The Battle of Adwa

A Battle that Proved Colonizer Doesn’t Always Win.

By Theodore M. Vestal, Ph.D.

In 1896, Italy, a late-comer to the family of nations and a slow-footed scrambler for colonial spoils in Africa, made her move to conquer Ethiopia, the only remaining prize on the continent unclaimed by Europeans. Expansionist leaders of the recently unified Kingdom of Italy dreamed of a second Roman Empire, stretching from the Alps to the Equator, and it was assumed that a show of military would quickly bring “barbarian” lands and riches into an Africa Orientale Italiana. The Italian dream was turned into a nightmare, however, in the mountain passes and valleys near the northern Ethiopian city of Adwa by the knockout punch by the mailed fist of a unified Greater Ethiopia. The Italians retreated, humiliated. On the other hand, the battle put Ethiopia on the map of the modern world and had ramifications that are still being felt today by her own populace and by other African people everywhere. The preparation of a book to

commemorate the Battle of Adwa provides an appropriate time to reflect upon the significance of the victory and to attempt to discern any lessons from that auspicious event that might be of value to present day Ethiopia and by extension, to Africa and the entire Third World.

A detailed analysis and interpretation of the 1896 episode and its aftermath would require many books. This section is only a “thumbnail” picture of Adwa, past, and present. The details of the political machinations in Ethiopia and in Europe and the description of the war itself will be covered in the next two chapters.


Italy entered the Horn of Africa through a window of commercial opportunity. Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, an Italian steamship company, Rubattino, leased the Port of Assab on the Red Sea from the Sultan of Raheita as a refueling station. During the next year, Rubattino purchased the port for $9,440 (a bargain for such a hot property). Rubattino hoped to make money by controlling the traffic in slavery and arms smuggling.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the parliament of the newly united Kingdom of Italy met in Rome for the first time in November 1871. The new government was ambitious and sought ways to prove its bona fides in the eyes of the world. Colonization of lands unclaimed by other European powers was viewed as one path to national prestige. Although Italy coveted African lands across the Mediterranean, it failed in attempts to occupy Tunisia and Egypt in 1881–1882. Considerations of prestige were thought to demand expansion somewhere, and imperialists of the time proclaimed that the “key to the Mediterranean was in the Red Sea” (where incidentally, there would be less chance of Italy’s clashing with other European interests).1 Thus, in 1882, the Italian government bought Assab from Rubattino for $43,200, thereby providing the steamship company a handsome profit on its investment and unofficially establishing the first Italian colony in Africa since the days of the Caesars.

Emboldened by its real estate acquisition on the Red Sea, Italy participated in the Conference of Berlin in 1884-1885 that “divided up” what was left of Africa after the initial wave of European colonialism. At the conference, Italy was “awarded” Ethiopia, and all that remained was for her troops to occupy the prize. This would take time and cautious expansion from Assab.

The Berlin Conference, can be seen as the formalization of the Scramble for Africa. The conference ushered in a period
of heightened colonial activity by European powers, which eliminated or overrode most existing forms of African autonomy
and self-governance.

To ensure the safety of its new port, Italy moved to the surrounding interior. From its Assab base the Italians, through the good office of Britain, occupied the nearby Red Sea port of Massawa (replacing the Khedive of Egypt, who had decided he could no longer keep a garrison there) and adjoining lands in 1885. At that time, the Ethiopian emperor, Yohannes, was distracted by wars in the highlands and against Sudanese Mahdists who were also battling the British in Sudan. After the Mahdi defeated General Charles “Chinese” Gordon at Khartoum in 1885, the Italians were left as the only Europeans in what they perceived as a hostile land. The Italian government felt compelled to increase the military support of its commercial stations.

Emboldened by their easy occupation of the coastal areas, the Italian army, and local conscripts invaded the highlands in the late 1880s. Italian government leaders probably overestimated the possible gains in commerce and prestige from this move. The reputation of Ethiopians as spirited fighters, evidenced in a battle against the Egyptians in the 1870s and against the Mahdists in the 1880s, apparently was not taken seriously by the Italians. That attitude soon changed when Ethiopian mettle was tested in the rough terrain of Tigray. After the Italians provoked some “incidents” on the frontier, their soldiers encountered an Ethiopian force of 10,000 led by Ras Alula Engeda, Emperor Yohannes’s governor of the Mereb-Melash, the territory north of the Mereb River and stretching to the Red Sea — in other words, the land the Italians were occupying. At Dogali, some 500 Italians were trapped and massacred in battle by Alula’s men.

