon he would attract the attention of the Europeans, who would try to create a colony out of his country. He would use the European racism and guns against them and ensure his country's spot in the history books as one of the only African nations never to be colonized.
As usual, I'm your host, Eliot Gates, and this is Savages: ethiopia versus colonization part one: the scramble for Africa.
If you looked at a map of Africa in, say, the year 1900 and you colored in all British colonies you'd have a solid, almost uninterrupted line down from Egypt to South Africa. Adding their old rivals, the French, and most of northwest Africa goes dark. Germany, a fairly new European power, also wanted a piece of the pie. So shade in a few splotches around the middle, and Portugal, I mean they needed somewhere to offload their spices. So add a few dots around the coast.
What about Spain? Well, go over the French colonies in the northwest with magnifying glass, and you'll see there's a few little patches around the coast that they missed. So shade in those for the Spanish.
Was there anything left? Well, sure there was. Belgium. A guy who arrived late to the colonization party slotted into scoop up whatever was left, staging the barely mapped Central African Congo Region.
This period of blatant shameless land grabbing is known as the scramble for Africa, a time when European powers leapfrogged each other in a race to dominate the natural resources of an entire continent. If you were to look back on your map now, you'd see just two territories not under the thumb of Europe.
You heard that right, two in the entirety of Africa.
The first was a little slice of land on the west coast. The modern country of Liberia is a fascinating topic, essentially a reverse colonization experiment that started in the United States, perhaps a topic for the future.
But the other, a large landlocked state on the east coast of Africa, was Ethiopia.
Take a second to process that.
The only place in Africa run by, well, Africans was this place.
As you'll see, this was no coincidence. Even before colonization, Ethiopia was no stranger to sticking out like a sore thumb. Our protagonist Menelik II once stated “ethiopia has been for 14 centuries a Christian island in a sea of pagans” Pagan in this case was probably meant as a derivative term. But if you alter that to sea of Muslims, then he's right. This ancient state endured and thrived completely isolated from the rest of the Christian world for centuries, hundreds and hundreds of years. This is even more impressive when you take a look at the map and notice that just across the Red Sea, ethiopia's coastline sat Mecca and Medina. This place is a hop, skip and a jump away to the heart of Islam, its two most sacred cities. Yet they remain the only state in Africa to resist conversion.
As Islam swept across the nation in the 7th century, religion was and is part of many nation's identity. I mean, think of how many flags have the Islamic president and star on them. But for Ethiopia, it was different. They're believed to be one of the first ancient states to embrace Christianity all the way back in the fourth century AD. There's debate on the exact order, but whatever. Ethiopia were definitely part of the first five. But there could be another reason for Ethiopia's enduring faith. If you're a long time listener to the show, you might remember when we covered the life of Khalid Ibn Al Waleed, one of the Prophet's finest generals. In the earlier part of that episode, you may recall the persecution of many Muslims in Mecca during the Prophet's early days.
Exiled for their religious beliefs, the only nation to offer these vagrants freedom of religion was Ethiopia. I've read a few accounts that mull over whether this favour was remembered by later Muslim caliphs who gave the Christian nation a wide birth as a way of saying, hey, thanks for helping us out in the early days. So for centuries, Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, its classical name, lived behind this religious Iron Curtain. Gossips in the high courts of Europe whispered of this mythical Christian paradise that was flourishing in a part of the world dominated by Islam, led by a fair and just king known as Prestor John. A few nations in Europe even sent out search parties, eager to cozy up to the celestial king.
Eventually, rubber hit the road In 1490, when a Portuguese diplomat finally found this mythical kingdom, surprise, surprise, it was Ethiopia. Over the next few centuries, European powers checked in with their little cousin nation. But it was not an easy relationship to maintain. The Ottoman Empire controlled all the land around Ethiopia, and it wasn't really too keen on allowing foreigners, particularly Christian ones, into this little enclave. European powers poking around in their backyard was never good news, particularly when they shared a religious connection. But by the time the 1850s rolled around, that Iron Curtain was looking pretty shaky.
