MENELIK II – Victor of Adowa, Reunited and Modernized Ethiopia

By Getachew Mekasha

March 1st, 1991 was the 95th Anniversary of the Battle of Adowa. In the short space available, it is impossible to do justice to Menelik II and his times. Many books and monograms have been written (mostly by foreigners and some by Ethiopians) dealing with various aspects of his rule, but none giving a balanced and a full picture of that glorious era. The aim and purpose of this short article, therefore, is simply to focus attention on some of the lesser known facts and present a slightly different perspective so as to nudge the curiosity of the younger generation, who might be spurred on to do some independent research on their own.

When one thinks of Menelik II what immediately comes to mind is Ethiopia’s great victory over Italy at Adowa in 1896. But, as all those who are familiar with Ethiopian history know very well, military prowess in Ethiopia does not date from the days of Adowa, but has been a characteristic feature since ancient times. Abraha Atsbeha (Ezana), Kaleb, Gabre Maskal, Amde Tseyon, Dawit, Yishak, Zara Yakob, Lebna Dengel, Sertse Dengel, etc. were all past Emperors renowned for their heroic military exploits.

But Menelik’s name conjures not only military victory, but other very important thoughts and ideas as well, which had far reaching effects and consequences on the succeeding generations. Ethiopia’s reunification and its real introduction into the modern age are regarded as the greatest achievements of his reign. Adowa was just the culmination and the crowning piece, which was made possible by his other equally superhuman achievements.

Menelik, who reigned as king of Shoa from 1865 to 1889, and as Emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to 1913, was perhaps the greatest of Ethiopia’s Emperors in modern times. This is mostly because his long reign saw not only the resurgence of a true and genuine national spirit which touched every aspect of national life in a strong and reunited Ethiopia, but also on account of the great increase witnessed in Ethiopia’s position in world affairs during his time.

Menelik was particularly lucky to come after his illustrious immediate predecessors, Emperors Tewodros II and Yohannes II, who prepared the ground work for him. Ethiopia, though a powerful state in ancient and medieval times, had fallen on evil days in the middle of the 18th century. The powers of the Emperors had been usurped by the feudal provincial war lords, and centralized government had been replaced by the autonomy of the various regions whose rulers warred among themselves. Tewodros and Yohannes had partially succeeded in reorganizing and ressurecting the ancient state by eliminating the war lords and re-establishing central authority. But, it was left to Menelik to bring this task to fruition, as well as to withstand the tremendous pressure of the European powers in the scramble for Africa, and to lay the foundation of a modern state.

It looks as if fate itself had prepared Menelik to undertake this task from early life. He was only 11 years old when Tewodros came to Shoa in 1855 with his huge army to demand submission of the Shoans. Tewodros took the young boy and his mother, Ejjigayehu, and many other Shoan nobles with him to Gondar, where Menelik stayed until he was almost 22 years old. During those 10 crucial formative years, Emperor Tewodros acted and behaved as a true father to Menelik, and showered him with love and affection, and not only saw to it that his education was not neglected, but that he also brought him up with all due care and attention given to all sons of royalty and nobility – namely, a palace upbringing which meant a though training in the martial arts, particularly wrestling, hunting and horsemanship, and being adept at manners and general bearing which comes from observing and practicing palace etiquettes at GIBI or banquets, while serving as personal attendant and valet to the Emperor himself. His endearing qualities as a youngman brought him close to all those who constituted the inner circle of the Palace in Gondar, and the lessons he learned in that “University” seemed to have abided with him to the end of his life. He was so immersed in the Gondar culture and mannerism that even his native Shoans used to remark that when he spoke his mother tongue, Amharic, “he spoke it with a Gondar accent!”

The members of the inner circle in Tewodros’s Palace in those days were mostly self-made men like Fitaurari Gebreye, Ras Engeda and Fitaurari Gelmo, all renowned warriors, and pillars of the Emperor’s civil and military administration. There were also foreigners in this inner group, Englishmen like John Bell, Walter Plowden, Captain Speedy and others who all left a lasting impression on young Menelik’s mind. They kindled in him the love of mechanical contraptions of all sorts, from sewing machines and bicycles to pistols, rifles and cannons. His curiosity for things foreign was insatiable, and it was mostly directed towards new inventions, particularly in the field of armaments. We are told that he rarely missed opportunities to watch and participate in target shooting practices, and gunnery exercises frequently held by German, Austrian, Swiss, Turkish and Egyptian trainers in the service of Tewodros’s army.

Menelik also met his boyhood friend, and lifelong confident, Wella Bithel during this time, whose sister, Taitu, he married later in life. She was to add not only such a dazzling glamour and pizzas to his court, but that she almost literally transferred the entire ambience and refinement of the Gondar of those days to every aspect of life in the city she co-founded, and personally named “Addis Ababa” (the New Flower) in 1887.

