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Ethiopia celebrates the Victory of Adwa every year on March 1 [File: Mohammed Abdu Abdulbaqi/Anadolu Agency]

How a Battle Between Italy and Ethiopia Undermined Racism

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much — Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

It was a cold winter afternoon on November 15th 1884 when representatives from 13 European nations descended upon Berlin on the invitation of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to decide the future of the African continent. As if the continent was empty of people and their polities, a blank five meter map of Africa was hung up on the wall in the Reich Chancellery, as the representatives sat around a horse-shoe shaped table and deliberated on how they would carve the continent between them.

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad understood something of the attitude that might have animated and possessed those men: “At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there’.”[1] Europe most certainly grew up, and began looking covetously at the world, and those “blank spaces” of “delightful mystery” as Conrad described them would soon encounter her.

Whilst the conference was primarily called to diffuse and work out tensions in West Africa, the Congo basin and other territories, historians generally view the Berlin Conference as the pivotal moment when the European expansion in Africa really took off, although it was underway long before. In his book The Scramble for Africa, Robin Brooke-Smith recognizes the absurdity of the situation that for such a “momentous initiative not a single African ruler was represented at the conference.”[2]

Kenyan writer & cartoonist Patrick Gathara says the conference “established the rules for the conquest and partition of Africa, in the process legitimizing the ideas of Africa as a playground for outsiders, its mineral wealth as a resource for the outside world not for Africans and its fate as a matter not to be left to Africans.” The destiny of Africa, in short, wasn’t to be left to African people.

Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II was among those leaders in Africa however who never saw things that way. And when confronted with the challenge of European imperial designs on his territory, Menelik organized his forces for a spirited fight which would gain him and his country worldwide recognition.

Emperor Menelik II, born Prince Sahle Miriam, ruled Ethiopia from 1889 to 1913, a critical period in Ethiopia’s history when the country had to both resist European imperial ambitions in the Horn of Africa and begin the process of modernization. Menelik was up to the task and during his reign he managed to unify and double the territories he governed, founded Addis Ababa as the capital of a reorganized Ethiopia and began the process of building a modern centralized bureaucracy for his country. But he’s best remembered for facing off with European colonizers, defeating them and earning their respect for his country — particularly Italy.[3]

Among European nations Italy was one of the latter ones to be unified and a late arrival to the game of inter-imperial politics. Haunted by the ghost of Rome’s glory however, the newly united Kingdom of Italy was no less ambitious than her counterparts, eager to prove herself among the family of ‘civilized’ nations. The notion of a ‘Third Rome’ was a pillar of influential Italian thinker Giuseppe Mazzini’s thought, but Rome also “functioned as a unifying trope in the context…[of] expansionism and was associated with the notion of an Italian ‘mission’ in Europe and in the world.”[4] By the time Italy had began considering how to manoeuvre, much of the African continent had been devoured by her European competitors leaving only an independent Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa and some surrounding territories.

By 1882, during the reign of Menelik’s predecessor Emperor Yohannes, Italy had already obtained Assab (a port city in modern Eritrea) officially establishing the first Italian presence in East Africa. After the Conference of Berlin which took place a few years later, Italy was ‘given’ Ethiopia, and all that was now needed was for Italian troops to march on her. Italy’s troops slowly began entering the interior regions around Assab, also occupying Massawa. Facing a few of his own challenges, Emperor Yohannes was distracted with internal instability, as well as Sudan’s Mahdist movement in the north as Italian troops began moving towards Ethiopia’s highlands. A few Italian provoked skirmishes followed at Dogali in which Italian troops were humiliated by a much larger Ethiopian force. Francesco Crispi, a prominent & flamboyant left-wing nationalist in Italy’s parliament — and also Prime Minister between 1887–1891 — decided war was necessary to avenge the defeat, commanding parliamentary majority of 332 to 40.[5]

“We cannot stay inactive when the name of Italy is besmirched,” Crispi reportedly told German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck foaming at the mouth for revenge, to which Bismark responded the Italians have a “big appetite but they have poor teeth.”[6] The Italians initially relied on cunning, arming different local & regional sovereigns in Ethiopia, before Emperor Yohannes met an untimely demise in Metemma during battle with the Mahdists in early 1889. King Umberto I of Italy would then send Count Pietro Antonelli as an envoy to develop a relationship with the newly crowned Emperor Menelik II after which the Treaty of Wuchalé (Uccialli, in Italian) was agreed.

