Updated: May 15, 2020
Today, 124 years ago, a European military power composed of 20,000 well-trained colonial soldiers engaged in an open battle against a black African army at the northern town of Adwa, Ethiopia. The African army from Ethiopia was composed of traditional warriors, farmers, pastoralists, and others. Men and women who had never seen combat or even held a weapon faced the might of well-trained, well-armed Italian soldiers. Since the beginning of slavery and colonialism in the 16th century, similar battles had occurred. The final outcome of every war was the same. Europeans dominated and ruled the native people of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The victory of Europe over the rest started to be seen as a natural law, a civilizational mission, and the white man’s burden that had to be carried out for the benefit of mankind. Yet, the Battle of Adwa broke that law. Ethiopia won. The battle ensured
Ethiopia’s independence, making it the only country in Africa to never be colonialised. Yet, the impact of Adwa was global.
Brief history of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is regarded as the origin of human kind. According to Harvard Professor Ephraim Isaac “[a]bout 10,000 years ago, one single nation or community of a single linguistic group existed in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Horn of Africa.” The language of this group is known as Proto-Afroasiatic or Afrasian languages. It is the ancestor of the Semitic, Cushitic, Nilotic, Omotic and other languages that are currently spoken in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and others sharing a common history, civilisation, and cultural heritage. Ethiopians invented the Geez or Ethiopic writing system to produce and share knowledge with the ancient world. Since the 4th Century, an indigenous Christianity called Orthodox Tewahido developed through the synthesis of belief in the Ark of the Covenant, the gospel and ancient traditional practices.
The Kebra Nagast, a national epic that elaborates this belief, declared that “God made for the King of ETHIOPIA more glory, and grace, and majesty than for all the other kings of the earth” due to the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in his country. The book provides the basis for the emergence of a Solomonic Dynasty that brings diverse lands and cultures into one country. Muslim immigrants were welcomed and protected by the Christian king in the 7th century.
All of the Ethiopian kings that ruled from Tigray (Axumites), Lasta (Zaguwe), Oromo (Wärä Seh) and Shoa claimed to have descended from the Solomonic Dynasty. Even when regional lords became more powerful than the King during the period called Zamana Masafint (1769 to 1855), they sought to rule over the country as one nation by exercising influence over the Emperor at Gondar. Royal marriages were encouraged across with regional rulers.  In the 19th Century, due to the expansion of Turkish, Egyptian and European colonial influences in the Horn of Africa, the three successive kings, namely Emperor Tewodros of Gondar, Yohannes of Tigrai and Menelik of Shoa, took measures to centralise power. Tewodros ended the Zamana Masafint, Yohannes was effective in defeating Islamic expansion of Khedive Ismael of Egypt and Menelik expanded his control over the Southern parts of the country. When Menelik was declared King of Kings, the son of his predecessor, Ras Mangasha, became a strong rival to his throne. Later on, Mangasha submitted to Menelik and ruled over Tigrai as the Italians were expanding their holdings in Eritrea.
The Road to Adwa
A decade before the Battle of Adwa was even fought, European powers had decided the fate of Ethiopia. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, 14 European countries drew lines on a map of Africa to partition it among themselves. Before the Conference, only about 10% of Africa was controlled by Europeans while the remaining 90% was ruled by indigenous and traditional rulers. Accordingly, Ethiopia was declared the possession of Italy.
Backed by this international agreement, Italy started to expand its presence in the Red Sea, an area that became increasingly important since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. With the support of the British, they controlled the port city of Massawa in 1885 and started to slowly move inland. The Battle of Adwa was the culmination of conflicts between Italy and Ethiopia since this period. Emperor Yohannes of Ethiopia pleaded for European powers to oppose the Italian expansion into his country. On 26 January 1887 his top General Ras Alula attacked Italians at Dogali, killing 500 soldiers. This defeat did not deter the Italians. It was taken as a temporary setback, even the Dogali Monument Cinquecento built in Rome to commemorate the fallen. They fortified their presence with 18,000 Italian soldiers and 2000 locally trained soldiers called Ascaris.
