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To what extent was Dagmawi Menelik II’s leadership effective in defeating Italian forces from colonizing Ethiopia in the battle of Adwa circa 1896?
Identification and Evaluation of Sources
The research question of this investigation is ‘To what extent was Dagmawi Menelik II’s leadership effective in defeating Italian forces from colonizing Ethiopia in the battle of Adwa circa 1896?’ To answer the question, the two monographs that were used to construct this essay explain and give analysis on the first Ethio-Italian war. The first source is written by Professor Paulos Milkias and Getachew Metaferia in 2003, called The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism. The second source is written by Sean McLachlan called Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896. Together both these monographs played an immense part in the investigation as they gave a great deal of insight on the social, political, economic, foreign, and military status of Ethiopia in the 1890’s.
A value of The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism in relation to the origin is that because it is a secondary source Milkias is able to identify factors that led to an Ethiopian victory. The value of the text in relation to its purpose is that it focuses directly on the social, political and economic factors that Emperor Dagmawi Menelik II established leading up to the battle of Adwa. This allows Milkias to explore the ‘scramble for Africa’ period, with the focus of Menelik’s policies and war tactics. The value vis-a-vis the content, is that the source places huge emphasis on the sole leadership of Menelik that defeated the Italians. The limitation of the text in relation to the origin, is that because Milkias is an Ethiopian traditionalist he offers no insight towards the revisionist perspective on the battle of Adwa. A limitation of the text with reference to its content, is that Milkias evaluates Menelik’s achievements which came only from him and not external forces. The limitation vis-a-vis the purpose is that it focuses mainly on events in Ethiopia and gives little to no insight on Italian affairs.
A value of Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896 in relation to the origin is that because the author is neither Ethiopian nor Italian, there is a neutral perspective. The value with reference to the content is to identify the main events surrounding the first Ethio-Italian war. A final value vis-a-vis the purpose of the text is to illustrate the battle strategies Emperor Menelik uses throughout the war. A limitation with regards to the origin, is that because McLachlan includes both revisionist and traditionalist viewpoints, he can’t go into depth with either points. The limitation in relation to the content is that McLachlan does not give any analysis or explanation to the significance. The final limitation vis-a-vis the purpose is that McLachlan does not explain the external factors beside what was happening in Ethiopia or Italy.
The Abyssinian empire lasted many centuries, but as time went by, its borders retreated into what we now know as modern day Ethiopia. The Nineteenth century was a refinement period in Europe, where the practice of colonialism was growing popular. The scramble for Africa was a series of conquests that European powers went through to gain boundless land, agriculture and other resources needed for the making of weapons. France had a sphere of influence in north west Africa while Britain and Germany gained territory in the central and southern parts. That left the newly unified Italy to attempt and conquer the Eastern part of Africa. The traditionalist historians such as Dr. Ayele Bekerie who are mostly Ethiopians argue to a degree that Menelik II’s leadership was a considerable factor that led the Ethiopian forces to victory against the Italians in the battle of Adwa. Whilst Italian revisionists like Renzo De Felice argue that the Italian defeat was the result of internal issues such as limited resources and political unrest as well as the assistance of external factors that led the Italian forces to retreat. Through political, socio-economic, and military aspects, Menelik II was able to guarantee Ethiopia’s independence from European colonization.
Menelik II was confronted with numerous social and economic setbacks that challenged and tested his leadership. One of these challenges being the Kefu Qan. This was caused by the cattle that the previous Emperor,Yohannes IV had obtained in March of 1888 when he defeated an Italian garrison at Sa’ati near the Eritrean coast. The Italian cattle that were imported from India carried the disease bovine cholera, an epidemic that started in South-central Asia. In addition to the lack of cattle, the Empire experienced a plethora of droughts and plagues. Menelik became the most popular and influential figure at the time by opening up all of his personal granaries as well as finding the time to personally hand out injera to the citizens. His charities were an extensive and essential part in keeping his armies well and alive. Menelik, with his close relation to the Orthodox church, held national prayers that raised the morale of his Lords, subjects and armies. Menelik’s reforms boosted the economy of Ethiopia as well as the taxes in order for him to create his standing army. His agrarian policies, were placed after his successful military conquests, in which he changed the land tenure. By March 10, 1889, Menelik had effortlessly claimed himself Negus Negast of the Province of Shoa and the Emperor of Ethiopia. Although almost a third of the population had died over the course of 1888-1892, Menelik proved he was a worthy leader to his people through his socio-economic policies which was a major factor for the existence and survival of the people.
