In March, 1896, Ethiopian forces under the leadership of Emperor Menelik II surprised the world by defeating an Italian Army sent to conquer the Empire. In the following article Raymond Jonas, the Giovanni and Amne Costigan Professor of History at the University of Washington, explores that victory at Adwa. His article is drawn from his recent book, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire.
The battle of Adwa of 1 March 1896 was a stunning victory for Ethiopia but a rout and a disaster for Italy. Adwa – the story of Africans seeing to their own freedom – played out against a background of almost unrelenting European expansion into Africa. The success of Ethiopia’s forces assured that Ethiopia would be the only African country successfully to resist European colonization before 1914. It also resonated powerfully in post-Emancipation America where hierarchies of race and ethnicity were only beginning a process of challenge and renegotiation.
Italian interest in East Africa dates from 1869, when the opening of the Suez Canal transformed the commercial and strategic significance of the Red Sea coast. An official Italian presence didn’t begin until they established themselves at the Red Sea port of Massawa in 1885, after which the Italians began to move up into what are now the Eritrean highlands. Ethiopian commanders sought to halt the Italian advance, with some notable successes, but the Italians artfully played on rivalries among Ethiopian leaders. By 1890, the Italians had secured control over a significant territory west and south of Massawa; they announced the creation of the colony of Eritrea, with a capital at Asmara.
The Italians continued to push westward, into the Sudan, and southward, toward the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray. In late 1894 Ras Mangasha, the ruler of Tigray, used the pretext of war against the Dervishes to mobilize forces to resist Italian incursions. In a series of victories in early 1895, the Italians defeated Mangasha’s forces. They pursued Mangasha