The story of colonial conquest of Africa has mostly been told from the colonial power’s point of view. Needless to say, the negative portrayal of total domination on Africans accompanies many colonial historical accounts.
However, it was not always a story of triumph for the colonial side as one would assume.
Two epic battles won handily by Africans against colonial powers come into mind, namely: the Battle of Adwa (also referred to as Adowa) between the Kingdom of Italy and the Ethiopian Empire (March 1896, first Italo-Ethiopian war, present day Ethiopia) and the battle of Isandlwana between the British and the Zulu Kingdom (January 1879, present day South Africa).
A lot has been written about these two battles by historians and military strategists but they serve as examples of victories that changed the course of history for each side, protecting the sovereignty of the winning side and causing great fallout on the part of the losing side.
The decisive win at Adwa ensured that colonial powers were kept at bay except for the short Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941 following the second Italo-Ethiopian war.
The victory at Adwa was not accidental.
Menelik II, the ruler of Ethiopia at the time, had a lot going for him leading up to the battle. He had history, preparedness and foresight on his side. Menelik II also commanded a large modern cavalry army with men trained in horse, gun and rifle warfare, matching the Italians quite well.
The Ethiopian Empire had also been built on a rich and proud history that dated to ancient times.
For example, Menelik II claimed direct lineage to Biblical King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Additionally, Ethiopia and Eritrea was also the center of the Aksum civilization (100AD-940AD). The Kingdom of Aksum held the status of an important regional trading and naval power whose influence extended to Egypt, Asia, Arabia and Europe.
Reminiscent of many great civilizations, this civilization was marked by magnificent works of architecture, world renown centers of learning and advanced government structures. Just like early Chinese and Japanese civilizations, the Ethiopians had also developed their own unique and advanced writing script known as the Ge’ez script that is still used today in Ethiopia.
Furthermore, Menelik II and his wife Empress Consort Taytu Betul, through their European contacts, had also mastered the ways of Western diplomacy and the art of shaping public opinion. They were able to portray themselves as an age-old Christian monarchy just like the British monarchy or any other Western monarchy at the time. (In fact, Christianity in Ethiopia traced it roots back to the Aksum civilization and as early as 330AD. This gave the Ethiopian empire legitimacy in the eyes of many European powers that had been part of the Western Christendom)
Therefore, when Menelik II defeated the Italians in the battle of Adwa, his victory was accepted and hailed as a great triumph by many Western powers.
Italy was seen as the aggressor and had no choice but to sign a peace treaty with Ethiopia.
In fact, many Western nations colonizing other parts of Africa rushed to establish diplomatic relations with the Empire, ensuring that Ethiopia maintained its sovereignty.
The aftermath of the battle of Adwa was not kind to the Italians. It partly led to the collapse of the government of Francesco Crispi and the court-martial of Oreste Baratieri, the commanding general at the battle of Adwa.
So humiliating was this loss, that Fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini sent an army back to Ethiopia forty years later (1935-1936) for the second Italo-Ethiopian war with the grand goal of colonizing Ethiopia once-and-for-all and boost Italy’s prestige as a colonial power.
Italy won handily this-time-round but was unable to colonize Ethiopia and their occupation ended in 1941. The plan to colonize and settle was thwarted by constant uprising and loss during the East African Campaign, making it impossible for Italy to gain full control of the empire.
The second Italo-Ethiopian war had an even more profound effect on Mussolini’s fascist movement. Historians note that the Italo-Ethiopian war and Italy’s involvement in the Spanish civil war left Mussolini’s government cash-strapped.
As a result, Italy could not compete with Britain, France and Germany in the arms race leading up to the Word War II. To achieve his expansionist goals and fight allied forces, Mussolini had to form an “unholy” alliance with Hitler’s Germany during World War II.
Feature image: By A. Davey from Where I Live Now: Pacific Northwest (Detail, “Battle of Adwa’ Uploaded by Elitre) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
1. The Battle of Adwa By Raymond Jonas. Google Preview.