Foreign writers on the battle of Adwa (a synopsis


The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, a book written by Raymond Jonas, A professor of History at the University of Washington (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2011) explains the accounts of the battle and notes that The Battle of Adwa in March 1896 precipitated from Italian encroachments south of their colony of Eritrea on the Red Sea.

Jonas was quick enough in his book to describe the glorious feat of Ethiopians on the battle of Adwa as “history turned upside down” showing that the victory attained by the Ethiopian was far beyond the expectations of the European powers.

Jonas adds that in spite of the fact that both Ethiopia and Italy were bound by the Treaty of Wuchale (1889), both countries had different interpretations about the nature of that Treaty based on the difference between the Amharic and Italian texts as identified by Grazmatch Yoseph. The Italian treaty indicated Ethiopia would be a protectorate of Italy, while Emperor Menelik II argued no such wording existed in his copy. After the Italians occupied the northern Ethiopian city of Adigrat Menelik II summoned his forces and defeated the Italians at the battle of Amba Alage.

In response to this defeat, Jonas notes that thousands of Italian troops were transported to Eritrea and, with great pressure from Rome to attack quickly, General Oreste Baratieri advanced and due to a series of blunders by his subordinate commanders, his force was overwhelmed. Aside from numerous casualties, Jonas writes that one mission reported roughly 3,600 dead though the exact number remains unknown, the Ethiopians also captured 1,900 Italians and 1,500 mercenaries (African soldiers serving in the Italian armed forces).

In the Battle of Adwa Jonas has woven complex historical issues in the narratives of the battle into a single and complete view. Jonas divided his book into three sections covering the background, the battle, and the aftermath. By far the greatest effort on his part was uncovering a treasure-trove of Italian memoirs whose accounts humanize the battle. His narrative navigates between commanders and commoners and sheds new light the conflict.

First, Jonas illustrates the fragile nature of Italian colonial ambitions as Adwa is held up as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. Jonas quotes the Italian statesman Marquis d’Azeglio, after Italian unification, commented that “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” Italy was divided along religious, political, and regional lines. It was hoped by some, such as Prime Minister Crispi, that imperialism would improve the standing of the Italian government within the nation and across Europe. But their expectations were frustrated by the Ethiopian peasant army.

It is interesting to note that Jonas cites the response to the first defeat at Amba Alage students from the University of Rome marched through the street chanting “Viva Menelik!” and after Adwa there were legislative calls to abandon Africa entirely. This domestic scene is important as the willingness of Italy to accept defeat ensured Adwa was an Ethiopian success. Jonas portrays Emperor Menelik II historical figure as a skilled politician. The author documents the complex political intrigue he managed to confront supported by Empress Taytu.

Jonas also underscores Emperor Menelik’s strategic thinking. While the Italians occupied the city of Adigrat for over a year, Menelik reportedly used the time span to import European weapons to such an extent that his artillery outclassed those of the Italians. Jonas even offers the intriguing hypothesis that the supposed “mistranslation” of the Treaty of Wuchale, the entire basis for the conflict, was a strategic choice.

On the other hand, Jonas illustrates how Adwa became a symbol for African, and African-American, resistance. Menelik saw Adwa as a way to solidify his rule and preserve his independence. According to Jonas, the desire to see Ethiopia as a symbol of resistance surfaced up Benito Sylvain of Haiti, a Pan-African visionary, traveled to Ethiopia in 1904 to help celebrate Haiti’s hundredth anniversary of independence. As Haiti was home of the first successful slave revolt, Sylvain saw a kindred spirit in Menelik. Far from finding a receptive audience, Menelik agreed that the “the negro should be uplifted”.

Much of the symbolism surrounding Adwa came from others, such as W.E.B. DuBois and others in the global African Diaspora, after the end of the First World War. While he suggests that Adwa “set in motion the long unraveling of European domination of Africa”. Jonas notes that Ethiopia was a shock to European self-assurance but was quickly forgotten which is why Europe was, again, shocked by Japanese victory against Russia in 1905.

The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire by Raymond Jonas would help to set an example for a historical analysis by future Ethiopists who would be tasked to make more extensive researches on the global, regional and national significance of the Battle of Adwa.

