A Bunch of Stuff You Should Know About ADWA

እንኳን ለዝክረ አድዋ በሰላም (?)አደረሳችሁ አደረሰን

And now here’s a bunch of stuff that you should probably know about the Ethio-Italian war of 1896 (European Calendar) All I did to write this entry was refer to my Grade 10 History Text Book and a bit of Wikipedia. I did bookmark a bunch in my copy of ዐፄ ሚኒሊክ እና የኢትዮጵያ አንድነት by ተክለፃድቅ መኩሪያ for further reading although I’m really sorry to say I didn’t have the time to read that book entirely before I could put together this entry.

The Unsung Hero of the Ethio-Italian war: Atse Yonannes IV

When Italy first came to occupy Ethiopia, they didn’t jump straight into battle. First, a private Shipping Company bought the port of Assab from local chiefs in 1869 and then transferred the land to the Italian government 13 years later. From there they expanded inwards and settled, violating the first article of the Hewett Treaty aka The Adwa treaty signed in June, 1884 by Britain, Egypt and Ethiopia. This article stated that there would be free transit of all goods, firearms included, into Ethiopia through Massawa and this was to protected by Britain.

But when Italy settled there to block the entry of firearms into Ethiopia and taxed Ethiopian Merchants too much, Britain turned a blind eye. The king at the time, Atse Yohannes IV, wrote to Queen Victoria of Britain about Italian control over Massawa and as my text book put it and this made me laugh, she wrote back to him saying he should “live in peace with the Italians.”

Ras Alula aka Aba Nega, the governor of Mereb Mellash, did not appreciate the Italian advances so he marched to Sa’ati and attacked an Italian fortress. No, actually he ambushed and attacked said Italian fortress. This is known as the Victory of Dogali. It was a very embarrassing event for Italy.

Following their defeat at Dolagi, the Italians started recruiting “fans” in Ethiopia. They began befriending oppositions of the throne and enemies of Yohannes IV and among them was Menelik, the king of Shoa. He was the strongest opposition so he became the more attractive force to befriend. He signed “friendship” treaties with Italy and agreed to strengthen the Italio-Shoan trade and even gave them space to plan their agendas at Let Marefia. What the Italians intended here was for Menelik to attack Yohannes from the South as they advanced from the North. But Menelik was not willing to side with them to fight Yohannes even though they promised him firearms. He was instead down to mediate peace between Yohannes and Italians. They did not want that either so they settled for an Agreement of Neutrality where if they were to have war with Yohannes, he would not help the king. They did not want war with a regional king they had been arming so they played nice. Menelik agreed to the Neutrality Agreement on the grounds that “Italians would not take an inch of the Ethiopian land.”

Poor Naïve Menelik.

In 1887 Italians brought their own mediator from Britain; a Sir Gerald Portal. This Sir met with Yohannes and presented him with the Italian terms that he apologize for Ras Alula’s surprise attack on Dogali (where they were shamed for the world to know in a land they came to occupy) and they also asked for protectorate-ship over several Ethiopian territories.

Yohannes said No.

Yohannes was also severely disappointed in Britain. Again, he wrote to that Queen Victoria telling her how disappointed he was and that he was ready to wage war before he would let Italians sit on Ethiopian land. He also snitched to France about Britain’s indifference.

Small note about Atse Yohannes IV, I remember my history teacher in 10th grade telling me that he’s also known as the Monk King because he was super into religion and also because he chose diplomacy over war. It goes like this. Atse Tewodros was the hot-headed war dog, Atse Yohannes IV was the Zen monk who liked diplomacy but Menelik was the mix of the two. He’d learned from their mistakes.

So you know how bad it is when Atse Yohannes says he would go to war and he was very prepared for it too. He called his troops and the country responded well, (except Menelik’s troops of course) and he marched to Sa’ati to fight the Italians in 1888. Read closely this next part is important.

The Italians built a huge fort and refused to come out and face the large army.

They stayed that way until the army grew tried probably from all the Shelela and of course they started to run out of provisions and the army had to return home to their families. While Yohannes was dealing with the Italians up north, his competitions to the throne down south were advancing and also the Mahadist Sudan were invading Gondar. So, he went to fight the Mahadist first and there he won that battle but he died.

So Menelik became King of Kings of Ethiopia and the Italians joyously continued to expand into Ethiopian territories.

Wuchale Article 3 and Article 17

The Wuchale Treaty was signed in Wollo in 1889 with Pietro Antonelli representing Italy. Menelik signed this because he knew what was up. His hold on the country was not strong enough yet so he feared that if he didn’t befriend the Italians, they might go around arming his enemies like they had done for him. He compromised in giving them the north. He gave them as far as Asmara but they were not satisfied. By late 1889, they had pushed as far as the Mereb River and controlled all of Eritrea. Menelik complained about this but they didn’t care much.

