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Beginning of the End

European colonialism in Africa reared its head for much of the latter part of the 19th century.   The European imperial powers scrambled to occupy as much of the continent as possible. The Italians had their sights set on conquering Ethiopia, but the country’s emperor, Menelik II, was fully prepared to fight to the death to protect what belonged to him and his people.

On March 1, 1896, the Italians, in an attempt to gain control of the country, engaged in battle with Ethiopia’s army. This important conflict would become known as the Battle of Adowa. Its results would solidify Menelik’s status as one of the most powerful figures in African history, and mark the beginning of the end of European colonialism in Africa.

Great African Statesman

When you’ve been proclaimed to be a descendant of great historical figures such as Queen Sheba and King Solomon, it likely means that life has some big plans for you. There is no doubt that Emperor Menelik was larger than life.

Born in 1844, Menelik was undoubtedly one of the most celebrated of all African rulers. He became emperor of Ethiopia in 1889 after first gaining 25 invaluable years of experience as governor of Shoa. Among the many great things he did for his country, he had the foresight to build up the Ethiopian army into a large and powerful force. He imported an extraordinarily large number of firearms from France and Russia, and he placed a great amount of importance on the country’s sovereignty and way of life.

At the time, Italy already had a colony in Eritrea and had a keen eye on creating one in Ethiopia. They figured they already had Menelik under their thumb since they had formed a relationship with him and supplied him with rifles. The two countries even reached a point where they were negotiating the Treaty of Wuchale. One treaty was written in Amharic, which stated that Italy’s services were available to the emperor and his country for all communications with foreign powers. Another treaty that was written in Italian, made these services compulsory. Menelik was asked to sign both versions, but when he found out about the differences in the Italian version and realized he had been cheated, he rejected the treaty outright and refused all further offers from Italy.

The leaders of the Italian army in Rome were angered by Menelik’s defiance of their wishes and ordered the Italian army commander in Eritrea to retaliate. The commander quickly captured Adigrat, Adowa and Makalle and was hailed as a hero. But the Italians had made one big mistake; they had underestimated Menelik and his army’s capabilities.

Armed for Battle

In September of 1895, with the might of 100,000 armed Ethiopian soldiers behind him, Emperor Menelik headed north towards the Italian occupied territories.

Through the early months of 1896, he lead a brilliant military campaign that left the Italians with no choice but to fight on his terms. His army outflanked the Italian forces, severely compromised their integrity and caused their supplies to dwindle down to almost nothing. The Italian army commander knew he was in deep trouble and he was afraid to attack the Ethiopians in open fields due to their tactical advantages. Nonetheless, the Italians made one final attempt under the cover of night to ambush the Ethiopians in a multi-pronged attack. On March 1, 1896, Emperor Menelik led his forces into three separate battles with the Italians, concentrating in Adowa. They defeated the Italians hands down, sending them in panic back to Eritrea.

The victory stunned the world, elevated Ethiopia’s status in the world community and brought great shame and embarrassment to the Italians. Most importantly, it saved Ethiopia from what could have been a long and devastating colonization.

Symbol of Freedom

For long after the battle, Ethiopia and its struggles were seen as a symbol of freedom. People all over the world were extremely proud of the country’s successes and black leaders visited the country to pay their respects.

The aftermath of the battle also brought Italy’s renouncement of all claims to Ethiopia and forced them to pay an indemnity. During this time Menelik strengthened and modernized his country, made Addis Ababa Ethiopia’s capitol, built a national railroad, and made a strong attempt at ending slave trade.   He acquired land to the south, extending the size of the country. He ensured the unification of Ethiopia and solidified his status and claim to the title of Emperor. While there are many people and groups throughout the world who use the story of the Battle of Adowa to discredit the Italian army, there are those who view the Ethiopians as people who are “not of black origin,” thereby explaining how they were able to beat the Italians in battle. There is no doubt that if Menelik himself were alive, he would challenge such ludicrous claims.

In 1913 when Menelik’s health finally failed, Lij Yasu, his grandson, succeeded him. In an interesting historical side note, Menelik’s daughter married Wayzaro Menen, the man who would become Haile Salassie, Ethiopia’s last emperor.

Day of Celebration

The African people have waged many long, heart-wrenching, and bloody battles against European colonization. The attitudes of superiority by various European nations, as well as their harsh actions against Africans, have left an indelible mark on the continent.

Ever since the Battle of Adowa, March 1st has been a day of celebration in Ethiopia and other parts of the world. It commemorates the retreat of the Italians, the end of armed aggression by them and the country’s success during the battle itself. This year marked the 113th anniversary and it was celebrated with as much importance as it has ever been.

The Ethiopian people have much to be proud about and their successes as a nation are inspiring to all.