Battle of Adwa: An Underdog’s Story

For the Europeans, the late 19th century was a great period of industrialization. In fact, at one time, it looked as if supply would outpace demand. Understandably, Europeans had to find new markets. They looked to the west, to the Americas. Then they looked to the east, to Asia, but non-looked as buoyant a market as the south, in the African continent, with its fertile, virgin lands lay.

Africa did not just promise a large consumer base for that European market, but resources too. Africa was such a deliciously gigantic continent full of intact natural reserves. A country like Belgium set its eyes on the then Congo Free State – a state 50 times larger than its colonizer. The Berlin West Africa Conference was organized in 1884. The conference convened leaders from major European countries and America; the purpose was to outline the “rules and justifications” for territorial acquisition in Africa.

But why did it take them so long to finally want to colonize Africa?

The Brits, French, and Spanish – if there was one sure fact about a European country, it is that they had unquenchable imperial ambitions. To conquer, to subjugate was a matter of national pride. Nonetheless, as fun as it may sound, the process of colonizing an entire state is a terribly expensive one, not to mention risky. Diseases like malaria and yellow fever were rampant in that time.

By the end of the 19th Century, though, technology had gone a long way. The Europeans had invented themselves fantastic weapons, which would obliterate any type of defense an African state might put up. With superior weapons and advanced medical science to help combat diseases, colonizing could indeed be pretty easy. And so, the so-called “Scramble for Africa” began.

As the name indicates, European countries that America had abdicated scrambled for a piece of African land. Britain added to its vast empire territories like Sudan and Nigeria. Belgium got its much coveted Congo. The French carved out large sections of West Africa. All of this without much trouble or bloodshed: colonization was going smoothly. Italy, like its peers, was in on the invasion game. It had annexed two very poor countries, Eritrea and Somalia. It had also colonized Libya.

Now, they had eyes only for one very ancient country, Ethiopia, which up until the early 20th Century was known to the outside world as Abyssinia. Ethiopia had a brave emperor though, called Menelik II. Before his reign, the country was not as large and integrated as we now know it to be. It was a country deeply divided along tribal lines. Many kings did not recognize the country’s emperor.

Other great leaders like Tewodros II and Yohannes IV tried to change this fact but always fell short of achieving a truly unified Ethiopia. Menelik II, sometimes through force, other times through diplomacy, finally succeeded in centralizing the country. Doing so, though, came at a price. In trying to become the emperor of Ethiopia – and make his dream of uniting the country come true – over the natural son of Yohannes IV, he had made some European friends and signed some treaties (any politician would agree, there is nothing like international recognition to assert one’s authority over a state).

The friends Menelik had made were the Italians, and the treaty that was signed was known as the Treaty of Wuchale. The emperor would quickly come to regret this. Those Italians were tricky, they wanted Ethiopia as a colony, but hoped to subjugate it without having to commit an army. Article 17 of the treaty, in its Amharic version, stated that Ethiopia, anytime it wished to do so, can conduct foreign policy through Italy.

The Italian version was far less benign. It said that any type of foreign affair could be carried out only through Italy. And this small but significant difference would ignite a war between the two countries. Menelik refused to abide by this new interpretation, and the Italians chose to use force to bring the country to a heel. Up until this point, no African state had been able to put up a meaningful resistance. Italians saw no reason why this should change when it came to Ethiopia.

What they did not expect were double-crossing spies, weapons purchased from Russia, ambushes and most importantly a hundred thousand angry Ethiopians. The general of the Italian army, the respectable Oreste Baratieri (also the governor of Eritrea), whose forces were effectively outnumbered one to five (or six) times, had deeply miscalculated. The battle had started at six in the morning. It had ended by noon, just in time for the brave Ethiopian troops to go home to their wives and have some lunch.

Those six hours were one of the most defining moments for the country. The battle showed to Ethiopians that in union there is victory. It was the first time the country had ever come together, bound by common values. It was also the first time the borders of Ethiopia were drawn, and recognized internationally, as the land where Ethiopians live. This was the greatest contribution of Menelik to his country and the most significant outcome of the Battle of Adwa.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye is a regular contributor to Fortune. He could be reached at

Published on Feb 25,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 877]



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