Their pride wounded, the Italian government moved aggressively in retaliation. Parliament voted 332 to 40 to increase military appropriations, raised a force of 5,000 men to reinforce existing troops, and attempted to blockade Ethiopia.

To ease his “Italian problem,” Emperor Yohannes sought the diplomatic help of Great Britain. As part of the peace diplomacy, Yohannes agreed to give compensation to the Italians for Dogali and to use Massawa as a trading post. By this time the French had started building a railroad from Addis Ababa to Djibouti. This would give Ethiopia a trading outlet on the Red Sea outside Italian influence. Italian leaders, nursing a sense of shame and a thirst for revenge, decided something had to be done.

The man to do it was Francesco Crispi, the prominent leader of the democratic or radical left wing of the Italian government and the most striking political personality produced by the new Italy. Eloquent, forcible, and dominating in Parliament, the Sicilian Crispi served as Prime Minister from 1887-1891 and again from 1893–1896. A super-patriot, Crispi longed to see his country, that he always called “my Italy,” strong and flourishing. He envisioned Italy as a great colonial empire, and Crispi’s impulsive hubris would play a vital role in shaping the events that would unfold in the region. Following the debacle at Dogali, Crispi told German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck that “duty” would compel him to revenge. “We cannot stay inactive when the name of Italy is besmirched,” Crispi asserted. Bismarck is purported to have replied that Italy had a large appetite but poor teeth. With their military momentum stalled and the bluster of their milites gloriosi punctured, the Italians, led by Crispi, resorted to guile and diplomacy to promote their expansionist aims. Taking a page from the British book of colonial domination, the Italians pursued a policy of divide and conquer. They provided arms to Ras Mengesha of Tigray and all other chiefs who were hostile to the Emperor. During his internecine rivalry with Yohannes, even the Negus of Showa, Menelik, sought closer collaboration with the Italians. Menelik allegedly welcomed the Italians as allies in a common Christian front against the Mahdists.

Yohannes IV, born Lij Kaśa Mercha and contemporaneously also known in English as Johannes or John IV, was ruler of Tigray 1867-71, 
and Emperor of Ethiopia 1872-89 is remembered as one of the leading architects of the modern state of Ethiopia.

When Emperor Yohannes was killed in battle against the Madhists at Metemma in March 1889, the Italians sensed an opportune moment to solidify their foothold in the country through negotiation. Count Pietro Antonelli headed a mission to pay homage to the new Emperor, Menelik II, and to negotiate a treaty with him. The Treaty of Wuchalé (Uccialli, in Italian), signed in Italian and Amharic versions in May 1889, ultimately was to provide the reasons d’être for the Battle of Adwa. Under the treaty, the Italians were given the title to a considerable real estate in the north in exchange for a loan to Ethiopia of $800,000, half of which was to be in arms and ammunition. The pièce de resistance for the Italians, however, was Article XVII, which according to the Italian version bound Menelik to make all foreign contacts through the agency of Italy. The Amharic version made such service by the Italians optional. Proudly displaying the Roman rendition of the treaty in Europe, the Italians proclaimed Ethiopia to be her protectorate. Crispi ordered the occupation of Asmara, and in January 1890 he announced the existence of Italy’s first official colony, “Eritrea.” To bolster Italy’s colonial policy, on April 15, 1892, Great Britain recognized the whole of Ethiopia as a sphere of Italian interest. Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti (whose eighteen-month premiership interrupted Crispi’s tenure in the office) affirmed that “Ethiopia would remain within the orbit of Italian influence and that an external protectorate would be maintained over Menelik.” The Ethiopians were not too concerned with such Italian braggadocio until 1893, when Menelik denounced the Wuchalé treaty and all foreign claims to his dominions and attempted to make treaties with Russia, Germany, and Turkey. In a display of integrity rare among belligerent nations, Menelik paid back the loan incurred under the treaty with three times the stipulated interest. He kept the military equipment, however, and sought to rally the nation against a foreign invader. The Italians railed at this insubordination by a “Black African barbarian chieftain,” and prepared to go to war to teach the Ethiopians a lesson in obedience.

Having claimed a protectorate, Italy could not back down without losing face. Crispi, under fire at home from both conservatives and the extreme left bloc of Parliament for his “megalomania,” may have seen victory in Africa as his last chance for political success. From his perspective, a colonial war would be good for Italy’s (and his) prestige and Crispi envisioned a protectorate over all of Ethiopia. General Antonio Baldissera, the military commander at Massawa, had a more modest goal — the permanent occupation of Tigray. The Italian Deputies would have been content with a peaceful commercial colony. With such occluded aims, the African campaign suffered generally from a lack of will among Italians in the homeland.

