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

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.

How had an impoverished, insecure and conflict-torn country become involved in an ill-defined colonial escapade it clearly couldn’t afford? Many Italians probably wished that their involvement in Africa had ended with the performance of Verdi’s Aida in Cairo two years after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Pressure now mounted to get rid of Eritrea, Italy’s sole colony, whose acquisition between 1885 and 1890 had led to the disaster. But that risked too much loss of face, especially since a humiliating peace treaty with Menelik couldn’t be avoided. As well as acknowledging Ethiopia’s independence and sovereignty, and abandoning all claims to Ethiopian territory, Italy was obliged to pay ten million lire in reparations. (The Ethiopian emperor graciously agreed to disguise the reparations as settlement for the upkeep of the Italian prisoners who were now to be released.)

Jonas is not a specialist in African or Italian history, but some fine historians have mapped out the territory for him. His account is colourful, interspersed with thumbnail profiles of the protagonists and picture postcard descriptions of the principal sites (unfortunately, there is only one map to cover the whole of East Africa, though there are five of the battle), as well as quotations from an impressive selection of contemporary memoirs.

His book tells two quite different stories and explains how they converged at Adwa. The African story began much earlier in the century with the decline of Ottoman power. The expansionist ambitions of the new khedival regime in Egypt threatened the Ethiopian empire’s western, northern and eastern borders and its access to the trade routes of the Red Sea. But the Ottoman decline brought opportunities too: Menelik’s predecessors, emperors Tewodros and Yohannes, saw it as a chance to expand their territory while strengthening their authority over the empire’s independent warlords, religious leaders and feudal chiefs. Both turned to the Europeans, who alone could supply the weaponry needed to subdue their neighbours and awe their own followers. Elsewhere in Africa this strategy opened the door to foreign intervention and facilitated partition. In the two decades before Adwa, Ethiopia looked similarly vulnerable to European tactics of divide and rule.

In 1862, a letter of greeting from Tewodros to Queen Victoria was mislaid by the Foreign Office, causing a diplomatic spat that escalated into a major confrontation. Tewodros vented his displeasure by detaining a British consul and some missionaries, to which Parliament responded in 1868 by authorising a punitive expedition. General Robert Napier raised 13,000 troops, 20,000 logistic personnel, many thousands of mules and camels and 44 elephants in India, and shipped them to the Red Sea. After marching 780 miles overland to Tewodros’s capital, he defeated the imperial army (with the loss of two British soldiers) and burned Magdala to the ground. Tewodros committed suicide, and Napier, his job done (at the cost of £9 million to the British taxpayer), marched back to the coast, stopping only to thank Dajatch Kassa, the ruler of the province of Tigray and Tewodros’s rival.

Kassa had supported the British expedition, and in return he was given most of Napier’s guns and supplies, which were put to good use in his successful bid for the imperial title in 1872. His accession as Yohannes IV promised to perpetuate the cycle of internal feuding and external intervention. He made a mortal enemy of the rival claimant, Menelik, the ambitious and clever young ruler of the southern kingdom of Shoa. Menelik’s power was significantly enhanced by his marriage in 1883 to Taytu Betul, which gave him the support of her influential kinsmen in the north. The acquisition in 1887 of the city of Harar, situated 300 miles east of Addis Ababa and formerly controlled by the Egyptians, finally provided Menelik with access to the coast and shifted the balance of power within the empire decisively towards his kingdom in the south. The long-awaited showdown with Yohannes followed in 1888, but at the last moment the army that Yohannes had mobilised against Menelik was diverted to beat off a Mahdist incursion in the west. Although directed primarily against Egypt, the revolt of the followers of the Mahdi in southern Sudan also posed a major threat to the Christian rulers of Ethiopia and the Italians in Eritrea. The Mahdists were routed, but in the hour of victory Yohannes was mortally wounded. That was Menelik’s cue to claim the imperial crown and the moment when the Ethiopian and Italian stories finally intersected.

