- James Houser
March 1, 1896 - Battle of Adwa
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
March 1, 1896. The last surviving African state fights for its life. On the plain of Adwa, an Ethiopian army confronts the well-armed armies of Italy, come to subdue and colonize their nation - a Christian Kingdom older than any in Europe. The outcome shocks everyone, and marks the beginning of the end for Western supremacy across the globe.
The picture below, painted in the 1960s, portrays a strange image. A motley African army, led by the Saints of Christianity, defeats a drilled and disciplined force of white invaders. Above them, guiding them on, is St. George, patron saint of Ethiopia. St. George slaying the dragon is among the most important icons of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Ethiopia is a strange nation, unique among African states in that it has maintained an ancient and independent Christian tradition since the 300s A.D. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, with 50 million adherents to this day, is the largest remnant of the old Oriental Orthodox denominations - the Egyptian Coptic, Armenian, and Nestorian Eastern Churches included. Neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox nor Protestant, the Ethiopians were converted in the 4th Century, but their traditions go back to the passage of Acts 8:26-27 where Philip the Evangelist converted a servant of the Ethiopian Queen. In this story, an Ethiopian becomes the first major government official to be baptized as a Christian.
Against all odds, including virtual separation from the broader Christian world throughout the Middle Ages, the Ethiopian Church maintained a distinct and unique pattern of worship and religious tradition. The Portuguese explorers of the 1500s were shocked to discover an intact Christian Empire spanning much of East Africa, and immediately offered the Ethiopians arms and trained soldiers to resist Ottoman expansion. Throughout this time, the Ethiopians were suspicious of outside influences - either from the Islam of the Ottomans or neighboring Arabia, as well as the zealous Catholicism of the Portuguese.
By the 1800s, however, the picture had changed. The Race for Africa was on; European states were pushing past each other to grab their own portions of the continent for reasons of prestige and nationalism as much as for any economic purpose. Britain and France already had huge stakes in the continent, but a host of newcomers determined to gain their own slice of the Dark Continent. The fact that these territories were occupied only mattered inasmuch as the natives could be exploited, or may offer resistance. The newcomers included Germany and Belgium, both of whom committed horrific atrocities in the lands they had conquered.
Ethiopia remained strong and independent - to some degree out of respect for its Church - but such respect would not last, and it was only a matter of time before an imperialist state came knocking. The Ethiopians, after all, were black and "uncivilized" - even if they were Christian, it certainly wasn't the right *kind* of Christian, and they had to be taught proper ways.
There were multiple nations that tried, and failed, to protect themselves. The Zulu in 1879 gave the British a bloody nose but ultimately succumbed. The Wassoulou in Mali under Samori Ture fought a long resistance to the French, but in vain. The Ashanti in West Africa were chastised and crushed by the British. By 1890, only Ethiopia remained intact.
They had suffered their own problems. The early 19th Century saw the Ethiopian Empire on the wane - fragmented, decaying, dying. They began their recovery - but it was not easy. First Emperor Theodore (Tewodros) II reconstituted the splintered Empire and modernized its army before his defeat and death at the hands of a British expedition in 1868. His successor John (Yohannes) IV bought numerous firearms and modern military supplies from the British, and trained his armies well, leading them in battle against the Egyptians and the radical Islamists of Sudan until he was killed in battle in 1889. Ethiopia was surrounded by enemies, and the deaths of its able rulers seemed to be a terrible trend.
It was at this point that the last straggler of European powers - Italy - fixed its eyes on the besieged Ethiopia. The death of Yohannes IV seemed like a perfect time to lay the groundwork for conquest. In 1889, immediately after the death of Yohannes left the throne empty, the Italians approached a local ruler, the Negus of Shewa - a man named Menelik. They proposed to supply him with arms, money and support to seize the throne if he would sign a treaty handing over part of Ethiopia - the lands now called Eritrea. Menelik agreed, took the assistance, and moved south to take over the Empire.
Menelik may seem like a traitor to his country - but he was no fool. Though he quickly reconquered Ethiopia and set himself up as Menelik II, he had no intention of becoming the next casualty of European imperialism. Immediately, Menelik began building on the groundwork laid by his predecessors. He used Italian and British armaments to fill out his army and trained it mercilessly. He also brought in Russian advisers and volunteers to help train his large army - if anyone knew how to convert numbers into strength, it was the Russians, and the Russians were happy to help fellow Orthodox. Menelik prepared Ethiopia for the storm he knew was coming. By tossing Italy a snip of territory early, he had bought the most valuable resource - time.