Emperor Menelik II was born as Abeto Menelik on August 17th, 1844 in Shewa, Ethiopia.

While the Italians massed arms and men in their Colonia Eritrea, their agents sought to subvert Ethiopian Rases and other regional leaders against the Emperor. What the Italians did not realize was that they were entering into the Ethiopian national pastime: the tradition of personal advancement through intrigue. Menelik, master of the sport, trumped the Italians’ efforts by persuading the provincial rulers that the outsiders’ threat was of such serious nature that they had to combine against it and not seek to exploit it to their own ends. The Emperor called his countrymen’s attention to the fate of other African nations that had fallen under the yoke of colonialism. The magic of Menelik worked. Whatever seeds of discord the Italians had planted sprouted as shoots of accord on the other side. Meanwhile, Italy carried out further intrusions into Ethiopia. On December 20, 1893, Italian forces drove 10,000 Mahdists from Agordat in the first decisive victory ever won by Europeans over the Sudanese revolutionaries and “the first victory of any kind yet won by an army of the Kingdom of Italy against anybody.” Flushed with success on the battlefield, the Italian populace embraced new national heroes, the Bersagliere, soldiers of the crack corps of the Italian army. The Bersagliere, depicted in the press wearing “a pith helmet adorned with black plumes, facing a savage enemy on an exotic terrain,” appealed to the passionate patriotism of the masses and to the romantic adventurism of young men. Enthusiastic conscripts responded to the call to the colors. The belligerent Italians soon mounted the strongest colonial expeditionary force that Africa had known up to that time. The Governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri, had about 30,000 Italian troops and 15,000 native Askaris under his command (Great Britain would surpass that number a few years later when 250,000 troops would be sent to South Africa during the Boer War). Secure in his new military strength, Baratieri again went after the Mahdists. On July 12, 1894, his forces drove the Dervishes from Kassala, killing 2,600 while losing only 28 Italian dead — the most one-sided victory won by Europeans over the Mahdists. The Italians were not doing so well on the diplomatic front, however. In July 1894, Russia had denounced the Treaty of Wuchalé. An Ethiopian mission was received in St. Petersburg “with honors more lavish than those accorded any previous foreign visitors in Russian history.” To add injury to diplomatic insult, Tsar Nicholas sent Ethiopia more rifles and ammunition.

The belligerent Italians soon mounted the strongest colonial expeditionary force that Africa had known up to that time. 
The Governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri, had about 30,000 Italian troops and 15,000 native Askaris under his command.

In 1895, Baratieri followed up his victory over the Dervishes with another successful offense at Debre Aila against an Ethiopian force larger than his own, under the command of Ras Mengesha. The Italians drove out the ruler of Tigray and prepared for a permanent occupation of his land. Other minor military actions of the Italians in 1895 fuelled the anger of the Ethiopian masses and leaders alike, who viewed the invasion as a threat to their nation’s sovereignty.

Emperor Menelik’s reforms had transformed the economy and improved the tax base of the country enabling him, as never before, to raise and equip armies. In the highlands, Menelik massed his troops and marched north to meet the Italian aggressors. In December, an Ethiopian army of 30,000 trapped 2,450 Italian troops at Amba Alaghe, the southernmost point of Italian penetration. In the ensuing battle, 1,320 Italians were killed or taken prisoner. At the same time,

Ethiopians laid seize to a formidable Italian fort at Mekele. Menelik, perhaps still hoping to settle his conflict with the Italians peacefully, negotiated a settlement whereby the besieged were evacuated and allowed to join their compatriots. These events infuriated Crispi, who taunted his commanders for their incapacity and cowardice. He called the Ethiopians “rebels” who somehow owed allegiance to Italy. Although the opposition in parliament led by Giolitti criticized the government for providing inadequate food, clothing, medical supplies, and arms to the troops, Crispi was able to garner additional military appropriations by claiming that the troop movements were purely defensive. He assured parliament that the war in Ethiopia would be a profitable investment.

“Enemies have now come upon us to ruin our country and to change our religion. Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging
 into the country like moles. With the help of God, I will not deliver my country to them. Today, you who are strong, give me your 
strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer” - Emperor Menelik II


By late February 1896, the Italian army was entrenched around Mount Enticho in Tigray. Led by General Baratieri, who was just back from Rome (where he had been awarded the “Order of the Red Eagle”), the 20,000 Italians and Italian-officered native auxiliaries had waited for the Ethiopians to attack their fortified positions as they had done in previous battles. When such an attack did not occur, Baratieri ordered what he hoped would be a surprise attack on the Ethiopians assembled near Adwa. The defeat was unthinkable for a modern European army of such size with its disciplined and well-equipped formations. A decisive victory over the upstart natives would win a vast new empire for Italy. Unfortunately for Baratieri, he was maneuvering over unfamiliar terrain without accurate maps, relying upon ineffective intelligence, and leading troops garbed in uniforms designed for European winters a disastrous combination of ingredients.

