Abyssinia: The Only African Country to Avoid Colonialism

19th-century European nations partitioned Africa among themselves. However, Abyssinia managed to repel all foreign invaders, becoming the only African country that did not fall to the clutches of colonialism.

Oct 22, 2021By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science
123rd anniversary battle of adwa abyssinia
Ethiopians attend a parade to mark the 123rd anniversary of the battle of Adwa that marked the end of the first Italian invasion in 1896, photo taken 2020.


On October 23rd, 1896, Italy and Ethiopia signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa. The defeated Italians have no other option than to confirm Ethiopian independence and renounce their colonial projects in the region. Abyssinia, a thousand-year-old African nation, had resisted a drastically more developed modern army and became the first and only African nation to escape the clutches of European colonialism in Africa. This defeat shook the European world. No foreign power attacked Abyssinia again until Mussolini in the 1930s.


Abyssinia in the 19th Century 

Emperor Tewodros II in the 1860s via allAfrica


In the early 19th century, Ethiopia was in the middle of what is called today the Zemene Mesafint, “the era of princes.” This period was characterized by major instability and continuous civil war between the different claimants to the throne from the Gondarine Dynasty, instrumented by influential noble families vying for power.


Ethiopia maintained friendly relations with European Christian kingdoms for centuries, especially with Portugal, which helped the Abyssinian kingdom fight off its Muslim neighbors back in the 16th century. However, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, Abyssinia progressively closed up to foreign presence.


The “Zemene Mesafint” instability was prime for the progressive infiltration of foreign powers. In 1805, a British mission successfully secured access to a port on the Red Sea against potential French expansion in the area. During the Napoleonic wars, Ethiopia presented a key strategic position for Britain to counter potential French expansion in North Africa and the Middle East. Following the defeat of Napoleon, multiple other foreign powers instituted relations with Abyssinia, including the Ottoman Empire through its vassals in Egypt, France, and Italy.


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The era of Princes came to an end in 1855, with the ascension to the throne of Tewodros II. The latter deposed the last Gondarine Emperor, restored central authority, and quelled all remaining rebellions. Once he asserted his authority, Tewodros aimed to modernize his administration and army, calling for the help of foreign experts.


Under his reign, Ethiopia progressively stabilized and underwent minor developments. However, Tewodros still faced opposition, especially in the Northern region of Tigray, which was supported by the British Empire. Those tensions would lead to the first foreign direct intervention in Ethiopia, the British Expedition to Abyssinia in 1867.


British Colonialism: Expedition in Ethiopia 

British troops posing at a captured sentry post above Koket-Bir gate at Magdala fortress, April 1868


Launched in December 1867, the British military expedition to Ethiopia aimed to liberate British missionaries imprisoned by Emperor Tewodros II. The latter, faced with various Muslim rebellions throughout his realm, initially tried to get the support of Britain; however, due to close ties with the Ottoman Empire, London refused and even aided the enemies of the emperor’s rule.


Not taking kindly to what he believed to be a betrayal of Christendom, Tewodros imprisoned some British officials and missionaries. After some quickly failed negotiations, London mobilized its Bombay Army, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Napier.


Landing in Zula, modern Eritrea, the British Army slowly progressed towards Magdala, Tewodros’s capital, gaining the support of Dajamach Kassai, the Solomonid ruler of Tigray. In April, the expeditionary force reached Magdala where a battle occurred between the British and the Ethiopians. Despite possessing some canons, the Abyssinian force was decimated by the British soldiers, who had more developed firearms and heavy infantry. Tewodros’s army suffered thousands of casualties; Napier’s army had only 20, with two fatally wounded men.


Besieging the fortress, Napier demanded the release of all hostages and the complete surrender of the emperor. After releasing the prisoners, Tewodros II prepared to commit suicide, refusing to surrender to the foreign army. In the meantime, the British soldiers stormed the town, only to find the body of the dead emperor.


Dajamach Kassai was raised to the throne in the aftermath, becoming Yohannes IV, while British troops retreated towards Zula. Uninterested in colonizing Ethiopia, Britain preferred to redeploy its troops elsewhere while offering the new emperor a generous amount of money and modern weaponry. Unbeknownst to them, the British had just offered Abyssinia what it would need to resist any future foreign expedition.


