March First, Then Win
March 1, 2015 9:01 AM   Subscribe

119 years ago, today, the unthinkable happened, as far as the Europeans were concerned. The Ethiopian army trounced the Italians in the Battle of Adwa. Headlines such as ‘Abyssinia (Ethiopia) Defeats Invading Italians’; ’80,000 Ethiopians Destroy 20,000 Italians at the Battle of Adwa’; ‘Italian Premier Crispi Resigns’; and ‘Abyssinia and Italy Sign Peace Treaty.’ peppered the European press. Adwa was placed on the world map and remained a historic story because of Ethiopia’s decisive victory against the Italian army on March 1st 1896 (Yekatit 23, 1888 according to the Ethiopian calendar).
'I am a woman. I do not like war. But I would rather die than accepting your deal."
attributed to Empress Taitu Bitul*, Wife of Menelik II

Adwa has generated a significant amount of discourse and prose from writers across the globe. To Raymond Jonas, Adwa is “the story of a world turned upside down.” As he further aptly puts it, “Ethiopia stunned the world.” Many writers made note of the fact that an African army defeated a European army. Donald Levine, the great Ethiopianist scholar, marked the historical event by highlighting its racial implications in reverse order: “a non-white nation has defeated a European power.” Levine’s perspective makes a whole lot of sense when one notices that it was also in 1896 that the US Supreme Court by seven-to-one majority vote affirmed racial segregation.



*deserves her own FPP
posted by infini (27 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
 
This post is lacking only one crucial element: The Battle of Adwa.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:39 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]




If you're interested in some historical reactions, here's a query on Chronicling America for “Ethiopia” or “Abyssinia” from March 1-14, 1896. The New York Tribune had a front page story about the crushing defeat on the 4th and a few days later had a story about the Empress Taoti, crediting her role as “A modern Queen of Sheba”.
posted by adamsc at 9:43 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, this is great. I want more - can anyone recommend a good book about Africa in the 1875-1900 period - one that balances coverage of the effects of European colonization with African nationalization/self-rule efforts? Surely someone's written a well-researched, multi-disciplinary, non-fiction book on Africa (or portions thereof) on the verge of the 20th Century?

Reading about Adwa also helps explains some of the decisions the Ethiopians made in 1935/6 when Italy invaded Ethiopia. Bonus.
posted by julen at 9:46 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


… and for the MeFites who can read Italian, the World Digital Library has an 1896 account by Beniamino Melli, an Italian Lieutenant who served the African campaigns and wrote an account in The Colony of Eritrea from its Origins until March 1, 1899: Battaglia d'Adua.
posted by adamsc at 10:03 AM on March 1, 2015


julen, have put a request out on twitter.

Also, this interview with historian Raymond Jonas comes highly recommended
posted by infini at 10:19 AM on March 1, 2015


Today's NY Times includes a piece on Rimbaud's years in Harar that notes his role in the battle:

. . . Rimbaud’s procurement of weapons for Menelik II may have been his greatest contribution to modern African history. Scholars reckon that the guns he sold in 1887 likely helped the emperor defeat Italy in 1896 when the country’s troops tried to invade Ethiopia. As a result of the rout at Adwa, Italy signed a treaty recognizing Ethiopia as an independent nation.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:25 AM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yeah, even that's in there, right after the word peppered ;p
posted by infini at 10:28 AM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Really, this should have come as no surprise. The culture with the superior cuisine always wins in the end.

Great links, thanks!
posted by digitalprimate at 10:51 AM on March 1, 2015 [4 favorites]


Ethiopian artwork depicting the battle.

Reminds me of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is not an adequate substitute for detailed diagrams of the Battle of Hastings.

The closest thing I can find (aside from the link I posted, which appears to be traced from the map on the last page of the book in adamsc's link) is this speculative map from a book in 2011. And after reading several detailed accounts, I still have no idea what happened in the battle. There is more detailed information about battles from ancient Greece.

I'm trying to figure out what happened. As far as I can tell, the Italian forces advanced and got split up and lost, then the Ethiopians moved around, then there was a central battle the Ethiopians won by attrition. It appears that nobody even knows the types of weapons used in the battle, which is unusual for a historic battle of international importance.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:23 AM on March 1, 2015


" The culture with the superior cuisine always wins in the end."

