Africa: Menelik II, the emperor of Ethiopia who defeated Italian colonizers


Ethiopia is the only African country that has not been colonized. We are going to tell you about the man behind this exploit.

Abeto Menelik – Sahle Maryam was born in 1844. He was the son of King Haile Menekot, governor of the Ethiopian province of Shewa, who died in battle against the Negus (Emperor of Ethiopia) Tewodros II. Captured by Tewodros who raised him as a son, Menelik ran away in 1865 to take up the Shewa governorate.

Menelik tried twice to remove the new Negus Yohannes VI from the imperial throne, but his alliances with the Egyptians and the French failed.

During Yohannes’ military campaign in 1875, Menelik finally pledged allegiance by walking towards the emperor, head down and a stone on the back of the neck, as a sign of submission. Yohannes VI acknowledged him as the governor of Shewa.

Thanks to his formidable army, Menelik enlarged his kingdom and imposed himself as the successor when Yohannes passed away, to the detriment of Megesha, son of the emperor. He was crowned on March 25, 1889 and became Menelik II.

The new regent submitted to his authority the kingdoms of the empire, conquering the lands which were to be under his rule. He founded the capital Addis Ababa and asked the colonial powers present in the region to recognize him as Negus. On May 2, 1889, he signed with the Italians the infamous treaty of Wichale (Ethiopian city).

The Italians made him sign two versions of the treaty. One in Amharic that would give him the opportunity to use Italian diplomacy to communicate with foreign countries, the other in Italian that required it, putting de facto the empire under Italian colonization. The Italians saw Menelik as an inferior Negro and believed he would bend when he would find the subterfuge. Furious, when he discovered the ruse, the Negus refused to be corrupted with two million weapons, to the surprise of the Italians. Menelik went as far as to argue for legitimizing his power beside the Europeans, saying that he is a Christian in the midst of “pagan” Africans, but it didn’t work.

The Europeans in the colonial tradition of division, tried in vain to rise Ras Mangasha, king of the province of Tigray, against Menelik, to remove him. Oreste Baratieri was then commissioned by Rome to subject the empire to colonial power. The Italian governor of Eritrea (then colony), underestimated Menelik II’s army, whom he described as savage. He gathered 20 000 men in the locality of Adwa where he waited in ambush the troops of the Negus.

Meanwhile, Menelik II besieged a troop of 1,000 Italian soldiers, promising to release them if negotiations were reopened on the treaty of Wichale. With their pride wounded by an African leader, the Italians pursued the hostilities. After 3 months of station in Adwa, Baratieri, called coward by the Italian authorities, received the order to attack Menelik II’s camp. Ethiopians, in the African tradition, communicated military orders with drums, under the ears of dumbed Italians, who did not understand how one can play music under such circumstances.

On March 1, 1896, it was on a cold and misty night on the Ethiopian mountains that the assault was given by the Italians. The legendary battle of Adwa began.

Disoriented by the geography, Baratieri’s men divided in two, and Menelik II’s army attacked by infiltrating them. Using guns, and despite difficulties, the Italians took advantage, and in the morning the Negus plans were to retreat. Convinced by his officers, he sent on 25,000 men as reinforcement, whom attacked with ferocity.

The 196,000 soldiers of the empire, with 100,000 rifles and heavy weapons, killed 289 Italian officers, 2918 European soldiers and 2000 African soldiers allied to the enemy. Many more were wounded and others made prisoners. 954 Europeans were reported missing. Ethiopia had just defeated the Italian army. It was the equipment of sophisticated weapons, bought especially from Russia, which allowed this victory.

Ethiopian painting of the battle of Adwa: The Negus is at the top left, behind his troops. His wife Empress Taytu is on the lower left. Taytu’s advanced position is probably a representation of propaganda. Note that here the Ethiopian soldiers all have guns and are dressed from neck to foot, which is not surprising considering that Ethiopia is a country at high altitude and therefore relatively cold.

You will also notice that African soldiers were on the front line and used as cannon fodder for the Italian army.

Representations of the Battle of Adwa found in Italian sites. As you can see here, the Ethiopians have their bodies uncovered and are armed with spears. We do not know if it is to the advantage of the Italians to say that they lost to soldiers armed with spears.

With the defeated Italian army, Menelik renegotiated to his advantage the treaty of Wichale and forced the world to recognize him as the Negus of Ethiopia. He continued to expand the empire by taking lands under British protectorate. The reign of Menelik is marked by a major modernization of Ethiopia. As he loved technology, the emperor had phone lines installed, put in electricity, the postal system, developed education and health systems. His greatest work was the construction of the Addis Ababa railroad to Djibouti, which gave Ethiopia the access to the sea.

Sick, Menelik instituted a ministerial government to replace him in 1907 and named his grandson Iyasu as the successor. As Iyasu was still minor, the power was exercised by Empress Taytu. She was deposed by a coup of the clergy and the government in 1910 and Iyasu took over the power in 1911. The emperor died on December 12, 1913, at the age of 69.

Thanks to this strong man, Ethiopia is the only African country that has not been colonized. Ethiopia, ancient eastern province of Pharaonic Sudan that gave birth to Egypt, is from this point of view the oldest independent nation in the world. Menelik is the greatest figure of resistance to colonial invasion and one of the greatest Africans in history.


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