The Ottoman Empire was in terminal decline. In European courts, dignitaries snickered referring to the once great Islamic power as the sick man of Europe. England, France, Spain and Portugal hungrily eyed off the lands that the empire was barely clinging onto. By the time Menelik II was born, European imperialism loomed on the horizon.
At the time, Ethiopia was a series of little kingdoms, each one ruled by a king, or Negus, whose borders shrank and grew at the expense of their neighbors. At times, one bigger, tougher guy would rise above them all and impose authority over the rest, holding together a crude country, I guess you could say, and declaring himself Emperor.
Emperors came and went, and almost as soon as they died, things went back to how they were before, until a new guy came around, conquered the kingdoms again, and so on. History repeats, so you'd be right in guessing each state had a good amount of autonomy. They ran their kingdom their way, with their own courts, customs and diplomacy.
Menelik was born in 1844 into one of those little states, the Kingdom of Shewa. You might also see it called Showa, now a state in the dead center of the modern country of Ethiopia. Not much is known about his parents or his early life, but it's worth noting his name, Menelik, was derived from the legendary King Menelik, an ancient figure of Ethiopian history, the son of an even more legendary king, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, both of whom are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.
As a kid, Menelik would have had a solid education, academics studying horsemanship fighting with the swords, spear, shield and gun. But underpinning it all was the Christian faith. Early morning mass, fasting and prayer. Fortune and health were temporary things, but faith was eternal. During Menelik’s early years, one man was doing the rounds and unifying the Ethiopian states, trying his luck at the coming Emperor. His name was Tewodros II (, but I'll be using the English translation of his name Theodore II. Theodore got a good chunk of the kingdoms to submit to him but Shewa, Menelik's father's kingdom was not one of them.
His father wanted independence. But after a very onesided battle, Showa was added to Theodore's domains. Theodore took custody of young Menelik and the boy's father died soon after. Despite virtually well abducting the prince, emperor Theodore learned to love his young hostage. Perhaps he grew to be proud of the boy's sharp mind, never afraid of looking stupid.
If Menelik didn't understand something, he would press and press with more questions than till he did. Annoying perhaps, but it was a good sign for a ruler that a child was interested in learning. What makes this story so interesting is we've got a lot of quotes that have Menelik’s very own words. And he said about his late childhood quote although he killed my father and took me to his court, he loved me like a son. He educated me with the greatest care and almost showed for me greater affection than for his own son - end quote.
Menelik even said that more than once the Emperor told him he planned to make him his heir. And as the Emperor later married his daughter to the young prince, he probably wasn't lying. There were many lessons to be learned from his adoptive father.
Theodore was a decent general with a keen interest in modernizing his country. But the one thing he sucked at was not persecuting the realms muslims. Ethiopia had and continues to have a large Muslim population. Some of the Emperors kingdoms he now controlled were almost all Muslims. Theodore had a problem with that. The man saw himself as something of a divine ruler, literally placed in his position by God to do his work. Theodore's vision of his realm was the Ethiopia of ancient times.
A huge empire, wealthy, independent and of course Christian. But we can't always get what we want, can't we? As his reign went on, the Emperor's fanatical crackdowns on muslims increased, rebellion popped up and the imperial army found itself stretched thin. The stability he had fostered was all for nothing as province after province broke away from his strict authority. Week after week the Emperor lost more and more land. And so one day Menelik snuck away. He had been in contact with his father's old advisors for years. Many times they begged him to return to his homeland, to Shewa. But Menelik was always cautious. He knew the long knives of the Emperor would catch him eventually. And besides, he had a good shot at becoming Emperor himself if he stuck around.
But now Theodore's power was failing. At this rate, there probably wouldn't be an empire for him to inherit soon. So in the dead of night, he abandoned his royal bride and returned to his ancient homeland. The decision to abandon the man who had put so much trust in him weighed on Menelik. But with each passing day, tales of Theodore's growing insanity and paranoia confirmed he'd made the right choice.
