Sunday, May 21, 2017

Battle of Adwa: Africa's Victory over Europe

Fig.1: Africa in the late 19th century was like a game of Bingo: 
not a lot of free spaces.

We know the story by now: from the late 15th century onward, Europeans came, saw, and conquered whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. The Americas, Australia, Asia, Africa; anyplace that began with an A could expect to be taken over by European explorers (look out, Andromeda Galaxy, they're coming!). Believe it or not, there have been a few exceptions of non-European nations who violently resisted respectfully declined the exploitation opportunity of colonialism. Africa's major example (okay, really only example) of retaining their independence in the face of a European attack also began with an A: Abyssinia, known more commonly today as Ethiopia. In 1896, Ethiopians defeated a European military force set on conquering East Africa, and successfully pushed the invaders out of their territory. The fact that the European country in this instance was Italy, which was essentially considered a D-League power at this time (even Denmark had more colonies around the world than they did), has not contracted from the significance of the event. Ethiopia's victory at the Battle of Adwa destroyed preconceived notions that Europeans were inherently better than Africans, and would inspire other nations throughout the continent to try and shake off colonialism during the 20th century. Taylor Swift would be proud.

Ethiopia had been independent for a long time before the 19th century AD (After Doughnuts): tradition states that their ruling dynasty was founded by a man named Menelik around 950 BC (Before Crullers). He was reportedly the lovechild of the Queen of Sheba (ancient Ethiopia) from her visit to the biblical Jewish king Solomon; of course, the Bible leaves out all the steamy details of the love that happened on the trip, preferring to discuss boring things like God and exchange of spices. Ethiopia remained predominantly Jewish until the 4th century AD when it became one of the first nations in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion, practicing the Orthodox brand favored in Constantinople (before it got the works). For centuries, the Ethiopian Empire survived famines, Arab invasions, and being unfortunately positioned between the Equator and Tropic of Cancer during the summertime, but what it really needed protecting from was itself. Internal rivalries between the various regions caused constant conflict for the ruling emperor, as well as any wannabe who wannabe emperor. This problem persisted all the way to 1889: Emperor Yohannes IV died, and a battle ensued between his son, Mengesha Yohannes, and a king from the southern region of Shewa named Menelik (Part II!). Menelik emerged victorious, and like his biblical ancestor, he wished to unite his nation, whether they wanted to unite under him or not!

Fig.2: Menelik liked to borrow hats 
from Charlie Daniels every so often. 

Unfortunately for Menelik II (fig.2), this was not an ideal time to be struggling to keep your African country together. The "Scramble for Africa" was in full-swing by the 1880s, with European nations quickly vying for control of the last continent to be colonized. Examples included the British from Egypt to South Africa, the French in West Africa, the Germans in Tanzania and Namibia, and even the Belgians had a chunk of land in the Congo (a chunk 80 times larger than its own size which, as I stated before, definitely means they were compensating for something). One nation that was determined not to get left out were the pizza-lovers in Europe's boot. Italy was comparatively a baby at this point, as it had only unified as a single kingdom in 1861, and still preferred the company of its mommy over anything else (typical Italian). Nevertheless, there was a push to create a new Roman Empire, and you don't get to call yourself that without taking over unsuspecting people's land! In 1885 Italy captured Massawa, an important port city on the Red Sauce...sorry, I mean "Sea" (I have Italian food on the brain for some reason). Its surrounding territory was proclaimed as the colony of Italian Eritrea, and was meant as a stepping stone towards other parts of Africa they planned to cannoli. I mean "conquer!"

Since most Ethiopian trade passed through Massawa, and Italy continued to tip-toe further and further inland, Menelik had yet another thing to fret about. However, before his official ascension as emperor, Menelik signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the colonial Italian government; in it, Italy promised to support Menelik's rule over all of Ethiopia in return for some insignificant villages bordering Italian Eritrea (unlike most agreements with Italians, this was an offer that Menelik didn't even want to refuse!). But as much as a good deal as this sounded, Menelik forgot one of life's biggest lessons: read the fine print. Article 17 of the treaty made the African nation a protectorate of Italy, meaning Ethiopia was not an independent kingdom, and had to ask Italy's permission to make any decisions or even talk to other countries (sounds like my high school girlfriend...that I wish I had). It has been argued that the wording of Article 17 was different in the Italian version of the treaty compared to the Amharic version that Menelik could actually read, with the latter merely saying Ethiopia could go through Italy if they want to talk to their friends in Europe if they chose to (like a big, diplomatic game of  "Telephone"). Menelik eventually figured out that he signed a lemon of a deal, but needed Italy's support against internal rivals like Mengesha, who was still trying to convince everyone he would be a better emperor just because his dad was one (George Steinbrenner's kids own the Yankees today after making the same argument). Nevertheless, Menelik publicly rejected the Treaty of Wuchale in 1893, causing Italy to respond with one of Bugs Bunny's best quotes.

