Stories of African Resistance: The Battle of Adwa

The year is 1896.

Europe has decided to slice up Africa into cakes. Italy says it will eat the Ethiopian Empire. It starts to, encroach, south of their colony in Eritrea on the Red Sea.

Seven years earlier, in 1889, the Kingdom of Italy has signed a friendship treaty, the Treaty of Wichale, with the Empire of Ethiopia. The basic idea was that Italy and Ethiopia would respect each other and none would try to scratch the other’s ass. But then differences began to emerge on the nature of “friendship”.

According to Italy, the Italian version of Article 17 of the treaty clearly stated that Ethiopia would be a protectorate of Italy, that the Emperor of Ethiopia was obliged to conduct all foreign affairs through Italian authorities. Emperor Menelik II tells Italy that what is in his Amharic copy of the treaty is that the Emperor could use the good offices of the Kingdom of Italy to conduct relations with foreign nations if he wishes. Italy accuses the Emperor of editing his Amharic version. That it is a “mistranslation” from the Italian original. Emperor says that his document is the original position. Italy decides to pursue a military solution to force the Ethiopian Empire to abide by the Italian reading of the Treaty of Wichale.

They begin by occupying the northern Ethiopian city of Adigrat. The year is 1895.

Emperor Menelik II is, naturally, pissed off. Bigtime. He doesn’t attack immediately. He waits for a whole year, towards the end of 1896. While Italy glories in the success of their initial occupation, he uses a 4 million lire loan he had borrowed from Italy earlier to import better weapons. He then calls the population of Ethiopia to arms and begins to lead a massive military force of 100,000 men northward towards Italian occupied territories. The Italian forces are mercilessly defeated at the battle of Amba Alage.

In response, Rome ferries more troops to Eritrea. 17,978 troops, with 56 artillery pieces, under Commander General Oreste Boratieri. And the artillery! Right Column: (3,800 rifles / 18 cannons), Central Column: (2,493 rifles / 12 cannons), Left Column: (4,076 rifles / 14 cannons), and Reserve Column: (4,150 rifles /12 cannons).

The Ethiopians are not leaving anything to chance! These are their forces: Shewa forces – 25,000 rifles / 3,000 horses / 32 guns; Semien forces – 3,000 rifles / 600 horses / 4 guns; Gojjam forces – 5,000 rifles; Harar forces – 15,000 rifles; Tigray and Hamasen forces – 12,000 rifles / 6 guns; Wollo-Galla forces – 6,000 rifles / 5,000 horses; Forces of the Fit’awrari Mangascià Atikim – 6,000 rifles; Forces of Ras Oliè and others – 8,000 rifles; and additional thousands of spearmen and swordsmen.

The Emperor’s strategy is to overextend the Italians to fight on his terms. He threatens to outflank them, maneuvers them into a position that leaves their supply lines exposed. General Oreste Boratieri knows that battling Menelik’s troops in the open field is suicidal. He has been outmaneuvered. He believes the best strategy is to retreat, but some of his officers resist retreat, arguing that they have reports that Menelik’s army is demoralized and depleted. The Italians advance an army of more than 15,000 under the cover of night to create strong defensive positions and possibly scare the Ethiopians into retreat. By dawn, the next day, most of the Italian army have secured their positions.

The day is February 29th 1896.

The Emperor is just beginning his morning prayers for divine guidance when the spies from Ras Alula, his chief military advisor, run in. The Italian forces are advancing! The Emperor, Empress Taytu by his side, summons all the separate armies and orders them to advance. There is Negus Tekle Haymond commanding the right column, Ras Alula the left column, Ras Makonnen and Ras Mengesha on the centre, and Rask Mikael at the head of the cavalry. Emperor Menelik remains with the reserve battalion. The Ethiopian forces position themselves on the hills overlooking Adwa valley, 52 mounted guns, trained on would-be-approaching Italians on the valley.

At 6.AM on the morning of March 1, the first Italian brigade – Albertone’s Askari Brigade – arrives at Adwa valley. Albertone’s brigade holds position for 2 hours in a heavy battle. In the end Albertone is captured. The second brigade, led by Arimondi, battle it out with Ethiopians for 3 hours, almost annihilating the Ethiopians, only for Emperor Menelik II to release 25,000 troops from the reserves. Italians are cut down and swamped. Menelik’s forces, pursue and destroy two brigades led by Boratieri on the slopes of Mount Belah. The last Italian brigade is quickly extinguished by Gojjam forces under the command of Tekle Haymonot, as Emperor Menelik watched.

That day, by noon, the Battle of Adwa was over.

7000 Italians were dead, 1500 wounded, and 3000 taken prisoner.
The scope and scale of this victory was so extensive that Menelik’s campaign covered more miles than Napoleon’s advance in Russia. It was so devastating that no other European power attempted to colonize Ethiopia.

Sources: The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire; The Battle of Adwa ; The Battle of Adwa and many more


This short, basic, write-up is inspired by Too Early For Birds, which poses a rather simple question: What if we could turn our stories into living, breathing performances?

That is exactly what the team behind Too Early For Birds hopes to achieve.

The team behind #TooEarlyForBirds which is includes some of the finest performance artists in the country – led by Abu Sense and Ngartia, has gone back into the timeline of Kenya seeking out moments that built who we are as a people. The result is stories of sweat, blood and sheer courage. Raging from resistance against the British colonialists to standing against cold-blooded dictators. Most of which were never taught in school. They are stories that inspire awe, terror and admiration. They are inspired by and based on research done by Morris Kiruga. He is a researcher and writer dedicated to chronicling Kenyan history in a Kenyan perspective.

Are you ready for the experience on Wednesday, 17th May 2017, from 06:00 PM – 11:00 PM, at the Kenya National Theatre, Nairobi-Kenya?

Get a Ticket on TicketSasa


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