When the Emperor was unable to find the ringleader of a rebellion, he began to just massacre whole villages where his army would just straight up steal all their cattle. This, at a time when the country was going through a famine, had his remaining supporters ditching him in droves. Menelik's advisers told him that he would be welcomed back in open arms. And as he paraded, his people cheered him. A witness said of the parade, quote, the joy of the clergy and the people knew no bounds. Their delight could only be likened to that of a cow when the calf comes back after it has been taken away end quote. But with their cheers came responsibility. Menelik knew his people expected great things of him. Lucky for them, he had observed the Emperor for many years and learned what people will put up with and what they won't. Rolling back many of the Emperor's unpopular and badly implemented reforms scored him some easy points with the conservatives of his country. This was to be a trend throughout his rule. Although the man was intensely interested in Westernization and modernization, he was acutely aware of what his people would be willing to change and what they wouldn't. He also reversed the harsh religious laws the Emperor had imposed. Although above we focused on the persecution of Muslims, the Emperor's laws were hated by almost everyone. While Muslims faced forced baptism, Pagans, the followers of the traditional African religion, were persecuted with even more rigor.
And even Christians weren't safe. The Ethiopian church held two polar opposite opinions about the nature of Christ. Theodore favored one opinion and harshly persecuted anyone that dared think otherwise. The Christians were Menelik's biggest supporters, and having them divided weakened him. So he explicitly forbade the discussion of Christ's nature under pain of death. Priests were to keep their traps shut about whatever opinion they had. All cults gods, idols and anything in between were now welcome in Menelik's realm. As long as you pay your taxes, you can worship whatever weird think you want.
As the liberal ruler’s popularity rose, many regional warlords who opposed him found their army defecting in droves. And its through one of these defections that Menelik first gets his hands on his first great love. Guns. 1000 rifles and three cannons were the spoils of this high profile defection.
Now guns had been in Africa for a long time. Smugglers and less than honest merchants had been selling guns to regional powers for decades. But these things were badly made or just really old. I mean, match locks were still a fairly common appearance around Ethiopia at this time. You know, match locks, right? The ones that had no trigger and were fired just by pushing a piece of burning rope against the powder. Super rudimentary things that you couldn't really rely on for combat. But it's only now that proper top of the line guns begin arriving in any real numbers.
Enter into the scene the Remington rolling block rifle. The AK 47 of the 19th century. If Menelik is the star of this episode, the Remington is the co-star. Simple, sturdy, cheap and reliable. Cock The Hammer, Pull The Breech Block Down Put your bullet in - and click. Anyone could do it. What made this gun extraordinary was the rolling mechanism. Pulling back the hammer meant the breech block rolled backwards, because the mechanism was so basic, it almost never jammed, and it would keep firing if you got a bit of dirt or sand in it. Ideal for dust bowls like the Ethiopian plains.
the gun first saw use in the American Civil War and had been improved on ever since. Native American chieftains wanted one. Anti Spanish revolutionaries wanted one. And when Menelik’s keen eyes swept across its polished wooden body, he wanted one. He had seen guns before, but in this weapon, he saw the path to his destiny unfolding before his eyes.
If he could put these in the hands of every one of his men, who could possibly stop them? Over the next few years, Menelik’s interest in European technology, particularly weapons, bordered on obsessiveness. He pulled them apart to learn how the gears work together. He knew the intricacies of different models, their weaknesses, their strengths and where they were manufactured. But how was he to get them? Well, more of them. Ethiopia was still locked in by the Ottoman Empire, and they certainly weren't about to let a Christian Usurper king get his hands on a couple of truckloads of state of the art guns. So Menelik wrote to Queen Victoria over in England.
Her Redcoats had recently been sniffing around the coast for a piece of land to hoist the Union Jack. And though her response was polite, it got him nowhere. Despite the Ottoman Empire's weakness, few world powers were willing to be so antagonistic. I mean, what do they have to gain from it? Alliance with some nobody king on the other side of the world? Not long after, with almost no territory left, Emperor Theodore killed himself.
