Diplomatic Relations with Europe, 1861-1896

Emperor Menelik II, from a painting of 1896

The first (excluding the interesting plan of the Belgian, Eduard
Blondeel) colonial threat to Ethiopia’s age-old
independence in modern times came from the French
dictator Napoleon III, who had seized power in 1852
and was destined to remain in sole charge of his country’s
foreign policy till the debacle of the Franco-Prussian
war of 1870. Napoleon the Little, as he was called,
hoped to obtain a foothold on the northern coast of
Ethiopia through the influence of the French Consul
and two Italian priests, Giuseppe Sapeto and Monsignor
De Jacobis, then in bitter conflict with their
Protestant rivals who themselves had begun activities
in the country in 1829. The Ethiopian attitude can be
seen by the reaction of the head of the Ethiopian Church,
Abuna Salama, who, when asked by a British Consul to
support tolerance for all Christian sects, replied that
tolerance towards the Roman Catholic Mission had been
unfortunate; the Mission, he said, had ” introduced
Frenchmen and firearms ” in support of a rebel called
Negussie, who was then waging war against the Imperial
forces. The Abuna further complained that ” the
country was thrown into disorder by large bands of
marauders, who adopted the Roman Catholic cause in
the hope of finding their profit in the future collision of
the two faiths.”

As soon as his rebellion was under way Negussie
offered the Bay of Adulis and the island of Dissee to
Napoleon III on condition that French troops be sup-
plied to assist his revolt. However, Negussie was
defeated in 1861 before French intervention could
materialise, though a French warship spent several
months cruising along the coast in the following year.
M. Schaefer, first Oriental interpreter to Napoleon III,
selected the harbour of Obok, with the plain extending
from Ras Ali to Ras Dumeira, as a suitable area for
French settlement. The transaction was then carried
out by a French payment of 10,000 Maria Theresa
dollars to the chief of a local village, who disappeared
forthwith. His successor tried in vain to deny the
validity of the deal; France had obtained the nucleus of
her future Somali Colony.

The defeat of the French by Prussia and the fall of
Napoleon in 1870 put an end to French intrigues. The
way lay open for Italy, especially after the cutting of
the Suez Canal, which was formally opened on Novem-
ber 16, 1869. Father Sapeto, who as early as 1859 had
been instrumental in arranging a ” commercial treaty ”
between Negussie and the King of Piedmont, which
recognised the rebel as “King of Ethiopia,” now suc-
ceeded in purchasing a portion of land in the Bay of
Assab for the Italian Rubattino Company in 1869,
ostensibly as a coaling station. The sale was followed
by the arrival of Italian gunboats, symbolically enough
on the very day of the opening of the Canal. Formal
Italian sovereignty was not, however, proclaimed until
1882, when Italy lost Tunisia to France, and deter-
mined to found a large-scale empire in East Africa.
In the intervening years the area of Italian control on
the Red Sea was being continually extended by armed
raids and bribes to local chiefs.

The rise of the Sudanese Mahdi in 1883 produced an
unsettled situation in the whole of North-East Africa,
which the Italians hoped to turn to their advantage.
The defeat by the Mahdi of 10,000 Egyptian troops
under Hicks Pasha in November rendered it essential
for Britain to withdraw her garrison and evacuate
European residents of towns in imminent danger of
capture. The British Government accordingly persuaded
the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV to give assistance
on the understanding that the frontier region of Bogos,
which had recently been occupied by the Egyptians,
would be restored to Ethiopia. The Anglo-Ethiopian
agreement of June 3, 1884, signed on behalf of the
British Government by Rear-Admiral Sir William
Hewett, also guaranteed free transit for Ethiopian goods
” under British protection” through the port of
Massawa. In accordance with this treaty, Ras Aloula,
Governor of Hamasien, was despatched to the Sudan,
where he successfully relieved six Egyptian garrisons
according to plan, but not without considerable losses,
Aloula himself being wounded.