Menelik used political maneuvers to secure the independence of Ethiopia in regards to both his domestic and foreign policy. Historian Paulos Milkias explains and discusses Menelik’s policies and how he then earned the epithet of “strategist par excellence”. The Abyssinian Empire consisted of provisional governments rather than a central government, therefore making it labyrinthine to pass any legislation. Menelik’s relationship between Yohannes IV, who was the king of Tigray, was stable as Menelik was able to gain this alliance through the marriage of his daughter Zauditu.This political maneuver that Menelik achieved was a successful first step needed to unify Abyssinia. Throughout his political career, Menelik had taken part in various roles. The first role being the lord of the province Shoa, the second role as king of Shoa and finally as Emperor of Abyssinia. During the first phase of his rise to power he played an honest and trustable role with the central government. He continued his role in the second phase, however his relationship with foreign powers took place in secret meetings as well as exceptional diplomacy, appearing faithful to the central government. The third and final phase led to a discontinuation in foreign policy. He also approached foreign powers such as Germany, however he couldn’t mutually exchange information. This dates back to May 2, 1889, when Menelik signed the Treaty of Wuchalé. The Italians had devised this treaty before the death of Yohannes IV, and had sent for Menelik to sign it. The treaty of Wuchalé had two versions one in Italian and the other in Amharic. To summarize the treaty, Italy would continue to supply Menelik with weaponry, promising 10,000 rifles and financial assistance, with the exception that Eritrea would be annexed to Italy. However Menelik wasn’t fully aware of the trickery that the treaty contained. Article 17 in the Ethiopian version stated that “His Majesty, the King of Kings of Ethiopia, may, if he so desires, avail himself of the Italian government for any negotiations he may enter into with other Powers and Governments.” Where as the Italian version claims “ His Majesty, the King of Kings of Ethiopia, consents to avail himself of the government of his Majesty the King of Italy for all negotiations in affairs which he may have with other Powers or Governments.” Not many can recognize and interpret the colossal difference in the translation, but when revising the two statements, it easy to identify the words that stand out. The Ethiopian version reads that Menelik can freely communicate with other countries and has no intentions of changing the independence of Ethiopia, while the Italian version reads that Menelik must ask the Italian government for permission to communicate with other countries, making Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy. Historians such as Milkias consider the Wuchalé doublecross as one of the most shrewd attempts in duping your opponent. Aleqa Atsume was one of Menelik’s closest advisors as he wrote a letter warning him, “the idea is fine but re-examine paragraph XVII, its weight today may be no more than a dime; a year later however it will be heavier than a thousand tons of lead.”
Menelik’s skillful war tactics made him unpredictable to his enemies during the course of the war that led to a decisive victory at the battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. The preparation of the final battle started on September 17, 1895, when Menelik called for full mobilization of his troops. Thousands of warriors were placed into four assembly points, 35,000 men rushing to Menelik himself. Other parts of the army were recruited by lords, princes, and generals. In short time, Menelik was able to recruit an army of almost 120,000 men. The offencive had initiated when Baratieri the Italian general and governor of Eritrea led an enormous force south from Adigrat on October 9, 1895. The lack of geographical knowledge by the Italians favoured Menelik as it helped his armies with positioning, which made Italian troops susceptible to surprise attacks. Barateri recognized a recurring theme, that he was always outnumbered, so from December 25, 1895 to March 10, 1896 the Italians shipped in 38,063 men, 1,537 officers as well as 100,000 barrels of supplies. Menelik responded to this by arming more than 50% of his standing army. His main goal was to destroy the main standing army and then mop up the Italian sub units. The tactics that Menelik used in the battle of Adwa consisted of a half moon formation that could surround and outflank the enemy. When charging into the enemy, Generals Ras Mengesha and Ras Mekonnen created various battle cries, one for each province. Historians like Milkias, believe that this helped the vast army to communicate quickly and eliminate any confusion. Menelik also made use of the 10,000 women and children that his men brought, by making them bring water to the warriors. This helped keep the Ethiopian army hydrated, while the Italians suffered greatly from food and water shortages. Another tactic Menelik devised was when he bestowed a two week siege on a poorly fortified Italian garrison in the city of Mekele where they instantly surrendered to the Ethiopian army that placed a water blockade on the Italian garrison . The final phase of the war leading to the battle of Adwa was very pivotal. Menelik needed to be very cautious of every plan he set forward.The Italians had dug trenches at Sauria, which was about 16 miles east of Menelik and were sitting tight waiting for the Ethiopians to advance. Finally on February 29, 1896, Menelik realized that the ratio of his troops to the main Italian army was 4:1, and because his food, ammunation and men were depleted, he decided to lead his troops into one last battle at the city of Adwa. Menelik emerged the victor however due to the lack of food and ammunition of his army, Menelik prudently decided to stop the advance of his troops at Adwa, giving up some territory. Yet Menelik’s tactics proved difficult to combat against his enemies.