Knowing the man's reputation amongst his people, Menelik declared a day of celebration. But behind the closed doors of his palace, he mourned. He wept over the death of a man who had been like a second father to him, who had educated him and treated him with much affection. This was very Menelik. He knew his people and he knew what they expected of him. For the sake of stability, he would play the part he needed to. With the Emperor officially dead, and buried, he and another king emerged as the two biggest players on the scene. I mean, there were tons of other warlords, but these guys were the biggest.
The other man's name was King Johannes IV, but we'll go by his English translation, king John IV. With two equally ambitious men wanting to dominate the other, it's no surprise that these two would not be friends. John the fourth was to be Menelik II's rival. Sour faced, never smiling and hateful of the world is how one diplomat described him.
John's rise had been similar to Menelik. His power base was in the northeast of the country and his lands boarded the coastline of the Red Sea. And what did the Red Sea bring? Europeans. When the British made clear their intentions to march inland and finish off the old Emperors’ forces, they said, hey, help us find a route in land through your country and will make it worth your while. These two men, Alec and John, had a decision to make. They could help the British or rebuff them.
Menelik, fearing their permanent establishment of a British outpost in his land, made little effort to help, while John jumped at the opportunity. Food, guides, mules, everything he provided the Brits with whatever they could need. The expedition was quick and successful. With the Emperor's army vanquished, the British returned to the coast. And just like they said they would, they rewarded their guide handsomely.
The kind of prize Menelik could only dream of had just been given to his rival: twelve cannons, 900 rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. Menelik had made a serious blunder, denying the British, and now his rival had leapfrogged him. As the years passed, John soon went from rival to overlord. Regional powers cropped up, and a few even asked Menelik for assistance. They asked for an alliance against John, but again and again Menelik stood back, hoping that his enemies would weaken each other and that he could just pick up the spoils. And with each victory, John's power grew and grew. Each battle became more and more onesided. And while some small territorial gains were made against his neighbors, he was now well and truly outmatched, both in manpower and weaponry. Once again, Menelik’s policy of indifference had failed him.
So instead he focused on training, discipline and arms wherever we could get them. He bought weapons and he made sure his men knew how to use them. He made himself available to any diplomats and held feasts. If he couldn't be the strongest, he would be the most approachable. Emissaries from other nations found him honest and trustworthy. Have a listen to this description of him from the point of a British diplomat who met him.
[0:21:05] And just be aware this is the first of some racially charged languages you'll hear throughout this episode. “He is darker than the average observation, another word for Ethiopian, but his features are not those of a Negro. His mouth, however, is quite negroid, and a thick lips where an incessant grin displaying large teeth set loosely together. His forehead is narrow, but the upper part of his face appears to have much character and kindness. His voice is rather ugly. On the whole, I should describe him as rather ecclesiastical. He impresses me as being gentle and easy going. But when he transacted business, his expression changed with extraordinary rapidity. The smile died away, the easy carelessness was no longer to be seen, and his eyes lit up with a shrewd, sharp expression” end quote
This ability to flip between casual and business talk was something that was noticed by many who met him. He could be laughing and playing with a bunch of children, but immediately, when someone wants to talk business, he switched into this hard, shrewd negotiator and then immediately back once the business was done. Menelik began to court the friendship with the Italians, the British, but most promising of all Europeans was the French. At the time, French society was absolutely going crazy for ivory and musk, which was used to create perfume. They couldn't get enough of them, and Ethiopia had them both in abundance. So after schmoozing up to a French diplomat, a little sample pack was arranged to be sent to France.
A bit of ivory, a bit of mask, you know, just to wet the whistle. To thank Menalek, the diplomat arranged the outfitting of Menelik's royal guard with French rifles. As Menillek watched the men load and fire in rapid succession, he looked to the French diplomat and exasperated, quote Ahhh! if only I had 10,000 men like that End quote. Unfortunately for Menelik and the French diplomat, his sample pack would never make it to Europe. The local government of Egypt, which was gaining more autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, disrupted almost every step of the journey. Menelik's trading caravan was shaken down, arrested, had the good confiscated, they were delayed, rerouted, you name it. The intention was to make the French diplomat lose interest and look elsewhere for the products.
