The Battle of Adwa
(March 1, 1896)
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* Please note that sources for
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Last updated: Jan. 5, 2019
The Battle of Adwa
The battle of Adwa of 1 March 1896 was a stunning victory for Ethiopia but a rout and a disaster for Italy. Adwa – the
story of Africans seeing to their own freedom – played out against a background of almost unrelenting European
expansion into Africa. The success of Ethiopia’s forces assured that Ethiopia would be the only African country
successfully to resist European colonization before 1914. It also resonated powerfully in post-Emancipation America
where hierarchies of race and ethnicity were only beginning a process of challenge and renegotiation.

Italian interest in East Africa dates from 1869 when the opening of the Suez Canal transformed the commercial and
strategic significance of the Red Sea coast. An official Italian presence didn’t begin until they established themselves
at the Red Sea port of Massawa in 1885, after which the Italians began to move up into what are now the Eritrean
highlands. Ethiopian commanders sought to halt the Italian advance, with some notable successes, but the Italians
artfully played on rivalries among Ethiopian leaders. By 1890, the Italians had secured control over a significant
territory west and south of Massawa; they announced the creation of the colony of Eritrea, with a capital at Asmara.

The Italians continued to push westward, into Sudan, and southward, toward the northern Ethiopian province of
Tigray. In late 1894 Ras Mangasha, the ruler of Tigray, used the pretext of war against the Dervishes to mobilize
forces to resist Italian incursions. In a series of victories in early 1895, the Italians defeated Mangasha’s forces. They
pursued Mangasha deep into northern Ethiopia, establishing fortified positions in Tigray and Agamay provinces –
vastly expanding the territory under Italian control.

The population of Tigray and Agamay appeared, for a time, to accept Italian rule. Back in Rome, the Italian
commander Oreste Baratieri was feted as an Italian hero.

In September of 1895, Menelik, king of the southern province of Shoa, called the population of Ethiopia to arms. He
began to lead a massive force of some 100,000 men northward toward the Italian-occupied territories. Through late
1895 and into the early months of 1896, Menelik led a brilliant campaign that forced the overextended Italians to fight
on his terms. By threatening to outflank the Italian forces and threaten Eritrea, Menelik maneuvered the Italians into
a position that left their supply lines exposed, vulnerable to a population that was now turning against the occupiers.

General Baratieri was reluctant to attack Menelik’s army in the open field. Recognizing that he had been
outmaneuvered, he believed that tactical retreat was his best option. Some of Baratieri’s officers argued forcefully
against retreat, citing spy reports to the effect that Menelik’s forces were demoralized and depleted. Baratieri agreed
to a plan that called for his army of some 15,000 to advance under cover of night and occupy forward positions, a
move that would have forced Menelik to lose face if he declined to attack Italian forces holding strong defensive

The advance took place at night on the 29th of February. By dawn, the Italians were to have been securely established
in the Ethiopian passes, inviting attack. Instead, one Italian brigade overshot its rendezvous point and virtually
marched into the Ethiopian camp. A second Italian brigade sent to cover the retreat of the first got caught up in a
separate engagement. Menelik’s forces were able to defeat these brigades and the main Italian force in three separate
combats. By the afternoon of 1 March 1896, Italian forces were in a desperate, panicked retreat back toward Eritrea.

Victory at Adwa sealed the unification of Ethiopia and solidified Menelik’s claim to the title of Emperor. Europeans
and European-Americans interpreted the story of Adwa in different ways. For some, it was an opportunity to
discredit Italy militarily. For others, it was important to advance the view that the Ethiopians were not black, thus
explaining away the significance of white and European defeat.

Ethiopian victory secured independence for more than a generation. It also assured Ethiopia’s status as a beacon
throughout the African Diaspora.

Source: Ras Daniel ~ FB Post March 1, 2019
The above chronology compiled by Malchijah, please contact me for updates.
0001 - 1929
1930 -1975
1976 - Current
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