Ethiopia’s Kifu Ken (Evil Days) 1888-1892
Animal plague broke out in the areas controlled by Italy in 1885. According to FAO, “When rinderpest was introduced into sub-Saharan Africa, at the end of the 19th century, it triggered extensive famines and opened the way for the colonization of Africa”. Rinderpest was unknown in Sub Sahara Africa before the scramble for Africa began. It spread like a wild fire across the continent reaching South Africa 190515 and killing a total of 230,00016 livestock and weakening the resistance of the people against colonialism. The impact on Ethiopia was severe. The disease decimated up to 90% of the Ethiopian livestock. Following the rinderpest epidemic, famine and disease followed from 1888-1892 . This period is regarded as Kifu
Ken, evil days, when a third of the population died. Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik’s response to the calamity was to lead by example.responded by declaring regular Mihla, a special prayer for redemption, to be held across the country. He organised special charity centres, shared from his income and worked with his hand on the field, setting an example to his dignitaries to do the same.
Taking advantage of the crisis brought about by the Kifu Ken, Italy started colonial expansion into Ethiopia. It employed the colonial tactic of divide and conquer. In 9 March 1889, when Emperor Yohannes IV died fighting against the Mahdists, he announced his son
Ras Mengasha to become emperor. However, King Menelik of Shoa declared himself Emperor just two weeks after the death of Yohannes. The Italian forces welcomed the power rivalry between Ras Mangasha and Menelik. On 2nd May 1889, Italy signed the treaty of Wuchale recognising Menelik as emperor. In exchange, Menelik recognised their possession of the Bogos lands. The treaty was written in Amharic and Italian. The Italian version of Article 17 had an entirely different meaning from the Amharic version of the same article.
According to Article 17 of the Italian version, Ethiopia’s foreign relations would be undertake only through Italy, making the latter the protectorate of Ethiopia. The Amharic version however says, Ethiopia may use the service of the Italian government to facilitate its foreign relations, but such arrangement was not mandatory. Soon after the treaty was signed, Italy sent copies the Italian version to European powers declaring protectorate power over Ethiopia. On August 3, 1890, Italy formally declared the creation of a new colony called Eritrea.
As the tragic devastation of the Kifu Ken started to ease in 1892, Menelik prepared for war against the Italians. On 27 February 1893, he renounced the Treaty of Wuchale andnd ordered the creation of food depots at major towns along the way to Adwa for the up keeping of his army. The Italians fortified their positions in Tigray, attacked Mangasha at Coatit on 13 January 1895. On 17 September 1985, Menelik declared a total mobilisation of war against Italy. He called upon all Ethiopians to defend their country, family and religion. He explained how an enemy was coming to take their God-given land and change their religion. He was restrained for so long due to the devastating famine but now he had decided that it was the time to strike back. Every capable person should fight and those incapable should pray for
Ethiopian from every tribe, culture and community answered Menelik’s call. Farmers, pastoralists, merchants, and warriors all marched towards Adwa. The Afars, Oromos, Sidamas, Amharas, Tigrayans, the Gurages and all other groups created an army of 100,000. They had inferior weapons but a strong cause: To defend the dignity of having a family, a religion and a country. The devastating impact of the Kifu Ken and the long distance to battle were real challenges. “some groups travelled over 150 days over rough and often trackless terrain. On one route the men had to cross the loops of the same serpentine river 28 times.” P.11
This was a moment that united people of diverse linguistic and ethnic groups. They were not of ethnic identities defined by strict tribal and religious boundaries. They were of ethnic groups that existed not in isolation but in interaction with each other. Although their leaders often pursued their own power interests and mistreated them, they did not consider the ethnic or religious identity of one group as the enemy of the other. The Italian army hoped some of the regional leaders would defect and collaborate with them. The moral force that kept Ethiopians together was stronger than any persuasion to the opposite. One of the key leaders of the Ethiopian forces was Etege Tayitu Bitul, wife of Emperor Menelik. She was a fearless strategist, brilliant administrator and had deep distrust towards European diplomats. Tayitu led 6000 cavalry to the war front, and employed traditional music that motivated the fighting spirit of the worriers.
