By Ayele Bekerie, PhD
Updated: Sunday, March 1st, 2015
Adwa, Ethiopia (TADIAS) –119 years ago, on March 1, 1896, at the Battle of Adwa, the unexpected happened. Ethiopia, an African country, defeated Italy, a European country. The defeat was decisive and the victory was permanent. More than 100,000 Ethiopian troops, who were led by Emperor Menelik II, were mobilized from all corners of the country and marched to victory at the battle that lasted less than half-a-day. The victory was so decisive, according to Fitawrari Tekle Hawariat, the 20,000 Italian and their ‘native’ soldiers were rushing to surrender and to be declared prisoners of war.
On March 1, 1896, Ethiopians not only kept their sovereignty and independence, but they also taught a lesson to Italians, for that matter to European colonizers. The lesson was that their colonization agenda’s last chapter was written at Adwa. Adwa, therefore, marked the beginning of a new chapter of anti-colonialism and decolonization and end of colonial occupation in Africa and elsewhere. Ethiopia unburdened what the poet Kipling labeled ‘the white man’s burden,’ that is, the pseudo civilizing missions of the Europeans in Africa. Adwa has demonstrated that Africans can and should always be perceived and accepted as subjects of their own histories and civilizations.
The whole world has noted the able leadership of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu Bitul, their gallant generals (the Balambrasoch the Girazmachoch, the Dejazmachoch, the Fitawrariwoch), brave soldiers (Geberewoch, Negadewoch, Setoch, Yeigg Balemuyawoch, Yehaimanot abatoch) at the Battle of Adwa. Their remarkable achievements have been recorded in many languages in the leading news outlets of the time. The libraries of the world have beefed up their shelves by including books about the Battle. To this day, like the historian Raymond Jonas’s (2011) The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, the Battle continues to generate new historical narratives. Persons and institutions in the Americas, Europe and Africa, according to Professor Kifle Selassie Beseat of UNESCO, named themselves Menelik, Taitu, Allula and Mekonnen in an attempt to stamp and permanently record for generations their memories of Adwa. In short, the unexpected and triumphal outcome of the Battle speaks to Adwa’s eternity.
When the people heeded the call of their leader, there were no mass media, no radio, and no television. Once Menelik’s Negarit (War Drum) drummed, the message spread and heard by the people throughout the country. Menelik’s Awaj was positively responded to and able-bodied men and women reported to duties in their respective districts, woreda, awaraja and provinces. The historic march to Adwa took more than two months. Along the way to Adwa, fellow Ethiopians, those who had to remain behind assumed logistical roles and offered provisions, such as food and pack animals, to the troops. The Battle took place at the site and time of Ethiopians’ choosing. The Italians were actually outnumbered and outmaneuvered and by mid-day the War was over and the Italians are rushing to surrender in thousands, as noted by Fitawarai Tekle Hawariat.
Adwa proves the common purpose and determination of the Ethiopians. It is an evidence for putting diverse human and natural resources into effective national use. It was an affirmation of what I call Ethiopian nation-ity with all its imperfections. With Adwa, Ethiopians created a new Ethiopia that belongs to diverse ethnic and religious groups. It is the fundamental basis of our national unity.
Adwa marks Ethiopia’s own state of modernization, despite all its limitations and internal contradictions. Ethiopians made it clear at Adwa that a people who are fully aware of their history are capable and willing to rise up and defend their God-given rights. Adwa will always remain a critical precursor to a just world. Adwa reminds the world that there cannot be a world order in which few are supreme and the majority are mere colonial subjects. It is also a catalyst to the present push to national economic development in the country.
According to the distinguished Ethiopian Studies’ curator and archivist Richard Pankhurst, Ethiopia had won or further affirmed international diplomatic recognition. In the months following the victory at Adwa, Emperor Menelik II signed treaties of friendship with major European powers of the time, such as Britain and France. In other words, the victory secured Ethiopia’s modern borders and its lasting effects extended far beyond Ethiopia to all the lands of colonization and subjugation. As George Berkeley, the pro-Italian historian, puts it, the victory was ‘a military factor worthy of our [the West] closest attention.’ Undoubtedly Ethiopia frustrated and brought it to a halt Europe’s deliberate intention to colonize the entire continent of Africa. Ethiopia became a symbol of dignity, respect and freedom for Africans, for that matter, for all colonized people all over the world.
The celebration of the victory at the Battle of Adwa is just and should take place both at home and abroad. This is because Adwa celebrates the little people, the ignored, the neglected, the negatively stereotyped, the other, the oppressed and the colonized. The victory speaks to the hopes and aspirations of the majority of the people in the world. Adwa rhymes with justice, agency and human equality and therefore, once a year in March, it is celebrated with enthusiasm.
History is characterized by nuances and complexities and it is resistant to hasty generalizations. The full account of historical details enable historians to generate narratives of the past, which is a guide to the present and a source of vision to the future. Some like to cherry-pick only some aspects of historical truths and put them into political spin. I would like to argue that the attempt, in some circles, to discredit the gallant leaders of Adwa would be short-lived. History is progressive and only a careful and studied analysis and interpretation of events and deeds help a society to move forward and to bring about peace, democracy and prosperity.
The victory achieved at Adwa set the stage to our social, economic, and cultural history. The freedom and independence that we enjoy today are informed by the outcome at the battlefield of Adwa. Adwa saved us from becoming an extension of colonial Italian history. Adwa made us remained ourselves. Adwa was possible because we were a people, a nation-state, that is, fully self-conscious.
To conclude, we celebrate Adwa because it was a battle won to affirm the universality of human dignity. Human beings, regardless of their geographical locations and income levels, have certain inalienable rights, which cannot be violated by force. We celebrate Adwa because it ushered to the world that the only peace acceptable is peace with justice. I would argue, in this regard, Adwa has made its contribution to what we call the modern world.
We celebrate Adwa, as it is stated repeatedly, for it is a prelude to decolonization in Africa and elsewhere. We celebrate Adwa for it has charted a new paradigm in international relations and diplomacy. International organizations, such as the United Nations, UNESCO, AU would not have been possible in the pre-Adwa global colonial order. Adwa is celebrated annually for it is an eternal symbol of dignity and freedom.
Ayele Bekerie is an Associate Professor at the Department of History and Heritage Management at Mekelle University.