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CommentaryThe Battle of Adwa: Menelik, the BBC Quiz Show and the Celebration...

The Battle of Adwa: Menelik, the BBC Quiz Show and the Celebration of General Ignorance

Along with the other roles he played, Stephen Fry is well known for his acting in the BBC pseudohistorical TV hit series Blackadder in which he co-stars with Rowan Atkinson, a.k.a., Mr Bean.  Fry is also known for his role as the host of the less pseudohistorical BBC quiz show on general knowledge aptly named QI (Quite Interesting). In one of the episodes with the theme on Kings, he quizzes his panel composed of TV personalities Bill Bailey, Jeremy Clarkson, Jimmy Carr and regular cast Alan Davies on topics ranging from how and when the UK will get a ‘Berger King’ to the death of Menelik II of Ethiopia.  Fry tells the panel that Menelik was ‘Christianised’ and he died trying to cure himself by eating pages of the Bible apparently choking on the Book of Kings. The panel was not laughing as much as pondering over what looked like a credibly sad story. Fry makes very little effort to tell the panel that he is joking.

On the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa this year, it is fitting to revisit not only what is remembered about the Battle but also the myths that have grown around it. This has become an even more important exercise in this post truth age of alternative facts and fake news. The Battle of Adwa and the undisputed victor of the battle, Emperor Menelik, are undoubtedly well known in history. However, there is a general ignorance built around them and such ignorance is contributing to undesired consequences to this day 125 years later.  Media players like Stephen Fry bear some responsibility for the general ignorance they have promoted and the consequences resulting from such ignorance.

Entertainers like Fry are not particularly reliable for the accuracy of their narratives and it is tolerable if they sacrifice accuracy on the altar of comedy as long as their audience gets the laugh. However, for Fry’s particular show that projects a semblance of seriousness with on-stage scientific demonstrations and claims to be mainly a show on general knowledge, the inaccuracy about Menelik is outrageous. Fry’s and his editors’ general ignorance is typical for its historical recurrence. It was the same kind of ignorance that led to the misadventures of Italy that eventually led to their humiliation at Battle of Adwa 125 years ago on 1 March 1896.

Just like Fry and his team thought that Menelik needed to convert to Christianity, the Italians thought Ethiopians needed Roman civilisation. Francesco Crispi, then Prime Minister of Italy said Ethiopia was yearning for European civilisation and waiting for his government to deliver it. Crispi’s government misunderstood Menelik’s overtures for friendship and abused the friendship based on general ignorance that black Africans are uncivilised and gullible. Crispi thought he would get away with his trickery to have two versions of a friendship treaty: the Treaty of Wuchale signed on 2 May 1889. The Italians tweaked their copy of the treaty to effectively make Ethiopia an Italian protectorate while there was nothing of this sort in the Amharic Ethiopian version. Crispi’s emissary to Menelik, Count Pietro Antonelli thought he would dazzle the Ethiopians with European diplomatic sophistry. They never thought they would be facing the diplomatic prowess of the fiery bellwether in the person of a woman called Taytu.

Itege Taytu, as she was known with her royal title, was Menelik’s wife who also doubled as the palace spokesperson and military strategist. She was a pain in the neck for Antonelli whom she told Ethiopia will not fall for this trickery. In today’s less diplomatic language, she told him to shove the treaty up his behind. Menelik abrogated the Treaty in no uncertain terms.  Historian Sven Rubenson, in his book, The Survival of Ethiopian Independence, quotes Menelik on the unilateral annulment of the Treaty of Wuchale:

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“For it is with much dishonesty that he [Umberto], pretending friendship, has desired to seize my country. Because God gave me the crown and the power that I should protect the land of my forefathers, I terminate and nullify this treaty.”

The general ignorance about the ability of Ethiopia to engage in world diplomacy persisted despite the crushing diplomatic and military humiliation the Italians suffered. The attempt to exclude Ethiopia from the League of Nations decades after the Battle of Adwa was based on the general ignorance that Africa and the black race are uncivilised. The racist element in the general ignorance was derived from the civilising mission of the white man. The possibility of African nations joining the community of civilised nations just like the European nations themselves did in their history was ruled out in order to promote colonial interests. It should be remembered that Gallia (France) and Britannia were once referred to as ‘barbara’ in the Latin textbooks of the Roman Empire.  Fry and his editors could not imagine a Christian King in Africa. Menelik did not need to convert to Christianity since his forefathers had been Christians for at least the previous 1600 years. It was lost on the colonialists that African nations have their own civilisations and could join the community of civilised nations on their own terms.  

