This is the story of a world turned upside down. So begins The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire.
The Battle of Adwa in 1896 was the result of Italian encroachments south of their colony of Eritrea on the Red Sea. Though bound by the Treaty of Wichale (1889) to friendship, the Italians and Ethiopians had different opinions about the nature of that friendship. This was the famous “mistranslation” where the Italian treaty indicated Ethiopia would be a protectorate of Italy, while Emperor Menelik II argued no such wording existed in his copy.
The “Treaty of Wichale (or Uccialli)”, agreed to in principle that Menelik II would provide to Italy land in the Tigray province in exchange for support in the form of weapons the Italians had been supplying him for some time, but the Italians wanted more.
There were two versions of the treaty to be signed, one in Italian, and one written in Amharic. Unbeknownst to the conquering King was the fact that the version in Italian had been altered by the translators to give Rome more power over Menelik II and his kingdom of Ethiopia.
The Italians believed they had tricked Menelik II into giving his allegiance to Rome in the treaty. Mistakenly, they believed him to be unsophisticated in the way the Europeans believed themselves to be. To the Italians surprise, the treaty was rejected despite their attempt to influence the king with 2 million round of ammunition. He would have none of it and denounced them as liars who had attempted to cheat himself and Ethiopia.
After the Italians occupied the northern Ethiopian city of Adigrat, Menelik summoned his forces and defeated the Italians at the battle of Amba Alage.
In response to this defeat thousands of Italian troops were ferried to Eritrea and, with great pressure from Rome to attack quickly.
Italian governor of Eritrea, General Oreste Baratieri was no stranger to battle and devised a good strategy to lure the Ethiopians into an ambush. There were three main problems with his strategy.
First, he had drastically underestimated the strength and will of the army facing him. Although aware he was outnumbered, the Governor of Eritrea believed the Ethiopians to be undisciplined and unskilled at the art of war negating the advantage in numbers. Certain he would have an advantage over the ‘savages’, he dug in his 20,000 troops and 56 guns at Adawa awaiting the King and his men.
In the meantime, Menelik II had trapped a thousand or so of the Italian army and besieged them. He agreed to allow them safe passage if Italy would reopen negotiations with him concerning a peace treaty. The Italian government refused and in fact did the opposite, authorizing more dollars to pursue the war in Ethiopia. Their Nations’ pride had been hurt by the African King and they sought to restore their ego and influence.
The second error Baratieri made was the assumption he could lure the Ethiopians out into an ambush. He did not think they had the tactics or knowledge of battle he possessed as an important leader in a civilized European nation. After a 3 month standoff his troops were out of basic supplies and he had to move forward or retreat. After a message came from higher up in the government calling him out as ineffective and unsure, he was pushed ahead to attack.
Baratieri’s third mistake of not understanding how poor his battle intelligence was became the most costly of his errors. The strategy he employed was to outflank the Ethiopian army under the cover of darkness and move in on them from the mountains above their camp. While Sun Tzu would have approved, the Italian commander did not account for the extremely harsh terrain nor the lack of direction and difficulty in communicating with his men would have out in the wild country.
After setting out confident in their battle strategy, the officers in charge of implementing the attack learned how poor the rough sketches they had were. It was dark and cold in a high mountain pass in February and it was doomed. Divisions of Italian soldiers became confused, lost, and disorganized. Through the confusion a two mile gap in their battle line was opened and the Ethiopians rushed in cutting the Italian attack in two. Baratieri had failed to claim the high ground and Menelik II hastily moved his artillery in above the attacking soldiers. Able to lob shells down upon the invaders, the Ethiopians raced to seize the advantage but the Italians held their ground and at mid morning it looked as if they may be able to win in spite of all the difficulty they had encountered.
Considering retreat, Menelik II was persuaded by his advisors to commit to the battle an additional 25,000 soldiers he had been holding in reserve. Those additional troops proved to be the difference in the outcome of the ferocious melee. Having fought hundreds of battles to protect their homeland, Menelik’s warriors attacked with a ferocity the Italians couldn’t have imagined. Taking hardly any prisoners, the victors of Battle of Adwa killed 289 Italian officers, 2,918 European soldiers and about 2,000 askari. A further 954 European troops were missing, while 470 Italians and 958 askari were wounded. Some 700 Italians and 1,800 askari fell into the hands of the Ethiopian troops.
With the victory at the Battle of Adwa in hand and the Italian colonial army destroyed, Eritrea was King Menelik’s for the taking but no order to occupy was given. It seems that Menelik II was wiser than the Europeans had given him credit for. Realizing they would bring all their force to bear on his country if he attacked, he instead sought to restore the peace that had been broken by the Italians and their treaty manipulation seven years before. In signing the treaty, Menelik II again proved his adeptness at politics as he promised each nation something for what they gave and made sure each would benefit his country and not a rival nation.
The African Heritage Foundation is hosting the celebration of the “Battle Of Adwa”, with a Nyabinghi groundation, administrated by the Ivine Order of the Nyabinghi Theocracy Reign. This Nyabinghi groundation takes place on March 1st at the African Heritage Foundation’s headquarters located at “Liberty House”, Upper Two Mile Hill, St Michael. The groundation will start at 5pm and end at 10pm.
A Nyabinghi groundation consists of drumming, chanting, the offering of prayers and reasoning (discussion). Food, fruit and drink are freely shared with all. You are invited to bring something to share. The consumption fish, meat(flesh), alcohol or the smoking of cigarettes will be allowed on that day.
Although no dress code will be enforced, it is asked that moderate attire be your guide.
Research sources for article: Ethiopian History.Com, Origins.EDU.
African Heritage Foundation