It should have ended with Verdi

John Davis

  • The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire by Raymond Jonas
    Harvard, 413 pp, £22.95, November 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 05274 1

In March 1896, an Italian colonial army was defeated near the town of Adwa in northern Ethiopia. It was not the first reverse suffered by a European army in Africa, but it was the first decisive African victory. A decade later its earliest historian, Captain George Berkeley, wondered whether Adwa was ‘the first revolt of the Dark Continent against domineering Europe’. In The Battle of Adwa Raymond Jonas goes a step further. Adwa, he claims, not only ensured that Ethiopia would remain the only independent state in Africa but marked a turning point in global history: ‘We can readily imagine the world – our world – taking a different path had events gone differently.’ It ‘determined the colour of Africa’ and cut against the supremacist logic of European imperialism and American manifest destiny, opening a breach that would lead to the rolling back of European rule in Africa fifty years later.

The victory enhanced the authority and celebrity of the Ethiopian emperor Menelik II and his queen Taytu Betul, who thanks to their good looks and skill at self-promotion were already familiar figures on the world stage. Diplomats, arms dealers, journalists and the plain curious from Europe and the US hurried to ingratiate themselves with the victors in the hope of securing lucrative contracts. Westerners sought to adjust to the anomaly of an African victory by claiming the Ethiopians as cousins, and by questioning the Italians’ capacity for empire-building.

But whether Adwa was a turning point for Africa as a whole, and whether it alone ensured that Ethiopia would remain an independent and sovereign state, is open to question. Some credit for the victory must certainly go to the Italians, who by embarking on a campaign of colonial conquest without coherent objectives, adequate forces or investment, ensured the outcome of the conflict. Had they been more circumspect they might have kept their settlements at Agirad and Asmara, but Italy’s First African War – a term that in Italian still denotes a major disaster of any kind – was marked from start to finish by avoidable and ultimately tragic mistakes. The Orthodox Christian empire of Ethiopia faced many threats during its long history, but the Italians couldn’t be considered the most serious of them.

The battle took place in the highlands of the northern province of Tigray and began shortly before dawn on 1 March 1896. The Ethiopians had mobilised 120,000 men against a mixed force of 19,000 Italians and locally recruited colonial troops known as askari. Such numerical disparities were common in colonial conflicts in Africa and were generally offset by superior European weaponry. Adwa was different. The Ethiopians were equipped with modern European guns, many of them supplied by the Italians, and they proved superior in tactics and leadership.

Under cover of darkness the Italians had advanced in three columns over mountainous terrain. The plan was to take the enemy by surprise, but their maps were so bad the Italian commanders couldn’t find their destinations and lost touch with each other and with the reserve. As a result the Ethiopians were able to pick off the columns one by one, and although the Italian and askari units fought courageously, by mid-afternoon the battle was over and the survivors were in full flight. Between 4000 and 6000 Ethiopians died and 8000 more were wounded. Proportionately, Italian losses were much greater: 4600 Italians and 1000 askari were killed on the battlefield and in the retreat that followed, and 500 and 1000 respectively wounded. A further 1900 Italians and 1500 askari were taken prisoner.

For Italy, the defeat was a catastrophe. The country was on the brink of war with France and embroiled in the most challenging domestic crisis since unification. When the scale of the disaster became known there were widespread protests and riots, the worst of them in Milan. Within weeks the government fell, bringing to an end the long political career of Francesco Crispi, the prime minister. The career of his good friend General Oreste Baratieri, the Italian commander at Adwa, ended similarly in disgrace. Like Crispi, Baratieri was a veteran of the Italian wars of independence and only a year earlier had been fêted for his victories in Africa. Now he appeared before a court martial charged with abandoning his men on the battlefield. He was acquitted of the capital offence but not exonerated, and after the trial King Umberto, another former admirer, made it clear that he believed the general should have been shot.

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