By Amanuel Dessalegn
The historical background
It has been 124 years since the brave people of Ethiopia defeated the colonial army of Italy at the battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. This was probably the biggest upset of European colonial endeavors in the African continent.
Eleven years before the fateful battle, european powers gathered in Berlin to divide the African continent among themselves. Italy was among the 16 countries who participated in the conference which took place between october 1884 and february 1885.
Fast forward four years in 1889, Italy occupied some areas of northern Ethiopia, what is now Eritrea and Italian somaliland. However, the Italians’ ambition to further expand their domain into Ethiopia was resisted by the then Ethiopian Emperor Yohanes IV and his generals, notably Ras Alula, who is considered by many historians to be the most prolific general in the history of anti colonial struggle.
Having their efforts to colonize Ethiopia thwarted by King Yohaness, the Italians signed a treaty with the then King of Shewa, Menelik the second, on may 1889. This treaty which came to be called the ‘ Wuchale treaty’, named after the small town of Wuchale in eastern Ethiopia where the treaty was signed, was initially aimed at enhancing friendship and commerce between the two countries. However, the Italians had something else in mind. The Italian version of the treaty had a provision that effectively made Ethiopia a protectorate of the Italian empire. This provision was translated differently in the Amharic version of the treaty which only states that Ethiopia can conduct foreghn relations through the Italian government.
When King Menilik repudiated the deceptive treaty in 1893, the Italians decided on military solutions. After a number of confrontations in the following years, the two forces faced each other in the mountains of Adwa on early morning of March 1,1896. The battle ended with a total obliteration of the Italian army, with six thousand killed, one thousand five hundred wounded and another three thousand taken prisoners. The rest of the italian forces retreated to the North.
The legacy beyond Ethiopia’s borders
After its defeat, Italy agreed to abrogate the treaty of Wuchale and signed the treaty of Addis Ababa recognizing Ethiopia as an independent state. Hence, Ethiopia remained independent for another four decades until the second Italo Ethiopian war when it was briefly occupied by Italy between 1936 and 1940.
The victory of Adwa was the reason why Ethiopia remained the only country in the African continent that has never been colonized. The history of Adwa also had a far reaching significance beyond the borders of Ethiopia. In the years that followed the victory, Ethiopia became a symbol of freedom of black people. Leaders of the pan african movement such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Du Bois and George Padmore took inspiration from the history of Adwa. Garvey’s African national anthem is a great example of the sentimental significance that the Victory of Adwa had in the pan African movement:
Garvey’s African National Anthem
Ethiopian thou land of our fathers
Thou land where the gods loved to be,
As storm cloud at night suddenly gathers
Our armies come rushing to thee.
We must in the fight be victorious
When swords are thrust outward to gleam.
For us will the victory be glorious
When led by the red, black and green.
Ethiopia’s independence also enabled it to support other black nations such as South Africa and Zimbabwe in their anti colonial struggle. The green, yellow and red flag of Ethiopia was used as a symbol by several pan african entities and many african countries adopted it as their national flag’s up on their independence.
Today, after 124 years, the Victory of Adwa remains to be an integral part of Ethiopian’s collective consciousness and a source of national pride and inspiration.
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