Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A latecomer to the European scramble for African territories, Italy focused its colonizing efforts on Eritrea and Ethiopia in Northeast Africa. After years of treaty disputes and diplomatic intrigue, Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II ended Italian aspirations with a resounding victory at the Battle of Adwa. The defeat of Italy affirmed Ethiopian independence and challenged the prevalent racial attitudes of nineteenth century Europe.

Summary of Event

The Italo-Ethiopian wars were the product of Italy’s efforts to subjugate Northeast Africa’s fiercely independent Ethiopian Empire. The roots of the conflict go back to 1884, when Great Britain facilitated an agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia called the Hewett Treaty Hewett Treaty (1884) . One of the stipulations of this pact was that the Egyptian Red Sea port of Massawa, Massawa which served as Ethiopia’s primary connection with the world outside its isolated highlands, remained free for Ethiopian transit. However, Great Britain refused to enforce this accord and invited its ally Italy to assume control of Massawa from Egypt in 1885. Italy claimed willingness to accede to the demands of the Hewett Treaty, but instead blocked Ethiopian access through the port and used it as a base for its ambitions to colonize Ethiopia. Yohannes IV Italy;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] Ethiopia;and Italy[Italy] Eritrea Menelik II Baratieri, Oreste [kw]Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion (Mar. 1, 1896) [kw]Repels Italian Invasion, Ethiopia (Mar. 1, 1896) [kw]Italian Invasion, Ethiopia Repels (Mar. 1, 1896) [kw]Invasion, Ethiopia Repels Italian (Mar. 1, 1896) Yohannes IV Italy;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] Ethiopia;and Italy[Italy] Eritrea Menelik II Baratieri, Oreste [g]Africa;Mar. 1, 1896: Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion[6120] [g]Eritrea;Mar. 1, 1896: Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion[6120] [g]Ethiopia;Mar. 1, 1896: Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion[6120] [g]Italy;Mar. 1, 1896: Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion[6120] [c]Colonization;Mar. 1, 1896: Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion[6120] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 1, 1896: Ethiopia Repels Italian Invasion[6120] Yohannes IV Menelik II Baratieri, Oreste Ingida Alula Crispi, Francesco

The Italian motives became immediately clear to Ethiopian emperor Yohannes IV. Italy had engaged in discussion with Menelik, who was then king of the semi-independent state of Shoa to the south. Even though Menelik had sworn fealty to Yohannes, the emperor knew Menelik desired his title and feared the Italians wished to use him for their own ends. Indeed, Italy had been sending Menelik arms and asking to make treaties independent of Yohannes.

While negotiating with Menelik, the Italians slowly extended their influence inland from Massawa, occupying the important trade route town of Sahati, in blatant disregard for the Hewett Treaty, which designated Sahati as exclusively Ethiopian. Ras Ingida Alula Ingida Alula , the emperor’s general based in the northern province of Tigre, immediately threatened to march on Sahati. The Italians reiterated their peaceful intentions, but Ras Alula would hear none of it. He ordered the Italians to evacuate Sahati. The Italians refused, so Ras Alula attacked the Italian garrison at Sahati, but was repulsed. Italian troops were sent to relieve Sahati, and en route Ras Alula attacked them at Dogali and destroyed the force. In Italy, the Dogali Massacre Dogali Massacre (1896) , as it was so named, elicited outrage and cries for retribution. Italy demanded territorial concessions and compensation for what it considered to be unwarranted aggression on the part of Ras Alula. Yohannes refused such extravagant terms, providing Italy with the excuse to attack and occupy Ethiopia.

Ethiopian emperor Menelik II (under umbrella) negotiating peace terms with Italian commissioners.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Hoping that Menelik would attack Yohannes, the Italians prepared for war to take advantage of the situation when it occurred. Yohannes realized his difficult position, for it appeared Menelik was conspiring against him, and his army was weak and needed provisions. Yohannes marched on Shoa to gain supplies from that rich region and to force Menelik to acquiesce; however, he was unsuccessful. Shortly afterward, Sudanese Sudan;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] Ethiopia;and Sudan[Sudan] Mahdists Mahdism;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] attacked Yohannes’s western borders, seeing the unbalanced situation in Ethiopia as a perfect time to strike. Yohannes was killed in battle with the Mahdists at Metemma in February, 1889.

Once news of the emperor’s death reached Shoa, Menelik immediately claimed the title for himself, as there was little competition to his ascendancy outside of Tigre, where Ras Alula supported the previous emperor’s son as the heir. On May 2, 1889, before his crowning ceremony, however, he signed the Treaty of Wichale Wichale, Treaty of (1889) with Italy. Italy’s prime minister Francesco Crispi Crispi, Francesco immediately proclaimed Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy on the basis of Article 17 of the treaty. The Italian version of the treaty stated that Menelik gave consent for Italy to conduct all foreign policy matters on his behalf. The Amharic-language version that Menelik had was quite different; it said that Menelik could choose to use Italian offices if he wished. Menelik thus felt no obligation to forsake his rights of sovereignty. At first he thought the discrepancy a mistake and hoped for alteration. Only later did he perceive the treachery involved. He wasted no time in abrogating the article, but to no avail.

