The Battle of Adowa

She stretches out her hands unto God

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 5

The 1896 Battle of Adowa is quite possibly the most famous battle to take place on African soil. This clash between an African army and an invading European force would have major ramifications, not least on the perception of Africa worldwide.

The origins of the conflict can be traced back to 2 May 1889 and the Treaty of Wuchale, named after the Ethiopian town in which this pact was signed. The treaty was designed to foster friendship and trade between Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and his counterpart King Umberto I of Italy - as it turned out, it would do quite the opposite.

Confusion arose from the fact that the treaty was written in both Amharic and Italian, with the wording of certain articles differing between the two versions - the most important of which was Article XVII.

According to the Amharic version of Article XVII, Ethiopia had the autonomy to choose whether or not to conduct its foreign affairs through the Italian government, whilst the Italian version stated that Ethiopia was obliged to conduct all foreign dealings through Italian authorities, in effect making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate.

On 11 October 1889, the Italian Foreign Minister Francesco Crispi announced that:

"In conformity with... the perpetual treaty between Italy and Ethiopia... His Majesty the King of Ethiopia consents to avail himself of the Government of His Majesty the King of Italy for the conducts of all matters which he may have with other Powers or Governments."

This announcement represented a definitive claim from the Italians to a protectorate over Ethiopia. A claim that was immediately recognised by the other European powers, with cartographers wasting no time in labelling Ethiopia on their maps as Italian Abyssinia.

The Italians, in support of their claim, advanced from Eritrea into Tigre, in northern Ethiopia, passing the borders previously agreed to. In January 1890, they invaded the town of Adowa and refused to withdraw until Menelik recognised their interpretation of the Wuchale treaty.

Menelik refused, and on 27 September 1890 wrote to King Umberto I of Italy declaring:

"When I made that treaty of friendship with Italy, in order that our secrets be guarded and that our understanding should not be spoiled, I said that because of our friendship our affairs in Europe might be carried on with the aid of the Sovereign of Italy, but I have not made any treaty which obliges me to do so, and today, I am not the man to accept it. That one independent power does not seek the aid of another to carry on its affairs your Majesty understands very well."

During the resultant Italo-Ethiopian correspondence, the Italians responded that:

"Italy cannot notify the other Powers that she was mistaken in Article XVII, because she must maintain her dignity."

Ethiopia, in turn, replied:

"We also have made known to the Powers that the article, as it is written in our language, has another meaning. As you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish Ethiopia to be represented before the other Powers as your protectorate, but this shall never be."

Relations between the two nations reached an impasse, and after several years' delay, Menelik finally denounced the Wuchale treaty on 12 February 1893.

On 27 February, he responded to Italian claims over his land and to the European powers who had supported this claim that:

"Ethiopia has need of no one; she stretches out her hands unto God."

In January 1895, the Italians attacked Tigre, occupying much of that province. Menelik responded by mobilising his army and marching north, winning significant victories at Amba Alagi and Mekelle by the end of the year. The Italians fell back to Adowa, where the final confrontation was to take place.

Menelik was in a relatively strong position. His army was composed of over 100,000 men with modern rifles, besides others with antique firearms and spears. Menelik also had the support of the local population, whose patriotism had been intensified in the face of the Italians expropriating land for the settlement of their colonists.

The outcome of the Battle of Adowa was a remarkable victory for Menelik and a complete defeat for his enemies. On 26 October 1896, the Italians agreed to the Treaty of Addis Ababa, which annulled the Treaty of Wuchale and recognised the absolute independence of Ethiopia.