Italy faced similar problems, and though their diplomats found a willing and trustworthy ally in Menelikq, the logistics of getting the product was just not worth the trade off. While Menelik struggled on the political stage, his personal life took a turn when he met a woman named Befana. Older than Menelik and married at least twice before. Bafana seems a strange choice for the usually logical king, but by all accounts, she was astoundingly beautiful, tall, dark, wiry and sensual. The woman had made a career of social advancement. From humble origins, she had clawed her way up the social ladder with the end goal of putting her son on the throne.
Menelik fell head over heels for her. His government hated her, his people hated her. But the king, like so many other men before him, became a slave to her every whim. From the time they met, Bafana was a double agent for King John. She fed Menelik lies, convinced him that many of his men were turning against him. And as he marched around she was stomping out rebellion, she sent his movements back to King John.
When his advisers told Menelik look, she ain't nothing but a gold digger, get her out of here. Menelik accused them of jealousy. But eventually, after throwing her support behind a rebellious governor within Menelik's kingdom, the king bowed to pressure and sent his lover into exile. Though even then he refused to believe she had any involvement and made the decision solely to keep peace with his ministers. By the time Menelik had recovered politically, he had been well and truly eclipsed by John. With virtually all of central Ethiopia under his control, john's army was now knocking at the gates of Shewa, poised to kick the door down.
Make no mistake, an invasion of Menelik’s kingdom would not be an easy one. Drilled, organized and motivated in defense of their homeland, the invaders would have had a tough time, but in the end they would have won. Menelik with nowhere to turn had to accept a humiliating peace treaty imposed on him. And so on the morning of 20 March 1878, the King led a 120 strong army into his rivals camp. King John IV was soon to be Emperor John IV and what better way to celebrate his coronation than the submission of the only man who neared him in power.
So a sad and pensive king Menelik II walked uncomfortably with a large boulder hung across his neck, a traditional token of submission that the emperor had of course insisted he wear. As he shuffled past the column of soldiers, Menelik would have noted that almost all of John's troops carried a State of the art western rifle. The fruits of friendship with Europe.
As they neared, a twelve cannon salute fired a little tribute marking the end of independence for the kingdom of Shewa. The Emperor, his emperor gave a stirring speech and from that moment onwards treated Menelik with dignity and respect. Well aware that he had already humiliated a powerful rival, there was no need to flog a dead horse.
And so in full view of both the men's armies, the emperor re-crowned Menelik. No longer was he the ruler of an independent kingdom, but a king ruling on behalf of the Emperor John. Quote
‘You are accordingly king and master of a land conquered and possessed by your forebears;
I shall respect your sovereignty if you will be faithful to the agreements decided between us.
Whoever strikes your kingdom, strikes me, and whoever makes war on your, makes it on me.
With a kiss, Menelik's loyalty was settled and after sticking around for the bare minimum amount of time to avoid insulting the emperor, the king slunk back to Shewa. He had been humiliated, there was no doubt. But by allowing himself to be subjected to such treatment, he had kept both his territory and his army intact. There would be time for revenge, and Menelik was a patient man. Over the next few years, John would lean on Menelik to take an active role in his campaigns. Like the previous emperor, John was an advocate for forced conversions. And though he found his orders distasteful, Menelik did as he was told, enforcing the emperor's repressive laws on pagans, Muslims and, heretical, Christians alike. To pay for the eye watering tribute demanded him by the emperor he was forced to raise taxes, never a popular move, but even less in territories that you'd only just recently got. But Menelik, the statesman, was beginning to come into his own. One of his most impressive traits was multitasking.
The man worked himself hard. From dawn to dusk, it was petitions, campaign updates, meeting, dignitaries, prayer, penance and bed. All of this meant he always had lots of irons in the fire, lots of little ventures on the go at once. He made decisions quickly and had no time for small talk. When his subjects came to him with problems, he wanted them to get to the point quickly so he could address it and move on. Slowly, his territory expanded, as did his relationships with Europe. He was always trying to fill his courts with as many engineers, doctors and other educated people.
