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Remembering Menelik II and the Battle of Adewa

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Remembering Menelik II and the Battle of Adewa

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by Tsehai Berhane-Selassie
Historically, the Turks, then the Egyptians, later still the Turko-Egyptians, and finally the Italians vied to carve away, or at least to dominate, the territorial boundaries of Ethiopia. This was a saga of enemy encirclement that began around 702 when the Ethiopian navy lost its attempt to assert control of the Hijaz across the Red Sea. Ethiopian monarchs were still working hard centuries later to keep enemies (dina) at bay. These were enemies with whom blood money could not be exchanged and de facto they did not belong in the north-east African region. Down the centuries the monarchs struggled to coordinate internal resources for the purpose of fighting them. Their strategy included lessening regional potentates’ competition to control the helm of power. In other words, the monarchs accompanied fighting the dina with redirecting the energies of those competing for internal power towards sustaining a unitary state. The latest in doing this was Tewodros II (r1855-1868). Yohannes IV (r1872-1889), who followed his example, retained only two negus under him by the mid-1880’s, and Menelik II (r1889-1913) had only one by the 1890’s. All three fought effectively to keep out the dina from their borderlands by making sure there was a singular state in Ethiopia.The Significance of Adwa Victory for Pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance 50 years after the OAU
Of course, the dina had their views of this internal Ethiopian process. The Turks of old, who imagined Ethiopia as one of their outlying provinces, were able to bribe or somehow convince some to be their stooges on its borderlands (so Haggai Erlich tells us, among others). Power holders in Egypt installed favourite ‘rulers’ all around the areas controlled by the Ethiopian monarchs in their eagerness to control the trade routes and other resources along the Nile Valley and the Red Sea. Just as these traditional (and historical) enemies had this serious purpose, which still resonates with us with regard to present day international politics, the Ethiopian monarchs also kept their eyes on the bigger prize. They always managed to curb the success of lackeys of Egypt or Turkey from disrupting the Ethiopian state. Despite superior wealth and access to firearms and other weapons, the traditional dina thus failed to succeed in bribing those who vied for internal power. This developed a reputation for Ethiopia: Ethiopians always fight among themselves but unite in the face of external invasion.
Competition to control the Red Sea and the Blue Nile brought European colonialists along the Ethiopian borderlands in the second half of the nineteenth century. With superior technology and determination to acquire political, economic and geographical control so as to plant colonies (i.e. bring their own natives to possess new territories and export raw materials), Europeans were not satisfied with exercising control through surrogate rulers. Opening and controlling the Suez Canal, in particular, brought the British into Egypt (1882), a part of Somaliland and later the new country they called the Sudan. The opening of the Suez Canal also brought their rivals, the French, to establish colonies along the Red Sea. Britain and France had been establishing colonies around the world since the sixteenth century. Italy on the other hand had come into existence only in 1861, taking the date they proclaimed Victor Emmanuel as the first king of the newly formed state. It acquired the port of Assab after its treacherous local ruler had sold it to an Italian company. The French and the British urged and helped Italy to expand from Assab into the highlands of Hamasen in Ethiopia. The Italian leaders also learnt from the British different ways and means of taking and keeping territories in Africa, especially using local differences and exploiting points of competition for power. They relied on technologically advanced weapons too, of course. Determined to take on Ethiopia since the 1880s, they were encouraging their agents to work on lulling the Ethiopians into accepting Italian colonial ambitions.
The Ethiopians knew that the advent of such grabbing Europeans from beyond the seas hailed a different type of dina. Those who only heard about European knowledge and the very few who had visited appreciated European advancements. They bought weapons from them and not a few even related openly to European traders and diplomats. It was in this spirit that Menelik signed in 1887the treaty of friendship and commence, known as the Treaty of Wichale, with the Italians. He abrogated it when he discovered that the Italians were using it to claim that Ethiopia was their protectorate. Menelik took the crown of ‘king of kings’ in 1889. However, he was faced by some internal uncertainties. A few armed men, at least two of them aspirants to the throne, defied his authority, and the Italians bribed such competitors for power, and hoped the ones who were keen on European knowledge would prefer to side with them against Menelik. Besides, severe famine, pestilence and cattle disease had depleted the population and affected morale. These were not unusual, but on top of Italian intervention, they made Menelik’s early days as neguse negest vulnerable.
