In the late nineteenth century, when it seemed that all of Africa was destined to come under European colonial rule, Ethiopia succeeded in thwarting European conquest and preserving its own independence. The pivotal event in its resistance to Italian colonial advance from Eritrea was the Battle of Adwa, in which an army of black Africans under the leadership of Emperor Menelik decisively defeated the Italians. The Battle of Adwa, which marked the first time in the modern era that a non-European power had defeated a European power without the aid of a European ally, is considered one of the most important events in modern African history. In The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, historian Raymond Jonas makes the case for the broader global historical significance of the conflict.
There are a number of complex reasons for Italian failure at Adwa. Italian leadership had assumed, wrongly but not without credibility, that it could play on factional conflict within Ethiopia. As a result the Italians were unprepared for the unity Menelik was able to inspire, and thus the Italians drastically underestimated the size of the Ethiopian army, and the firepower at its disposal. But Menelik’s forces didn’t merely outnumber the Italians; the Emperor also outmaneuvered them, in what Jonas describes as one of the great military campaigns of modern history.
Inevitably, Ethiopian victory was interpreted in racial terms, for not only had an African army defeated a European army, but a black army had defeated a white army. In the Jim Crow United States and elsewhere around the globe, Adwa gave the lie to the inevitability of European domination—both political and racial. We recently spoke with Jonas about the worldwide implications of what happened at Adwa in 1896. A bit of video from our conversation:
It can be a challenge to tell a story of such profound global impact on a personal level, to depict actions as driven by characters rather than countries. This, though, is exactly Jonas’s achievement in The Battle of Adwa. Jonas gives us Menelik, proud and shrewd; his wife, the fiery Taytu; their loyal and capable compatriot Ras Makonnen (whose son would become Ras Tafari, better known as Haile Selassie); the legion of Italian military officials and politicians who opposed them; and a host of sometimes-quirky European advisors, entrepreneurs, agents, and observers. Jonas draws on contemporary journalistic accounts of the battle in Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and also on the extensive diaries, journals, and memoirs kept by many of the combatants. Those diaries form the basis of his depiction of the complex social entanglements that developed between Italian prisoners and their Ethiopian captors-cum-hosts after the battle, and also double as “accidental anthropology,” providing some of the best evidence we have of everyday life in Menelik’s Ethiopia.
Victory at Adwa left a complicated legacy for Ethiopians to sort through, as Jonas shows. He refers to the manner in which Ethiopians rallied around Emperor Menelik to fend off the Italians and preserve their independence as “the paradox of Adwa,” for it had the effect of casting an Emperor as an emblem of freedom, legitimizing and perpetuating rule by sacred monarchy in the country. Those ensuing complications notwithstanding, writes Jonas, the core message of Adwa was clear:
It was a national epic, the founding event in the modern life of the nation. The stately northward march of Menelik and Taytu not only consolidated their rule but called upon the Ethiopian people—Tigrayans, Shoans, Oromo, Welayta, and others—to set aside their differences and, in recognizing a common enemy, recognize a common nationhood. Nations, if they are to endure, are defined not by religion, ethnicity, or race but by the scale at which freedom can reliably be defended. Only on the scale of Ethiopia itself could resistance have succeeded.
Jonas maintains a website, www.battleofadwa.org, where you can explore maps and other additional materials, and also browse through the resources he consulted in writing The Battle of Adwa.