In 1896, Italy Made a Gambit for Africa. It Failed.

February 9, 2021 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: ItalyEthiopiaColonialismAbyssiniaEmpireMilitary History

In 1896, Italy Made a Gambit for Africa. It Failed.

Seeking to grab a piece of Africa during the colonial scramble for conquest, Italy invaded Ethiopia in early 1896.

Here's What You Need to Know: Under the cover of the dusty Ethiopian night, the 17,000-man Italian Royal Expeditionary force scrambled over ragged hills and inactive volcanoes in the early morning hours of March 1, 1896. With less than four days’ worth of rations and even less water, the walrus-mustached commander of the Italian army, Oreste Baratieri, hoped to save his men from starvation by making an audacious surprise assault on the much larger enemy force arrayed against them.

In hushed whispers, nervous conscripts debated what lay ahead as they stumbled through the soupy darkness. The soldiers had overheard reports from the indigenous Ethiopian scouts after the renegade tribesmen returned from the front lines. The tales the indigeni told were not promising. They suggested that an unimaginable 100,000-man horde of Ethiopian defenders, assembled by Emperor Menelik II, was perched atop the Adwa Mountains somewhere in the distance. Despite their fears, the Italian troopers pushed on, knowing that they must reach their positions before daybreak.

As dawn broke over the parched landscape, Ras (Prince) Alula stood like an unblinking sentinel while his Tirgrayan warriors snored around him. The exhausted commander’s face bore the wrinkles of time and the crusty white scars of battles long forgotten. Alula and his men were serving as frontline sentries while King Menelik and two-thirds of the Ethiopian army attended an Orthodox Christian mass at the nearby Church of Zion. After his nightlong vigil, Alula felt the warm blanket of sleep envelop him. He dreamed that he saw Italian units stumbling toward him under his rifle sights. It was no dream—the despised imperialists had finally arrived. Alula shouldered his Mauser rifle and let loose a warning shot. The crack of the rifle woke his men, and they joined the fray with a murderous volley of rifle fire.

As the opening skirmishes raged in the distance, Menelik, the owl-eyed emperor of Ethiopia, was thanking God for the vast army gathered on the foothills of the windswept mountains around Adwa. Comprising volunteers from every known Ethiopian tribe, Menelik’s warriors soon would pit their well-worn swords, spears, and rifles against crack Italian artillery in the greatest Afro-European battle since the defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, two millennia earlier.

A trumpeting bugle shattered the king’s reverie. For lack of a better steed, Menelik leaped onto the back of a mule and led his tribesmen galloping to the front. Behind him, tens of thousands of warriors streamed down the crumbling rock face of the mountainside to meet the Italian invaders.

A Second Roman Empire

A latecomer to the European scramble for Africa, Italy did not thirst for empire until after its unification by Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1871. After unification was complete, Italy’s first modern prime minister, Francesco Crispi, dreamed of building a second Roman Empire with colonies and protectorates all over the globe, but by then Africa had already been largely carved up by the other European powers. The few scraps left over were doled out by the 1885 Treaty of Berlin.

At the Berlin conference, the continental powers gifted Ethiopia to Italy—a cruel practical joke, considering that the African nation was home to an aroused populace long raised on the sour milk of war. Fierce Ethiopian tribesmen had successfully resisted a British expedition, smashed several Egyptian offensives, and crushed an onslaught of the Mahdi’s Islamic followers. In the absence of foreign invaders, the tribesmen battled one another in innumerable civil wars, blood feuds, and vendettas.

Manoel de Almeida, a Jesuit priest, praised the Ethiopians’ martial prowess. “In war they are reared as children,” he wrote. “In war they grow old, for the life of all who are not farmers is war.” The European superpowers clucked at Italy’s expense, but Crispi was determined to have his empire. Ethiopia’s strength even inspired the formidable Prussian, Otto von Bismarck, to caution: “Italy has a large appetite but poor teeth.” Crispi, to his credit, realized his country’s military deficit and set about honing Italy’s dull incisors into gleaming fangs.

As Crispi built a modern military, he dispatched Count Pietro Antonelli to the court of Menelik II, the strongest adversary of Ethiopia’s current emperor, Yohannes IV. From his northern stronghold of Mekele in Tigray, Yohannes ruled most of Ethiopia, while Menelik controlled the southern province of Showa. Antonelli immediately drove a wedge between the fractious relationship. Hoping to sway the balance of power within the divided country, the count entrenched himself in Menelik’s court with gifts of rifles and gold.

“Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah”

As a showdown with Yohannes loomed, an invasion of Sudanese Dervishes from the east in 1887 threatened Ethiopia’s security. Yohannes’s armies repulsed the invaders at Gallabat, but a stray bullet fatally knocked the king from his horse, and the Dervishes captured his body. Antonelli could scarcely believe his luck. It seemed as though Italy was about to conquer the ever-truculent African nation without having to fire a shot of its own.

The count promised to back Menelik in his bid for the throne in exchange for a formal diplomatic agreement. With Yohannes dead, Menelik, the self-proclaimed “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” was crowned king of Ethiopia in 1889. Italian bureaucrats quickly drafted a treaty between the two nations that went down as one of the most duplicitous maneuvers in the history of foreign relations.

On the surface, the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale represented an even swap. The document stated that in exchange for the northern Ethiopian province of Baher-Mellash, the Italians would lend Menelik $400,000 in cash and a matching sum in the form of modern rifles. Even though the Ethiopian regent ceded a massive swath of his territory, the area was one he hardly controlled. Baher-Mellash, which the Italians renamed Eritrea, from the Latin marus erythraeum, or Red Sea, was the rebellious former stronghold of Yohannes.

The treaty contained a much more dangerous clause in the form of Article XVII. Crafted by Antonelli, Article XVII dealt specifically with the notion of Ethiopian sovereignty. The two translations of the agreement intentionally contained very different wordings. In the Amharic translation, Menelik retained independence; the document clearly stated, “The King of Kings of Ethiopia, may, if he so desires, avail himself of the Italian government for any negotiations he may enter into with other powers and governments.”

In the Italian version, however, the wording was quite different: “The King of Kings of Ethiopia, consents to avail himself of the government of his Majesty the King of Italy for all negotiations in affairs which he may have with other powers and governments.” The duplicitous discrepancies threatened the very autonomy of Ethiopia. If allowed to stand unedited, the document acquiesced to a protectorate status for the African country. Warily, the two nations signed the document.

Menelik’s Preparations for War

Menelik, who was no fool, secretly began planning for war. Armed with new Italian rifles, Ethiopian armies expanded eastward. Their forces plundered the Somali gold fields and raided nearby granaries. With the captured wheat, Menelik could keep his armies fed, and with the Somali gold he could arm them with the latest military hardware. Italy looked on with an unconcealed frown.

The conflict heated up, and the European nations chose sides. Whoever controlled the Horn of Africa controlled the Red Sea and the fate of the Suez Canal. For this reason, England and Germany sided with Italy and declared an arms embargo on the stubborn African kingdom. France and Russia backed Menelik. With the aid of French arms dealers based in the dusty outpost of Djibouti, Somalia, Menelik amassed a staggering cache of 80,000 rifles and 5,000,000 rounds of ammunition. The weapons included British Martinis, German Mausers, and American Winchester lever-action rifles.

More importantly, the French transported a number of quick-firing 37mm Hotchkiss cannons to the Ethiopian freedom fighters. A band of French artillery experts accompanied the guns. The Italian technological advantage rapidly evaporated in the face of foreign assistance. To make matters worse, the Hotchkiss cannons outranged the Italian 75mm Krupp mountain gun by more than 2,100 feet. If Crispi did not act quickly, Italian military superiority would be lost forever.

The Italians Build Their Presence

On February 28, 1892, Crispi appointed Italy’s greatest commander, General Oreste Baratieri, to govern Eritrea and its armed forces. A soldier since the age of 17, Baratieri was a member of Garibaldi’s legendary “Thousand.” The general found the Italian Africa Corps seriously deficient. Comprising mostly conscripts, the Italian units wore specially designed khaki uniforms and pith helmets and carried outdated M1870 single-shot rifles. No successful invasion was possible with these units, Baratieri warned, pleading with Crispi for an expanded budget and better soldiers.

The prime minister answered Baratieri’s pleas by dispatching Italy’s most elite forces and increasing the military budget by four million lira. The reinforcements consisted of five Bersaglieri sharpshooter battalions and one Alpini mountain battalion. The units were armed with the latest in small-arms equipment: the 1891 Carcano bolt-action 6.5mm rifle (later to become infamous as the alleged weapon of President John F. Kennedy’s alleged assassin). In addition to the infantry, two field batteries, two machine guns, and a mortar battery rounded out the reinforcements.