Menelik had campaigned and succeeded to have internal cohesion. Camping at Were Illu eighteen days later, he sent back Kao Tona of Wolayta, Sultan Aba Jifar of Jima, Dejazmach Gebre Egziabher of Leqa and Dajazmach Jote of the boder land ‘Shanqela and Arab’, to safeguard the south. Rumours of local disturbances were rife and their presence in the provinces was needed. Dejach Beshah Aboye had to leave part of his forces in Sidamo under Dejazmach Lulseged, and Ras Mekonnen too, who reported in the capital by Meskerem, had to leave most of his troops to guard Hararge, as did Fitawrari Tekle who arrived from Wellega in the west.
Menelik personally dealt with a few dissidents that could injure the campaign at hand. One of these, Dejazmach Guangul made his submission, asked pardon and sought permission to participate in ‘the defence of his country and master’. Menelik deployed him to operate under Ras Mengesha. Other shifta submitted in Bagemder, and sending Bejirond Balcha Menelik punished a village that was harbouring others in a hideout at an amba called Arara. Another dissident, the ruler of Adal, whose predecessors had been known for their loyalty to Ethiopia, was rumoured to have been liaising with the Italians probably since 1888. The Italians had been bribing him promising him sovereignty. To neutralize dissent on that front, Menelik deployed troops that had arrived late having been delayed by the heavy rains. These easily took Awesa, the town that the sultan deserted on receiving news of the defeat of his men. On 15 December, Menelik reviewed his troops at Wefla, near Ashangie. He displayed forty two cannons that he was to deploy later in the battle of Adewa. Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojam, the last to report, arrived at Ashangie and joined Menelik on 23 December.
The Ethiopian advance force reached the Italian camp at Amba Alagi, Tigray, in early December. It was commanded by Ras Makonen from Harar, and constituted of Ras Mikael heading the cavalry from Wello, Dejach Wele Betul from Yeju and nearby Bagemder and Ras Mengasha Yohannes of Tigray. An unexpected attack mounted by Fitawrari Gebeyehu on December 7 1895 forced a fight and the enemy withdrew, leaving the Ethiopian a more defensible position in a matter of a few hours. The rases disciplined Fitawrari Gebeyehu later for attacking without being ordered to do so, and reported their victory to Menelik.
The main army with Menelik arrived on 6 January, 1896, two months after he started from his capital. Mobilized by the ‘king of kings’, they were all looking to his overall leadership. His troop deployment kept Ras Makonnen, Ras Mengesha and Ras Mikael as warari in the middle. Negus Tekle Haymanot was in command of the right wing and Ras Alula, the left. The emperor and the empress were right in the centre. The whole force positioned itself on the hills overlooking the Adwa valley. Menelik’s troops were estimated at 73,000 to 120,000. The cavalry and infantry were armed only with lances, but a’ significant percentage’ of the soldiers with Menelik were carrying rifles. Women warriors, some responsible for state or personal treasuries, had their retinue. Individuals showed off their skills in horsemanship and daring actions, and their ‘masters’, their leadership qualities, command of social support, networking and coordination. Even grooms and pages looking after war materials, tents and pack animals were hoping to attract attention as fighters. Prepared to sacrifice their lives and resources, all the warriors had brought personal supplies and domestic servants to prepare their food and provide them with personal service.
By late February 1896, wthin a month after they forced Mengesha to evacuate, the Italians had been reportedly running short of supplies. The commander, Baratieri sought to advice his government in Rome that Menelik’s troops too might run short and go away, but irrespective of this, the response prompted him to act. His subordinates in the field supported this command when he called them to a meeting on 29 February, and he had no choice but to arrange an attack at 9 am of the following day. Early in the morning of 1 March, he advanced three brigades in three parallel formations to the crests of three mountains on the. Albertone on the left was to set the pace in the night. General Dabormida was on the right, while Arimondi was in the centre. Immediately to their rear was the reserve force led by Ellena. Albertone intended to eventually position himself on the summit known as Kidane Mehret, theoretically to command a view of Ethiopian movements along the narrow tracks to Adewa. Contrary to their plan, however, the three columns separated in the night and spread across a wide terrain, and by mistake, Albertone advanced directly into the position commanded by Ras Mengesha Yohannes who was on guard of the Ethiopian camp for the night.