If that was true, Italy might well have conquered everything this side of India.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:39 AM on March 1, 2015


I tried some alternate spellings, charlie don't surf, may be some of these might help?

From this link which seems to have a lot of these details linked

ABYSSINIANS DEFEAT ITALIANS.; Both Wings of Baratieri's Army Enveloped in an Energetic Attack

Massaowa, March 2, 1896 - Gen. Baratieri attacked the Abyssinians yesterday. Gens. Albertone, Arimondi, and Dabormida commanded the left, centre, and right brigades, respectively. Gen. Ellina commanded the reserve.

The Italians captured the passes leading to Adowa without opposition. Gen. Albertone, with four native battalions and four mountain batteries , engaged the enemy, but where soon overcome by overwhelming odds.

Gen. Arimondi was ordered to cover the retreat, but his position prevented him from complying with the order. The Abyssinians in the meantime made an energetic attack, which soon extended to the whole Italian front and enveloped both wings.

A desperate struggle ensued. and finally the Italians were compelled to abandon their positions. The nature of the ground prevented the batteries from moving. The Italians are retiring behind Belesa. The losses sustained are unknown.

The New York Times
Published March 3, 1896


This is pretty cool and has maps, photographs of armour and weaponry and some other stuff I didn't see anywhere else including if you scroll all the way down, a blow by blow, rather amusing in its use of "wops and spaghetti benders" detailed description of the battle, including annotations on that original map and the time of day


You can send the cookies to Finland, yes.
posted by infini at 11:55 AM on March 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ethiopian artwork depicting the battle - triumphal artwork yeah, and added to this thread with that intent. Not an accurate map or battle narrative, nor did I put it here with that intent.
posted by gudrun at 12:17 PM on March 1, 2015


Less than 10 years later, another nonwhite state defeated a European state, in the Russo-Japanese War. See this contemporary cartoon showing Admiral Tōgō as one of the great naval leaders (between Nelson and Dewey) yet also portraying him in a somewhat racialized manner.

The Italian defeat at Adowa (more specifically, a desire to erase this supposed stain on Italian honor) played a key symbolic role in Mussolini's attempt to invade and conquer Ethiopia, which he did in 1935-36.
posted by dhens at 1:01 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the scale and decisiveness of the Ethiopian victory here was unprecedented but the possibility of disastrous defeat of modern European colonial forces by indigenous forces was far from "unthinkable" in the European imperialist mind. Imperial and colonial expeditionary forces as well as established colonial rule structures were often fragile (e.g. supply lines in unfamiliar territory ) and greatly outnumbered ( "the thin red line"). Superior European technology was not a guarantee of victory (e.g. The earlier Battle of Isandlwana ) ; and sometimes the indigenous opponents had equivalent or superior military technology/training as well as much larger numbers (see earlier Ango-Sikh Wars).
posted by Bwithh at 1:04 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Thanks infini, that second link is more like it, although I would think a military history buff would use the graphical conventions of tactical maps. Looks more like spaghetti. I am still trying to figure out what happened.

Ethiopian artwork depicting the battle - triumphal artwork yeah, and added to this thread with that intent. Not an accurate map or battle narrative, nor did I put it here with that intent.

I was just amused at the format. I had to zoom in to see whether they were using swords or guns.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:08 PM on March 1, 2015


" The culture with the superior cuisine always wins in the end."

Another theory holds that the armies with the snappier uniforms always lose.

Osprey provides data - you decide
posted by BWA at 2:38 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is a depiction of the Battle of Adwa in the British Museum, which struck me when I visited last year, so I'm very happy to see this FPP. The description is great: "It shows Emperor Menelik II leading the Ethiopian armies to victory over a large colonial Italian force. The Emperor is shown in the top left corner of the painting, wearing a royal crown, seated beneath a royal umbrella. His wife Empress Taytu is shown in the bottom left corner on horseback carrying a revolver, right in the midst of the battle, and urging the Ethiopian troops to victory."
posted by oneironaut at 3:08 PM on March 1, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm curious whether other people find the Wikipedia article to be kind of written from the Italian POV more so than the Ethiopian--and also very dismissive of the Empress' role, at least versus these sources.