The British Government, however, had meanwhile
decided that it would be convenient to curb French
expansion in Africa by giving Italy a free hand in East
Africa. Thus, while Ras Aloula was occupied on the
western frontier the British Cabinet secretly agreed to
an Italian occupation of Massawa. Italian Rear-
Admiral Caimi entered the port on February 3, 1885,
less than a year after the Anglo-Ethiopian agreement
which had pledged British protection for Ethiopian
trade through the port. The Italian colonel Saletta
occupied the port on February 5, the day that Khartoum
fell to the Dervishes. ” Look at our behaviour to King
Yohannes from any point of view,” wrote A. B. Wylde,
ex-British Vice-Consul for the Red Sea area, “it will not
show one ray of honesty. To my mind it is one of the
worst bits of business out of the many we have been
guilty of in Africa, and no wonder our position diplo-
matically is such a bad one with the rulers of the country
at present. England made use of King Yohannes as long
as he was of any service, and then- threw him over to the
tender mercies of Italy, who went to Massawa under our
auspices with the intention of taking territory that
belonged to our ally, and allowed them to break all the
promises England had solemnly made to King Yohannes
after he had faithfully carried out his part of the agree-
ment. The fact is not known to the British public, and
I wish it was not true for our credit’s sake.”

Such politics were perhaps not surprising in 1885, the
year of the Berlin conference on the partition of Africa.
Italian colonial ambitions were now aroused. Caimi had
promised on landing at Massawa that he would place
no obstacle on trade, but professions of friendship soon
rang hollow. When the Italians felt strong enough they
seized other ports on the coast and stopped Ethiopian
trade. Their forces crossed the neutral area that had
been set up to avoid conflict, and climbed the mountains
where they occupied and fortified Sahati and Wia. Ras
Aloula warned them that they were infringing the treaty
of 1884 and that further troop movements would be
considered a hostile act. The Italians replied by
strengthening the fortifications they had built and by
sending more troops, which were intercepted and
defeated by Ras Aloula at Dogali in January, 1886,
whereupon the Italians hastily evacuated Sahati and Wia
in fear of being trapped. In Rome, the Italian Govern-
ment of Signor Depretis fell and Signor Crispi became
Foreign Minister. He began careful preparations for
the inevitable ” war of revenge,” for which the Italian
Parliament voted him a budget of 20 million lire.
While the Italian Government threatened war, the
British despatched a Mission, under G. H. Portal, to
persuade Ethiopia to surrender to the Italians the terri-
tory which the 1884 treaty had recently restored to
her. When the Emperor heard these proposals, he
replied: ” I can do nothing with all this. By the treaty
made by Admiral Hewett, all the ‘ country evacuated
by the Egyptians’ on my frontier was ceded to me at
the instigation of England, and now you come to ask
me to give it up again.”

Faced with the threat of war by Italy, the Emperor
strengthened the northern defences by sending thither
the garrison stationed at Gallabat. Finding the frontier
unguarded, the Dervishes broke into Ethiopia at that
point. Emperor Yohannes hastened to Gallabat to repel
them, but at the close of a victorious battle he was
mortally wounded by the bullet of a sniper on
March 10, 1889.

Yohannes was succeeded by his son-in-law, Menelik,
King of Shoa, who was destined to play a decisive role
in the development and modernisation of his country.
The Italians at first offered him the hand of friendship,
promising assistance in economic development and
protection against a possible renewal of Egyptian
aggression. Accordingly, a Treaty of Perpetual Peace
and Friendship was signed on May 2, 1889, and ratified
on September 29 of the same year. Article XVII pro-
vided that Emperor Menelik should have the power to
avail himself of the services of the Italian, authorities
for any communications he might wish to have for-
warded to other Governments. A similar article had
already been included in a treaty between Menelik and
the King of Italy in respect of the Consular authority
in the newly-established Italian colony of Assab. The
proviso of that treaty, as well as that of the treaty of
1889, in the Amharic text, was permissive and in no
way obligatory. The Italian version, which had been
previously drafted in Rome and was not, in fact, signed
by both parties, made it obligatory for the Emperor to
conduct all his transactions with other Powers through
the Italian Government. On this ground the Italians
claimed they had established a protectorate over
Ethiopia and were entitled to take control of Ethiopian
affairs. Before making their claim on October 11, 1889,
however, they waited until an additional convention had
been concluded with Ethiopia on October 1, 1889. This
convention provided that the boundaries of Italian
possessions on the Red Sea coast should be ” rectified ”
on the basis of ” the actual state of possession ” at the
time, a device which enabled Italy to annex Asmara,
Keren, and a sizable strip of territory before the addi-
tional convention was finally ratified by Menelik on
February 25, 1890. “The advance of the Italians was
unopposed,” writes A. B. Wylde, ” and once they had
made good their foothold on the upper plateau and
fortified themselves, no Abyssinian force could drive
them out.” Adowa itself had been occupied in January,