It was around this time that Italy began to take a serious interest in creating a colony on the coast of the Red Sea. With Emperor John busy battling off the Egyptians in the north, Menelik learnt from his first mistake and made himself available to the Europeans. Like the French, the Italians were keen to get their hands on Ethiopian products. But the route back to the coast, back to their colony, was the Wild West, a treacherous countryside ruled by regional warlords. It wasn't exactly the most inviting place to send merchants through. The first expedition ended in disaster. One night, the entire caravan of Italian traders was ambushed and murdered, every one of them massacred. Menelik was furious at the possibility of another deal falling through, so he mapped out the safest route the caravans should take and then got to work on alliances with the warlords who controlled each patch.
On the 29th of April 1883, King Menelik, excited as a kid on Christmas, welcomed the arrival of a caravan into his capital. Cracking open the wooden crates, rummaging through the packing foam, he grasped the first of 2000 shining new Remington rolling block rifles as the king turned the glossy killing machine over in his hands, perhaps he felt that finally his luck was about to turn around. Soon, a treaty was signed between Shiha and the Kingdom of Italy. Critically, and this is telling, Menelik insisted on a translation of the document into his language, Amarak. And once he got it, he spent two weeks with the Italian diplomat and his government, going through the document line by line. The Italian diplomat was impressed, noting that Menelik refused to rush into signing anything until he. Was sure that he was not being exploited. European powers had a habit of screwing African rulers with treaties like this, and Menelik knew it.
Ever try and wiggle out of a phone contract or a gym membership? Yeah, Europe was the gym, and African kingdoms were the poor S.O.B not realizing they had locked themselves into a 48 month contract. But eventually Menelik agreed. The treaty was nothing more than a trade agreement between two equal partners. So he signed.
This was the first treaty signed by an Ethiopian monarch with a European in about 40 odd years, and Emperor John was nowhere to be seen. Over the next year or two, the Italians grew closer and close to Menelik, and he put their rifles to good use. Ethiopia was in the grip of a crushing famine, and with the royal treasury running low, the king organized raids into neighboring territory.
Cattle theft was the main order of business, but his army bought with them many, many vagabonds and drifters from Shewa. These people were then left behind to repopulate many of the devastated areas that the army had plundered. There was little resistance. The countryside was in bad shape, and whatever the army ran into were little more than a militia relying on spears and shields. The Remingtons made quick work of them.
The famine, as horrible as it was, was a godsend to Menelik. The peasants and military garrison he left behind in these lands implanted the show and culture, religion and loyalty far and wide. Imposing one's authority over conquered people is a long process, and implementing your culture can take a millennia. But by supplanting Shewan Christians into these devastated areas, Menelik was ensuring a specific type of person with ideals that aligned with his cause, would settle and thrive in these areas for generations after.
Menelik was moving up, Shewa now had a nice land buffer for any future invasions. And with a short delay, he could probably call on 1000 men, half of which were now armed with European weapons. But to his northwest, another king was up and coming. This king was troubled by Menelik’s expansions and his raids into his land. Despite both kings being vassals under the same emperor, this one challenged Menelik writing to him, quote why do you always dishonor me? In the past, you have destroyed my country. From now on, do not go away, for I am coming. End quote
Ominous right? Menelik rose to the challenge, and the two armies met. Both lines fired, and for many recruits, the smoke, the noise and the storm of bullets rippling through the air was a brand new experience. Many broke off and fled, and those that remained slugged it out, fighting hand to hand under the hot sun. Both Menelik and the enemy king joined the melee. But in the baking heat, Menelik's men managed to wound the enemy king. Once they were captured, the enemy quickly lost heart. It was an overwhelming victory for Menelik, but any celebration was short lived.
