More than a century ago, when expedition by the European superpowers to the rest of the world was but normal, and that the former acted as if they bore the responsibility of “civilizing” the later, the Italians waged war to teach the Ethiopians a lesson on obedience. Yet, on the contrary, they bitterly learned a lesson that was also useful to other colonial powers. That’s why the Battle of Adwa is more than a battlefield narrative.
The Italian army led by General Oreste Baratieri, Governor of Eritrea, marched the strongest colonial expeditionary force that Africa had ever seen by late February 1896, to settle around Mount Entichio in Tigray.
The 20,000 men composed of Italians and other auxiliaries, as they had done in previous battles in the continent, waited for Ethiopians to attack their fortified positions first. When such an attack did not occur, Baratieri ordered what he hoped would be a sudden and devastating attack on the Ethiopians assembled near Adwa. The possibility of defeat for the Italians was out of anybody’s mind, as they had a modern European army of such size. The Italians were dying for the attack to end before it began, as this presumably decisive victory over apparently undermined natives would win a vast new empire for them.
Awaiting the Italians was a massive Ethiopian army of 73,000 to 100,000 strong men, who came from almost every region of the country. They were commanded by an all star team of warriors amassed by Emperor Menilek II. As they come to realize the sneaky wait hasn’t worked, the Italian troops made an advance towards Ethiopian positions on March 1st, and the combined forces of Ethiopia were ready for a fight.
The Ethiopians surrounded the Italian units, and in fierce combat, closed with and destroyed many of the enemy, as many call it, in the bloodiest of all colonial battles. Peasant troops fought ruthlessly and bravely. A large number of Ethiopian women, following the example of Empress Taytu, were on the battlefield. They served well as a water brigade for the fighting men, paramedics, and guards of prisoners. At the end of the day, the Italians had suffered the greatest single disaster in European colonial history.
Besides the history made that gallops for centuries, this enormous victory against a seemingly intimidating side was phenomenal to Ethiopians as it secured the sovereignty of their country and the freedom of the people for generations to come. Moreover, the victory has sent message to colonizers, that a defeat to an African army full of Black warriors, led by Black riflemen is an actual reality. However, this is not the whole story of the victory.
As a historic miracle of the century, the Battle of Adwa represented the first time since the beginning of European colonial expansion that a Black people had defeated a civilized and well equipped European nation, which actually stunned the whole world. Yet, the victory at the battle of Adwa was complete when the news was immediately heard and resounded all over Europe and the United States, Black communities were received with a sense of pride and delight. It seemed like every Black person, dispersed all over the world as slave or layman was treated like heroes of the battle of Adwa.
Moreover, internationally, Ethiopia supplied the most meaningful resistance to the extensive movement of colonial domination in Africa. Ironic as it may seems, European nations made haste to make treaties with Menelik’s government, as they were stunned by Italy’s defeat.
Indeed, that same year became the year foreigners migrate to Ethiopia in flocks. Cross border traders flocked in, leading elevated economic activities. European governments set up consulates throughout the country in record numbers, and aided foreign merchants and investors in seeking concessions and royalties. A major benefit in Ethiopia’s favor at that time was the introduction of European medical practices, all these instances bringing Ethiopia to the world as a whole.
All privileges to Ethiopia and to Ethiopians being apparent, there were also many valid reasons which gave importance to the Adwa victory in many parts of the world such as the black communities in Caribbean and the US. For instance, although blacks in the US were technically liberated by law way before the Adwa incident in Africa, social and even legal racism existed throughout those reformation periods and extended to this historical time and beyond up to the 20th century. Hence, the sudden flashing news of the Adwa victory gives those oppressed Blacks in these parts of the world a reason to once again stand for each other in a way some writers call it pan-black solidarity.
The unexpected victory at Adwa spurred the birth of Pan-African solidarity in mostly colonized Africa and wherever African’s reside. African nations, considering Ethiopia as a symbol of independence, struggled for their independence.
Pan-African conferences were called in America and England during the early 1900s. Ethiopia grew in esteem among the global community upon her admittance to the League of Nations in 1923. This also let down any future movement by Europeans to colonize the nation, and shattered the centuries old negative myths about Africans.
The victory at Adwa helped produce a new phase of Pan-African movement. It planted the seed of unity and cooperation of Blacks, not only in Africa but also throughout the world. It helped to break the chain of colonialism in a united way, resulting in the ultimate upset to the colonialist powers and in the contrary, kindling resistance leverage among the oppressed many. The African-American resistance proponent, Frederick Douglass, summed up the forces unleashed by the victory at Adwa with his famous quote: “It’s better to die free, than live as a slave.”
In today’s Ethiopia, another important incident is initiating Ethiopian unity, the same way the battle of Adwa did more than a century ago. Only this time, it is not a battlefield; rather it is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), that is making an “Ethiopian dream” come true. The project which was first announced six years ago apparently has warmed the heart of all Ethiopians, as it has been dreamt by Ethiopians for a very long time. Hence, the people of Ethiopia immediately demonstrated their dedication for the realization of the project, contributing to the project with whatever they can.
GERD is not only about Ethiopians, but it is also about Africans as it is a showcase of African’s capability of taking care of their own business and prospering without the need of hand from the western world. Ethiopia once again is in action to show the whole world what this presumably weak country can do when its people put their shoulders to the wheel.
The people of Ethiopia learning from their forefathers’ heroism at the historic Battle of Adwa should gear up to make their own version of history by supporting the construction of GERD to the end as they have been doing for the last six consecutive years.
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