Remembering Adwa: The Decisive Ethiopian Victory on March 1, 1896, Halted Italy’s Imperial Ambitions in Africa

By Ayele Bekerie / March 2, 2009
The Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II united to defeat an invading force of Italian troops, was one of the most significant turning points in the history of modern Africa.

On March 1, 1896, eleven years after the Berlin Conference or what historians call ‘the Scramble for Africa’, the Ethiopian army led by Emperor Menelik II decisively defeated the Italian army at the Battle of Adwa. Adwa is a town located in the northern part of Ethiopia, near the Ethiopian and Eritrean border. Virtually all the regions, religions, linguistic groups, aristocrats and peasants pulled their resources together to formulate and execute a strategy of victory. By their actions the Ethiopians were not only affirming the power and immense possibilities of unity in diversity, but they were placing issues of freedom and internal reform at the top of the national agenda.

The Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II united to defeat an invading force of Italian troops, was one of the most significant turning points in the history of modern Africa.
“I would never give any nation over Ethiopia” Emperor Menelik II

Adwa necessitates a new set of directions interspersed with broader definition and application of freedom so that all those who participated in the Battle would be able to have a say in the affairs of their country. As Maimre Mennesemay puts it, “from the perspectives of the thousands who participated in the campaign of Adwa, the resistance to the Italian invasion embodies the aspiration for freedom, equality and unity as well as the rejection of colonialism.”

With regard to the African World, as much as ancient Ethiopia inspired Pan-Africanist movements and organizations, contemporary Ethiopia’s history also has its significance in the struggle against colonialism and racial oppression. Contemporary Ethiopia was particularly brought to the African world’s attention on March 1, 1896 when Ethiopia, an African country, defeated Italy, a European country, at the battle of Adwa. It has been 113 years since the Ethiopians decisively defeated the Italians. As we celebrate the victory, it is important to revisit the meaning and significance of the historic victory, for Adwa is an indelible mark of freedom.

According to Donald Levine, “the Battle of Adwa qualifies as a historic event which represented the first time since the beginning of European imperial expansion that a nonwhite nation had defeated a European power.” The Berlin Conference of 1885, a conference of European colonial powers that was called to carve up Africa into colonial territories, found its most important challenge in this famous battle. European strategy to divide Africa into their spheres of influence was halted by Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu Betul at the Battle of Adwa. The Europeans had no choice but to recognize this African (not European) power.

The African World celebrated and embraced this historic victory. In the preface to the book An Introduction to African Civilizations With Main Currents in Ethiopian History, Huggins and Jackson wrote: “In Ethiopia, the military genius of Menelik II was in the best tradition of Piankhi and Sheshonk, rulers of ancient Egypt and Nubia or Ethiopia, when he drove out the Italians in 1896 and maintained the liberties of that ancient free empire of Black men.” Huggins and Jackson analyzed the victory not only in terms of its significance to the postcolonial African world, but also in terms of its linkage to the tradition of ancient African glories and victories.

Menelik used his remarkable leadership skill to draw all (highlanders and lowlanders, Christians and Muslims, northerners and southerners) into a battlefield called Adwa. And in less than six hours, the enemy is decisively defeated. The overconfident and never to be defeated European army fell under the great military strategy of an African army. The strategy was what the Ethiopians call afena, an Ethiopian version of blitzkrieg that encircles the enemy and cuts its head. Italians failed to match the British and the French in establishing a colonial empire in Africa. In fact, by their humiliating defeat, the Italians made the British and the French colonizers jittery. The colonial subjects became reenergized to resist the colonial empire builders.

Adwa irreversibly broadened the true boundaries of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. People of the south and the north, the east and the west fought and defeated the Italian army. In the process, a new Ethiopia is born. Adwa solved once and for all the question of Ethiopiawinet. The Ethiopian army crossed many rivers to reach the battlefield. In the process, it managed to establish trust and andenet. Adwa affirms that there is no Habesha or Abyssinia, but one Ethiopia. Adwa is a blueprint for multiethnic and multireligous Ethiopia.

Adwa shows what can be achieved when united forces work for a common goal. Adwa brought the best out of so many forces that were accustomed to waging battles against each other. Forces of destruction and division ceased their endless squabbles and redirect their united campaign against the common enemy. They chose to redefine themselves as one and unequivocally expressed their rejection of colonialism. They came together in search of freedom or the preservation and expansion of the freedom at hand.

Menelik could have kept the momentum by reforming his government and by allowing the many forces to continue participating in the making of a modern and good for all state. Unfortunately Menelik chose to return back to the status quo, a status of exploitative relationship between the few who controlled the land and the vast majority of the agrarian farmers. And yet, Adwa is a constant reminder of a movement for the establishment of a democratic and just society.

As long as Menelik’s challenge to and reversal of colonialism in Ethiopia is concerned, his accomplishment was historic and an indisputable event. It is precisely this brilliant and decisive victory against the European colonial army that has inspired the colonized and the oppressed through out the world to forge ahead against their colonial masters.

Menelik’s rapprochement with the three colonial powers in the region, namely Italy, France and Britain, may have saved his monarchial power, but the policy ended up hurting the whole region. The seeds of division sown by the colonizers, in part, continue to wreck the region apart. Realizing the need to completely remove all the colonizers as an effective and lasting way to bring peace and prosperity in the region, the grandson of the Emperor, Lij Iyassu attempted to carve anti-colonial policy. He began to send arms to freedom fighters in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. He entered into a treaty of peace and cooperation with the Austrians, the Germans and the Turks. Unfortunately, the rule of Lij Iyassu was short-lived.

Adwa symbolizes the aspirations and hopes of all oppressed people. Adwa catapulted Pan-Africanism into the realm of the possible by reigniting the imaginations of Africans in their quest for freedom throughout the world. Adwa foreshadowed the outcome of the anti-colonial struggle. Adwa is about cultural resistance; it is about reaffirmation of African ways. Adwa was possible not simply because of brilliant and courageous leadership, but also because of the people’s willingness to defend their motherland, regardless of ethnic, linguistic and religious differences. Adwa was a story of common purpose and common destiny. The principles established on the battlefield of Adwa must be understood and embraced for Africa to remain centered in its own histories, cultures and socioeconomic development. We should always remember that Adwa was won for Africans. Adwa indeed is an African model of victory and resistance.

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Ayele Bekerie , an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University can be reached at: ab67@cornell.edu