Awaiting the Italians was a massive Ethiopian army, 100,000 men strong, with contingents from almost every region and ethnic group of the country. They were commanded by an all-star team of warriors amassed by Menelik in “an eloquent demonstration of national unity.”  About two-thirds of the troops raised as part of national mobilization were recruited under the Gibir-Maderia system, a non-monetarized form of payment of land grants and food and drink to the soldiers from tenants working the land. The Emperor and Empress mobilized about 41,000 troops while the governors-general and regional princes raised most of the others. When the Italian troops made a three-column advance against Ethiopian positions on March 1, St. George’s Day, the combined forces of Greater Ethiopia were primed for a fight. The Ethiopians surrounded the Italian units and in fierce combat, closed with and destroyed many of the enemies in the bloodiest of all colonial battles. Peasant troops fought ruthlessly and a large number of Ethiopian women, following the example of the “Warrior Queen,” Empress Taytu, were on the battlefield. They served as a water brigade for the fighting men, paramedics, and guards of prisoners.

Empress Taytu Betul was born in Wollo from a Christian and Muslim family. She had a comprehensive education and was fluent in Ge’ez, 
the classical Ethiopian language; which was a rare achievement for a woman at the time, as education was mostly reserved for boys.

The Italians inflicted heavy casualties upon their attackers. The artillery crews were especially noteworthy in firing their cannons as long as they could and defending their positions until they were all killed. But the main Italian force and its supplies were caught in Menelik’s strategic trap and were hammered by Ethiopian infantry and artillery in a place of their choosing. At the end of the day, the Italians had suffered one of the greatest single disasters in European colonial history (the British lost more men in Afghanistan; the Spanish were to leave 12,000 dead on the field in Morocco in 1921). There were 11,000 dead from both sides, including 4,000 Italian soldiers. In one day nearly as many Italians lost their lives as in all wars of Risorgimento put together. Remnants of the Italian army retreated northward, leaving behind 1,900 Italian and 1,000 Eritrean askari prisoners of war. In addition, the Ethiopians captured four million cartridges and fifty-six cannon. Menelik chose not to pursue the routed army. With the battle over, he held a religious service of thanksgiving and proclaimed a three-day period of national mourning. The victory celebration of the jubilant Ethiopians was muted because the Emperor saw no cause to rejoice over the death of so many Christian men.

The military advantage won by Menelik was not followed up politically. Why he did not press his advantage and drive the foreigners from his country remains a puzzle. The Emperor may have been concerned about consolidating his territorial interests in the south and may have been afraid of over-extending his resources. At the time, the kingdom was beset with famine and internecine quarrels. Whatever his reasons, Menelik allowed the Italians to remain in their colonial foothold in Eritrea, creating what was to be a continuous source of problems for Ethiopia ever since. He also missed a golden opportunity to guarantee Ethiopia an outlet to the sea. What Menelik had demonstrated, however, was that he had the power to defy any European imperialists. The defeat at Adwa brought Italy its greatest humiliation since unification and genuinely demoralized the Italian public. Their string of relatively easy colonial victories, the first their army had attained, came to an abrupt and shocking end. Political leaders had not prepared the populace for defeat in Africa, let alone a total disaster. “All is saved except honor” proclaimed the Tribuna. Stunned crowds outside of Parliament shouted, cheered, cursed, hissed, howled, and groaned. Some were heard to cry, “Long live Menelik!”

The Italians had suffered one of the greatest single disasters in European colonial history. There were 11,000 dead from both sides, 
including 4,000 Italian soldiers. In one day nearly as many Italians lost their lives as in all wars of Risorgimento put together.

