Ethiopia: Beacon of Anti-Colonial Struggle


In his book The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi states that the colonized were intimidated by the sheer technological superiority of the colonizer. That held them back from taking matters into their own hands and fight for their liberation. He further argues, had the colonized dared to pay the price for their freedom, "... all the resources of science ... would be placed at their [the colonizer's] disposal and, within a few minutes, terrible weapons of defence and destruction. For each colonizer killed, hundreds or thousands of the colonized have been or would be exterminated. That experience has occurred often enough - perhaps incited - for the colonized to be convinced of the inevitable and heinous punishment. Everything has been brought into play to destroy his courage to die and face the sight of blood."

While I would generally agree with the author's aforesaid statement, I am reminded of a few exceptional instances in Africa where peoples were undaunted by the sheer force of the colonizers, and thus were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice to maintain their sovereignty. Mention should be made here of the people of Ethiopia who, against all odds, managed to ward off the colonialist forces of Italy towards the end of the 19th century.

In their rapacious quest to hasten their economic development, Europeans not only conquered and subjugated other peoples, but they also sought to justify their endeavours by claiming that their mission rested solely in "civilizing and enlightening uncouth peoples". The European model was imposed on other peoples as the standard one for them to follow. No other region of the world has suffered more in this respect than the continent of Africa.

When European colonists arrived in the New World and staked a claim to the land, they were in need of labor to work the plantations. Thus, they came to Africa in search of cheap labor. This led to the era of the Slave Trade during which millions of Africans were transported across the Atlantic to engage in agricultural labor so as to accelerate Europe's economic development. When slavery finally outlived its economic significance, Europe shifted its policy on Africa from slavery to colonialism.

Even though European powers like Britain, France and Portugal had earlier established spheres of influence in parts of Africa, they set out to formalize their occupation in the second half of the 19th century. Accordingly, a conference was held in Berlin in 1884 among the colonial powers, culminating in the signing of the General Act of Berlin in February 1885. This act laid the basis by which European powers carved up Africa among themselves.

Italians joined the scramble for Africa relatively late. Having reunified their country only in 1871, they were nostalgic of the Roman Empire when their nation basked in glory. As latecomers to the scene, they sought to snatch as much a portion of Africa as possible. Thus, they got a foothold in Eritrea in 1885, and were testing the waters to expand their grip further inland.

At this time, Emperor Menelik of Ethiopia was engaged in expanding the Ethiopian empire further south- and westwards. When it came to the Italians, Emperor Menelik felt comfortable to live peacefully with them as long as they confined themselves to Eritrea.

Keen to keep matters to rest, he signed the Treaty of Wuchale with Italy. While the treaty recognised Menelik as the indisputable ruler of sovereign Ethiopia, it allowed Italy to annex Eritrea. As the Italians were nonetheless engaged in chicanery, it soon became apparent to the Ethiopian side that there was a semantic difference between the Amharic and Italian versions of Article XVII of the treaty. Whereas the Amharic version gave Menelik the option of using Italy's good offices for contacts with other European powers, the Italian version obligated Menelik to make all such contacts through Italy, thus virtually making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate.

When Ethiopia communicated this semantic error and asked for rectification from Italy, not only did the latter ignores the former's request, but engaged in devising tactics to encroach further south and occupy the entire country. The Italians were utterly wrong in their assessment of the strength of Emperor Menelik who tried in vain to make them reconsider their decision.

Eventually, Emperor Menelik abrogated the treaty altogether, and mobilized the nation for the war effort within a short span of time. There followed two military engagements between the Ethiopian and Italian armies, culminating in the Battle of Adwa on March 2, 1896 when the Italian army was defeated by the Ethiopian forces.

Paul Henze recounts the battle thus: "... with considerable confusion the Italians had deployed during the night and at dawn one of General Albertone's patrols drew Ethiopian fire. The battle began... For the Italians almost everything went wrong... Italian commanders lost contact with each other. Each [Italian] soldier fought where he stood. It nevertheless took the troops of four Ethiopian commanders - about 25,000 men - to break the Italian center. Shortly after noon Baratieri began preparing to retreat. The retreat turned into a rout... Baratieri's army had been completely annihilated while Menelik's was intact as a fighting force and gained thousands of rifles and a great deal of equipment from the fleeing Italians."

The incident sent shock waves throughout the world. Save for the case of Haiti in 1804, when it succeeded in declaring its independence from European colonizers, never in the history of the world had a major Western power suffered defeat at the hands of a black army.

The immediate significance of the victory of Adwa at home lay in the fact that Menelik was able to assert his power incontestably, and was the major factor for the expansion of the Ethiopian territory, thus giving the nation more or less its present-day frontiers.

The victory also compelled Italy to recognize Ethiopia's independence, and led to the signing of a peace treaty as well as the establishment of diplomatic relationship between the two countries. Once Ethiopia thus affirmed her stature, other European powers wasted no time to establish diplomatic ties with it.

The next few years following the victory of Adwa saw the establishment of diplomatic ties with France, Britain, and the U.S.A. This fact is articulated by Bahru Zewde: "... The historic victory of Adwa in 1896 was a resounding affirmation of Ethiopia's independence... Adwa set the modality for Ethiopia's modern relationship with Europe in particular and the West in general... ."

Delivering as it did a decisive blow to the colonial myth of European invincibility, the victory of Adwa heralded to all blacks all over the world that the colonial enterprise was not indomitable. It thus served not only as the ultimate inspiration of the African anti-colonial struggle, but also as the emotional and cultural renaissance of blacks all over the world.

The victory of Adwa taught imperialist Europe in general and Italy in particular that they had grossly underestimated the cohesiveness of Ethiopians and their unparalleled affection of freedom and sovereignty. Viewed in this context, Ethiopia, through its string of victories that culminated in Adwa, served as the anti-thesis of colonialism and the colonial enterprise, and also as a true beacon for the global de-colonization struggle.

Ed.'s Note: The writer can be reached at The views expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.

Contributed by Wagaye Berhanu

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