Imperial Reckoning: At Battle of Adwa, Empress Taytu and Emperor Menelik Led Ethiopia to Great Victory over Italian Colonialism

Ethiopians defeat the Italians
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I’ve just launched a kickstarter campaign to raise funds to produce my graphic book “ADWA: Empress Taytu And Emperor Menelik In Love and War.” The book is about the March 1, 1896 Ethiopian victory over an invading Italian army of 17,000 commanded by five generals.
Adwa was perhaps Africa’s greatest victory over European colonialism during the 19th century “Scramble for Africa.” It’s a story that should be more widely known but because it was an African army destroying a European one, the story has not been celebrated enough — certainly not outside Africa; but most Africans and Diaspora African descendants are also unfamiliar with Adwa.
The Ethiopian victory was led by Empress Taytu Betul and her husband Emperor Menelik II and a host of other generals. Empress Taytu herself had 6,000 men under her command. As a result of the victory over European imperialism at Adwa, Ethiopia was the only African country that wasn’t colonized. All the other African countries had been divided up at the infamous Berlin Conference from November 15, 1884 to February 26, 1885.
The European powers held the meeting to avoid war amongst themselves as each stake claims over African territory. The prime beneficiaries were France, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, Italy, and Britain.At the conference the maniacal Belgian monarch, Leopold II, declared, “I’m determined to get my share of this magnificent African cake.” Then Europeans sliced up the continent, sometimes splitting families, with some relatives living in territory claimed by Britain while others, across the border, in lands claimed by France.
Let no one forget that the colonial enterprise was bloody and destructive. In Belgian Congo, an estimated 10 million Congolese were exterminated under slave-labor to produce rubber and ivory. In recent days, in the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s death, some commentators have been looking back at the legacy of British imperialism in Africa.
When Britain colonized what’s now Zimbabwe in the 1890s, one of the bravest military resistance leader was a woman named Mbuya Nehanda. She was captured and hanged by the British in 1898. Her head was cut off and shipped to England. Tens of thousands of Africans were massacred during the conquest. Their livestock and millions of acres of land stolen and given to Europeans. The area was renamed Rhodesia. When Nehanda was killed the British queen was Victoria, great-great grandmother of the recently deceased Elizabeth II. Zimbabweans have been demanding that Britain return Nehanda’s head for decades.
Similar genocidal campaigns of conquest and dispossession were carried out in other parts of Africa — North, West, East, Central, and South — by the European powers. The colonialists plundered priceless artifacts and jewelry; they forced Africans to abandon growing food, in favor of cash crops for export to Europe such as cotton, tea, coffee, and tobacco, leading to periodic famines. Even today, African countries still export cash crops to Europe, and just as in the 19th century, African countries suffer recurrent famine, such is the case today.
The Europeans didn’t want Africa to ever compete with them so an indigenous industry, such as textiles production by the Ashanti, was destroyed. The cash crops and Africa’s mineral wealth were shipped to Europe, turned into factory manufactured products, and sold back to Africans at inflated prices. Cotton, for example, was acquired cheaply and sold back as textiles, dresses, or pants and suits to Africans. Europe’s industrialization and wealth increased; Africa’s de-industrialization and impoverishment continued, and continues.
The imperialists demonized Africans in order to make it easier for non-Africans to readily accept their annihilation during the wars of conquest and later, during colonialism, whenever there were uprisings. Imperialists couldn’t relate to the suffering of Africans, who were mere shadows in the background. Case in point, Princess Elizabeth was on safari in Kenya, a British colony, in 1952 when her father King George VI died and she became queen. While she was visiting the country for leisure, British troops were conducting brutal scorched-earth military operations against Kenyans. Led by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), Africans were fighting to recover 4 million acres stolen from them and given to 1,000 Britons. U.S. media echoed British propaganda, demonizing the freedom fighters as “Mau Mau” savages, as I discuss in my book “Manufacturing Hate — How Africa Was Demonized in Western Media.”
It’s estimated that as many as 100,000 Kenyan civilians were killed or disappeared during the conflict, while only 32 European “settlers” lost their lives. KLFA leader, Gen. Dedan Kimathi, was captured and executed in 1957.
The imperialists also demonized African languages and culture, including spirituality. Indigenous governments, including monarchies, were destroyed. In 1897, the British overthrew and deported: King Prempeh I of the Ashanti, in what’s now modern Ghana; and Kabaka Mwanga, and Chwa II Kabalega, both kings in different parts of what’s now modern Uganda.
It’s in this light, examining colonial atrocities, that Ethiopia’s 1896 victory over imperialism in the form of Adwa should be widely known, shared, commemorated, and celebrated by all Africans and people of African descent. This is the story told in my graphic book, “ADWA: Empress Taytu And Emperor Menelik In Love and War,” whose kickstarter campaign I’ve just launched.
At the Battle of Adwa the Ethiopians helped dispel the white supremacy myth that Black soldiers couldn’t defeat white ones on the battlefield. The Italian overall commander, Gen. Oreste Baratieri had promised Italy’s King Umberto that he’d return to Rome with Menelik in a cage. Instead, the Ethiopians killed nearly 3,000 Italian soldiers, including two generals. They captured an almost equal number of Italians as prisoners of war, including one general. The prisoners were marched off to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. Women lined on each side of the road, jeering at the prisoners and spitting on them. In Addis Ababa, they were put to work cleaning and building the city, or sent to work on farms. Suddenly, the tables were temporarily turned, with Europeans working like enslaved people, supervised by Africans.
The prisoners were released the following year after Italy paid reparations to Ethiopia.
So even as world media focuses on the burial of Queen Elizabeth II on September 19, this is also an appropriate time to re-examine the legacy of European imperialism in Africa and to also remind Africans of the heart victory at Adwa. It’s also a good time for imperial reckoning — apologies and reparations are long over-due.
Britain can start making amends to Zimbabwe by returning the head of Nehanda so that she too can receive an honorable and worthy funeral.

Note: The artwork by Obedirwoth Ken Daniels, used in this article, are samples of the art that will be found in “ADWA: Empress Taytu And Emperor Menelik In Love and War.”
To find out more about the book and support the Kickstarter campaign please go to: https://tinyurl.com/xceanb75

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