In the previous decade European diplomats, engineers, adventurers, speculators, missionaries and mercenaries had found their way to Menelik’s newly built capital at Addis Ababa (its construction was managed by his most trusted foreign adviser, a Swiss engineer named Alfred Ilg). Americans, Russians, Italians and even Arthur Rimbaud, the poet turned arms dealer, came to do business with the king of Shoa. There had been Italians in Ethiopia from much earlier, mainly missionaries like Father (later Cardinal) Guglielmo Massaia, who had been an adviser to Tewodros, Yohannes and Menelik. But the Italians who arrived in Addis in the 1880s were different. Although little is known about him, the most important was Pietro Antonelli. A nephew of Pope Pius IX’s famous secretary of state, Giacomo, and well connected to the influential papal aristocracy in Rome, he had come to Africa, so it was said, to find buyers for the large stock of arms that were no longer of use to the disbanded papal army. But he soon established a special rapport with Menelik and convinced himself (if not the king) that with Menelik’s support Italy could become the major European presence in Ethiopia.

Menelik warmed to Antonelli for different reasons. For him, the Italians were suppliers of arms, whose relative weakness made it easy to drive good bargains. Antonelli knew that Menelik’s seizure of power would be fiercely opposed by Yohannes’s nephew Ras Mangasha and his ally, Ras Alula of Tigray, and that the new emperor would need a foreign backer. The result was the treaty of friendship negotiated by Antonelli and then ratified in Rome, the Treaty of Wuchale of 1889.

By now Italy had its own colony on the Red Sea. Following the collapse of the khedival regime and the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, European competition for the former Egyptian territories had intensified. So when Italy occupied Massawa in 1885, the British raised no objection, partly because an Italian presence prevented the French (who were already established at Djibouti) from moving in. With no clear project beyond the claim that Massawa was too hot for European settlement, the Italians then pushed inland towards the enticing Ethiopian highlands and the borders of Tigray.

The road to Adwa began with the occupation of the Ethiopian town of Sahati in 1886. Ras Alula, Tigray’s outraged ruler, counter-attacked and overwhelmed a small Italian relief column of just over 500 men near Dogali. Although the Italians who fell at Dogali were the invaders, in Italy they were immediately compared to the 300 Spartans who defended the pass at Thermopylae. Enthusiasm for colonial ventures was still weak in Italy, but the call to avenge Dogali provided the small pro-colonial lobby with an emotive symbol. Because its supporters included the king, the lobby’s influence was out of all proportion to its size. As Denis Mack Smith demonstrated long ago, it was the monarchy’s extensive prerogatives that made it possible for Italy to embark on colonial conquest with only partial parliamentary scrutiny. The colonial delusions of Umberto and his queen Margherita were shared by Crispi, who served as prime minister from 1887 to 1891 and then from December 1893 until Adwa. It was Italy’s misfortune that the prime minister and the king shared the belief that colonial victories in Africa could repair the country’s internal divisions.

Calls for revenge for Dogali helped Crispi win parliamentary support in May 1889 for the occupation of the Tigrayan towns of Keren and Asmara, then Adwa, and the proclamation of the colony of Eritrea in January 1890. Enthusiasm for the new colony faded when Crispi fell from power, but quickly revived when a string of Italian victories over the Mahdists at Adigrat and Kassala and over Ras Mangasha’s forces at Coatit and Senafé coincided with his return to office. Crispi’s government remained divided, however, unsure whether to consolidate the existing frontier of the new colony or push deeper into Tigray. By now the Italian incursions had forced not only Ras Mangasha and Ras Alula but many other disaffected vassals back into Menelik’s embrace. Unwittingly, the Italians had brought about the union of rival Ethiopian leaders that the Treaty of Wuchale had been designed to undermine.

Italy’s relations with Menelik had deteriorated in the meantime after it was discovered that the treaty contained what could only have been a deliberate deception. The Italian text conceded a protectorate over Ethiopia to Italy, but there was no trace of that in the Amharic version. Menelik was quick to protest, but slow to denounce the treaty, no doubt because he was waiting for the Italian weapons to be delivered. He was also guarding his flanks: in 1894 he launched a major war against a Muslim neighbour, the Welayta. Their king was captured and forced to convert to Christianity, and an estimated 80,000 of his subjects were killed or taken prisoner. With thousands of cattle and slaves as war booty, by the summer of 1895 Menelik was ready for battle with the Italians.

The call for mass mobilisation went out across the empire early in September, just after General Baratieri had returned from Italy, where his attempts to persuade parliament to provide more men and funds had not been successful. Crispi’s political position was now even more precarious and he desperately needed victories in Africa. But his government remained divided, and instructions to Baratieri became increasingly unclear. Menelik’s mobilisation forced Baratieri’s hand: without waiting for reinforcements he prepared for confrontation. On 7 December, an advance party commanded by General Pietro Toselli was engaged by Ras Makonnen on the heights of Amba Alage: 1500 askari and 20 Italians died with their general.

