An African victory: Ethiopia Celebrates the Battle of Adwa

Certainly, one of the atrocious tyrannies our world had to witness. People of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia had tasted its bitterness: Colonialism.

Following the end of the slave trade, the ‘Scramble of Africa’ by European powers reached its peak in the 1890s. When this dark history of the continent is discussed, usually Africa is depicted as a passive receiver of the European domination. The battle of Adwa proved this wrong and symbolizes till date Africa’s resistance and quest for independence. However, this important incidence is not known by many. I, myself, was very surprised to find out that many Africans and black people in the Diaspora are not aware of this important piece in black History.

Italy, as the latecomer in the European expedition of scrambling for Africa, was only left with Somalia and Eritrea while the British and the French controlled most of Africa. At the time, the only country that was not conquered was the East African Country: Ethiopia. By then, Ethiopia was divided into regions governed by different rulers, which was a phenomenon created with the falling down of the Solomonic Dynasty of ancient Ethiopia. The king of Shoa, Menelik was, however, gaining control over most of the provinces, and eventually became Emperor of Ethiopia.

Interested in joining their two colonies into one big East African colony, the Italians flung themselves into occupying Ethiopia, only to be confronted by Emperor Menelik and his people, who were ready to trade their lives for their sovereignty.

The battle field was at Adwa, a town in Northern Ethiopia, the date March 1, 1896. The Italian force, commanded by Oreste Baratieri, was defeated by the Ethiopians, leading the country to be the only untouchable nation in Africa, with the exception of Liberia, which was created by the The American Society for Colonization of Free People of Color, for resettling freed slaves from America.

Paulos and Metaferia in their book the ‘Battle of Adwa’ described the battle as ‘the greatest military operation between Africans and Europeans since the time of the Hannibals. For the victors it was the most deceive, for the vanquished, the most catastrophic, given that the Italians colonialist soldiers were crushed totally and in every way. Indeed, their defeat was extraordinary in scale: their casualty figure was 70%; all their artillery pieces were captured; one out of four generals were taken prisoner and two of the remaining as well as half of their staff officers were killed on the battle field.

The victory of Adwa was not a mere coincidence. Over the years, it was assumed that African military might was crude and lacked the sophisticated intelligence of their Western counterparts, however, the result of Emperor Menelik’s intelligent military strategies and of course the bravery of the peasants, who were an important part of Menelik’s force overwhelmed the Italian army. Here, it is also important to mention Empress Taitu’s role who led her own soldiers. For instance, as Paulo Gno Gno documented, it was Empress Taitu’s idea to control the water supply of the Italians, which was one of the reasons why the Italians had to retreat.

The victory of Adwa has a great deal of significance in Ethiopian and African History. The importance from within Ethiopian politics is tremendous since it brought provincial kings together under Menelik’s leadership, who united the regionally divided provinces into one nation of Ethiopia (with the exception of Eritrea, which remained conquered by the Italians at the time and  joined Ethiopia later). The success also provided a sense of strong Ethiopian identity and self-importance to the people of Ethiopia, which is existent till date.

After the Italians swallowed the bitterness of shameful defeat, their European counterparts had no choice but to acknowledge Ethiopia as an independent nation. The battle of Adwa challenged the European mission that assumed colonialism would not be challenged and a black nation would not beat a white nation. The Italian’s defeat had created chaos in Rome. According to Theodor M. Vestal, even the pope was so unhappy, he had to cancel a celebration of his coronation’s anniversary!

Adwa also has placed an enormous amount of impact on other African nation’s quest for independence and the Pan- African Movement. It has inspired black people’s resistance in Africa and the Diaspora. Activists and leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Marcus Garvey and many others were highly influenced by this Ethiopian triumph. As Vestal wrote ‘Ethiopia provided a model of independence and dignity for people everywhere seeking independence from colonial servitude’.

This year, Ethiopians have celebrated the victory of Adwa for the 120th time, showing gratitude for their forefathers and foremothers who kept their independence intact.

If you are interested in learning more about Adwa, the book ‘Battle of Adwa:Reflections of Ethiopia’s Historic Victory Against European Colonialism’ edited by Paulos Milkias and Getachew Metaferia is a good one.  If you are more of a visual kind, the movie Adwa: an African Victory directed by Haile Gerima is a must watch.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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