The treaty,

“officially recognized Menelik as emperor of Abyssinia and also granted his state duty-free privileges for any goods passing through the port of Massawa, a substantial loan, and a promise of future arms and military supplies. Portions of Ethiopia, namely the states of Bogos, Hamasen, Akale, Guzai, and parts of Tigre, were also ceded for Italian activities in return for financial and development assistance to Ethiopia”[7]

For Francesco Crispi the agreement was a triumph, brandishing the text across Europe, later ordering the occupation of Asmara — modern Eritrea’s capital — declaring it Italy’s first colony and even gaining British recognition of Ethiopia as an Italian sphere of influence. Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti said Ethiopia would remain within the orbit of Italian influence and that an “external protectorate would be maintained over Menelik.”[8] The Amharic and Italian versions of the treaty differed on this crucial detail. Article XVII of the treaty bound Menelik to arrange all foreign contracts through Italian agents and with Italian oversight, the Amharic version however had this as an optional feature of the treaty.[9]

After he became emperor, Menelik began writing to heads of state around the world and Europe announcing his coronation. In February 1890, both Britain and Germany told Ethiopia that given its status as a protectorate, it should have been Italy that informed them and not him. “I have discovered something humiliating for my kingdom” Menelik wrote to his Italian counterpart King Umberto.[10] He wasn’t viewed by his peers as a man in charge of the fate of his own country.

Emperor Menelik II initially seemed unbothered by the way the Italians viewed the treaty but in 1893 that changed. In an extraordinary display of displeasure and integrity Menelik repaid the Italian loans with three times the agreed interest, kept the arms he bought and began rallying his people to begin a war against the foreign intruder.[11]

On February 27, Menelik sought to make clear his dissatisfaction with the arrangement declaring “Ethiopia has need of no one; she stretches out her hands unto God.” When Ethiopia was on the verge of war he said:

“Enemies have now come upon us to ruin the 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 up my country to them ….Today, you who are strong, give me of your strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer”[12]

Whilst some historians including Raymond Jonas question Menelik’s sudden “discovery” of Ethiopia’s protectorate status, given his own trusted envoy—and cousin — Makonnen told Umberto that he and his country pledge themselves to Italy seeking protection from him, it is also possible that Menelik played along for a time. He may have wanted to arm his empire, and secure his position as emperor.[13] Nevertheless the drums of war were beating, and that arrangement only deferred what seemed inevitable not long before.

Menelik initially waited as Italy began occupying large territories in the north roughly the size of modern Belgium. It looked initially like a route, as Menelik patiently awaited his moment and Italian troops made major gains in the north capturing territory from Axum to Amba Alage. Major Pietro Toselli would even say “Menelik is a myth”.[14] Menelik did however use the time he bought wisely, waiting for the rainy season to pass as he organized his militias and mobilized support across a disunited Ethiopia for what would be a tough campaign against a modern European power.

He could be confident of Christian support, but he even courted Muslims by sending gifts, ignoring religious differences and focusing on the common racial denominator. “I am black and you are black” he wrote “let us unite to hunt our common enemy.”[15] During the fall of 1895 Menelik decided the time was right. He mobilized his people against the invading Italians, and marched his troops to the Highlands. The Russians offered military and diplomatic support.

By 1896, the Italian army decided to conduct a surprise attack on the Ethiopians at Adwa with some 20,000 Italians and Italian-officered native auxiliaries. General Baratieri led the Italians, but Menelik managed to mobilize a formidable army of 100,000 men from across Ethiopia. The Italians were eventually defeated after putting up a fierce fight, as the Ethiopians surrounded their enemy in one of the most decisive defeats in European colonial history. 4000 lost their lives on the Italian side after which they retreated.[16] Menelik didn’t pursue them and allowed them to remain in Eritrea.