I don't have it in me right now to jump in and edit (nor do I have the expertise), but... I think it is kind of problematic. Curious what others think.

And thank you for the post, Infini, I had no clue and I'm so glad to have one now!
posted by Salamandrous at 5:04 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


Likely part of a very typical issue with Wikipedia, systemic bias, Salamandrous -- one they are often quite aware of but that doesn't make fixing it any easier. Most of the sources used are likely going to be European in origin even if editors attempt to be even-handed.
posted by dhartung at 5:48 PM on March 1, 2015


dhartung: I was thinking it'd be really interesting to compare the different versions on wikipedia in each language but that'd be tricky to find qualified readers and unfortunately as far as I can tell there isn't even a page in Amharic (even the ዓድዋ (Adwa) page looks like a stub). I wonder if anyone has at least compared the accounts from different European sources since the English wikipedia page notes a couple of discrepancies between the British accounts and an account by a Russian ally of the Ethiopians.
posted by adamsc at 6:27 PM on March 1, 2015


I'm curious whether other people find the Wikipedia article to be kind of written from the Italian POV more so than the Ethiopian--and also very dismissive of the Empress' role, at least versus these sources.

I suspect that most of these accounts are drawn from the Italian book that adamsc cited, the maps on Wikipedia and most other sites are obviously traced from the map on Page 291. I wonder what written documentation there is on the Ethiopian side. Must be fascinating, for sure. But in this case, just due to linguistic difficulties, it looks like history was written by the losers.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:44 PM on March 1, 2015 [1 favorite]


The irony of what you mention about the Wikipedia article's bias is inherent in the reason for the Battle of Adua in the first place - the Amharic version of the treaty between Italy and Ethiopia was entirely different from the Italian version. Apparently this is an Italian thing.

in other news, there seems to be some haziness about the date on which the battle is remembered, as the timeline is full of celebrating Ethiopians today. Unless its just the actual original date doesn't always translate accurately into the western calender?

Now there's an FPP, the Ethiopian calender and time.
posted by infini at 3:13 AM on March 2, 2015


Perhaps the scale and decisiveness of the Ethiopian victory here was unprecedented but the possibility of disastrous defeat of modern European colonial forces by indigenous forces was far from "unthinkable" in the European imperialist mind.

It's exactly the scale and decisiveness that this is about. Yes, there had been several humiliating defeats in battle before for European forces. But those had been always seen as small detachments, often with a standard bumbling and easily scapegoated commander, being unfairly overwhelmed by hordes of savages. These were promptly avenged when the colonial power, now chastened, put together a proper army (Isandlwana -> Ulundi, Maiwand -> Kandahar); overall victory was left in European hands. Adowa is so significant because a) it's a major victory, rather than a comparatively small action (some 18,000, mostly European regulars, compared with Maiwand's 2,500 or Khartoum's 7,000 Egyptian auxiliaries), and b), because it ends the war. That is what is unthinkable.

I'm trying to figure out what happened. As far as I can tell, the Italian forces advanced and got split up and lost, then the Ethiopians moved around, then there was a central battle the Ethiopians won by attrition.

That is broadly correct, except that there were several smaller battles rather than one large central attack. The Italians placed themselves poorly. In general, it would be standard to break your force into a few large separate columns, kept within marching distance, to reduce logistical strain (admittedly Italian army doctrine is not my specialty, but this is pretty basic stuff). The idea is that you don't form one long vulnerable line, but have separate detachments strong enough to face most opposition, and close enough to support each other should one run into something they can't handle. The Italians didn't know the land well enough to know that they'd moved out of that range, in part because of getting somewhat lost and in part because what is close in Europe is not so on a broken sun-blasted field. They also likely underestimated the Ethiopians, as was par for the course in colonial warfare. The Ethiopians did not let them correct their mistakes.

I think it is kind of problematic. Curious what others think.

I think that if you don't have the requisite historical background to be able to determine which is more correct, you shouldn't even be considering jumping in.
posted by Palindromedary at 1:50 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think that if you don't have the requisite historical background to be able to determine which is more correct, you shouldn't even be considering jumping in.