Italy’s claim to a protectorate over Ethiopia was
made in accordance with the Berlin convention, which
provided ” in the Name of Almighty God ” that any
European Power which ” takes possession of a tract of
land on the African continent” or ” assumes a pro-
tectorate there ” had merely to notify the other Powers
to enable them, if need be, ” to make good any claims
of their own.” King Umberto of Italy wrote to Menelik
calling down the blessing of Heaven upon the Ethiopian
sovereign, whose Empire was now faced by Italian
colonisation to the south as well as north, for in May,
1889, the Somali Sultans of the Mijertain and Oppia had
been persuaded to accept Italian protection, with the
result that the Italians immediately claimed the Benadir,
their protectorate over the area being recognised by
England and Germany in a treaty of July 1. On
September 27, 1890, Menelik officially brushed aside the
Italian claims to his country, declaring, “Ethiopia does
not require the protection of anyone; Ethiopia stretches
out her hands to God.”

In a circular letter to the Powers, he added:
” I have no intention of being an indifferent spectator
if far-distant Powers make their appearance with the
idea of dividing Africa … As the Almighty has pro-
tected Ethiopia to this day, I am confident He will
strengthen and protect it in the future.”

The Italian claim to “protect” the Ethiopian “hinter-
land” was opposed by France with whose interests it
conflicted, but Germany and Britain were both favour-
able to annexation; Germany wished to keep Italy in the
Triple Alliance with herself and Austria, Britain desired
to use Italy as an obstacle to French ambitions for a
great North African empire. The sovereigns of both
countries readily recognised the Italian interpretation of
the treaty of Uccialli; Menelik subsequently declared that
Queen Victoria’s letter on the subject was courteous
while that of the Kaiser was insulting. J. Scott Keltie,
assistant secretary of the Royal Geographical Society in
London, typified the British attitude in a contemporary
geography textbook in which he recognised an Italian
protectorate over Ethiopia, but advised Italy that the
“wisest course” was to pursue a cautious policy: “Italy’s
share is allotted to her: if she only acts on her own
maxim—’he who goes gently, goes safely and he who
goes safely goes far’—and if not inveigled into any ex-
tensive military occupations, she may in time reap some
advantage from her 600,000 square miles of Africa.”
The Italians were now coveting Kassala to the west
of their colony, but since expansion in this area con-
flicted with British ambitions in the Sudan, the British
objected to anything more than a temporary Italian
occupation of the area. The German Kaiser’s comment
was: “once they are in, the Italians can do as the British
do with the occupation of Egypt, which is also ‘tem-
porary.’ ”

Italo-Ethiopian negotiations were meanwhile still in
progress. The Italian negotiator, Artonelli, declared to
Menelik in an audience at which Empress Taitu was
present, that “Italy cannot notify the other Powers that
she was mistaken in Article XVII, because she must
maintain her dignity.” Taitu replied: “We also have
made known to the Powers that the said Article, as it
is written in our language, has another meaning. As
you, we also ought to respect our dignity. You wish
Ethiopia to be represented before the other Powers as
your protectorate, but this shall never be.”

Ethiopia managed at this time to import a small quan-
tity of arms which were readily supplied by France and
Russia, but the Brussels Act of July 2, 1890, was used
by the other great powers to restrict the sale of arms
to Ethiopia as to other areas of Africa on the excuse
that they might be used to further the slave trade.
The British Government next entered into three pro-
tocols with Italy in March and April, 1891, and May,
1894, whereby the boundaries between British colonies
and the alleged Italian protectorate were defined. As
soon as the last of these protocols was signed Ethiopia
ceased to exist on British maps, being designated in Sir
Edward Hertslet’s Map of Africa by Treaty as “Italian
Abyssinia.” Signor Crispi, who was now the Italian
Prime Minister, was convinced that the moment had
arrived to establish Italian rule in Ethiopia by force of
arms. After long negotiations Menelik formally denoun-
ced the whole treaty of Uccialli on February 12, 1893,
notifying the powers that he was not looking for any
European protector. The French gave Menelik their
moral support and the Russians sent a number of
scientific and religious missions which, it was thought,
had other interests beside the specialised matters they
claimed to study. The Italians, for their part, sought to
obtain active support from their German and Austrian
allies, by threatening to desert them. The Italian Am-
bassador in Vienna declared that “Italy could have
Abyssinia, Tripoli, and Heaven knows what else, if only
she would desert the Triple Alliance.”