Menelik’s personality, his innate intelligence and ability, his grasp of world affairs and his keen interest in modernization, all qualities which served him so well in later life, can be said to have been shaped and formed during the decade he spent in Gondar and Magdala in Tewodros’s Court. The remarkably talented and able personalities he gathered around him when he became King of Shoa, and later Emperor of Ethiopia, were all exact replicas of his role models of his youth.

He put a high premium on intelligence and physical fitness, and had no use for fools and weaklings. His palace, the old Gibbi in Addis Ababa, was a veritable training camp for promising youngmen whom he collected from all over Ethiopia during his numerous campaigns, and from all walks of life. They were all given rigorous training in the martial arts, and were expected to excel in athletes, especially Ethiopian style wrestling, hunting, shooting and horsemanship. Wrestling matches were held almost every evening in the Old Gibbi where these youngmen competed and displayed their muscles and skills, sometimes with Menelik himself in attendance. He immensely enjoyed watching the sport of GUGS, or a type of jostling on horseback, where opposing horsemen came at each other at full gallop, and threw spears (usually without the metal tips) at one another, while at the same time defending with shields. He also never missed the GENNA games, a sort of hockey, which was played every year at Christmas with all their younger people participating.

Needless to say, all these sport activities, where Menelik himself was a keen spectator, afforded ample opportunities for able and talented youngmen to catch the eye of the Emperor, and be selected by him personally for appropriate tasks in the military or other fields. Thus the Old Gibbi of Menelik was the spawning ground of all those who became future heroes of Ethiopia, most of them in his own life time. The veritable galaxy of stars we have come to know so much about, legendary names like Ras Mekonnen, Ras Gobana, Dejatch Baltcha, Fitaurari Gebeyehu, Fitaurari Habtegiorgis, Dejatch Gebre Selassie, Ras Abate, Negus Wolde Girogis, Dejatch Beshah, Dejatch Tchatcha, Dejatch Ibssa, Ras Tesema, Ras Nadew, Dejatch Anenew, Dejatch Atnafe, Azaj Zamanel, Dejatch Gesese, Kegnazmatch Tafesse, Balambaras Bante, Balambaras Ayele, Azaj Bezabeh, Azaj Aba Temsas, Bejirond Ketema and many, many others who cannot all be named here, are all graduates and allumni of Menelik’s Old Gibbi “University.” All graduates of the school of hard knocks.

It is true that most of these men proved their mettle at Adowa. But all of them, though still young in age, had undergone a thorough preparation for Adowa as veterans of Menelik’s numerous campaigns all over the country in bringing the various local chiefs to submission to his authority as Emperor of the land.(1) They had not only seen action in the various fronts, but had also distinguished themselves by showing exceptional courage and valor at those engagements. So, when the final test came at Adowa, the Ethiopian army could not have been better prepared or better led.

Besides, by this time, contrary to all expectations in Europe, Menelik had succeeded in uniting under his authority all the principal seats of power in Ethiopia. Ras Mengesha of Tigrai, Ras Teklehaimanot and Ras Mengesha Atikem of Gojjam and Damot respectively, Ras Mikael of Wollo, Ras Welle of Begemidir and all the potentates of Jimma, Kaffa, Harar, Lekemt, Kellem, Walamo, Gurage, Sidama, Kambatta, Bale, Borana, Gimmira, Kulokonta, Benishaigul, etc., you name it, all stood solidly united behind Menelik.

Suffice it to say, Italy in 1896 faced a united and determined Ethiopia. The people of Ethiopia rose as one man to support the Emperor against a common enemy, and the result was spectacular.

Prelude to Adowa
Much has been written about the battle of Adowa. How “a ragtag native army” of peasant levies from a backward African country defeated “a well equipped and disciplined modern European army” is even now regarded as somewhat of a mystery to many people. No wonder it is still a subject of debate in well known military academies like Sandhurst, Saint Cyr and West Point. Military historians, tacticians and strate gists are still puzzled as to what exactly went wrong. What happened at Adowa was something extraordinary. It did not fit the existing stereotype. In fact, at Adowa Ethiopia broke the mold.

And what was that stereotype? Native “ragtag armies” of the third world were no match to “modern disciplined, well equipped European armies.” At that time there were plenty of examples to support that type of thinking. Apart from the native American Indian experience, and the Maharajahs of the Indian states in India, Europeans cited the then fresh examples of the Zulus in South Africa and the Mahdists in the Sudan to prove their point, and asked the question: What was so different about Menelik’s army? Well, they got their answer pretty soon afterwards. In fact a lot was different about Menelik’s army!