Despite Han Solo's warning, Italy got pretty cocky going into its war with Ethiopia. Like many European nations, they believed they were naturally smarter, stronger, and sentient than those barbarians in Africa. Besides, all they would need to do is make deals with Menelik's rivals within his own country and let them fight against themselves, a classic European tactic (just ask every Native American tribe ever). The Italians especially targeted Mengesha to come to their side after Menelik stole his throne and his thunder, approximately in that order. However, even Menelik's biggest Ethiopian rivals recognized that losing this fight to a European power would mean the end of their independence; even Mengesha himself came to pledge loyalty to Menelik in 1894 in the Ethiopian custom of dropping large stones in front of your leader's feet (making sure to miss the toes, of course). The Ethiopian Army was also equipped with the latest European weapons and ammunition as a result of decades of trade, including the 30,000 muskets and 28 cannons Menelik received from Italy as another provision of the Treaty of Wuchale (I have a funny feeling Italy will come to regret that little transaction). Ethiopia also had the support of many other governments in Europe: Russia sent military advisors due to their shared Orthodox religion, France sent more guns in order to push Italy away from their colonies in Africa, and even Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom was said to have supported Menelik (just hearsay support from her was good enough!).

Fig.3: Wait, Italy wanted to conquer this harsh, unforgiving landscape? Man, they must have 
been desperate to look stronger than lowly Sweden!
Despite their failure to recruit Menelik's rivals, the colonial Italian forces did train and arm over 10,000 Africans, known as Askari, that fought on their side in return for pay, food, and the eternal hope that siding with the White people would net them a better future (spoiler: it never does). Under Italian general Oreste Baratieri, Italy succeeded in occupying much of Northern Ethiopia by the summer of 1895, including the regional capital of Adwa. Menelik called for a massive mobilization of troops from all over Ethiopia, and led an army of over 200,000 north to meet the Italians and their 25,000 men (overkill never killed anyone, I suppose). Ethiopian women also contributed to the war effort as cooks, nurses, and even soldiers; Menelik's wife, Taytu Betul, was renowned for her leadership on the battlefield and her refusal to let anyone mansplain the war to her. With such a large, united force, the war began going Ethiopia's way after the Battle of Amba Alagi in December 1895, with Mengesha proving his loyalty (with more than just rocks) by leading the initial assault on the Italian position. News of this first defeat shocked the Italian government, who thought Ethiopia could be taken with stale breadsticks. Instead of ending the colonial adventure, Italian Prime Minister Francesco Crispi agreed to send even more money and troops to Africa to ensure another disaster would not happen. Meanwhile, Menelik was hoping Amba Alagi was just an appetizer (or antipasto) for the main course that was to come.

By the beginning of 1896, Menelik's massive army was camped outside of Adwa, prepared to retake the capital of Ethiopia's mountainous north before ski season ended. General Baratieri knew that his Italians were outnumbered several times over (and a few more times, to boot), and decided that it would be foolish to try a head-on attack. Instead, he employed a similar tactic that Roman consul Quintus Fabius Maximus used against Hannibal in the Second Punic War: try to wear down your enemy through small skirmishes, the disruption of supplies, and the waning of morale (the military equivalent of "I'm not touching you! I'm not touching you!"). Unfortunately, just like with Fabius, this strategy was deemed unacceptable by the government; many Italian ministers were embarrassed that their strong European army had to resort to such wimpy tactics to defeat uncivilized Africans, and Crispi ordered Baratieri to stop sucking his thumb and attack. Many of Baratieri's subordinates agreed, with one stating, "Italy would prefer the loss of two or three thousand men to a dishonorable retreat" (who knew Italians could be so prideful?). The general reluctantly agreed to begin an assault on the Ethiopian camp at dawn on March 1. What Baratieri wished he knew was that his strategy was working: Menelik's men were cold, starving, and increasingly restless as winter progressed, and the emperor knew he would need to return to the warmer, more fertile lands to the south if he was to keep his army together. (Patience is a virtue, but who has time for that?)