The Emperor was furious. Dragging his subjects before him like badly behaved school children, He boomed at them, quote who are you to fight each other in my presence? End quote. The Emperor told them that the battle was meaningless and that the status quo would now be restored. Taking advantage of the opportunity to reduce the rising star of Menelik, the Emperor demanded he had returned a good chunk of his earlier conquests, a punishment for his disobedience.
Furious, but still not strong enough to challenge him, Menelik had to accept the ruling. The Emperor was doing all he could to stifle his expansion. The sooner he was rid of this tyrant, the better.
With a strong and wealthy kingdom under his belt, Menelik knew he needed a wife and an heir. Bafana, his traitorous side chick, who the entirety of his kingdom despised except him, had snuck back from her exile and made her way back into Menelik’s court, and his pants. They had one child together, but the infant had a birth defect and Befana was now too old to try again. Menelik relented, sending Befana away for a second, and last time he agreed to a diplomatic marriage. The soon to be queen of Shewa was a young woman called Taytu. Taytu was the daughter of a northern warlord, and she was in many ways, the polar opposite of Befana. Where Befana was tall, she was short. When Bafana was thin, she was plump. While Bafana used Menelik to advance herself, Taytu used her circles to advance them both. She was not beautiful, but she was wise. Everyone always knew when Taytu would be arriving by the little bells she wore around her ankles jingled as she walked.
Tough, self assured and intelligent, she had learnt to read and write a rarity for women. Quickly, she became an indispensable part of Menelik’s cabinet, a sounding board for the king to run ideas by.
As the Egyptian army began to fall apart, Europe's piercing gaze now locked onto the coast of the Red Sea, Menelik's doorstep. The great powers realized this area was about to heat up. The British Empire was stretched too thin to start another colony. They were now effectively masters of Upper Egypt and really had their hands full keeping everything going. But even so, they really didn't want their arch rivals, the French, getting a toehold in this part of Africa. So they gave the kingdom of Italy their blessing to colonize Italy, as in the Italy we see on a map today, was very, very new in history. At this point, the kingdom had only unified about 1870. Despite their age, they wanted what every other European power was getting: colonies.
So with Great Britain's blessing, their little seaport expanded to a fullblown colony, forming the basis of the modern country of Eritrea. This was not okay with Emperor John or King Menelik. Only a few years earlier, Britain had signed a treaty guaranteeing Ethiopia a right to transit their goods through a specific port, the very port that had now just been given to the Italians.
Britain were just like, you want it? Sure, as long as you're not the French. Here you go, take it. The ink on the treaty had barely dried and already Britain was violating it.
Menelik And John were not blind to what was happening in the rest of Africa. Europeans and their colonies were like termites. Let them in and they just seep into all the nooks and crannies. Before you know it, your whole house is riddled with them. John reached out to Menelik telling him together they were strong and they needed to remain united against these foreign oppressors. But Menelik had already started wheeling and dealing. He didn't want these guys here either, but now that they were here, he might as well use them.
European traders gobbled up his musk, gold and ivory, but he kept them in arms distance. If Italy or France decided that they could get all this without him, these guys were ruthless. They'd cut him out, swap him with another more controllable king or just straight up annexes lands. Menelik was playing a dangerous game, and soon it would come back to bite him.
As the Italians pushed north, expanding their colony, emperor John launched his first few skirmishes against the invaders. His subcommanders and the largest of all his vessels, Menelik was expected to be there.
Mustering on the border, they were ordered to contain the Italians to block advance further inland. The first opening salvos of the war saw an attack on an Italian outpost. The outpost was hastily thrown together, and I mean really hastily. They'd literally grabbed tombstones from a nearby grave and just stacked them up to make a wall. It was really just a point of land something the Italians could stake their claim and say, see, we've got something here, we own it.
But even so, siegecraft was a core skill for European armies and it wasn't for African ones. Knowing the science behind choke points, dead zones and crossfire, the Italians managed to force the Ethiopians back. The Italians had won the first skirmish of the war, but the outpost was undermanned and in vital need of reinforcements. A relief army was sent to the garrison, and without the wall to protect them, the Ethiopians decimated them. One of the few that survived said of the day, quote they dashed forward with terrible war cries and with such a driving force, they looked like mad men end quote.