His forbearance won him positive coverage in the New York Times, which ran a story titled the “Magnanimity of King Menelik”, acknowledging the fact that he was prepared to give the Italians acceptable terms without having to defeat them in battle. Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II conducted himself honourably during and after the war, initially pleading with the Italians not to shed Christian blood. During the war he protected Italians in his jurisdiction, Italian envoys (often spies) were allowed to travel peacefully to their camps, Italians had proper burials which Ethiopians didn’t and prisoners of war were well treated. A few years later the New York Times reported that the Italians were welcomed back to Adwa for mining operations, but their colonial adventure in Ethiopia was brought to a staggering halt. Ethiopians were now partners, not subjects to-be of an inferior race.

The Italian dream of creating a large east African empire 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.[17]

This victory wasn’t like others though. African armies had previously held off their European counterparts, and sometimes overcame them. European militaries in the end however proved irresistible. Menelik had blocked the Italian expansion and forced them to retreat. Adwa, Professor Jonas says “cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age — that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans.”[18] It was also viewed in racial terms. Not only did a non-White army overcome a white one, but an Black African army overcame a White European colonial power and the impact was as perplexing for Europeans as it was empowering the Black people around the world.

The impact of the victory makes more sense when one surveys the attitudes of Europe’s most influential intellectuals toward what British explorer Henry M. Stanley would call the “Dark Continent” and its inhabitants. Hegel referred to Africa as a place “lying beyond the day of self-conscious history, is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night.” The African he said, was a “natural man in his completely wild and untamed state.”[19] Europe’s most admired moral philosopher Emmanuel Kant believed the “race of Negroes can be educated, but only as slaves”.[20] In a private correspondence with Karl Marx’s daughter Laura, Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, wrote that ‘niggers’ (in his own words) “were a degree nearer to the rest of the animal kingdom than the rest of us”.[21]

Rudyard Kipling would wax poetic about the ‘White mans burden’. France had its ‘mission civilisatrice’: her responsibility to lift poor and backward natives from the clutches of primitive life. Italian’s were no exception to this apparently noble and selfless impulse with one remarking that colonization “is a gleam of the chivalrous spirit of our race.”[22]

Historian and writer David Olusoga goes to the root of the problem:

“For much of the period from the 15th century till now, during which Europeans and Africans have been connected through trade, empire and migration, both forced and voluntary, Europe has viewed the people of Africa through the distorting veil of racism and racial theory.”[23]

Post-Adwa, that “distorting veil” couldn’t reconcile itself with Menelik’s victory, and just as Europeans couldn’t accept the Ancient Egyptians were Black, the American and European press went into a frenzy in their efforts to make sense of what happened as if the laws of science could permit no such thing. Instead of military analysis, explanations entered the absurd, and a process of white-washing Ethiopians began. Before Adwa, the Atlanta Constitution, was drawing similarities between the European mission in America and their role in Africa. The “negro most go” one article said, “as did the Indian in America.” It wasn’t long before the Atlanta Constitution began to wonder if the Ethiopians were Black at all. Ethiopians, another piece wrote, “are not of the flat footed and splay- nosed Hottentot variety,” arguing that they were in fact of “Phoenician origin”.[24]

The New York World was shameless in its explanation of the Italian defeat, writing “the majority of the inhabitants of Abyssinia are of the Caucasian race,” and are “well formed and handsome”.[25] In 1897 Menelik was even accorded the ultimate accolade of being featured in Vanity Fair which put him in the company of the era’s greats, as the magazine begrudgingly admitted that he is “quite an enlightened monarch.”[26] The New York Times and the Times in London condescendingly questioned the ability of Italy to keep up its treaty obligations if it couldn’t even win in Africa. In Africa![27] The Spectator, described the defeat as a “great disaster… greater than has ever occurred in modern times to White men in Africa.”[28] Even the Pope was “disturbed” by the news!

