In the late 19th century, the European powers ran roughshod over Africa, brutally colonising one country after another. Italy, for its part, targetted Ethiopia. But when its troops attacked on March 1, 1896, near the town of Adwa, they were overpowered by a large and well-armed Ethiopian force.
In winning this pivotal victory, Ethiopia not only secured its own independence, but also inspired the anti-colonialist movement.
As far back as the 1400s, European nations made incursions into Africa, largely to facilitate the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1870, by which time the slave trade had subsided, Europeans controlled only about 10 percent of the continent.
By 1885, however, the so-called Scramble for Africa was fully underway, with the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal carving up virtually the entire continent among themselves. At colonialism’s peak, only Liberia – created for the re-settlement of free Black Americans – and Ethiopia remained independent.
A relatively newcomer to the game, Italy began its colonial military exploits in 1885 when, with Britain’s encouragement, it occupied the Red Sea port of Massawa. From there, it spread out along the Horn of Africa, establishing the colony of Eritrea—on land, formerly controlled by Ethiopia—and occupying much of present-day Somalia as well.
In 1889, Italy signed a treaty with Ethiopia’s emperor, Menelik II, who recognised the Italian claim to Eritrea in exchange for a loan of arms and money. But a major disagreement arose, exacerbated by differences between the Italian and Amharic versions of the text, over whether the treaty had turned Ethiopia into an Italian protectorate, without control of its external affairs.
In May, Menelik signed the Treaty of Wichale, giving the Italians some land in Tigre and the adjacent highlands.
The Italians tried to trick him by having two different versions of the treaty, an Amharic one and an Italian one, with Article 17 reading differently in each version. The Italian version said: “The Emperor consents to use the Italian Government for all the business he does with all the other Powers or Governments.” The Amharic version said: “The Emperor has the option to communicate with the help of the Italian Government for all matters that he wants with the kings of Europe”.
When Menelik realised he had been cheated, he rejected the treaty and ceased all gratuities from the Italians. In Europe, all countries except Turkey, Russia and France supported the story’s Italian version. Menelik confronted the Italians, angering Rome, which ordered the Italian Governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri, to retaliate. He captured the cities of Adigrat, Adwa, and Makalle from the Ethiopians and was seen as a hero in Italy.
The Italians fatally underestimated the Ethiopians, thinking that they were barbarians who needed Roman civilisation. Bartieri returned to Eritrea, boasting that he would bring Menelik back in a cage, not knowing Menelik had assembled 196,000 men in Addis Ababa. Over 50 percent of these were armed with modern rifles. General Bartieri could only muster 25,000 men, and when he realised he was outnumbered, he retreated to Adigrat, where Menelik overwhelmed him for 45 days.
At the end of the battle, 289 Italian officers, 2,918 European soldiers, and about 2,000 Eritreans fighting for the Italians were dead. More were wounded, missing or captured. Menelik stopped the torture of prisoners and forced the rest of the captured troops to march to Addis Ababa, where they were held until the Italian Government paid 10 million lire in reparation. At the news of the victory at Adwa, Black people all over the world rejoiced. Ethiopia became a symbol of the struggle for freedom, and Black intellectuals and religious leaders made pilgrimages to the country.
The Ethiopian army’s victory checked Italy’s attempt to build an empire in Africa.
To this day, Ethiopia’s victory against the Italian invasion in Adwa has a strong national and anti-colonial significance.
This victory has been a source of celebration and recognised as a holiday for 125 years. Despite Ethiopia never being fully-colonised, Adwa Day is celebrated much like an independence day as it commemorates resistance and victory against colonisation and the solidification of Ethiopian identity.
Adwa represents the bravery and the heroism of the people and the unexpected but crucial triumph of Africans over a heavily armed European power. Adwa is predominantly recognised as a symbol of anti-colonialism and victory against Western imperialism.
The strength and unity of the Ethiopian people during the Battle of Adwa has been used to encourage Pan-Africanism and Ethiopianism in the decades following the victory. This brand of Ethiopianism—centring ideas of self-worth, dignity, and freedom from colonialism—later served as the foundation of various Pan-African organisations, including ones in the United States.
The outcome of this battle ensured Ethiopia’s independence, making it the only African country never to be colonised.
The Adwa victory led to a change of government in Italy. Due to public protest and failure of his colonial policy, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi resigned.
Adwa turned Ethiopia into the symbol of redemption and freedom for Black people. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bob Marley, George Padmore and others drew inspiration from the African victory.
The battle of Adwa saved Ethiopia from colonisation by Rome and raised the status of an African country to an equal partner in the world community.