The Egyptian Invasion of Abyssinia

Khedive Ismail Pasha, via Britannica 


The first contact of Ethiopia with European powers ended in disaster for the Abyssinian Empire. Their armies were destroyed, and major rebellions ravaged the country. However, in their retreat, the British did not establish permanent representatives nor an occupation force; they only helped Yohannes of Tigray grab the throne as gratitude for his help in the war against Tewodros II.


Yohannes IV was a member of the house of Solomon, from a branch of the Gondarine dynasty. Claiming descent from the legendary Hebraic king, Yohannes managed to quell local rebellions, make alliances with the powerful Negus (Prince) Menilek of Shewa, and unify all of Ethiopia under his rule by 1871. The new emperor also tasked one of his most talented generals, Alula Engeda, to lead the army. However, the recent defeat attracted other potential invaders, including the Ottoman Empire and its vassal state, Egypt.


Having only a virtual allegiance to the Sultan, Egypt has been completely autonomous from its overlords since 1805. Ismail Pasha, the Khedive in the time of Yohannes IV, effectively ruled a large empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Northern borders of Ethiopia, alongside some holdings in Eritrea. He aimed to further expand his lands and control all of the Nile River, which took its source in Abyssinia.


Egyptian troops led by Arakil Bey marched into Ethiopian Eritrea in the autumn of 1875. Confident in their victory, the Egyptians did not expect to be ambushed by outnumbering Abyssinian soldiers in Gundet, a narrow mountainous pass. Despite being armed with modern rifles and heavy artillery, the Egyptians could not retaliate as the Abyssinians fiercely charged down from heights, nullifying the efficiency of firearms. The invading expeditionary force was annihilated. 2000 Egyptians perished, and countless artillery fell into the hands of the enemy.


The Battle of Gura and Its Aftermath 

Brig. Gen. William Loring as a confederate soldier, 1861-1863


Following the disastrous defeat at Gundet, the Egyptians attempted another attack on Ethiopian Eritrea in March 1876. Commanded by Ratib Pasha, the invading force established itself in the plain of Gura, not far from the modern capital of Eritrea. Egypt had a force of 13,000 and a few US advisors including ex-Confederate Brigadier General William Loring. Ratib Pasha set up two forts in the valley, garrisoning them with 5,500 troops. The rest of the army was sent forward, only to be immediately surrounded by an Abyssinian force led by Alula Engeda.


The Ethiopian army was not idle in the months separating the two battles. Under the command of Alula Engeda, the Abyssinian troops learned how to use modern rifles and were able to put forth a force of 10,000 riflemen on the battlefield. With his skillful commands, Alula managed to easily surround and defeat the attacking Egyptians.


Ratib Pasha tried to maintain his position from within constructed forts. However, relentless attacks by the Abyssinian army forced the Egyptian general to retreat. Despite an orderly withdrawal, the Khedive did not have the means to continue the war and had to abandon his expansionist ambitions in the South.


The victory at Gura cemented Yohannes IV’s position as Emperor and he remained the sole ruler of Ethiopia until he died in 1889. Despite naming his son Mengesha Yohannes as heir, Yohannes’ ally, Menilek the Negus of Shewa, obtained the allegiance of Ethiopian nobles and chieftains.


However, the Egyptian defeat would not quell foreign colonial ambitions in the region. Italy, which was building a colonial Empire on the African horn, soon made its expansionist intentions clear. The final act of foreign invasions in Abyssinia was about to unfold with a war that would have a tremendous echo on African history.


Menilek II’s Reforms and Italian Expansion In the African Horn

Emperor Menilek II, via African Exponent


Menilek’s rise to power was contested by many local chieftains and rulers, called “Ras.” However, the latter managed to get the support of Alula Engeda, alongside other notable noblemen. As soon as he took power, the new emperor faced one of the most destructive famines in Ethiopian history. Lasting from 1889 to 1892, this major catastrophe caused the death of more than a third of the Abyssinian population. Additionally, the new emperor tried to form friendly relationships with the neighboring colonial powers, including Italy, with which he signed the Treaty of Wuchale in 1889. In the treaty, Ethiopia recognized Italian dominion over Eritrea in exchange for Italy’s recognition of Abyssinian independence.