With the acquiescence of other European powers, Italy recommenced its expansion inland in Northeast Africa by occupying Asmara. While still pressing for Ethiopian acceptance of the Treaty of Wichale, General Oreste Baratieri took command of the new Italian colony of Eritrea on the Red Sea. Wanting access to the healthier highlands, he began to move on Tigre. Reading the signs of Italian invasion, Menelik prepared for war as well as he could. He began importing arms through Djibouti, a French colony on the coast. Internally, Ethiopia united against the potential Italian invasion, with even Ras Alula submitting to the emperor. By late 1895, Ethiopia had mobilized for war.

General Baratieri had ordered the occupation of Adigerat as a fortified base from which to push into the highlands in 1895. Later that year, Baratieri won his last victory at Debra Aila, annexing the province of Tigre to the Eritrean colony. The supremely confident Italian military leaders expressed little concern when they learned that Ethiopian troops were moving into the vicinity of Atzala. However, when the Italians marched out to meet the Ethiopian army, they received an unexpected surprise. The mass of Ethiopian troops attacked their position. Horribly outnumbered, the Italians suffered their first real defeat at the Battle of Amba Alagi. Humbled but vengeful, the troops retreated to Adigerat and the fortress of Mequelle.

The Italian general had little notion of the extent of the Ethiopian army, which numbered at least 100,000 men. Menelik sent part of his army to lay siege to the Italian position at Mequelle, which was in dire need of supplies and water. Having little choice in the matter, General Baratieri arranged a cease-fire agreement. Menelik II accepted it and agreed to escort the survivors of Mequelle to Adigerat. He was now in a strategically powerful position.

General Baratieri had just under 45,000 troops available to him, and he, like Menelik, lacked provisions. Blind to the reality of his army’s situation in Ethiopia, Prime Minister Crispi pressed General Baratieri into action to salvage Italian pride. Arrogant and lacking good intelligence about Menelik’s troop movements, Baratieri decided to leave the confines of his fortress. After a winter of fighting and waiting, Menelik learned of the Italian advance on March 2, 1896.

Menelik positioned his force just outside Adwa. Adwa, Battle of (1896) A lack of communication and errors in movement due to inaccurate knowledge of the terrain assisted in the wholesale slaughter of the Italian army. Outflanked and outnumbered, Baratieri’s army was virtually destroyed, with over 7,000 men dead and 10,000 wounded. Another 2,000 or so were taken prisoner. Although the Ethiopian army also sustained heavy losses, it remained intact and in control.


As a direct consequence of the Battle of Adwa, Crispi’s Crispi, Francesco government in Italy fell and Menelik II was able to dictate his own peace terms. His foremost demand was the delineation of boundaries between Ethiopia and Eritrea and annulment of the Treaty of Wichale. The victory at Adwa ensured that one subtantial part of sub-Saharan Africa would not fall under European colonial rule. Moreover, the Ethiopian victory represented not only a defeat over imperialism but also a symbol for Africans across the continent with which to identify. Ethiopia had asserted its right to independence and its ability to defend that right, a powerful sentiment for other Africans under the yoke of imperialism during the decades that followed.

European states, which had long ignored Ethiopia as a secondary power, or no power at all, now had little choice but to negotiate with Ethiopia on equal terms. In Europe, the ideological effect was most important. An African power had defeated a European power, and handily. To many Europeans, the Ethiopian victory at Adwa symbolized the waning of European power in the world. Moreover, Menelik and his army powerfully contradicted European attitudes of race. This war shook the foundations of European social Darwinism and scientific racism to its core and forced a painful reevaluation among many Europeans as to the moral justification of imperialism. Italy’s humiliation at Adwa would also provide Benito Mussolini’s Mussolini, Benito Fascist government a powerful motivation for returning to Ethiopia in 1935.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkeley, G. F. H. The Campaign of Adowa and the Rise of Menelik. 1902. Reprint. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969. Contemporary account that provides a detailed account of troop movements and the command decisions for the military engagements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caulk, Richard A.“Between the Jaws of Hyenas”: A Diplomatic History of Ethiopia, 1876-1896. Edited by Bahru Zewde. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002. This massive work treats the entire war in detail, including the intrigues of Menelik’s relationship with Italy before his ascendancy to emperor and the Treaty of Wichale.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lāpiso Dé Delébo. The Italo-Ethiopian War of 1887-1896: From Dogali to Adwa. Addis Ababa: Artistic Print Enterprise, 1996. Survey that expands the scope of the war, discussing the evolution of hostilities and the buildup to Adwa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Harold. The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1844-1913. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1995. Biography of Menelik by a leading scholar of Ethiopian history. Particularly important for portraying the Ethiopian view of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Work, Ernest. Ethiopia: A Pawn in European Diplomacy. New York: MacMillan, 1936. This classic work is essential for understanding the maneuvering of Italian foreign policy toward Ethiopia.

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Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Menelik II. Yohannes IV Italy;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] Ethiopia;and Italy[Italy] Eritrea Menelik II Baratieri, Oreste

Categories: History