The Treaty of Wuchiale
Meanwhile, the scramble for Africa had brought the Italians to the shores of the Red Sea. As a late comer to the colonial game, they were keenly aware that they had lagged behind Britain and France in acquiring African colonies, and they were in a hurry to make up for lost time. From their newly acquired foothold on the Ethiopian Red Sea coast of Bahr Medir which they promptly named “Eritrea” (after the old Latin name for the Red Sea, Mare Erythrian) they were determined to push and expand their power and influence over the rest of Ethiopia. To this end they signed a treaty with Menelik soon after he became Emperor in 1889. This was the infamous Treaty of Wuchiale, which later became the immediate cause of the war with Italy.

According to the terms of this treaty as stated in Article 17, the Italians thought that they had put the seal on Menelik’s subjection to them.

In Italian the Trattato di amicizia e commercio tra il Regno d’Italia e l’Impero Etiopico, the “treaty of friendship and commerce between the Kingdom of Italy and the Empire of Ethiopia,” states in Article 17 that S.M. il Re dei Re d’Etiopia consente di servirsi del Governo di S.M. il Re d’Italia per tutte le trattazioni di affari che avesse con altre Potenze o Governi. (His Majesty, the King of Kings of Ethiopia, agrees to make use of the government of His Majesty, the King of Italy, for all dealings with other Powers or Governments.)

But the Amharic version of the text did not say the same thing. It simply stated that the King of Kings might make use of the government of the King of Italy. When the Italians claimed that Ethiopia was now an Italian protectorate, Menelik naturally objected. How could a king of kings be a vassal of a mere king? He wrote to the king of Italy, and these were his words: “When I made the treaty… I said that because of our friendship, our affairs in Europe might be carried on by the sovereign of Italy, but I have not made any treaty which obliges me to do so.” Less than a year after signing the treaty he also wrote to the other European powers, saying, “Ethiopia has need of no one; she stretches our her hands to God.”

With that, the die was cast, and Ethiopia and Italy were set on a collision course.

At last when all peace overtures failed, and the Italians continued advancing into the interior and entered deep into Tigrai and reached Amba Alagai, Menelik dispatched his war minister, Fitaurari Gebeyehu, to dislodge them from their heavy fortification, which was promptly done. Though at a heavy cost, this was the first taste of victory for Ethiopians.

Previously, the war drums were brought out to the main public square in Addis Ababa, and to their accompaniment on AWAJ or proclamation was made in the name of the Emperor.

Menelik issued his mobilization proclamation on 17 September 1895: “Enemies have now come upon us to ruin the country and to change our religion… Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging into the country like moles. With the help of God I will not deliver up my country to them… Today, you who are strong, give me of your strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer.”

In characteristic humor, which at the same time revealed his serious intent at toleration of all creeds and styles of life in the country he ruled, be it Muslim, pagan or other, he added the following terse coded words in the proclamation:

Literally translated this means, “Keep your habit concealed in your armpit, and load the food stuff you need for the hard days ahead on your donkey, and follow me wherever I go.” But these words in Amharic had other more important hidden meaning. This coded message, while on the whole emphasized the need for secrecy in the general mobilization, the actual meaning of the word “Amelkin” here which is translated as “habit” encompasses anything from faith or belief to socially unacceptable behaviors and taboos like tobacco chewing and smoking, and using snuff, TCHAT or other drugs. Menelik’s predecessor, Emperor Yohannes IV had prohibited such practices and violators were severely punished. But by this funny interjection in the middle of a serious proclamation, which made people laugh, Menelik in one stroke released all his subjects from all unnecessary restraints on matters of personal nature, so long as they were practiced in private. These words had an electrifying effect on the general population, and the response was automatic, spontaneous and overwhelming. The words of Menelik were gleefully repeated from mouth to mouth, and became the most popular slogan in the days, weeks and months just before Adowa. Enthusiasm for the war caught on, and it swept the country like wild fire.

Inspite of the many spies and agents they had in the country, as George F. H. Berkeley wrote soon after Adowa in 1902 in his book: The Campaign of Adowa and Rise of Menelik, the Italians “had no inkling that the emperor was gathering a force of well over 100,000 soldiers. His mobilization was proceeding ‘with extraordinary deliberation and secrecy.’

“Never, probably, in the history of the world has there been so curious an instance of a commander successfully concealing the numbers of his army, and masking his advance behind a complete network of insinuation, false information, and circumstantial deceptions… Every tucul and village in every far-off glen of Ethiopia was sending out its warrior in answer to the war-drum.”

In his proclamation Menelik also warned ominously those ablebodied youngmen who, out of laziness or cowardice, might try to avoid the war by shirking their duty to the nation or what we call today draft dodgers: “I swear by St. Mary, I will not be lenient with you, if you are caught loafing around and idling away your time, instead of bearing arms and defending your country in her time of need.” Everybody knew this was not an idle threat coming from Menelik!

