One key to Ethiopia's survival as a nation was Menelik II's wisdom to supply his soldiers with modern weapons.
Menelik II founded modern Ethiopia. His army won one of the greatest African military victories over a European aggressor by crushing an Italian force at Adowa in 1896. He was the only African leader to keep control of his country when European powers carved up the continent into colonies in the late nineteenth century. In fact, as the Europeans divided up Africa beginning in 1885, Menelik expanded Ethiopia to more than twice its original size. The new territory gave him wealth to use in his battle against a takeover of his country by colonial powers. (Colonial powers are nations that rule over other territories and countries.)
Ethiopia claims a history as a nation going back more than 3,000 years. For many years, however, the country remained cut off from the rest of the world and this isolation deprived its people of technological growth. The pioneering, diplomatic emperor Menelik II brought his nation into the dawning twentieth century with its radical new changes brought on by industrial manufacturing, scientific discoveries, expansion of world trade, and new fast-firing, long-range weapons. A key to Ethiopia's survival as a nation was Menelik's wisdom to supply his soldiers with modern weapons. He also levied (collected) a tax to pay his army. That stopped soldiers from looting, or robbing, peasants—a practice that had caused discontent among poor people who lived on farms and in villages.
The emperor's long list of accomplishments included creating Ethiopia's first national money, postage stamps, mint (place where coins are made), bank, hotel, modern school, printing press, government hospital, railroad, and modern roads and bridges. Fascinated by foreigners and their technology, especially their latest weapons, Menelik was the first emperor to send students to study in universities of other countries. He imported eucalyptus trees to help end the country's wood shortage. And he set up a central European-style government to administer the nation's affairs and unify the country.
Menelik was known for his intelligence and good humor. The emperor rode barefoot through Addis Ababa on a mule covered with a scarlet saddle cloth. A servant held each stirrup, and a boy ran beside the mule holding a golden umbrella over the emperor's head.
In 1887 Menelik established Addis Ababa around a hot springs about 8,000 feet above sea level in the Shoa region, a fertile province in Ethiopia's central highlands. (The name Addis Ababa means "new flower" in Amharic, the language spoken in that section of the country.) Menelik made Addis Ababa the nation's capital in 1889 after he became emperor. Since then it has grown into a city of more than 2 million people.
His early years
Menelik II was born Sahle Mariam on August 17, 1845, in Ankober, one of the capitals in the Shoa province. His grandfather, Sahle Selassie (1795-1847), crowned himself king of Shoa in 1813 and declared the province a country independent of Ethiopia. He ruled Shoa until his death in 1847. The name Menelik has its roots in the story of the mythical son of Israel's King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, ruler of Ethiopia in the first century B.C. Ethiopian myth says the son of Solomon was named Menelik I and that he was the first of the Solomonic dynasty (ruling family) that had led the nation, with few interruptions, for nearly 3,000 years.
According to legend, Sahle Selassie foretold that his grandson would grow up to be a great man who would rebuild the Ethiopian empire. At Menelik's birth such a day seemed anything but likely. Ethiopia, plagued by wars and rebellions, lacked any strong, centralized authority.
Shoan independence came to an end following the brief and undistinguished reign of Menelik's father, Haile Malakot (1847-1855). Forces of Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II (1820-1868) defeated the Shoan army, and Menelik's father died in the fighting. Tewodros brought Shoa back into the Ethiopian empire governed from northern provinces, and he took Menelik and his mother, a woman of humble origin, to his court. Young Menelik received a clerical and military education and gained insight into the art of politics in Tewodros's court. Looked upon favorably by Tewodros, Menelik rose to dejazmach (a title given to provincial governors). Tewodros gave his own daughter, Aletash, to Menelik as his wife.
Proclaims himself king
In 1864 regional nobles and warlords tried to rebel against Tewodros. The emperor imprisoned those he thought threatened his throne, including Menelik. The next year Menelik escaped, returned to Shoa, defeated the province's ruler, and crowned himself king of Shoa. The young king built his power base on support from the Shoan army and conservative (traditional-minded) politicians. At the same time he permitted Muslims (followers of Islam) and believers in traditional African religions to worship freely. His kingdom's official religion was the Christian Coptic (Egyptian-based) church. Fortunately for Menelik, Shoa was relatively insulated from the civil wars that ravaged northern Ethiopia during the last years of Tewodros's reign. When Tewodros became involved in a dispute with Great Britain over the emperor imprisoning the British consul and European missionaries, Menelik remained neutral. The British sent a force that easily defeated Tewodros's army in 1868. Rather than surrender, Emperor Tewodros killed himself.
Menelik's failure to join forces with the British resulted in a major setback for the Shoan king's ambitions. With Tewodros dead, power passed to a northern rival, Kassa (1831-1889), who had assisted the British force. He received arms from the British to help him assert his claim to the title of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889). Menelik also proclaimed himself emperor. But rather than fight a war with Kassa's forces armed with modern weapons, Menelik went along with Kassa becoming emperor. In exchange for not fighting for power, Menelik retained his title as king of Shoa and was assured that he would succeed Kassa upon the emperor's death.