Runners brought Menelik the news that the Italians were advancing. Before dawn, therefore, Menelik summoned his commanders and ordered them forward. Arimondi’s forces held their position, until they were swamped and dislodged by an additional force of 25,000 more men that Menelik released. At 6:00 am, Ethiopian artillery repulsed Albertone and his askari towards Arimondi’s brigade, and finally captured Albertone himself. Dabormida’s brigade perished when it unknowingly marched into the cavalry troops of Ras Mikael’s men before it could relieve Albertone. The remaining two brigades under Baratieri himself were outflanked and destroyed piecemeal by the forces of Negus Tekle Haymanot. By noon, the survivors of the Italian army were in full retreat.
Ethiopian losses were estimated around 4,000–5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded while the Italians reportedly lost about 7,000; 1,500 were wounded. Three thousand, including General Albertone, were taken prisoners, but two hundred of the prisoners died of their wounds later. Around 800 askari suffered amputation of their left legs and right arms as punishment for joining the enemy. As they fled towards Eritrea, the Italians left their artillery of 11,000 rifles and most of their transport. As a direct result of the battle, Italy remained synonymous with the ‘enemy’, but it signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa which abrogated any claims the new Italian state had on ancient Ethiopia.
This was the first time since the sixteenth century that a united force of ‘masters’, households members, and emergent warriors rallied under a neguse negest. They focussed on a single purpose: repel an enemy that was external to the region. Ordinary soldiers and their ‘masters’ aimed at saving the independence of their country. Their ubiquitous sensitivity to hostile neighbours was a monument to their ever standing on tiptoe to wage defensive wars along their borders. The battle against the Italians was a par excellence example of chewa military confrontation against those it defined as dina. The Ethiopian victory, despite losses and shortage of supplies, remains a monumental record of Ethiopia as an independent nation. Prisoners and the wounded were treated with the respect that Ethiopian victors always show, and a lot has been written about that.
Ordinary soldiers and their spokespeople, the azmari, delighted in exchanging opinion about this remarkable feat of achievement with their monarch. An amusing example from Menelik’s camp is reported by an eye witness who saw a frustrated Italian captive brought to the presence of Menelik and was agitating for attention. The captive’s manner was out of place, according to the witness. Noticing this, Menelik, who had been conversing with his nobles, smiled and asked the man: ‘I hear you have chicken that lay big eggs in your country.’ The man was confused, to say the least, as was the observer. Lacking awareness of Ethiopian battlefields, and master and retainer relationships, both captive and writer from Europe could not work out why such a question would come from the monarch at that sober moment of victory. In hindsight of history, we can assert that Menelik, his court and their public were happily enjoying their victory together. Obviously, the following couplet had already been composed right there and then, and Menelik was referring to it.
ምኒልክ ተወልዶ ባያነሳ ጋሻ
ግብሩ እንቁላል ነበር ይሄን ጊዜ ሃበሻ
If Menelik was not born to pick up the shield
Eggs would be the tribute the Habesha would be paying now!
Soon after the war, people world-wide accepted his special place in world affairs. Oppressed black people and officials of mighty governments alike rushed to honour Menelik and his country.. His legacy inspired Ethiopians who fought against vengeful Italians forty years after the battle of Adewa. That is, pride in his achievements at the Battle of Adewa sustained a five year guerrilla warfare and heroism during 1935-41. Menelik’s sarcastic reference to the couplet quoted above contains a message that still sounds loud and clear even 120 years on though it was then lost on the Italian captive and observer from Europe. Menelik was a humble person who listened to his people. As the poem said, if it were not for his military and political leadership, Ethiopians would have been certainly subjected to the whims of colonizers. We would not have this great history in our background. What a great man Menelik was!

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