Notable regional worriers brought the best from every cultural group. Ras Alula, Ras Mengesha and Ras Sibhat of Tigrai; Dejazmach Bahita of Akale Guzae; Wag Shum Guangul of Lasta; Ras Michael of Wollo; Nigus Tekle-Haimanot of Gojjam; Ras Gobena and Dejazmach Balcha of Mecha Oromo; Ras Welle of Yejju Oromo; Fitawurari Tekla of
Wollega; Ras Mekonen of Harar; Ras Gebeyehu and Ras Abate of Shoa and others. Ras Habte Giorgis Dinegdie and Ras Mekonen were key military advisors of the emperor.
The first showdown occurred on 7 December 1895 at Amba Alagi where a relatively smaller Italian army was wiped out. The second encounter was at Mekelle, a major city in Tigray where the Italians stationed behind walls, barbed wire, sharpened stakes and broken bottles that would prove difficult for the barefooted Ethiopians to walk on. They surrounded the
Italians for two weeks and upon Empress Tayitu’ advice, cut off the fort’s water supply. The Italian commander agreed to surrender if they would be allowed to leave the area with their firearms. Menelik agreed hoping to settle the matter peacefully and allowed the garrison to leave unharmed. But the Italians remained in their strongholds, fortifying their position at Adigrat and Sauria. Menelik was not in a hurry to attack these forts. After two weeks of inactivity, General Baratieri decided to advance for a surprise attack. It was March 1st, 1896, or, according to Ethiopian calendar, March 23, 1888, the day of Saint George. The priests have carried the Tabot, replica of the Ark of the Covenant, to the battlefield and Ethiopians were ready to surround and attack. The 20,000 Italian and Italian-trained native troops who advanced in three columns fought bravely with their cannons and machine guns before facing a decisive defeat. The causalities was severe on both sides. Thousands of Ethiopian women under Tayitu served as paramedics and keepers of war prisoners. 
The Adwa victory led to a change of government in Italy and the beginning of negotiations for release of prisoners. The Addis Ababa Treaty was signed on 26 October where the unconditional acceptance of Ethiopian independence and sovereignty is among the key subjects.
The news of an African victory spread quickly throughout the world. The New York Times headline on March 2, 1896 was “Abyssinians Defeat Italians; Both Wings of Baratieri’s Army Enveloped in an Energetic Attack.” Another report on March 4, 1896, featured the
“terrible defeat” of Italians by Ethiopians. It also states “three thousand men killed, sixty guns and all provisions lost.” In Europe and the USA, newspapers who found the African win intolerable painted Ethiopians as white or “Black Caucasians”. 23 Yet, Adwa inspired the struggle of African and African diaspora all around the world. While it was seen as a terrible defeat to many in the western world, black people saw it as a beacon of hope, a win against racism, and a sign that they too could be liberated. It was a victory for Africans everywhere.
Adwa turned Ethiopia into the symbol of redemption and freedom for black people. Marcus Garvey, W. E. B Du Boise, Bob Marley, George Padmore and others drew inspiration from the African victory. The first Afro-Brazilian newspaper was named O Menelick, publishing pride in black identity and African connection with prominent women writers from 19151916. The green, yellow and red Ethiopian flag was adopted by several African countries and a universal national anthem created for Ethiopia.
Today, Adwa still stands as a witness of what ordinary Africans can do when they come together as farmers, pastoralists, women and rural people, workers and artists. They are able to score a decisive victory against colonial and imperialist forces. It is a testament of the ability of Africans to come together, despite cultural and ethnic differences.
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