Ethiopia has a history stretching back over 2,000 years. The word “Ethiopia” has become a term for the idea of African solidarity and freedom, not just the name of a nation or a region. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted the region of Ethiopia as home to “people with burnt faces.” During the Greek and Roman eras, everything south of the Sahara Desert in Africa was generally referred to as Ethiopia or Abyssinia.
Biblical references also label Ethiopia as Cush, Kesh, Ekosh, and Shewa (Sheba) in the Hebrew language. These were the names used in King Solomon’s courts when he received a visit from the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. The biblical “Songs of Solomon” praises her physical beauty. In modern times, especially since the battle of Adwa, Ethiopia has been seen as a de facto model of freedom for all black cultures and societies world-wide.
This was held true up until the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power. This renegade regime had been busy throwing fellow citizens off of their ancestral lands and leasing the lands to international corporations. Freedom of the press was non-existent and journalists were jailed regularly. The corrupt politicians and self-proclaimed activists have even set about the process of changing history by denying the importance of the Battle of Adwa, and mocking the reign of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taytu.
The treaty and the treachery
One-hundred and twenty four years ago, a well-organized army under the command and leadership of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taytu, decimated the Italian forces that were seeking to build an empire by colonizing one of the most ancient states of Africa – Ethiopia. Menelik had signed a treaty of cooperation with the Italians. One of the treaties was in Amharic, and the other in Italian. In Article 17 of the Amharic version of the treaty, Italy recognized the reign of Menelik and Taytu and promised financial assistance and military supplies.
Article 17 in the Italian version stated that the Ethiopian government would be obliged to conduct all foreign affairs through the Italian authorities. This would in effect have made Ethiopia a protectorate of the Kingdom of Italy.
European might is challenged at Adwa
Menelik exposed the treachery and completely rejected the treaty. The Italians, claiming that Menelik knew what he was signing, decided to use military power to force compliance. The Italians had about 18,000 men armed with around 56 pieces of artillery. Menelik II was able to organize and structure an army within a very short period of time. Though the Ethiopian forces out-numbered the invaders, they lacked the technological advantage held by the Italians.
Command of the Ethiopian forces was split between Menelik, the Empress Taytu, and a number of other leaders. These forces positioned themselves on the hills overlooking the Italian-occupied Adwa Valley. By noon on March 1, 1896, the Italian army was in full retreat with a considerable number of casualties. The Italians left most of their military equipment while they fled and this allowed the forces of Menelik and Taytu to increase their artillery considerably.
Taytu: a wise politician, a military leader
Before the battle, Taytu had held a hard line against the Italians at the Ethiopian Imperial Court. When talks over the spurious treaty broke down, Italy assembled a force to invade Ethiopia. Taytu, alongside her husband decided to defend her country from the clutches of colonization. Among Taytu’s army was a force of cannoneers that rained fire down onto the Italians in the valley of Adwa.
After their kingdom was secured, during their reign, the Emperor was beloved by many and was considered to be benevolent. The Empress, on the other hand, was the strict monarch. This good-cop-bad-cop division of duties and politics helped ensure their long reign.
Adwa’s effect on Africa
After the unheard of defeat – a black African army defeating a white European army – Ethiopia became the only sub-Saharan area to remain free from European economic and political domination. Europeans and other white powers were shocked. The Battle of Adwa gave the impetus for other Africans to fight against any white forces that were poised to build empires in Africa.
For those who had already had colonies, their colonial subjects can look at Ethiopia, a free land, to boost their morale and to consider the possibility of throwing off their own colonial chains. Echoes of the battle were said to influence the political situation in South Africa.
Since many African states viewed Ethiopia as an inspiration for freedom, they took the Ethiopian tri-colors (red, yellow, green), to tailor their own flags as they threw off the yoke of colonialism.
Adwa Affected America
The unexpected victory at Adwa spurred the birth of a Pan-African solidarity that was evident in America. The African-American W.E.B. Du Bois was a major spokesman for freedom of Black Africans. He also edited the “Crisis” magazine, the voice for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He devoted a whole chapter of his book, “The World and Africa,” to a history of Ethiopia as a state, while promulgating Ethiopia as an idea of global African unity.
In 1936 there were some so-called black riots in Harlem. These were really just demonstrations against the treatment of Ethiopia by Western powers. No property damage or casualties were declared. John Hope Franklin wrote a book, “From Slavery to Freedom,” that helped Black Americans to become worldlier in their politics. African-American communities adopted the words “Ethiopia” or “Abyssinia” to rename their churches to push the idea of black global unity.
“Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands …” These words are from Psalm 68:31 in the Bible seem to reflect the modern global rise of a Pan-African vision of freedom. After the success of Ethiopia against colonial rule, some began to think of forming a United States of Africa. Others broadened their political views to include black societies throughout the world, as well as members of the African diaspora. A Pan- Africanism movement began to grow around the globe.
Ethiopia, as an idea of black solidarity, did indeed stretch forth her hands. Pan-African conferences were called in America and England during the early 1900s. Ethiopia grew in esteem among the global community upon her admittance to the League of Nations in 1923. This also thwarted any future movement by Europeans to colonize the nation, and shattered the centuries old negative myths that Africans were no better than “savages.”
The victory at Adwa helped produce a new phase of Pan-Africanism. It planted the seed of unity and cooperation of Blacks throughout the world. It helped to break the yoke of colonialism in a united way. The African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, summed up the forces unleashed by the victory at Adwa, and could have used his famous quote to fit the Ethiopian struggle: “It’s better to die free, than live as a slave.”
By Abebe Hailu
Ed.’s Note: Abebe Hailu is a technologist and works on Material Science Research and Product Development at Silicon Valley, California. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @AbebeHailu20.