Introduction by Luntango Suun Gaan Gi
In a history lesson this week, I used this Russian proverb to illustrate my take on the lessons of history: “Forget the past and you lose an eye; dwell on the past and you lose both eyes”. I think it is important to remember our history, and re-create it where it has been erased from the books, but we must not be blinded by dwelling on it. This particular battle is of great importance because it brought the first Black African Nation onto the World Stage, and established the myth of the Ethiopia Power that became so important in the foundation of the Pan-African Movement and the fight against Colonialism. And, not least, the rise of Marcus Garvism movement, the Rastafarian Movement in Jamaica and Bob Marley’s internationalisation of the Pan-African colours of RED, GREEN & GOLD. Here then is Wikipedia’s summary of the Battle of Adowa.
Battle of Adowa, March 1, 1896
The actual battle took place in mountainous country north of the town of Adowa. The Italian army comprised four brigades totalling approximately 17,700 men, with fifty-six artillery pieces; the Ethiopian army comprised several brigades numbering between 73,000 and 120,000 men (80-100,000 with firearms: … the Ethiopians were armed with approximately 100,000 rifles of which about half were “fast firing”, with almost fifty artillery pieces. Italian General Baratieri planned to surprise the larger Ethiopian force with an early morning attack, expecting that his enemy would be asleep. However, the Ethiopians had risen early for Church services, and upon learning of the Italian advance, promptly attacked.
The Italian forces were hit by wave after wave of attacks, until Menelik released his reserve of 25,000 men, destroying an Italian brigade. Another brigade was cut off, and destroyed by a cavalry charge. The last two brigades were destroyed piecemeal. By noon, the Italian survivors were in full retreat. While Menelik’s victory was in a large part due to sheer force of numbers, Menelik’s careful preparations had made them well-armed numbers. The Ethiopian army … could absolutely execute the strategic plan of Menelik’s headquarters.
The Ethiopian army also had its problems. The first was the quality of its arms, as the Italian and British colonial authorities did sabotage the transportation of 30,000-60,000 modern Mosin–Nagant rifles and Berdan rifles from Russia into landlocked Ethiopia.
(Luntango: Of course, the British fear was real enough because in 1952-1956, weapons from Ethiopia did reach the Mau Mau in Kenya – Haile Sellassie had refused British request to close the Ethiopian border).
Russian military officer Nikolay Leontiev was sent to Ethiopia by the Russian government and he and other Russian volunteers fought on the side of Ethiopia during the Battle of Adowa. Some Russian councillors of Menelik II and a team of fifty Russian volunteers participated in the battle. Among them were N. Leontjev, an officer of the Kuban Cossack army.
The casualty rate suffered by Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa was greater than any other major European battle of the 19th century, beyond even the Napoleonic Era’s infamous Waterloo. Riots broke out in several Italian cities, and within two weeks, the Crispi government collapsed amidst Italian disenchantment with “foreign adventures”
The Italians suffered about 7,000 killed and 1,500 wounded in the battle and subsequent retreat back into Eritrea, with 3,000 taken prisoner; Ethiopian losses have been estimated around 4,000–5,000 killed and 8,000 wounded. In addition, 2,000 Eritrean askaris were killed or captured. Italian prisoners were treated as well as possible under difficult circumstances, but 800 captured Eritrean askaris, regarded as traitors by the Ethiopians, had their right hands and left feet amputated.
(Luntango: I am not sure that the Eritreans fighting for the Italians were actually called “Askaris” as this is a Swahili term simply meaning “watchmen” and applied to the Africans who worked as Admin Policemen for the British Colonial masters in East Africa. During the Mau Mau Uprising these Askari “traitors” bore the brunt of the Mau Mau onslaught against British rule).
Ethiopia Recognised Internationally
Menelik secured the Treaty of Addis Ababa in October, which strictly delineated the borders of Eritrea and forced Italy to recognize the independence of Ethiopia. Delegations from the United Kingdom and France—European powers whose colonial possessions lay next to Ethiopia—soon arrived in the Ethiopian capital to negotiate their own treaties with this newly proven power.
Luntango: I recall a very smart student of mine at marina International School in The Gambia in 1997. I think she had a surname Sammegah-Janneh (a Doctor or Lawyer dad). While discussing de-colonisation, I gave the information that Ethiopia was the first independent African country. She did her research overnight and return for battle the next day: “No Sir, Liberia was the first!” she stated confidently. So we turn to examine the creation of the Firestone Tyre Company’s creation of a Rubber Plantation called Liberia – overseen by returned ex-slaves who were finally overthrown by Sgt Doe. But that is another story!