Africa was nonchalantly divided up by the Europeans in the late 19th century with little regard for the autonomy and self-government of their African counterparts. Consequently, the more commanding European nations hastily snatched up hefty swaths of terrain in Africa. Italy, on the other hand, had only recently unified in 1871, and was delayed from dynamically engaging in African colonization. Italy was politically and fiscally fragile in the 1890s, in contrast to the affluent and dominant realms of France and Britain, and had to abide by the political arrangement of Europe at the time. Their low standing on the geopolitical stage constrained them to acquire the territories that remained from the initial rush of colonization, or as it’s more prominently known as, the Scramble for Africa. The sole remaining sovereign nation in Africa in the 1890s was Abysinnia, or as it is recognized today, Ethiopia.
Ethiopia at the time was a “highly traditional empire-state” based on the religious ethos that the ruling Solomonic dynasty descended directly from biblical figure King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The legend dictates that King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba bore the child later known as King Menelik I in the 10th century B.C., who “became the founder of the ruling Ethiopian dynasty.”
In 1896, Italian envoys met with then-ruler of Ethiopia King Menelik II under the pretense of establishing closer ties between their nations. King Menelik and Italy came to an agreement and signed the Treaty of Wuchale. The Treaty of Wuchale was primarily based on the sale of land to the Italians so they could fashion an Italian colony in the region. It was an uncomplicated treaty to appease Italians desire of a colonial empire. A perilously damning concern arose after the treaties were signed. The Italians had secretly slipped in an addendum that legally bound Ethiopia to maintain all foreign relations through Italy, as well as turning Ethiopia into an Italian protectorate. The version of the treaty produced in Amharic did not include this, but rather affirmed Ethiopia’s presence as an autonomous kingdom, with the individual choice of using Italy to conduct foreign affairs any way they saw fit.
King Menelik condemned the Italians for their supposed deception, and asserted that the treaty was not valid nor recognized by his government. The Italians disagreed, asserting King Menelik was well aware of the context of their agreement, threatening military action to maintain their theoretical newly instituted hegemony over Ethiopia.
Italy, however, underestimated the resistance they would face from invading Ethiopia, only deploying “18,00 men armed with about 56 pieces of artillery.” During this period, European nations characteristically did not encounter effective opposition or non-cooperation from African nations when attempting to establish preeminence through military means. Europe’s military was technologically highly developed in comparison to numerous African nations, conceiving an ideal situation for European colonial aspirations.
Racial attitudes in that era earnestly promoted Africa’s cultural inferiority. The European doctrine of mission civilisatrice or civilizing mission was a prime characteristic of Europe’s approach to colonization. The Civilizing mission in essence gave European nations justification for colonization on the foundation that it was their duty to enlighten, educate and humanize the purpotedly benighted and barbaric people of the world. The doctrine propped up their rationalization for colonial capers, but was also a leading basis for Italy’s underestimation of Ethiopia’s ability.
Though Italian forces were better equipped than the Ethiopian forces, King Menelik managed to unite the populace under the banner of preserving their independence. Italy was taken aback by King Menelik and his wife Empress Taytu’s ability to amass of army of substantial size, with some reports insisting their forces ranged between 100,000 and 120,000. The battle occurred on March 1, 1896, and ended with Italian forces in full retreat within a few hours. Consequently, the Italian soldiers fleeing abandoned much of their military hardware, allowing for the coalition of Ethiopian forces to collect the remnants.
The Battle of Adwa was a devastating loss for Italy, and resulted in political discord in Italy. General Bartiera, General of the Italian Armed Forces who led the battle, was severely disciplined for his mis-steps. Italy was then forced to sign the Treaty of Addis Ababa which denoted Ethiopia’s complete autonomy from foreign rule.
The significance of the battle was far-reaching. The victory was seen as one of the major sparks of the Pan-African movement. Furthermore, African-American civil rights activist W.E.B Dubois contended the importance of the victory and “promulgating Ethiopia as an idea of global African unity.” Why was it significant though?
The Battle of Adwa was the sole victory Africa had against a European power, in a time when Africa was under complete control by Europe. Moreover, African-Americans saw the victory as justification for their own self-worth. The triumph was even considered one of the primary reasons for the “modern global rise of a Pan-African vision of freedom.” Abebe Hailu, of the Washington Informer argues that it helped rewrite how Africans were viewed internationally, and assisted in altering the ingrained representation that Africans were “no better than ‘savages.'”