Baratieri’s campaign was crippled by confused, incomplete orders and deficient intelligence. After Toselli’s defeat, an inadequate force was left to defend the indefensible position of Mekele. Ras Makonnen, the Ethiopian commander who had acted as emissary to Italy in 1893, begged the Italians to withdraw and avoid spilling Christian blood. They refused, until lack of water forced them to surrender. With a show of magnanimity Menelik allowed the survivors to rejoin their main force, but the gesture served a purpose: the retreating Italian columns covered his own advance, enabling him to circle the fortified Italian strongholds, threaten their lines of communications to the coast and choose the battle site near Adwa.

Even so, the Ethiopian victory was by no means certain. Both armies were running out of supplies and neither could have stayed in the field much longer. On the evening of 28 February, Baratieri, whose superiors had failed to tell him that he had already been replaced, met with his four senior generals to ask whether he should attack or retreat. All were convinced that retreat was impossible. So briefed, Baratieri decided on the fatal night march that would give the victory to Menelik.

The final section of Jonas’s book focuses on the aftermath in Africa, Europe and beyond. The description of Baratieri’s court martial is interspersed with accounts of the experiences of Italian prisoners as captives in Ethiopia, and of the less fortunate askari whose right arms and left legs were hacked off in punishment for their treachery. There is some speculation about the Ethiopian practice of emasculating fallen and wounded enemies, which Baratieri claimed had caused his men to panic before the battle was lost. But Baratieri’s account was challenged by others who fought at Adwa, and despite the attention the stories received in the Italian press it is unclear how many of the Italians taken prisoner were mutilated. In the context of the slaughter of the Waytolo in 1894 and of the Mahdists by Kitchener’s men at the battle of Omdurman, the Italians taken prisoner after Adwa were fortunate that they were more valuable to the emperor as hostages than as corpses.

The battle of Omdurman two years later does not figure in Jonas’s account, even though it was very much part of the story. The Italian defeat put the Eritrean colony at the mercy of the Mahdist forces, leaving Italy no alternative but to seek help from Britain. This gave Lord Salisbury the justification he had been seeking for intervention in the Sudan to put an end to the Mahdist revolt. The result was Kitchener’s expedition, the bloody victory over the Mahdists at Omdurman and then the Fashoda crisis, when Kitchener’s army marched south to block French claims to the Upper Nile. France – enmeshed in the Dreyfus Affair – climbed down, and the way was open for the new, short-lived era of the European ententes. By lifting the external threats to Ethiopia’s independence, Omdurman, not Adwa, ensured that Menelik would retain his throne until he died and was succeeded by Ras Makonnen’s son, Ras Tafari, who in 1930 assumed the title of Haile Selassie.

Not quite a black hero, not a hero – avant la lettre – of the colonial struggle, Menelik continued to play the politics of skin colour and religion astutely. When it suited his purpose he was ready to call on Europeans as fellow Christians, but when he needed an alliance with the Mahdists he appealed to them as fellow blacks. When the Haitian writer Benito Sylvain proposed that he play a leading role in the improvement of the ‘negro race’, Menelik replied: ‘I am not a negro at all – I am Caucasian.’

When it comes to the Italian reactions to Adwa, Jonas captures, in a nicely drawn vignette, the fears aroused among Italy’s political leaders when it seemed that the pope might successfully negotiate the release of the prisoners. But he does not mention that Adwa was a double defeat for Italy, which in the treaty of 1896 was forced to acknowledge the French protectorate over Tunisia, raising the possibility that France would use the port of Bizerte to threaten Tripolitania. Like the loss of Cuba for Spain, and Alsace-Lorraine for France, Adwa became a symbol of everything that had made Italy weak and pitiful after unification. It provided the aggressive nationalist movement that gained momentum after 1900 with grounds for its call for revenge and regeneration, and in 1911 served to legitimise Italy’s invasion of Tripolitania, another colonial war accompanied by stories of massacres and atrocities which, with only a few courageous exceptions, Italian historians have until recently been unwilling to investigate.

The most explicit and precise moment of vengeance came with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Ethiopia was the only independent state in Africa and the only African member of the League of Nations, but not a single member state was prepared to go beyond self-serving sanctions to protest the violation of its independence. In retrospect Adwa seems more like a temporary respite than a true turning point in the history of Africa.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences