Ethiopian victory over the Italians inspired resistance to empire for generations, across the globe.

Early Portuguese imperial policy in Ethiopia failed in large measure thanks to the deeply ingrained position of the Orthodox Church in Ethiopian identity and the church’s refusal to subordinate itself to Rome. This failure made most of the Jesuits’ small successes quickly fade away. Only a few Catholics remained, mostly among the Ethiopian upper class. These Catholic remnants made for an even more complex religious and cultural landscape. There were now the Orthodox and Catholic Christians, growing Jewish communities, and some Muslims (a result of the continued, sporadic interactions with neighboring Islamic principalities). In addition, the neighboring Oromo people invaded parts of southern Ethiopia in the sixteenth century. The Oromo were an egalitarian and pastoral people whose social structure was based on an age‐​set system and warfare. These cultural features made them a formidable force throughout the eastern Africa region. The Ethiopian empire—weakened by continuous territorial wars with its other neighbors—could do little to prevent or repel the Oromo invasions in the south.

The Portuguese Interlude

These deep cultural and religious divisions made 16th century Ethiopia one of the most diverse monarchies in the world, but it was also prone to internal strife and vulnerability to imperial penetration. Later in the same century when King Philip II of Spain doubled as the King of Portugal, he sent another mission to Ethiopia, led by Father Pedro Paéz. As with the earlier mission covered in my last column, Paéz and his team found their way through the royal court, but this time with definitive results. At the time, reigning emperor of Ethiopia, Susenyos I, faced a new threat of Muslim invasion on the external front and authoritative overreach of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on the home front. There was no easy way for Susenyos to save his empire from abroad and preserve his authority at home–except to ally with King Philip.

Hoping to please King Philip, Susenyos accepted the Jesuits and converted to Catholicism with his court in 1622. He went a step further by declaring Roman Catholicism the official religion of Ethiopia and immediately separated his state from the Alexandrian Coptic Church. Ethiopians were furious and many refused to accept the king’s conversion, his order, or the Jesuits themselves. To Susenyos, conversion was a political necessity, but for the public, their identity was at stake. The people continued to rally against Susenyos and the Jesuits throughout 1622. The feudal lords allied with the commons and the Orthodox Church to create a formidable revolt against the King. With Philip’s support, Susenyos managed to stave off any large rebel successes, but his luck soon ran out.

Everything took a radical turn when Father Alfonso Mendes, an intolerant and rigid Catholic priest, succeeded Pedro Paéz as head of the Ethiopian Catholic Mission in 1623. Paéz’s cautionary approach to sensitive doctrinal matters (like fasting and the observation of Sabbath) actually minimized the backlash from the Orthodox Church. Mendes reversed this course and attempted to enforce Catholic dogma, including forced conversions. The resistance movement grew both among the people and the nobility, until Susenyos and his Catholic coalition found themselves almost isolated. The emperor’s half‐​brother and brother‐​in‐​law even tried to assassinate him. By 1626, Ethiopia erupted into a full‐​blown civil war. The war lasted five years with immeasurable casualties. It was so brutal, some 8,000 people died on the last day of hostilities alone. Not without purpose: they were refusing to accept a reformed version of their religion, a serious encroachment on their thirteen‐​centuries‐​long tradition of religious self‐​determination.

Eventually, in 1633, Orthodox forces removed Susenyos and the Jesuits from power and restored Ethiopian Orthodox as the official religion. Ultimately, the experience generated by resisting Islamic invasions in the 13th century and Catholic imperialism in the 16th and 17th centuries informed Ethiopians in the ways of popular resistance. By the time a far greater enemy arrived in the late 19th century, Ethiopians could draw upon a culture of religious liberty, Orthodox identity, diversity, and resistance to outside power.

The New Threat of Colonialism

Throughout history, the relationship between Africa and Europe revolved around three things: curiosity, commerce, and religion.

Since the first European exploration of Africa pioneered by Prince Henry the Navigator in the 14th century, intense curiosity prompted many European individual and state‐​sponsored explorers to visit numerous African kingdoms. Although Africa was already engaged in the international trading system as early as the 3rd century CE, the new system of steadily globalizing trade emerging during the 14th century was like nothing before. There was constant crisscrossing of high valued commodities along the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea. For centuries, Africans exchanged gold, spices, ivory, palm oil and slaves in return for clothes, metal ware, salt, and weapons.

European merchants and African chiefs conducted most of this trade between themselves. In some cases, the chiefs would hire the Europeans as mercenaries to help fight an enemy kingdom. Gradually, the Europeans were able to measure the military prowess of many African kingdoms to their eventual advantage. Europeans could not properly occupy territory in Sub‐​Saharan Africa until the discovery and widespread application of quinine as an anti‐​malaria drug in the 1850s. Before that, disease killed outsiders so thoroughly that Europeans called West Africa the “White Man’s Grave.” Contingents of soldiers or sailors visiting Africa should avoid landings, but when necessary, they would only commit a few days or weeks to business in Africa and quickly make for Europe or, really, anywhere else. Only the missionaries stayed behind for long.

Armed with quinine, though, Europeans survived much longer. Mosquitoes no longer posed much of a threat to the imperial project. The European empires committed more time and resources to their dealings in Africa. The improved interaction gave them a better understanding of the social structures of different communities, which were often powered by corruption and the desire for glory among Kings and chiefs. They introduced Christianity in areas with no prior contact and introduced western education through the missions. These were the beginnings of African acculturation into European ways of life, conscious efforts to eventually take total control of the continent’s resources, turning it into fuel for the Industrial Revolution.

Yet, Ethiopia was one of the few African empires that already learned the importance of drawing a clear line between trade and social values. Throughout the 18th century, it maintained a largely commercial relationship with its European partners. However, towards the mid‐​19th century, European countries were often in dispute over commercial and territorial claims in Africa, France and Britain leading the lists. Both empires were important parties to preserving stability in Europe, but other powers like Germany and Portugal would not stand by idly while their neighbors gorged themselves on African cake.

Portugal called for an international conference in Berlin under the moderation of German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck in 1884 to map out colonial zones in Africa, delineating which European nations could take possession of what African territories. Among the participating countries was one of the world’s newest nation‐​states: Italy. In recognition of Italian nationhood and membership in the family of empires, the conference gifted Italy claims to the Horn region, including Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The Italian Humiliation of 1896

A year after the Berlin partition, Italy annexed Eritrea and started occupying territories along the key Red Sea port of Massawa on the Ethiopian side. Ethiopia considered this a provocation since Massawa was the empire’s economic gateway to the world. More so, it had only liberated the port from an Egyptian invasion nine years earlier. The Italians did not think of Ethiopia as a serious threat, though, and continued the advance. Under the Emperor Menelik II’s legendary leadership, Ethiopians made Italy pay for their complacency.

Menelik was an interesting figure in African history. He is generally known for his admirable military strategy against the invading Italians, but he was a power monger himself. At some point, he attempted to seize the Ethiopian throne twice from Emperor Yohannes VI in the mid‐​1800s by allying with Egyptians and French armies. The attempted coup failed, but Menelik did successfully install himself as emperor after Yohannes’ death, passing over the late emperor’s own son. Menelik II expanded the Ethiopian army and brought many autonomous kingdoms under the empire. He even asked all colonial powers along the Horn to recognize his supreme authority. The Italians did not appreciate his efforts and sued for a treaty that might trick Menelik into submitting some of his territories in return for military aid.

During the diplomatic tussle between Ethiopia and Italy over the control of Eritrea, Menelik and Italian Prime Minister, Francesco Crispi, agreed to the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889. Again, Ethiopians were furious at the submissive agreement with an imperial power and Menelik’s three damning mistakes: Italy would not send him the weapons as promised (they might later be used to shoot Italians, after all); seceding some territories gave the Italians reasons to want more; and trusting Crispi to keep his word was simply ill‐​considered.

In all fairness, the Italians tricked Menelik into signing the treaty under the impression that he still had dominion over key trade routes and most of his territory. In the Amharic translations of the treaty, Article XVII stated that Ethiopia ‘could’ have recourse to the good offices of the Italian government in its commercial affairs with other countries. In the Italian version, the word ‘could’ appeared as ‘must’. To this treaty, the Italians made claims over Ethiopia as a formal colony.