On the other hand, the western presses of those days were indeed the first to report on the defeat of the Italian colonialists at the Battle of Adwa in a blitzkrieg reporting. Three days following the defeat of Italy at the Battle of Adwa on March 4, 1896, the Herald Tribune wrote:

Italian defeat in Abyssinia after a desperate struggle they are finally vanquished by overwhelming odds…… crushing defeat for Italian arms, Crispi resigns. Whole battalions slain, an irreparable disaster.

Another weekly newspaper, Lloyd’s Weekly News Paper, London 1896, March 8 came out in the same vein.

“Disaster has over taken the Italian forces in Abyssinia. A desperate battle was fought with the Shoans at Adwa on February 29 and resulted in General Baratieri being almost annihilated.”

The New York Times, of March 3, 1896 added:

Italy’s terrible defeat, three thousand men killed. Sixty guns and all provisions lost. Baratieri’s strategy condemned. All available streamers for transport for reinforcement to Abyssinia are ordered.

The London Times almost foresaw the future impact of the war:

“The defeat of the Italians will go through the annals of history. This history will invigorate the fighting spirit of Africa which was hitherto considered as savage.”

The paper seemed to forecast the impact of the defeat of the Italians on the future emergence of Pan-Africanism both in the US, the Caribbean and the African continent.

March 4, 1896 in the New York Times wrote,

Details received here today of the defeat on Sunday of the Italian Army show that the Italian losses were very heavy, they being placed by some at 3,000 killed. It is still impossible to ascertain the precise losses, but popular opinion credits the report that the number of killed is not overstated. Thus far the reports make no mention of the number of wounded. Among the dead are Gen. Albertone, Commander of the Left Brigade, and Gen. Dabormida, Commander of the Right Brigade.

The news of this latest disaster has caused the greatest excitement throughout Italy, and the Opposition party is taking advantage of it to make violent attacks upon the Government’s policy in attempting to extend the sphere of Italian influence in Abyssinia.

The Pope is greatly disturbed by the news.

The European media spread the news of the Italian humiliation primarily because this was not what they were expecting. This was not what the world was expecting. Menelik defeated the war not only at the battle field but also in the realm of diplomacy and foreign policy. The emperor was able to clearly view the alliance of forces in Europe and acted accordingly. He was able to clearly show the nature of the aggressor without resorting to the escalation of war propaganda.

New York Times reported that “the pope was disturbed by the news”. This somehow indicates that the Pope Leo XIII must have blessed the Italian aggression. He later on wrote a letter to Emperor Menelik II requesting for compassion for the POWs detained after the war.

In fact, Menelik II offered a deeper compassion even to individual POWs. The Emperor was told that one of the Italian soldiers being kept by the Imperial household had received a letter from his widowed mother in Naples. Apparently, upon reading her letter, the soldier had become extremely inconsolable and was weeping loudly and bitterly. Menelik ordered the soldier brought before him and had a translator read the letter.

The distraught mother had written her son saying that she now spent her days weeping in the local St. Mary’s church, begging the Mother of God to bring her son home to her, a weak and lonely widow whose life had no meaning without her only child. When the Emperor heard what was written, his eyes filled with tears and he said “The tears of your mother, and our shared love for the Mother of God have freed you.

Go back to your mother, and tell her that the Holy Virgin has returned you to her.” (Source: Archive: Conti sui prigionieri Italiani in Ethiopia 1900 – 1913)The European media covered the Battle of Adwa in a rather scanty manner but had it been the reverse in which the Italians had won the war, they could have written otherwise. As London Times had written, “The defeat of the Italians will go through the annals of history”

The above citations clearly indicate that the European press was overwhelmed by the swift nature of the defeat of the Italians in just a single day and were unable to go into deeper analysis of the entire situation.

In those days, Ethiopia had still not joined the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society but the news that I have quoted earlier clearly show that although he was the commander in chief of the Ethiopian army, Emperor Menelik II devotedly kept the faith and showed compassion even to an individual POW in the standards of the Geneva Convention.

 Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The Ethiopian Herald

The Ethiopian Herald 5 March 2023

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