An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"

Anniversary of the Battle of Adwa

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The Battle of Adwa, in which Ethiopian forces under Emperor Menelik II united to defeat an invading force of Italian troops, was one of the most significant turning points in the history of modern Africa. It occurred, in 1896, when the “colonial era” was well advanced on the African continent, and it served notice that Africa was not just there “for the taking” by European powers. More than this, it marked the entry of Ethiopia into the modern community of nations: Menelik’s victory over the Italians caused the other major European states, and Italy itself, to recognise Ethiopia as a sovereign, independent state in the context of modern statecraft.

The actual battle which took place on March 1 and 2, 1896, at Adwa, the principal market town of the North of Ethiopia, had been precipitated by the great rush of the European powers to colonise Africa. Italy and Germany had lagged behind other European powers — most notably France and Britain — in seizing large parcels of the Continent to colonise. Thus, the Conference of Berlin was convened in 1884-85 to “divide up” the remainder of Africa among the other European powers, anxious to obtain their own African colonies to satisfy the urge for imperial expansion and economic gain. Italy was “awarded” Ethiopia; all that remained was for Italian troops to take possession.

Significantly, until this time, Ethiopia had been left alone by the European powers. Its coastal littoral was well-known to traders, but the heartland in the highlands was peopled by nations notoriously unwilling to accept and embrace external contact and influence. But the Ethiopian nations had been known in the past to be fractious and divided, and from all accounts, Italy’s leaders expected a rapid conquest of the individual national leaders. Britain had, in 1868, waged a successful war against Emperor Téwodros II (Theodore), leading to his death. The Italians, however, failed to recognise that Emperor Menelik II had re-shaped Ethiopia since he came to power in 1889, uniting its various kings and leaders, and creating in the process a substantial army, outnumbering and outperforming the invading Italian professional army.

The victory at Adwa was widely reported, strengthening Ethiopia’s image as defender of African independence. It became the source of pride and inspiration for Africans around the world. Today Ethiopians celebrate this historic victory with a national holiday on 2 March, the anniversary of the battle.

This painting shows a scene from the Battle of Adwa, fought between Ethiopia and Italy on 2 March 1896.    

It shows Emperor Menelik II leading the Ethiopian armies to victory over a large colonial Italian force. The Emperor is shown in the top left corner of the painting, wearing a royal crown, seated beneath a royal umbrella. His wife Empress Taytu is shown in the bottom left corner on horseback carrying a revolver, right in the midst of the battle, and urging the Ethiopian troops to victory. In the centre of the painting, on a brown horse, is the commander of the Ethiopian forces, Fitawrari Gabayyahu.

Above the battle scene Saint George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, is shown in a halo of red, yellow and green. He is closely associated with the imperial family and its military forces and is seen here helping the Ethiopians to victory. Three of his spears have fallen into the Italian lines and one general can be seen fleeing on horseback.

A convention of Ethiopian painting is to indicate the forces of good and evil by showing the good in full face and the bad in profile. Here the artist has shown the Ethiopian troops in full face while the Italian troops are shown side on, often reduced to heads and guns.

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Written by Tseday

February 25, 2009 at 4:54 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Beautiful picture!
    “But the Ethiopian nations had been known in the past to be fractious and divided…”

    This is exactly our problem. I hope the current generation understands it better, that division is our main enemy.

    Menasseh

    February 26, 2009 at 5:56 pm

  2. This was a magnificent triuph over the greed of some men to own more than they deserve and remembering this day which is also a holiday for saint giorgis shows that when one stands for whats right in One place one stands for the world as well and i am proud to be from those who were brave enough to teach this lesson

    Yorda

    March 23, 2016 at 4:23 pm


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