The emperor realized the fraud too late and the Italians insisted on holding firmly to their own copy’s terms. Menelik responded by repudiating the treaty. He now recognized that the Italian government meant to overthrow him and annex the empire. Menelik prepared for war, and Ethiopians were well ready for the First Italo‐​Ethiopian War. Menelik spent years building a formidable arsenal with modern‐​grade weapons purchased from Britain, France and even from the Italians themselves. Many Ethiopians were freshly familiar and proficient in the European styles of military strategy thanks to their service in British proxy armies during the recent wars against the Sudanese Mahdists.

As the Ethiopians and Italians both entrenched themselves for a war, both sides sporadically sparred for a few years. A deep Italian march into Ethiopia in 1895 escalated the hostilities and in the resulting clash, the Italians were heavily hit. Ethiopia already enjoyed superior numbers and various other home advantages, so the retreating Italians took an elevated defensive position to wait on reinforcements from Crispi.

The Ethiopians also suffered heavy losses but the Italians had no way of accurately knowing that. Menelik knew about the invaders’ poor information and employed a mix of military maneuvering and espionage to fool the Italians into giving battle. He knew the easiest way to smash their force would be to lure the Italians into open space. They would not do that until either they receive reinforcements from Milan or had reasons to believe the Ethiopians were weaker than themselves. Back in Italy, Crispi had political difficulties wrangling critics of his Africa blunders while other European imperial powers were already exploiting their conquered protectorates. Menelik wasted no time, though, and sent spies doubling as deserters to the Italian camp on a mission to trick them into believing the Ethiopian side was ravaged by hunger and that the armies were already deserting their emperor. They bought it, and Crispi ordered his men to attack. What followed was a nightmare for Italy at the battle of Adwa.

General Oreste Baratieri controlled the Italian forces with 4 brigades, 20,000 men and fifty‐​six artillery pieces — a unified front of almost half of the total Italian garrison in East Africa. On March 1, 1896, Baratieri planned a surprise early morning attack on the Ethiopian front in the belief that they would still be asleep. It was a Sunday and the Ethiopians were already awake for church services. Both forces engaged in the mountainous areas near Adwa. The Italians were stunned by the Ethiopian force that met them, finding themselves outnumbered and outgunned. Menelik lost some 3,000 men and 6,000 injured. For Italy the loss was far greater: 14,000 of Baratieri’s men — 70 percent of them — were either dead or missing in action and 4,000 more were captured. It was an absolute disaster; a decisive victory for Ethiopia that reverberated across the world, fueling anti‐​colonial resistance as far away as India. Within two weeks of the humiliating defeat, Italians rioted in several cities against the Crispi administration and it soon collapsed.

Yet, Ethiopia’s story could have gone the other way. It could have been just one more of the many African kingdoms that fell to colonial forces. Undoubtedly, Ethiopians benefited from Italy’s inexperience and fragility as a new nation‐​state; but far more significant was the Ethiopians’ own acculturated habit of resisting foreign domination, especially concerning religious autonomy.

This remarkable piece of African history suggests that struggles against oppression which might appear small build into powerful and important cultural precedents. Ethiopia’s story has the potential to speak directly to young people today who are often distracted from reality by pleasure and see no reason to revolt against simple encroachments on their freedoms. Here are three lessons they may take from Ethiopia: Giving up small liberties will not always secure bigger ones; when liberty is under threat — even if it is from the leadership — fight it; and, never surrender until all energy and resources are exhausted. There are simply no other ways to preserve freedom than to imbibe that attitude. As George Washington famously remarked, “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth” — and easily becomes a way of life, too.

Freedom is rarely lost as a whole, all at once, but it often fades away in pieces when we choose to ignore the simple liberties that matter. What is nonetheless important, especially at these trying times in human history, is to remain vigilant to the overreach of the state and its institutions. Never ignore tyranny for a moment; for an inch of freedom lost in a second could take a generation to recover, if at all, ever.

  1. Wendy Laura Belcher, The Jesuits in Ethiopia (1609–1641): Latin letters in translation, 2017 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2017), p. 35
  2. Richard Pankhurst, The Ethiopians: A History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), p. 107
  3. Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire (Massachusetts: Harvard, 2003), p. 156