From his encounter with Kassa, Menelik learned the value of European weaponry and technology for fortifying his own power. He turned to the Italians and French for weapons as well as to other European countries for advances in Western technology. In 1878 Menelik recruited Alfred Ilg (1854-1916), a Swiss artisan to act as an engineer and to give technology-related training to Ethiopians. One of the emperor's first requests was for Ilg to make him a pair of shoes. Ilg served Menelik for 20 years as engineer, architect, adviser, and diplomat. Menelik also maintained good relations with foreign missionaries, allowing them to enter his kingdom to convert the Oromo peoples living to the south of Shoa. In addition, he sent his army on raids into the area to get ivory, which he in turn traded for profits to buy European-made rifles and artillery.
Foreign ideas and advancements
Beside importing weapons and technology from Europe, Menelik recognized the importance of establishing diplomatic ties with foreign powers. Although forced in 1872 to renounce his claim to Ethiopia's throne and pay tribute to Yohannes IV, Menelik in reality continued to act as an independent king. He cultivated the friendship of Egypt in its short-lived attempt at imperialistic expansion into the Horn of Africa, a northeast region west of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. (Imperialism is the extension of a nation's powers beyond its own borders.) Menelik next went behind Yohannes's back and negotiated with the Mahdists, a group of Muslims who had taken power in neighboring Sudan. Moreover, Menelik had long maintained friendly relations with Victorian England and in 1883 entered into a treaty of goodwill and commerce with the Italians.
Meanwhile Menelik expanded his kingdom in order to pay taxes demanded by Yohannes IV. In addition to sending his army into the Oromo-speaking areas of the South, he sent a force to the East, where it conquered the Muslim emirate (Islamic state) of Harar. Using arms purchased from the West, these expeditions plundered the prosperous regions and gave Menelik access to important trade routes and new sources of ivory and slaves.
Expands his empire
The Shoans established fortified villages throughout the newly conquered territories to maintain control and to protect settlers and missionaries pouring in from the North. Menelik's colonization led to the spread of Shoa's Amharic culture into these new territories. This helped establish rule of Ethiopia by Amharic-speakers from 1889, when Menelik became emperor, until 1991. (In 1991 a Tigrean-led army from the North overthrew Colonel Haile Mariam Mengistu, Ethiopia's dictator who took power from Emperor Haile Selassie I [1892-1975] in 1974.)
While Menelik strengthened his army and enriched his kingdom, Yohannes IV came under pressure in the northern provinces of Tigre and Eritrea. The Italians had moved in from the Red Sea port of Massawa on the east, and the Islamic Mahdists in Sudan approached on the west. In the final year of his rule, Yohannes IV fought those forces crunching him from both sides. Meanwhile, Menelik had entered into a secret pact with the Italians, agreeing not to support Yohannes IV in battle in exchange for Italian weapons. Yohannes IV died in battle against the Mahdists in March 1889.
Menelik crowned himself Ethiopia's emperor on November 2, 1889. He encountered resistance from warlords in the northern province of Tigre, but his army quickly subdued the opposition. By that time, the Italians had spread from Massawa and occupied part of Ethiopia's northern province of Eritrea. Menelik made no move to oust (remove) the Italians. Instead, he signed a treaty with Italy in May 1890. The treaty insured the Italians would recognize only Menelik's claim to the imperial title and confirmed their special relationship with Ethiopia. Menelik allowed Italy to establish a colony in Eritrea as far south as Asmara.
A prelude to battle
Within a short time relations between Italy and Ethiopia began to crumble. Differences arose about the Amharic and Italian translations of the treaty. Italy claimed its text gave Italy the right to declare a protectorate over Ethiopia. Such a status would have meant Italy would control Ethiopia as an inferior state dependent on the Italians. The Amharic version of the treaty recognized Ethiopia as a nation independent of Italy. These varying interpretations of the treaty eventually led to the fateful battle of Adowa in 1896.
In addition to the dispute over the treaty's meaning, Menelik grew suspicious of Italian ambitions in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigre, located on Eritrea's southern border. In 1893 the emperor renounced the treaty with Italy. The Italians had attempted to divide and conquer Ethiopia through an alliance with rebellious Tigre, but these efforts failed. Ultimately, Italy took more aggressive measures, sending forces into Tigre in December 1894. At that time, Italy proclaimed Ethiopia as its protectorate.
Now deprived of weapons he had been buying from Italy, Menelik turned for arms to France and Russia—two foreign countries that wanted to curb Italy's influence along the Red Sea. For its part, Italy assigned its most celebrated soldier of the time, General Oreste Baratieri, to expand Eritrea. Italy planned to send out Italian colonists to occupy the cool, lush highlands of northern Ethiopia, and so approved huge sums of money to finance Eritrea's expansion. Baratieri bragged he would bring Menelik back in a cage.