When we come to article 17, we all know that story. It was contradictory in Amharic and Italian and basically engineered to mislead and give Italy control over Ethiopia’s foreign relations. So after the signing when Italy declared that they had protectorate-ship over Ethiopia’s foreign relations, the world accepted. France and Russia weren’t so sure.

Menelik complained to King Umberto of Italy and Umberto obviously said no and so Menelik revoked the treaty and declared that he had done so to the world in 1893.

Here, the Italians attempted to recruit northern locals to join them and with some they succeed but they were also hit by rebellions in Eritrea and Tigray by the likes of Bahta Hagos and Ras Mengesha.


Menelik began mobilizing in September 1895. Taytu also mobilized her women and materials. They marched north with men and woman and people from all the corners of Ethiopia, an army of allegedly 100,000; Menelik at the head of a united Ethiopia. It’s said that the battle took 9 hours; some say it’s a full day.

They didn’t turn away Taytu’s tactics because she was a woman. Her tactics drove the enemy out of Mekele. They won Ambalage. And by night fall on March 1st, 1896 (that’s Yekatit 22, 1888 Eth. Calendar), they had won Adwa.


Sitting here today 122 years later, I’m overwhelmed by this. When people say that they died for us to live sovereign today, it sounds so cliché and it makes me wonder how many people actually understand it when they say it or even when they dismiss it.

Menelik might not have been thinking about me or you when he led that battle. But he won nonetheless and for that reason, I can allow myself to relate to Wakanda, what they called a sovereign land. (But note: I see some of your posts. Please stop. Wakanda is a fictional place. T’Challa is not Menelik. T’Challa is smug because he has Vibranuim. What Menelik had was pride.)

I couldn’t watch TV today because watching my peers in traditional garments like the ones they wore at the time, performing Shelela and Kererto and dancing on stage and basically even talking about it, that broke my heart. It made me cry in front of strangers and it made the strangers cry too but I could not tell you the reason because I do not know.

On the eve coming home from work, I saw a vigil at the Adwa Dildey and I got off the taxi to watch. An old Patriot that we’ve all seen on TV too many times was holding a wax taper and singing his heart out, head to the sky and I just stood there unable to lift my phone to even snap a photo because something about it just hurt. I’ve interviewed this man a couple of years ago and he doesn’t have any hate for Italians but he slapped his spear to the ground in anger when he told me about how wrong it is for people to feel entitled over something that does not belong to them. He meant Italians invading our land but my mind went elsewhere.

Today, 122 years later, all looks like performance. It is a performance.

I don’t actually like that entitlement we feel towards those heroes who died in the battle. They were our forefathers, yes, but they are not us. We don’t get to feel entitled over their sacrifices. The Battle of Adwa was a gruesome, bloody war where not only did they kill their white skinned enemies but they also had to kill their brothers because Italy did succeed in turning some. It was not a stage performance. It was not like yelling into a mic or hiding under an alias and spreading propaganda and then feeling like a hero. It was real.

I don’t appreciate some of us feeling that swell in the chest because it is misplaced. If that were today, we couldn’t stand together like they did…or the way they tried to in their own ways. We don’t deserve that swell in the chest. You and I didn’t earn it.

But we must always, until the end of time, pay vigil to what they have done because it was much,much bigger than them whether they meant it to be or not. They were protecting their homes. They probably didn’t intend to stand for a people whose common struggle even today comes from sharing their color of skin.

After Adwa

On Adwa, there was victory because the enemy either died, got captured, or got pushed to the Italian Colony in Eritrea. My history teacher told me that had Menelik attempted to push further into Eritrea as well, the Italians might have had the chance to get help through the border. Adwa might not have been a victory and so I don’t even know if calling Ethiopia a completely sovereign state is historically accurate. Menelik stopped at Eritrea because he was smart. It was his compromise. Eritrea was held until 1941. It was also used as a base for another attempt at colonizing Ethiopia in 1935.

Italy might have recognized Ethiopia as a sovereign state and agreed to respect the borders in 1896 but only to go behind Ethiopia’s back and sign the Triparite treaty with Britain and France in 1906 when Menelik fell deadly ill.

P.S We all know about them by now. The biggest vigil for Adwa is paid by young people who march on foot from Addis Ababa to Adwa covering over 1000 KM on foot. I don’t know. Maybe you or I will have the initiative to pay that big a vigil to the heroes someday. But for now maybe we can start small by recognizing the history and keeping in mind that it is really just history. Today is different. Today we fight completely different battles.

P.P.S I’m going to share with you a favorite poem that my second grade English teacher told his class one time and the last line stayed in my head for about a decade before I learned the first line too. I don’t really know who it’s by but it’s either from WWI or WWII. I don’t care when it’s from. It’s beautiful. Here goes:

When you go home, tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow, we gave our today.