Menelik, Ethiopia (and Italians)

In the late 19th century there was a period known as the scramble for Africa, during which almost the entire continent was placed under colonial rule. Ethiopia has the distinction of being one of only two countries who retained their independence. This blog will discuss the work of one of the great emperors during this period for his country, and how he saw off a colonising effort with resounding success


Menelik became Emperor of Ethiopia on the death of Yohannnes in 1889. His was a negotiated, but unchallenged succession. He had been born into the ruling family of the Kingdom of Shawa (in the south of modern Ethiopia), rising to his throne in 1865. He had challenged for the Imperial throne in 1874. To cease his challenge Yohannes negotiated his submission in return for armaments and being acknowledged as Imperial heir. His succession completed the Unification of Ethiopia, which had been a dream of Tewedros.

As King (or Negus) of Shawa, Menelik had expansionist polices, conquering numerous areas to the provinces to the south and west.


As well as being expansionist Menelik was a moderniser, particularly later into his reign. He reformed the taxation 1892, introducing a tithe for the upkeep of the army to end the endemic existence by looting the local area. He also introduced a new Ethiopia currency, in contrast to the use of European coins. While this did not take off it was used as a political piece as during the dispute with Italy Menelik moved the mint to Paris. In granting the modernisation concessions he was also canny at playing the European powers against each other. For example he granted the railway building to France, but halted it when they tried to use it as a territorial stake, and granted the banking concession to their colonial rival England. He also oversaw the intro of telegraph and postal system the latter of which let to Ethiopia being involved in its first international community.

Menelik and Italy

The 1936 invasion of Ethiopia by Italy is a fairly well known part of history. What is less well known is that it was, in effect, round two of the confrontation between the two countries. Italy had begun an encroachment during the reign of Yohannes, claiming the port of Massawa from which they could not be removed. In 1875 Menelik was in contact with them as king of Shawa, having an ambassador constantly in attendance at his court, and using the connection to access physicians and military equipment. There is also suggestion that they assisted in his expansion of Shawa. This friendship led to two treaties while he was King of Shawa, offering Italian aid to negotiate with Europe, as well as armaments and a promise to respect Ethiopian boundaries. These bonds were cemented further with the signing of the treaty of Wuchale only 2 months after Menelik became Emperor. In this treaty the Italians became the first European country to recognise his sovereignty, and granted his rights to import arms across their territories. In return they gained the lands of, which became Ereitrea. As shall be seen however there was a sting in the tail. The Wuchale treaty was also significant because it had two copies, one in Italian and one in Amharic, the Ethiopian Language. This was quite significant as it was common for such treaties to be written in the European language alone. The two versions of the treaty would be the root of the future relationship between Italy and Ethiopia. There was a subtle difference in the two versions, Article 17 in the Amharic version, offered the Italians as intermediaries in negotiations with other European powers, while the Italian version insisted on the Ethiopians going through the Italians in all communications. Effectively this placed Ethiopia under an unofficial protectorate. Initially, once the difference was discovered matters remained cordial, Menelik sent his cousin to Italy as a negotiator, while accepting an Italian loan of 4 million Lire.


However on 11th October 1890 Italy officially announced its protectorate of Ethiopia, and crossed the Wuchale treaty boundary, invading Adwa in the North. Initially they also gained the alliance of Yohannes son Ras Mangasha and other nobles of Tegray.

There was then a lull of three years, during which Menelik imported arms in quantity from France and Russia, and started to pay back the Italian loan, refusing to be beholden to them. It was only in 1893 that he broke off cordial relations with them. It was the Italians, forced by outside circumstances who made the next move. These outside circumstances were two; Firstly Ras Mangasha defected to Menelik, secondly there was a revolt in Eritrea against the harsh rule of the Italians. While this was put down it led the Italian Government to decide that their only course of action to regain face was a full scale invasion of Ethiopia.

Initially this went quite well, they defeated Ras Mangasha twice and gained the entire province of Tegray.

On 17th September 1895 Menelik issued a mobilisation order to his army for assembly on 16th October. In force the Ethiopians went on to win two early victories, enough to raise the discussion of peace talks. In this the Italians demanded that they could retain the whole of Tegray, to which Menelik would not agree. The Italian Prime Minister sent a telegram to the general, demanding that all sacrifice to be made to preserve honour. The Italians set for a first light attack on 1st March, intended to be a surprise.

However that element was soon lost, conveyed either by Eritreans or Tegrayan defectors. Further ant-Italian sympathies aided Menelik as the Eritreans and locals were very willing to guide his armies to the best positions. In contrast the Italians had little local knowledge and inaccurate maps of the mountainous terrain.

Menelik had a distinct numerical advantage in terms of men for the battle; 100,000 armed with modern rifles, compared to 17,000 ( 10,596 Italians, the remainder Eritrean levies). There was closer equality in canon, but it was numbers and information which proved to be the critical factor, enabling each of the three Italian divisions to be engaged by a separate group of Menelik’s army.

In the end the Italians suffered a 43% casualty rate, with only one of the six generals escaping unscathed. Of the other five, three were killed, one wounded and one captured. In retreating they also left behind much of their baggage and  11,000 rifles

As well as a military victory, Adwa had weighty political repercussions. Back in Italy it led to Anti Government and anti-war demonstrations. For Ethiopia the new Addis Ababa treaty which the Italians signed cancelled out Wuchale; acknowledging Menelik’s independent sovereignty and the original Eritrean borders. Internationally the French and British also dispatched diplomatic parties to sign treaties of friendship with Menelik, as did the Tsar of Russia, the Sudanese Mahdists and the Sultan of the Ottoman empire. It was this acknowledgment and the peace that followed which allowed Menelik to concentrate on the modernisation of his country, some of which was outlined above

Recommended Reading if you’re interested:

Richard Pankhurst The Ethiopeans: A History (Blackwell, 1998)

Bahru Zewde A History of Modern Ethiopia 1855-1974 (Currey, 1991)


All feedback appreciated as this is my first post for the Blog

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