Surprise defeat of colonial power
In the latter part of 1895, Baratieri moved his troops into southern Tigre. He concentrated his forces around the towering mountain peaks overlooking the town of Adowa. Five hundred miles to the south at Addis Ababa, Menelik ordered drummers to send forth a message from village to village summoning Ethiopians to the fight. Menelik was lucky to have the loyalty of Ras Makonnen, the powerful governor of the province of Harar. (Makonnen was the father of Ras Tafari, to be crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1930.) Menelik's foremost diplomat, Makonnen also headed the advance attack unit moving against General Baratieri's army.
The general was not prepared for Menelik's show of force. He found his 20,000 Italian and Askari (Eritrean soldiers trained by the Italians) fighters facing Menelik's legion of more than 100,000 Ethiopians well armed with modern European weapons. Though Baratieri—like his fellow generals—believed that one Italian soldier or Askari was worth six "savage" Africans in combat, he was inclined to retreat to Eritrea. He calculated that Menelik's huge army would soon run out of food and be forced to retreat southward. Indeed, Baratieri was right. If he had waited, Menelik would have withdrawn in humiliation. The Italians could have moved back into Tigre and taken the province without a fight.
But back in Rome, Italian Prime Minister Crispi needed a military victory for his political standing and demanded Baratieri attack, defeat Menelik, and impose an Italian protectorate. Baratieri remained reluctant, but the suggestion of retreat insulted his generals—Dabormida, commander of the Second Infantry Brigade, and Matteo Albertone, commander of the Native Brigade. So Baratieri ended up ordering an attack on the LeapYear night of February 29, 1896, against Adowa.
Luck was on Menelik's side. Brigades led by Dabormida and Albertone were supposed to stay close together in order to support each other. Instead, they wandered off in separate directions during the night. The Ethiopians cut their opposing forces to pieces. Two other brigades committed to the fight too late by Baratieri met the same fate. By noon the next day, March 1, 1896, Baratieri had to order a retreat. His remaining soldiers fell back in disarray, pursued by the fierce Ethiopians. Some leading historians describe the battle as the worst defeat ever suffered by a colonial power in Africa.
The battlefield toll included more than 4,000 Italians dead or missing with more wounded and about the same number of Askaris killed or captured. The Ethiopians paid a high price too as they charged the Italian guns: 7,000 dead and 10,000 wounded. Menelik's victory hounded General Baratieri and Prime Minister Crispi out of public life. Despite his military triumph, though, the emperor demanded from Italy only huge reparations and recognition of Ethiopia's independence. To the dismay of his followers, Menelik allowed Italy to retain its Eritrean colony. Perhaps he judged his army could not dislodge the Italians. Many Ethiopian leaders never forgave him for failing to drive the Italians into the Red Sea.
The new Ethiopia
The battle at Adowa put an end to centuries of Ethiopian isolation. Menelik had demonstrated to the world that an African kingdom could defeat a European army. Diplomats from around the world flocked to Addis Ababa.
With the threat of foreign intervention removed, Menelik spent the last active decade of his rule strengthening centralized power and modernizing Ethiopia's political system. In the provinces he replaced hereditary rulers with appointed officials and stationed troops in some of the empire's potentially rebellious districts. He also reformed the judicial system. Seeking to reduce regional differences that threatened to splinter the country, Menelik increased the power of the national government by taking a direct hand in administering affairs.
New roads, bridges, rail lines, and communications opened new markets and contributed to a stronger sense of nationhood among Ethiopians. Fascinated by Western machinery and technology, Menelik took a personal interest in photography, medicine, and mechanical devices.
Perhaps the greatest failure of Menelik's reign was his refusal to provide for a stable succession. Beginning in 1906 he suffered a series of seizures (probably small strokes, or interruptions of blood flow in the brain) and gradually began to lose his faculties. When he recognized his health was declining, Menelik created Ethiopia's first cabinet-style government (a body of advisers) in 1907. The emperor designated his grandson, Lij Iyasu (1896-1935), as heir in 1908, and created a regency (someone who ruled for him; a substitute ruler) until the 11-year-old Iyasu reached a suitable age to take on the duties of emperor himself. By October 1909 Menelik was completely paralyzed. With the emperor incapacitated, his wife, the Empress Taitu, whom he had married in 1883, ruled in all but name.
While the emperor lingered on, much of the progress he had made in creating a strong national monarchy was reversed. Menelik died December 12 or 13, 1913. The incompetence of his grandson Iyasu—who served as emperor until being deposed by a palace coup in 1916—contributed further to the breakdown of centralized authority in Ethiopia. The unfinished task of modernizing Ethiopia would be left to Haile Selassie I (reigned 1930-1974).
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