History

1896

The year 1896 was a significant date both in the
history of Ethiopia and in the world. By their historic
victory at Adowa the Ethiopian troops showed that their
age-old Empire could resist the military impact of nine-
teenth century European imperialism and made it pos-
sible for their Emperor Menelik to begin the modernisa-
tion of the country—a process which was to be con-
tinued and brought to greater fruition by the Emperor
Haile Sellassie. The battle of Adowa ensured in a word
that independent Ethiopia would remain on the map of
Africa, while European imperialism would itself disinte-
grate. As soon as the result of the Battle was announced,
a Parisian newspaper declared, as we shall see, that its
outcome had rendered the Berlin agreement of 1885 for
the partition of Africa as obsolete as the Papal Bull of
Pope Alexander VI for the division of the unknown
world between Portugal and Spain; eight years later an
English writer speculated whether the battle did not
“herald the rise of a new power in Africa” and mark
“the first revolt of the Dark Continent against domineer-
ing Europe.”

1896 was a significant date in world history. It was a
year in which the imperialist advance in Africa suffered
its first major reverses. Besides the Ethiopian victory at
Adowa the year saw great Mahdist victories
in the Sudan, the Matabele rebellion, and the debacle of
the Jamieson raid in South Africa. It was not without
significance that Captain F. D. Lugard, the future creator
of British rule in Uganda, should a few years earlier have
volunteered to fight in the Italian army of invasion, or
that Lord Cranworth, one of the first Kenya settlers,
should have called the Battle of Adowa the “greatest
crime” of the century and bemoaned the fact that pros-
pective European settlers were deprived of the beautiful
countryside around Addis Ababa which he declared the
most fertile of all East Africa.

In examining the historical evidence one is filled with
wonder at the fortune of the ancient Ethiopian empire
which maintained its freedom in the face of seemingly
overwhelming dangers. Ethiopia had her mountain fort-
resses, her heroic troops, and her able military organisa-
tion, but these factors were providentially strengthened by
a series of largely fortuitous circumstances. Ethiopia was
geographically a centre of dissension between the rival
colonial powers. Situated at the point where the British
dream of an “all red” line from the Cape to Cairo clash-
ed with the French dream of a French domination from
Jibuti to Dakar, Menelik found himself in a curious dip-
lomatic no man’s land in which the spheres of interest
of the colonial powers overlapped and in which the
European enemy he ultimately had to fight was the
weakest of the colonial powers even if it sought to make
up for its weakness by craft and ferocity. Ethiopia was
fortunate, too, in that the Italians attacked in 1896
before they had fully modernised their forces and that
they acted with such abruptness that they could not avail
themselves of the British Government’s promise to open
the Somali port of Zeila for a diversionist attack on
Harar.

Finally there is the problem of Menelik’s decision not
to follow up his victory at Adowa by pushing forward to
the coast. This decision which allowed the Italians to
remain in Eritrea, led inevitably, it is true, to the Italian
invasion of 1935. On the other hand, a perusal of the
pages which follow may suggest that a decision to con-
tinue the war after Adowa might well have provoked
the Italians to attempt an all-out war of revenge. In such
circumstances British intervention on behalf of Italy
would by no means have been improbable, though the
strength of Mahdism in the Sudan was undoubtedly an
important factor militating against such British aid.
Yet even though their defeat in 1896 brought an end
to immediate attempts at conquering Ethiopia, the
Italians soon returned to the imperialist path, one of
Mussolini’s slogans four decades later being the need to
avenge ” the shame ” of Adowa. Marshal Badoglio, it
is interesting to observe, had himself taken part in the
campaign of 1896 though not actually present at the
famous battle.

The chapters which follow are devoted to the events of
1896, to their diplomatic causes and effects, to the plan
of campaign, to the organisation of the opposing armies
and to the attitude of the principal powers.
We are greatly indebted to Ato Hailab Tedla for
information on the counter-intelligence work of the
Ethiopian patriot Awalom whose role has thus far been
ignored in most histories of the battle.
In remembering the heroism of Menelik’s armies who preserved
the national independence of their country we do not
forget those who gave their lives at Adowa in 1896; the price
Ethiopia paid in dead may be gathered by the description of
Augustus B. Wylde, late British consul for the Red Sea,
which is included in this issue.

PRINCIPAL
BATTLES 21 YEARS
FOUGHT BY PRECEDING
ETHIOPIA IN THE ADOWA
Battle
Enemy
Victory
Date
Goindet
Egypt
Ethiopian
November, 1875
Gura
"
"
March, 1876
Kufit
Dervishes
"
September, 1885
Dogalii
Italy
"
January, 1887
Gondar
Dervishes
Dervish
Autumn, 1887
Wogera
"
Ethiopian
August, 1888
Gallabat
"
"
March, 1889
Coatit
Italy
Italian
January, 1895
Senate
"
"
"
Amba Alagi
"
Ethiopian
December, 1895
Makalle
"
"
Dec, 1895 – Jan., 1896
Adowa
"
"
March, 1896

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