French paper Le Liberté drew parallels between the role of Japan in East Asia and the potential role of Ethiopia in Africa:

“All European countries will be obliged to make a place for this new brother who steps forth ready to play in the Dark Continent the role of Japan in the Far East”[29]

An American diplomat, Robert Skinner described Menelik in language that likened him to the great White statesmen of the age saying Menelik “has created the United State of Abyssiniana work for which he was endowed by Nature with the constructive intelligence of a Bismark, and the faculty of handling men …[with the] sheer amiability of a McKinley”.[30] However, whilst the victory at Adwa had a huge impact in Europe and North America, its impact was most pronounced in Italy. “The defeat in Abyssinia” writes Tobias Hof, “became a national trauma and triggered an ‘inferiority complex’ within Italy towards European powers as well as indigenous people in Africa.”[31] It would take decades before Mussolini’s fascist regime re-invoked the “shame of Adwa” and amassed an army to invade Ethiopia again in 1936.[32]

Whilst the impact of Adwa in Europe unsettled racial notions about the African, it played out in a much more interesting way among other Africans, the African diaspora and other peoples struggling with the danger and threat of European imperialism. When the Ethiopians overcame the Italians, Ethiopia drew the attention of the Ottoman Empire. Struggling too with the threat of European domination, Sadik al-Mouayad Azmzade was sent as an envoy to negotiate an Ottoman-Ethiopian alliance. “Thanks to the south–south coalition that would develop” writes historian Mostafa Minawi, “between Istanbul and Addis Ababa over the following decade, Istanbul would remain in the game of fin de siècle competitive imperialism for few years longer.”[33]

As the prestige of Ethiopia grew, so did the various ways in which it was imagined. Bahru Zewde, an Ethiopian historian, described it as a “victory of Blacks over Whites.” Adwa, Zewde continues, “anticipated by almost a decade the equally shattering experience to the Whites of the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905.”[34] This it seemed was a view shared by Black people worldwide.

Benito Sylvain, a Haitian diplomat, journalist and editor of the paper La Fraternité, left his news paper following Menelik’s victory for Ethiopia like a “knight leaving for a crusade”, seeing in Menelik a Moses like figure who could redeem Africans and heal their historic traumas.[35] His mission in Ethiopia was to develop relations between the first Black republic Haiti, which overcame France for its independence and Ethiopia, the victor of Adwa.

William H. Ellis, a Black Wall Street stockbroker from Texas would visit Ethiopia with his wife upon the invitation of Ras Makonnen. American national news picked the story, from the New York Times, to the Washington Post. He would later help negotiate a commercial treaty between the US and Ethiopia.[36] Ethiopia already held great prestige among the African diaspora for her long history and civilization but her prestige increased thereafter.

“Ethiopianism” emerged as a religious based form of African nationalism in Africa and America in the late 1800s. In the race-segregated and oppressive Americas, Ethiopia and Ethiopianism came to be a vocabulary of resistance which challenged and overturned racial hierarchy, insisting on the strict equality of all people. In the imagination of activists from W.E.B Du Bois to Booker T. Washington and Bishop Henry M. Turner, Ethiopia was a powerful, independent and civilized African country, which for them exposed the farce of the dominant racial theories of the era.[37]

The pull of Ethiopia over the African diaspora continued way after and showed itself during Mussolini’s invasion in the mid-1930s. Jomo Kenyatta, who would go onto be president of Kenya said “Ethiopia was the sole remaining pride of Africans and Negroes in all parts of the world.” The invasion politicized African Americans. Two pilots of African American descent went to volunteer in Ethiopia. John Charles Robinson (nicknamed Brown Condor of Ethiopia) would remain there training pilots until his death.[38]

“Ethiopianism” also inspired the Pan-African movement in the Americas & Africa, eventually culminating in Haile Selassie’s sponsorship and co-founding of the Organisation for African Unity (pre-cursor to the African Union). Whilst there were great differences in the views of various heads of state, Africa had a body which would promote and coordinate African cooperation. The current headquarters of the African Union is in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.[39] Ethiopia’s flag —red, yellow and green—would similarly leave its mark on the flags of many of the emerging post-colonial states in Africa, from Cameroon, to Benin, and Mali to Zimbabwe.

