Black History Month: The Italo-Abyssinian War (1889-1896)
February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.
After the Partition of Africa during the Berlin Conference of 1885, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, of Italy, began his nation's colonisation in Africa. Italy focused on the Red Sea because of its trade routes to Asia and East Africa, and subsequently stationed troops in the port of Massawa in Eritrea, then part of the Ethiopian nation. Ethiopia's King Yohannes fought back against this Italian invasion. Although initially unsuccessful, they eventually defeated the Italian troops in a battle that took place on January 26, 1887, which would be known as the Dogali Massacre.
This battle left 430 Italian troops dead and injured 82. King Yohannes's forces did not dislodge the Italians from Eritrea, but they did limit their control to that coastal province. Nonetheless, with the Dogali Massacre, Ethiopia became the first African nation to defeat a European power after the partition.
After the death of King Yohannes in 1889, the new monarch, King Menilik II, realising the Italians would seek to conquer all of Ethiopia, began to assemble a modern arsenal for his army by opening up trade with French-controlled Djibouti, and ironically with Italian merchants at Massawa. After developing a friendly relationship with Italians partly because of this trade, Menilik in 1889 signed the Treaty of Wichale with the Italian Government.
While Menilik and the Ethiopians understood the treaty would give them the option to use Italian assistance to communicate with other European powers, the Italians interpreted the treaty as giving them authority over all Ethiopian trade and communications with other nations, thus effectively stripping Ethiopia of its sovereignty. This deliberate mistranslation by the Italians caused tensions between Italy and Ethiopia, which led to the Italo-Abyssinian War of 1889–1896.
In preparation for the oncoming conflict, Menilik II assembled an army of 196,000 men to take on both the Italian army of 25,000 men composed of European troops and of askari — Eritrean fighters — led by the Italian governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri. To the surprise of the Italians and their African allies, 82,000 Ethiopian troops were armed with modern rifles, another 8,000 were on horseback and had 40 rapid-fire mountain guns.
After a series of surprising defeats by Ethiopian forces between 1889 and 1895, the Italians and their allies withdrew to the town of Mek'ele and there met a 45-day siege. The Ethiopian forces occupied nearby Adwa to outflank the Italians, causing a stalemate until late February 1896. By this point, both armies were running low on rations, but the Italians decided to go on the offensive. Because of their smaller numbers, the Italians and their Eritrean allies on February 29 planned to attack the Ethiopians in the middle of the night, and from higher ground. However, spies informed Menilik of the mobilisation of the Italians, with enough time to rally his own troops. Italian forces were scattered and their initial formation fell apart as the Ethiopians met them before they were prepared to engage in combat.
This conflict, known as the Battle of Adwa, cost about 5,200 deaths for Italian forces, while 7,000 Ethiopian troops died. Through this victory, King Menilik II demanded the abolition of the Treaty of Wichale and recognition of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation by Italy and other European powers. Ethiopia became the only African nation successfully to resist the partition of Africa. The victory at Adwa is still celebrated today as an Ethiopian holiday on March 1.
• Sources: Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Paulos Milkias and Getachew Metaferia, eds. The Battle of Adwa: reflections on Ethiopia's historic victory against European Colonialism New York: Algora Publishing, 2005; “First Italo-Abyssinian War: Battle for Adowa,” Military History Magazine, June 2006