When he took a casual oath, which is common among Ethiopians, Menelik usually invoked the name of the Ethiopian saint, St. Teklehaimanot, which was also the name of the church in Gondar where he received his early church education. He also quite often casually swore by the name of his surrogate or foster father, Emperor Tewodros. But this time, as he did in all particularly solemn occasions, he invoked the name of St. Mary, the Mother of God, thereby affirming his unbending determination in the pursuit of the goals of the coming war with Italy. It was clear he meant business. Needless to say, everybody got the point, and from that time on all roads led to Adowa.

This was not all. Menelik’s life long investment in arms and weaponry also amply paid off now.

Menelik never allowed any opportunity for purchasing or acquiring arms to slip by without taking full advantage of it. In fact, as every foreigner who visited Ethiopia during his time knew, a sure way to Menelik’s ear was through the gift or sale of arms. Gun runners, arms merchants, big game hunters, explorers and adventurers, all entered into this lucrative business with him sooner or later. Even the famous French poet Arthur Rimbaue could not resist the temptation during his 11 years stay in Harar (1880 – 1891). Thus, unknown to the Italians, over the years Menelik was accumulating arms from wherever he could get them in Europe.

By the time the battle of Adowa was fought Menelik had collected an enormous quantity of arms of all types and makes. Surprisingly, while a significant number were imported from France and Russia, most of these arms came from Italy itself! In addition to that, though in smaller quantities, he had an assortment of arms from England, Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Benelux countries and even from the USA. His arsenal was a veritable museum of modern arms from everywhere. In this collection while Italian, French and Russian muzzle loaders or Fusil Gras (to Ethiopians, WUJJIGRA, WOTCHEFFO, NAAS MASSER, MESKOB) dominated the scene, the American Remingtons and the British Sniders (breech loading guns known to Ethiopians as SANADIR, which were mostly leftovers from Napier’s Magdala Expedition of 1868) held special pride of place. Wetterleys and Martinis were a common sight at Adowa. Besides Menelik’s formidable arsenal included Napoleon and Krupp artillery, no less than 40 canons in all.

So, when the battle of Adowa opened in the early morning of March 1, 1896, Emperor Menelik had well over 100,000 men equipped with modern arms at the ready, not counting soldiers armed only with spears, swords and daggers, and ordinary folk, stragglers and camp followers armed only with sticks, and other crude homemade weapons and missiles.

1) Menelik’s nation-wide effort for the reunification of all the scattered regions of Ethiopia, and the ingathering of all its hitherto unjustly separated component parts, has been a target of unfair component parts, has been a target of unfair criticism from certain quarters. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear disparaging remarks, or to
read uncomplimentary writeups about Chellengo, Imbabo, Kaffa, Kambatta, Walamo, Hadya, etc. all decisive battles fought by Menelik and his brave generals in the campaign for Ethiopian unity.

Much is made of these campaigns by those who want to distort and bend history to suit their own narrow ends. These are modern day revisionists who have completely lost sight of the forest which frantically picking on the trees in Menelik’s policies. However, cleverly they disguise their real motives and intentions, in manipulating, twisting and distorting facts, their attempts to denigrate and defame the participants in those legendary campaigns must be dismissed outright as futile exercises and sour grapes. Yet, the fact remains and the record amply testify that. Once Menelik aims and objectives were made clever, and that nothing short of the reunification of Ethiopia would satisfy him, most local and regional potentates saw the writing on the wall and complied with his wishes voluntarily. Of course, the fact that he had the will and the means to enforce this policy also played an important role. Like his contemporary in the U.S., President Teddy Roosevelt, Menelik believed in the policy of “speak softly, but carry a big stick”!

Wollo’s Ras Mikael, Jimma’s Gullin Aba Jiffar, Lekemt’s Dejatch Moroda, Kellem’s Dejatch Jyothi, Beni Shangul’s Sheikh Hajjale, Gammuz gubbas Sheikh Banjaw and Danakil’s Sultan Hanfare all submitted peacefully to Menelik with little persuasion. the few who refused and posed a military challenge to Menelik left him with no choice but to make them feel the brunt of his “big stick”. These were Abdullahi of Harar, Baksa of Surage, Enjamo of Hadya, Diguye of Kambatta, Tonna of Wollamo and Shennacho of Kaffa.

Thus, thanks to the gigantic efforts of Emperors Tewodros, Yohannes and Menelik, the balkanization of Ethiopia which actually began in the 16th century with the uprising of Ahmed Gragn, and continued through the “Zemene Mesafint” for nearly 300 years was largely stopped with what looks like a lightening speed at the close of the 19th century. During these three centuries of great changes which transformed the country, great migration and movements of people took place which brought about tremendous demographic and social change all over the nation.