The outrageous falsehood that QI presented was interesting for the sheer ignorance of the editors and the cast of QI. One of the panellists even confuses Menelik with characters from Star Wars. Menelik sounded like Yoda-speak for him. Yoda in Star Wars spoke in reverse: Men-He-Licks. However comedic or parodic it may be, such falsehood should not go unadmonished as it perpetuates ignorance about historical personalities and events as momentous as Menelik and the Battle of Adwa.

This year Africa and the entire black race and all freedom-loving people around the world will be celebrating the 125th anniversary of the victory over European imperialism at the Battle of Adwa. The Ethiopian victory over the Italians was indeed an African victory that forced a screeching halt to the grand project of the Berlin Conference on the Scramble for Africa. It is an African victory over European imperialism not just a victory of over a small-time player of the colonial scheme. Italy, the latecomer to the scramble for Africa got the green light from the British to go ahead with the invasion of Ethiopia. The British saw this as an opportunity to check the French expansion in the region; the French were pursuing their ambition for a West-to-East African corridor. The British did not want the French to jeopardise their own ambition for the Cape-Cairo corridor. The Battle of Adwa was in effect a serious setback to British colonial policy in the region and as such it is a blow to European colonial imperialism in general.   

It was with utter disbelief that the British and other European powers received the news of the Italian defeat at Adwa. The European press was fretting about to explain away or otherwise downplay the magnitude and significance of the Italian defeat.  What the Italians went through was no ordinary military setback or a hitch on warfare strategy. It was total annihilation on the grounds of Adwa that followed the earlier Italian humiliation on the diplomatic front on the premises of the Palace in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian victory at Adwa is hardly mentioned without a qualifier. The press, diplomats and historians couldn’t help attaching an adjective to the Italian defeat: ‘humiliating’, ‘crushing’, ‘unmitigated’, ‘definitive’ were among the descriptors used to refer to the Italian defeat at the Battle of Adwa.

For a BBC quiz show claiming to be a show on general knowledge, it is inexcusable to get the facts wrong on Menelik who rose to global glory after the Battle of Adwa.  Such an error on widely known bare facts, such as the Christianity of Menelik, amounts to deliberate misinformation. While the fun-loving audience of the show may not feel the effects of such misinformation, it will not pass unnoticed by the freedom-loving citizens of the world.

The misrepresentation in Fry’s show is not unique to the show. Misrepresentations and misinterpretations on the Battle of Adwa and Menelik abound in history books, contemporary political debates and various forms of public discourse. Menelik is among the most controversial historical figures in Ethiopia today. Some of the controversy is fed by misrepresentations like the ones we experienced on Fry’s show. The controversy on Menelik is difficult to follow and this is exacerbated by the absolute reverence people have for the monarch. Even historians entrusted with the responsibility of finding objective truth are seen succumbing to their own reverent attitude and are not helping with the debates on Menelik’s legacy. For some, Menelik is untouchable and any questioning of his legacy is borderline taboo.

Monarchs of past and present are untouchable in the literal physical sense. There was consternation when the then First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, placed her hands over the Queen’s shoulder. The First Lady later realised she had made ‘an epic faux pas’ that broke age-old codes of behaviour on meeting the monarch. In her defence, Mrs Obama pleaded human instinct saying, “If I hadn’t done the proper thing at Buckingham Palace, I had at least done the human thing”.

That very ‘human thing’ was unavailable to another royal in the other part of the world. In the very same episode he spoke about Menelik, Fry tells the story of a contemporary of Menelik, a Siamese princess named Sunanda Kumariratana who died in 1880 drowning while her entourage watched.  Nobody tried to save her because it was an offense to touch the royal even to save her life. If Fry’s version were correct, the ‘human thing’ would have been the right call here.  Irrespective of their power, which they claim to be of divine origin and the successes they have achieved with it, the ‘human thing’ should always be available in the evaluation of their legacy. Considering them as infallible and incapable of committing historical mistakes is denying them the ‘human thing’ that may kill off their legacy.

An evidence-based assessment of Menelik’s legacy is necessary if we are not to continue celebrating general ignorance as Fry and his team were doing in their show. As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Adwa, we are reminded of Adwa as ‘the unfinished battle’ when it comes to the critical and reflective analysis of the aftermath of Adwa.  Ethiopians as well as the wider Africa and freedom-loving citizens of the world have a battle to finish: As Maimire Mennasemmay, a scholar who has written on Adwa, observed, complementing the military victory of Adwa with ‘an intellectual and political Adwa’ is long overdue.

The writer can be reached by email: [email protected]. The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Hailemichael T. Demissie, PhD

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