Hi Palindromedary, I'm hoping you could expand on what you mean by this? It feels kind of hostile to me.

Do you mean jumping in to edit Wikipedia? I thought I was clear that it was not my intention to do so ("I don't have it in me right now to jump in and edit (nor do I have the expertise)". I was not asking for anyone's permission (or denial of permission) to edit Wikipedia.

Do you mean jumping into this Metafilter discussion and suggesting that it was problematic and asking for others' thoughts? Because that doesn't really make sense to me either. I don't think I have to be expert enough to state a conclusory opinion to raise a topic for discussion on Metafilter (and I do think that even people with a lot more specific historical knowledge than I have can disagree on which narrative "is more correct" and even on how to determine which is more correct).

Also, I guess I'm a bit perplexed by the idea that I shouldn't 'even consider' jumping in, whether you mean jumping into Metafilter or into Wikipedia. It seems like a careful consideration of jumping into Wikipedia could actually be a good thing for non-experts, whether it leads to us ultimately staying out, or to gathering more expertise, or to making thoughtful edits.

I do think that even someone without specific in depth subject knowledge can be sensitive to differences and biases in narratives - and that checking in with others on a forum specifically geared towards discussion is actually pretty appropriate.

Your words convey to me that I should, well, just shut up, and 'not even consider' talking, and I don't get that.

Do you disagree about the bias I perceived in the Wikipedia article? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts (if you consider yourself sufficiently expert to have/share them) and reasons, rather than just be told not to jump in.
posted by Salamandrous at 7:22 PM on March 2, 2015


No hostility intended - just a simple statement, though firmly meant. It was in response to the musing that maybe the Wikipedia article be edited, which appeared to me to be an emotional response based on sympathy for the Empress and a desire to see that she be represented as playing a larger role:

I don't have it in me right now to jump in and edit (nor do I have the expertise), but... I think it is kind of problematic. Curious what others think.

The first part made it sound like you were contemplating doing some editing, but were too tired/busy, but this seemed to be contradicted by the second part in brackets. As a result I didn't know what you were thinking, but the latter part ("I think it is kind of problematic"), coming right after an admission of ignorance on the topic, was more worrisome to me. How do you know it's problematic if you know nothing about the issue?

As for the Wikipedia article, the Italian perspective is to be expected, as no doubt Ethiopian sources in English are much harder to come by -- the problem of all colonial conflict studies. Regarding the Empress' role, I have no idea which is more accurate. Looking at the Wikipedia article further, it doesn't say she didn't do anything, but that's not really enough if she did in fact have a rather important role (I'd note the article keeps all individual military action to a minimum, as it should, so you're not exactly seeing Italian generals take a central role in the battle either; names are used as brigade identifiers, primarily, so that even if she does do something, this kind of top-down article would minimize it). But if the Empress did have a key role, an article both unattributed and uncited on thereporterethiopia.com, which has her advancing "as a lioness", isn't the thing that's going to demonstrate it. I'm too ignorant on the position of the Empress in Ethiopian society in general or this Empress in specific to offer an opinion on the matter; my field is diplomatic and military.

I certainly had no desire to tell you not to post on Metafilter, or not to investigate further. My concern was solely that the article not be re-edited in search of some misleading sense of "balance", because in terms of scholarship that really is a very bad source. Cheers.
posted by Palindromedary at 8:23 PM on March 2, 2015


Some stuff that caught my attention across the time streams

This young lady's message

Because of these people and the Adwa victory in particular, me and 90 million other Ethiopians, never fit in to that little box of the typical “black history.” Over time, and especially during my years living abroad, I’ve seen of how the world views Africa, Africans, and people with a drop of blood from Africa in general– and I feel humbled and thankful for the people who died to save me my dignity and identity. No stupidity regarding race and identity crises could ever shake my integrity. Because of my ancestors, I stand before the rest of the world proud and dignified, regardless of what the world believes.

Thank you Atse Menelik II. Thank you Etege Taitu. And thank you all the brave men and women who died out of love for their country.

posted by infini at 10:46 AM on March 3, 2015


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