References:

[1] J, Conrad (2002). Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Brooke-Smith, R (1987). The Scramble for Africa. London: Palgrave Macmillan

[3] Adejumobi, S (2007). The History of Ethiopia. Westport: Greenwood Press. p28–29

[4] Srivastava, N & De Donno, F. (2007). Colonial and Postcolonial Italy. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies. 8 (3), p376

[5] Vestal, T. (2015). Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance for Today. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p23

[6] Hof, T. (2016). “Legionaries of Civilization”: The Italian Military, Fascism and Extreme Violence. In: Hof, T Empire, Ideology, Mass Violence: The Long 20th Century in Comparative Perspective. Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag GmbH. p114–115

[7] Adejumobi, S (2007). The History of Ethiopia. Westport: Greenwood Press. p29

[8] Vestal, T. (2015). Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance for Today. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p25

[9] Vestal, T. (2015). Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance for Today. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p25

[10] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p91

[11] Vestal, T. (2015). Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance for Today. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p25

[12] Adejumobi, S (2007). The History of Ethiopia. Westport: Greenwood Press. p29

[13] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p92

[14] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p111

[15] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p112

[16] Vestal, T. (2015). Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance for Today. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p28

[17] Vestal, T. (2015). Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance for Today. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p21

[18] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p1

[19] Kuykendall, R. (1993). Hegel and Africa: An Evaluation of the Treatment of Africa in The Philosophy of History. Journal of Black Studies. 23 (4), p572

[20] Rutledge, D. (2019). Racist attitudes ‘whitewashed’ modern philosophy. What can be done to change it?. Available: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-10/modern-philosophical-canon-has-always-been-pretty-whitewashed/11678314. Last accessed 28th August 2020

[21] Marx, K & Engels, F (2010). Marx & Engels: Collected Works. London: Lawrence & Wishart. p52–53

[22] Milkias, P. (2015). The Battle of Adwa: The Historic Victory of Ethiopia over European Colonialism. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p86

[23] Olusoga, D. (2015). The roots of European racism lie in the slave trade, colonialism — and Edward Long. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/08/european-racism-africa-slavery. Last accessed 8th September 2015

[24] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p269

[25] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p269

[26] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p271

[27] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p271

[28] Milkias, P. (2015). The Battle of Adwa: The Historic Victory of Ethiopia over European Colonialism. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p87

[29] Metaferia, G. (2015). Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and Its Role in the Pan-African Movement. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p188

[30] Skinner, R (2010). Abyssinia Of Today: An Account Of The First Mission Sent By The American Government To The Court Of The King Of Kings, 1903–04. London: Kessinger Publishing, LLC. p14

[31] Hof, T. (2016). “Legionaries of Civilization”: The Italian Military, Fascism and Extreme Violence. In: Hof, T Empire, Ideology, Mass Violence: The Long 20th Century in Comparative Perspective. Munich: Herbert Utz Verlag GmbH. p15

[32] Triulzi, A. (2005). Adwa: From Monument to Document. In: Duncan, D & Andall, J Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory. Bern: Peter Lang. p15

[33] Minawi, M (2016). The Ottoman Scramble for Africa: Empire and Diplomacy in the Sahara and the Hijaz. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. p146

[34] Zewde, B (2002). A History of Modern Ethiopia, 1855–1991. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. p81

[35] Jonas, R (2011). The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p282

[36] Metaferia, G. (2015). Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and Its Role in the Pan-African Movement. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p204

[37] Contee, C. (1969). The Emergence of Du Bois as an African Nationalist. The Journal of Negro History. 54 (1), p50

[38] Metaferia, G. (2015). Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and Its Role in the Pan-African Movement. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p204

[39] Metaferia, G. (2015). Ethiopia: A Bulwark Against European Colonialism and Its Role in the Pan-African Movement. In: Milkias, p & Metaferia, G The Battle of Adwa: Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism. New York: Algora Publishing. p211

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Journalist. Writer. Producer. Politics. Culture. History. East Africa. Muslims. Art. Wields a dangerous Muslamic ray gun at all times | Istanbul | @fromadic92

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