In Conclusion, Menelik had demonstrated his effective leadership through 1892-1896. The first stage being his implementation of economic policies that helped nourish his people and finance his army. The stage following where he skillfully stabilized a relationship with neighbouring provinces which increased his army size. Next the use of sound battle tactics that out matched the Italian troops. These factors were what allowed Dagmawi Menelik II to assure that Abyssinian empire remained independent.
For this investigation, the main goal was to possess at least 2-3 monographs, which were somewhat difficult as the battle of Adwa isn’t a widely written topic. These monographs not only offered domestic perspectives but foreign as well. There was also the challenge of finding a translation of the text as some of them were written in Amharic. Finding an english version of the treaty of Wuchale, assisted me greatly in understanding the attempted trickery that the Italians tried to slip by, as well as the great repercussions both sides faced. My secondary sources included both domestic and foreign perspectives on Menelik’s rise to power and the policies that he implements. Milkias’ work was extremely useful in displaying the Ethiopian perspective. The investigation focused on the approaches Dagmawi Menelik II took in the socio-economic, political and military aspects of Abyssinia. Through this focus, a number of factors that allowed Menelik to be victorious where discovered.
- McLachlan, Sean, and Raffaele Ruggeri. Armies of the Adowa Campaign: the Italian Disaster in Ethiopia. Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2011.
- Milkias, Paulos. The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism. Algora Publ, 2005.
- Harold D. Nelson and Irving Kaplan, eds., Ethiopia, a Country Study, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Dept. of the Army, 1981)
- Clay, Jason W., and Bonnie K. Holcomb. Politics and the Ethiopian Famine: 1984-1985. Cultural Survival, 1986.
- Keneally, Thomas. Three Famines: Starvation and Politics. PublicAffairs, 1120.
- Triulzi, Alessandro. “Adwa: from Monument to Document, in Modern Italy (2003), Reprint in Jacqueline Andall & Derek Duncan (Eds), Italian Colonialism. Legacy and Memory, Peter Lang, Oxford-Bern, 2005: 143-163.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/8730951/Adwa_from_Monument_to_Document_in_Modern_Italy_2003_reprint_in_Jacqueline_Andall_and_Derek_Duncan_eds_Italian_Colonialism._Legacy_and_Memory_Peter_Lang_Oxford-Bern_2005_143-163.
- Keller, Edmond J. Revolutionary Ethiopia: from Empire to People’s Republic. Indiana Univ. Press, 1991.
- Ion, Andrew Hamish, and Elizabeth Jane. Errington. Great Powers and Little Wars: the Limits of Power. Praeger, 1993.
- Chamberlain, M. E. The Scramble for Africa. Taylor and Francis, 2014.
- Pankhurst, Richard. The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892 .. 1966.
 Sean McLachlan, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896, 3.
 Kefu Qan, meaning ‘Evil Days’, was the term ethiopians described the great famine of 1888-1892.
 Injera is a type of flatbread made from teff flour.
 Richard Pankhurst, The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892: A New Assessment: part two, 281.
 Jason W. Clay, Bonnie K. Holcomb, Politics and the Ethiopian famine, 14.
 Negus Negast is amharic for ‘king of kings’
 Jason W. Clay, Bonnie K. Holcomb, Politics and the Ethiopian famine, 11.
 Richard Pankhurst, The Great Ethiopian Famine of 1888-1892: A New Assessment: part two, 283
 Paulos Milkias,The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, 89
 Tigray was a northern province in the Ethiopian empire.
 Harold D. Nelson; Irving Kaplan, Ethiopia, a Country Study, 21
 Paulos Milkias,The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, 91
 Paulos Milkias,The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, 43
 Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia
 Paulos Milkias,The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, 44
 Paulos Milkias,The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, 46
 Paulos Milkias,The Battle of Adwa: Reflections on Ethiopia’s Historic Victory against European Colonialism, 45
 Harold D. Nelson; Irving Kaplan, Ethiopia, a Country Study, 4
 Sean McLachlan, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896, 11
 Sean McLachlan, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896, 34
 Sean McLachlan, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896, 35
 Sean McLachlan, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896, 11
 Sean McLachlan, Armies of the Adowa Campaign 1896, 14
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