All available Italian transport steamers were ordered to assemble at Naples “to take troops to Massawa.” It was rumored that Baratieri planned a military coup to rehabilitate his reputation before Baldissera superseded him. Church fathers were described as being delighted at the failure of the “Satanic” Italian armies that had paid the wages of a divine vendetta at Adwa. The Pope was so disturbed by the news that he canceled a Te Deum and a diplomatic banquet in celebration of the anniversary of his coronation. A shameful scar had been inflicted on the nation one that would fester for forty years until Mussolini would pour his snake oil over it. Crispi’s political career was shattered as was the nation’s colonial ambition that he had come to personify. Hailed as the greatest parliamentary statesman of Italy, the seventy-seven-year-old Prime Minister was recognized as one of the chief political figures of Europe. Crispi was acclaimed as the most important Italian and was the only Premier who really captured the nation’s imagination. His impulsiveness marred his career, and his actions all too often were “neither informed by knowledge nor controlled by sound judgment.” His ideas were grandiose beyond the resources of the country. As the New York Times editorialized, “his greatest mistake [was] in supposing the attention of the Italian people could be successfully diverted from domestic scandals by foreign embroilments.

In June, General Baratieri was brought to trial and, although he was acquitted, it was “in terms that branded him with incapacity.” With all Italian troops withdrawn from Tigray and reassembled in Eritrea, General Baldissera defended the colony and drove the Dervishes away from Mount Mocram a month after Adwa. The Italians killed 800 of the invading force of 5,000 and in short order won a brisk series of skirmishes with the Mahdists. In 1897, Kassala was ceded to Great Britain, and during the following year, forces under the British general Horatio Kitchener defeated the Mahdists in a decisive battle at Omdurman. In the United States, newspaper reporting generally was not sympathetic to the Italian cause. The New York Times ran front-page stories with consecutive day headlines heralding “Italy’s Terrible Defeat,” “Italy is Awe-Struck,” “Italy Like Pandemonium,” and “Italy’s Wrathful Mobs.” An editorial on

March 5, 1896, opined, “The Italian invasion of Abyssinia…was a mere piece of piracy…an enterprise unrighteous. In truth, the Italian ‘colonial expansion’…is not founded on fact or reason, and has nothing to say for itself in the form of morals and of civilization. It is no more businesslike than it is moral…It is not on business but for the glory that they go to war.”


For the victor, the rewards were immediate and long-lasting. In the negotiated peace following the battle, the Treaty of Wuchalé was annulled, ending Italy’s self-proclaimed “protectorate” over Ethiopia. The settlement acknowledged the full sovereignty and independence of Ethiopia. The Italians paid an indemnity of $5 million in gold, but they were allowed to remain in Eritrea. The price paid by Italy for its belated quest for empire was extravagant in terms of money, lives, arms, and prestige at home and abroad. Eritrea, instead of paying for itself, devoured money. The Red Sea evidently was not a key to the Mediterranean,  and the Italians’ zest for empire had disappeared for the moment. It would not be until 1911-1912 that Italian agents of imperialism would again venture into Africa in the Libyan War and begin the colonial activity described

as “the collecting of deserts.”

By winning the battle, Menelik had preserved and extended the territories of ancient Ethiopia — with the important exception of Eritrea. By uniting most of the leaders from almost all parts of the country against a common foe, the Emperor began to implement the idea of a central government that might supplant the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the symbol of national unity. Thus, the battle gave momentum to the creation of the modern Ethiopian empire-state, and the future of Ethiopia diverged from that of the rest of Africa.

Internationally, Ethiopia supplied the most meaningful negation to the sweeping tide of colonial domination of Africa. Egged on by Italy’s defeat, European nations rushed to conclude treaties with Menelik’s government. Indeed, 1896 became the “year of the ferenj” in Ethiopia. Expatriate traders flocked in and spearheaded the acceleration of economic activities. In record numbers, European governments set up consulates throughout the country and aided foreign merchants and investors in seeking concessions and royalties. Menelik’s retaining the defeated Italians as good neighbors had positive results: “aspirations of the peaceful penetration school of imperialism and of the more narrowly based small traders on the Red Sea were a major factor in influencing the nature and direction of Italian imperialism that served both as a counterweight and an alternative to the designs of more militant expansionists.” major benefit also accruing to Ethiopia at that time was the introduction of European medical practices. Shortly after the battle, Menelik applied for Ethiopia’s admission into the Red Cross Society, another sign of acceptance into the family of nations. In addition to material changes, the Battle of Adwa produced psychic rewards. Ethiopians basked in national pride and a sense of independence, some say even superiority, that was lost to other Africans mired in the abasement of colonialism. This post-Adwa spirit of Ethiopia, instilled in successive generations, gave Ethiopians a confidence and a unique Weltanschauung. The image of independent Ethiopia, the nation that successfully stood up against the Europeans, gave inspiration and hope to Africans and African-Americans fettered by racial discrimination and apartheid in whatever guise. Ethiopia provided a model of independence and dignity for people everywhere seeking independence from colonial servitude.

Theodore M. Vestal, Ph.D. is a Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University

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