In 1895, Italy decided that the treaty they had signed with Menelik *actually* made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate - step 1 in the patented imperial takeover plan. Menelik coldly refused this interpretation. As expected, Italy sent an army under General Oreste Baratieri. The Italian force advanced into Ethiopia, brushing aside some small detachments they faced. Menelik and his generals retreated, all the while calling their militia from across Ethiopia. They would not play the Italians with any less than a full deck.
As the Italians advanced deeper without a major battle, only skirmishes that sapped their strength, the Italian force of 17,000 men and 56 artillery pieces decided to take a position at Adwa. They were soon confronted by Menelik and his mighty army of 80,000 rifle-armed Ethiopians and 42 artillery pieces. The Italians were contemptuous of their foe - an "African rabble" - even though their own equipment was obsolete, and most of their troops ill-trained conscripts. The Ethiopians did have some lance-armed infantry and cavalry, but by far the bulk of their force were equipped and trained with European rifles.
Baratieri was uncertain of the situation, but his generals wanted an attack. Facing political pressure from Italy for a quick, glorious victory, and with his supplies running low, Baratieri could not retreat without a fight. He decided to strike, figuring the Ethiopians would fold - after all, they were just Africans. In the very early hours of March 1, he sent three separate columns against the Ethiopian lines. However, they got lost in the night and unfamiliar terrain, and went into the battle unable to communicate or assist each other.
With Menelik and his Empress Tatyu at their head, Menelik positioned his troops where they could oversee the Italian approach - and just as quickly realized the enemy's mistake. Attacking from three separate directions, the Italian columns could each be attacked and destroyed separately. The Italian brigade on the left ran head-on into Hotchkiss and Maxim artillery purchased from France, and soon found themselves swamped by counterattacks. Menelik had to commit his reserve to finally annihilate this force.
In the center, the main Italian force was quickly surrounded. In its attempt to retreat, it accidentally marched into a narrow valley and was charged and destroyed by Ethiopian cavalry with heavy lances. This force was almost completely slaughtered, its general's body never found.
Finally, Baratieri's two reserve brigades were outflanked and wrecked on the mountain slopes under the unflinching eyes of the Emperor. As Italian survivors fled the wreckage, the monarch ordered a pursuit: none would be permitted to escape if possible. Baratieri had long fled, abandoning his command. It had taken 6 hours to rout the colonizers.
The Italian force was annihilated. It lost 6,000 killed and almost 4,000 taken prisoner.
Baratieri was relieved, chastised, and court-martialed. Public opinion in Italy was outraged, with demonstrations across the Kingdom and a humiliated King Umberto declaring national mourning. The burning desire for revenge felt by many Italians would come into full flower forty years later. Adwa became a national trauma for Italy, and when Mussolini occupied the country in 1936 he declared that "Adwa has been avenged." The Italians brought tanks, airpower, and poison gas this time. Only six years later in 1941, the Ethiopians and British would toss them back out. For now, though, Ethiopia remained strong.
Later in 1896, Italy recognized Ethiopia's unfettered independence, and accepted its interpretation of the old treaty. For the first time, an African nation had fought for - and kept - it independence from Europe. Ethiopia would remain free from colonization, and even be accepted into the League of Nations in 1923. Aside from the 1935-1941 interlude, it has remained independent ever since - indeed, might be the oldest independent nation.
Adwa had implications far beyond Ethiopia. It became a rallying cry for the Pan-African movement, a symbol of hope for millions laboring in oppression, a bastion of prestige to those Africans looking for a refutation of black inferiority. It is a public holiday in Ethiopia, with the Victory of Adwa celebrated annually at Menelik Square in Addis Ababa. Men dress in the battle dress, while women dress as Empress Taytu.
Above them all remains the Church, the glue to this day of Ethiopian culture and civilization. St. George was said to have been there that day, when Ethiopia was saved and Africa saw hope for salvation. It was said too that the Archangel Gabriel had personally overseen Ethiopian deliverance, and that his horn's blow over the field of Adwa caused the final Italian rout. To Ethiopian Christians, much like King Arthur to the Britons, their heroes of old had returned in their hour of greatest need.
Book Recommendation: R.A. Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011).