After stabilizing relations with his neighbors, Menilek II turned his attention to internal matters. He began the difficult task of completing the modernization of Ethiopia. One of his first actions was to centralize the government in his new capital, Addis Ababa. Additionally, he established ministries based on the European model and fully modernized the army. However, his efforts were cut short by the worrying actions of his Italian neighbors, who could barely hide their intentions on expanding further into the Horn of Africa.


As Ethiopia was slowly modernizing, Italy was progressing on the coast of the Horn. After the unification of the Italian States in 1861 under the house of Savoy, this newly founded European kingdom wanted to carve a colonial empire for itself, in the image of France and Great Britain. After acquiring the port of Assab in Eritrea from a local Sultan in 1869, Italy took control of the entire country by 1882, obtaining formal reconnaissance of Italian colonization from Ethiopia in the Treaty of Wuchale. Italy also colonized Somalia in 1889.


The Beginnings of the Italian Invasion

Umberto I – King of Italy during the Italian Ethiopian war of 1895.


Article 17 of the Treaty of Wuchale stipulated that Ethiopia had to delegate its foreign affairs to Italy. However, due to a mistranslation by the Italian ambassador where “must” in Italian became “could” in Amharic, the Amharic version of the treaty simply stated that Abyssinia could delegate its international affairs to the European kingdom and was in no way compelled to do so. The difference became clear in 1890 when Emperor Menilek attempted to establish diplomatic ties with Great Britain and Germany.


Menilek II denounced the treaty in 1893. In retaliation, Italy annexed some territories on Eritrean borders and attempted to penetrate Tigray, expecting the support of local rulers and minority communities. However, all local leaders flocked under the Emperor’s banner. Ethiopians as a whole strongly resented Italy for the treaty, who felt that Italy purposely mistranslated the document in order to cheat Abyssinia into becoming a protectorate. Even various adversaries to Menilek’s rule joined and supported the Emperor in his upcoming war.


Ethiopia also benefited from large stocks of modern weapons and ammunition offered by the British in 1889, following Abyssinian aid during the Mahdist wars in Sudan. Menilek also secured Russian support since the tsar was a devout Christian: he considered the Italian invasion as an unjustified aggression on a fellow Christian country.


In December 1894, a revolt backed by Ethiopia erupted in Eritrea against Italian rule. Nevertheless, the rebellion ended in a defeat, with the capture and the execution of its leaders. Aiming to punish and annex Abyssinia, Italy launched an invasion in Tigray in January 1895 led by General Oreste Baratieri, occupying its capital. Following this, Menilek suffered a series of minor defeats, which prompted him to issue a general mobilization order by September 1895. By December, Ethiopia was ready to launch a massive counter-attack.


Battle of Adwa and its Aftermath in Abyssinia

Battle of Adwa by an unknown Ethiopian artist


Hostilities resumed at the end of 1895. In December, an Ethiopian force fully armed with rifles and modern weapons overran Italian positions at the Battle of Amba Alagi, forcing them to retreat towards Mekele in Tigray. In the following weeks, Abyssian troops led by the Emperor himself besieged the city. After a staunch resistance, Italians retreated in good order and joined Baratieri’s main army in Adigrat.


Italian headquarters were dissatisfied with the campaign and ordered Baratieri to confront and defeat Menilek’s army in a decisive battle. Both sides were exhausted and suffered from severe provision shortages. Nevertheless, the two armies headed towards the town of Adwa, where the destiny of the Abyssinian Empire would be decided.


They met on March 1st, 1896. Italian forces had merely 14,000 soldiers while Ethiopian forces counted around 100,000 men. Both sides were armed with modern rifles, artillery, and cavalry. It is said that despite Baratieri’s warnings, Italian headquarters strongly underestimated Abyssinian forces and pushed the general to attack.


The battle started at six am as Ethiopian forces launched a surprise attack on the most advanced Italian brigades. As the rest of the troops tried to join in, Menilek threw all of his reserves into the battle, completely routing the enemy.


Italy suffered more than 5,000 casualties. Baratieri’s army scattered and retreated towards Eritrea. Immediately after the Battle of Adwa, the Italian government signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa. Following this defeat, Europe was forced to recognize Ethiopian independence.


For Menilek II, it was the final act in the consolidation of his power. By 1898, Ethiopia was a fully modernized country with an efficient administration, a strong army, and a good infrastructure. The battle of Adwa would become a symbol of African resistance to colonialism, and was celebrated from that day onwards.

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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.