Open hostilities between Menelik and Italy may be
dated from 1894 when it became evident to the Emperor
that no modus vivendi with the invader was possible.
Ras Mangasha reported from the Tigre that the Italians
refused to withdraw from Adowa until Menelik accepted
their interpretation of the Treaty of Uccialli. Soon after-
wards the Ras was defeated by General Baratieri, the
Italian Governor of Eritrea, in two hard-fought battles
at Coatit and Senafe between January 13 and 15, 1895.
Baratieri had already made a name for himself, by order-
ing the arrest of six Eritrean villagers who were then
placed back to front and executed by firing a single
bullet through them at point blank range to demonstrate
to their companions the power of modern weapons.
After the rains of 1895 he seized Adowa, advanced into
Tembien and Enderta provinces and occupied Makalle.
By the end of the year the Italians were therefore in con-
trol of almost the whole of the Tigre.

Ras Makonnen
In December, however, Ras Makonnen, (Menelik’s
cousin and father of Emperor Haile Sellassie) arrived from Harar province, and, to the surprise
of the invader, defeated him very decisively at Amba
Alagi on December 2. The routed Italians now retreated
on Makalle, which Ras Makonnen besieged from
December 8 until January 2 of the following year when
the garrison capitulated. Meanwhile the rest of the
Italian forces were obliged to abandon Adowa and
fall back on Adigrat. The Makalle garrison was allowed
to retire to Italian territory taking their arms with them
on the understanding that the troops would not again
be used against Ethiopia, a promise which was later

Early in 1896 the Italians, who had withdrawn over
the Mareb, received strong reinforcements which enab-
led them to take up positions along a line from Adigrat
via Entichio to Adi Quala. It was here that the campaign
of Adowa opened.

On the Ethiopian side Menelik commanded an army
of almost 120,000 men composed of patriots drawn from
all provinces. Baratieri had at about this time received
from the Italian Foreign Minister, Baron Blanc, a copy
of the peace terms which he was supposed to submit to
the Ethiopians on the assumption of an Italian victory:
“That if a Negus Nagasti continued to exist, though the
Government admitted they would prefer his elimination
… he and his Rases were to acknowledge Italian rule as
far as Lake Aschangi and the Takazze river. All Ethio-
pia was to be an Italian protectorate, and was to main-
tain such troops only as might be agreed by Italy. No
concessions of land, commerce, industries, railways, etc.
were to be granted to subjects of any foreign nation ex-
cept by permission of Italy, who was to keep a Resident
at the capital, invested with full civil and criminal juris-
diction over all foreigners … the customs and duties
would in future be regulated by her, the Abyssinian
money coined at her mints, and no loans were to be
contracted without her authorization; she would not be
responsible for any previous debt of the Negus. She
undertook, however, to develop the commerce, agricul-
ture and education, etc, of Abyssinia and all that could
contribute to the economic and civil’ welfare of that
country. The Italians were to have the power of buying
land. All internal disputes were to be referred to the
Government at Rome.” Such far reaching demands could
only have been imposed if Italy were victorious.
Baron Blanc accordingly telegraphed on January 28,
that “in the present condition of our military operations,
and until Italy has won a victory over the enemy,
the government of the King does not see that it can
enter on serious negotiations, or obtain useful conditions
which will assure our position in Ethiopia for the

By this time Menelik had moved forward to meet the
invader in the neighbourhood of Adowa. This move,
commented General Luzeux, “denotes in the mind of the
sovereign a real understanding of the affairs of war.”
Though inferior in armament the Ethiopian army
was resolute and determined to display bravery in
action. Months of unsuccessful skirmishing and the
breakdown of communications had, on the other hand,
weakened Italian morale. In his impatience to announce
a victory for the Italian general election, Crispi, the
Italian Prime Minister telegraphed: “This is a military
phthisis not a war; small skirmishes in which we
are always facing the enemy with inferior numbers;
a waste of heroism, without any corresponding success.
I have no advice to give you because I am not on the
spot, but it is clear to me that there is no fundamental
plan in this campaign, and I should like one to be formu-
lated. We are ready for any sacrifice in order to save the
honour of the army and the prestige of the monarchy.”


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