Fig.4: Bloody massacres always look more appealing
when presented in cartoon form.
The Italian forces moved into position under the cover of darkness, hoping to catch the Ethiopians by surprise. However, Menelik and his advisors just so happened to wake up early that morning for Sunday prayers, and he was alerted to the impending attack (see kids, sometimes Sunday School is worth it!). Thanks to this stroke of luck, the Ethiopian army was able to quickly move into a defensive position on the hills overlooking the Italians in the valley. It also didn't help the Italians that many of their commanders didn't understand the maps they were given, and marched their troops into the incorrect, and easy-to-shoot-at, positions. Menelik ordered an artillery barrage to begin the fight, with the cannons they received from the Russians, British, and the Italians themselves proving extremely effective. After taking out more Italians in two hours than the mafia did during the entirety of Prohibition, the Ethiopians then charged forward and overwhelmed the Europeans and their Askari allies. The beatdown was so bad that Baratieri could not send in reinforcements, who would have just added to the body count that someone had to clean up anyway. As the Italians attempted to retreat, the Ethiopians kept after them; one of Menelik's former rivals yelled, "Reap! Reap!" as his troops cut down hundreds of retreating Italians, which causes me to mistrust Blue Oyster Cult's advice.

At the end of the day, the Italian army suffered 7,000 killed, 1,500 wounded, and 3,000 taken prisoner. The Ethiopians had about the same amount killed and several more wounded, but they had more metaphorical onions to sacrifice into their wat (if I can make Italian food jokes, I can do the same with Ethiopian cuisine). Among the prisoners of war were 800 Askari, who Menelik regarded as traitors to Africa and ordered for their right hands and left feet to be amputated (cause, you know, amputating their left hands and right feet would have just been silly). The Italian prisoners were brought back to Menelik's capital and treated fairly until their release in October 1896 with the Treaty of Addis Ababa. This treaty forced Italy to recognize Ethiopia's independence, and confirmed that they didn't need to go through no one to talk to nobody (triple-negatives make it valid). Menelik could have gone the extra step and forced Italy out of Eritrea and Africa completely, but he decided allow the colonies to remain as neighbors as long as their parties didn't keep them up or invade their territories again. Other European nations followed suit and signed peace treaties with Ethiopia as well, just to make sure they stayed in Menelik's good graces. Queen Victoria would even send Menelik one of the few phonograph recordings of her voice (which the Ethiopian emperor reciprocated in kind), though she asked that he destroy the record after listening (obviously because she instructed him to find the mole who was selling secrets from the Impossible Missions Force).

Fig.5: The flag of the Ethiopian Empire
automatically gets props for sticking a lion
 on it, but how he's able to carry that cross
with his paws remains a national mystery.
Back in Italy, the public was outraged when news of the defeat spread like germs in a communal bowl of marinara. Prime Minister Crispi, who had been the most powerful statesman in the country for decade, was forced to resign for his part in underestimating the Ethiopians, just like how the Alpha Betas lost their frat house after the nerds beat them in the Greek Games (why is everything more easily explained through 80s movies?). Baratieri survived the war but was court-martialed for his role in the deaths of thousands of his countrymen; he was acquitted after several of his aides confirmed that he didn't even want to march head-on into battle in the first place, but was forced into retirement nonetheless (sounds like a great punishment to me!). Ethiopia would remain strong throughout Menelik II's reign, even after he suffered a stroke in 1909 and Empress Tatyu took over. Menelik's daughter, Zewditu, would reign as empress from 1916 to 1930, and her successor, later known to the world as Haile Selassie (or Ras Tafari), would be so revered that he is considered the messiah within Rastafarianism (which, as cool as all that is, can never be as delicious as Pastafariaism).

The Battle of Adwa was unique because it was the only such victory that Africa had over Europe during the Scramble for Africa, with Ethiopia (and Liberia, if you neglect the fact they were ruled by descendants of repatriated American slaves, which was kind of cheating) remaining as the only independent nation on the continent by 1920. Though Italy would be back for revenge under Mussolini in the 1930s, and was finally able to conquer Ethiopia by using chemical weapons (once again, probably cheating), the image of Africans successfully defending their homeland never left the people's psyche. Ethiopia emerged as a symbol of hope for African descendants around the world, especially when, that same year as the Battle of Adwa, the U.S. Supreme Court made the decision to support happy things like segregation and Jim Crow laws which were making life oh so wonderful for African Americans in the South. The Pan-African movement to free the continent from outside control adopted the same colors of the Ethiopian flag (fig.5) due to their successful fight for freedom, and approximately 136 other African countries (give or take a hundred or so) would do the same after their independence movements in the late 20th century. March 1 is still celebrated as Victory Day in Ethiopia, while Italy tries to distract itself with other March holidays (Caesar's Day on the 15th, Unification Day on the 17th, and National Stuff Your Face With Lasagna Day every Monday). The events at Adwa in 1896 proved that European imperialism and supremacy could be curbed, and not every nation had to suffer experience the degradation honor of being colonized. Even if European weapon technology had to be used to do it (definitely not cheating).

If you're interested in learning more about the Battle of Adwa, check out this Canned Historian approved book that was used to conduct more research on this topic:

The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, by Raymond Jones
Published: 2011; Hardcover: 413 pages
Canned Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Lions of Judah

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