Almost the entire army was killed. 430 Italians dead, with just 82 managing to escape. When the news of this defeat reached Italy, the public were appalled at the massacre.
They demanded revenge.
Meanwhile, the humiliated Italian War ministry had to admit that yes, I suppose we did underestimate the enemy. It would not be the last time the people of Italy wanted blood. One Italian diplomat was some foresight lamented, Quote ‘I see my country engaged in a war which will cost us millions and millions and a lot of men. Abyssinia (Ethiopia) will not be defeated with 20 or 30,000 men’end quote.
All of this was keenly observed by Menelik, who had provided the bare minimum troops to the Emperor. To him, there was always a lesson to be learnt, and after this skirmish, there were two. One, besieging Italian forts should be avoided at all costs, and two, he needed more guns.
While his armory grew and grew Menelik, delicately juggled the duties of appearing a loyal vassel while maintaining an open dialogue with Italy, who cozied up to him more and more.
As the war gained momentum, treaties flew back and forth, but Italy was on the war path. Their terms for peace were ludicrous, requesting even more territory than they had, an apology from the Emperor and lots of other garbage. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian commander, whose troops had just mauled the Italians, rightfully refused to cough up any territory for a nation that he had just defeated. Quote ‘The Italians should come to Sahati (thats one of the contested regions) only if he could go as governor of Rome; that he had beaten them once, and if they advanced he would beat them again’ End quote.
With each refusal to back down, the Italians flooded Menelik's armory with more Remingtons and cannons, warning him that war was on the horizon and they'd be relying on him. One cabinet minister raised his concerns, though. He told his colleagues, hey, we're putting a lot of trust in this king.
Maybe we should get a guarantee or a promise from that he's not just going to turn these weapons back on us…
With his oily soft voice, Menelik gave that guarantee. He told them, hey, don't sweat it. I love Italy and all things Italian. I've got no reason to make war on you because, quote, we are all infants of only one Christ. End quote.
In late November, with the Italians telling him that they were backing him, 100% Menelik officially severed ties with Emperor John. In a speech to his people, he told them that he has no children, his country is his child, and the population should be ready to die to defend it. He told them it was their duty to guard the frontier and defend their families. The speech didn't go down well. The Emperor, though he had his faults, was not hated by the people of Showa.
Fighting fellow Christians when their country was under siege from so many sides seemed wrong. Though the Showans were experienced in warfare, it was seasonal warfare, cattle stealing, raids, skirmishes, that type of thing. Menelik was telling them to buckle up what could be a long, drawn out affair. As soon as Menelik made his war public, the Italians quieted down very quickly indeed.
War was expensive, and they hoped that with all the gear they'd given this guy, he would fight their war for them, take the throne, and blindly serve their interests. Menelik wrote to them constantly, politely, but firmly, redressing them for not doing their part, telling them it wasn't right that he was now shouldering the entire burden of the war.
But in a stroke of luck, the problem sorted itself out. Bouncing from one battle to the next, the Emperor's forces were tired, sick and undersupplied. To encourage them forward at one battle, John led a charge in the front row. As momentum built, a stray bullet caught his right hand and another pierced his left hand and lodged itself in his chest. John IV was dead within the hour, his 18 year reign was over.
And that, my friends, is where we end part one.
It seemed like all the Menelik's wishes were coming true. His rival was gone and he had found a great friend in Europe who kept his armory full of guns. But you know what they, say be careful what you wish for. The ancient kingdom of Ethiopia was one signature away from losing its independence.
In our next episode, mentalk's bravery, but more than that, his cunning comes into play as he faces off against a new kind of rival.
A shortsighted Italian diplomat with an inflexible agenda. As treacherous as he was stubborn, the man would drive a wedge between the two countries. War was coming and Menelik was still not ready.
This has been Anthology of Heroes. Thanks for tuning in.