The First Italo-Ethiopian War: When the Colonizers Lost

In 1896, during the First Italo-Ethiopian War, an African army defeated European forces for the first time.

May 22, 2024By Maria-Anita Ronchini, MA History & Jewish Studies, BA History

first italo ethiopian war


In 1895, the Kingdom of Italy, hoping to achieve a more prominent place among the European powers and solve its socioeconomic problems, invaded Ethiopia, also known as Abyssinia, one of the last independent African countries. In March 1896, however, during the Battle of Adwa, the army led by Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italian forces. The surprising outcome of the First Italo-Ethiopian War marked the first successful attempt of an African country to thwart a Western power’s colonization endeavor. As a result, Ethiopia became an international symbol of Pan-Africanism and Black pride.


Italian Colonialism & The First Italo-Ethiopian War 

map of africa 1903
A 1903 map of Africa. Source: African–European Fellowship


In 1874, Leone Carpi, in his lengthy study of Italian colonialism, established a direct link between colonial expansion and emigration. According to Carpi, the close relationship between the two phenomena originated from a semantic level. Indeed, in the Italian language, the term colonia (colony) referred to both the Italian overseas communities and colonial possessions.


For the newly united Kingdom of Italy, the large settlements of Italian immigrants were the “arms that the country extends far away in foreign districts, to bring them within the orbit of its relations of labor and exchange.” However, as the number of Italians annually emigrating overseas continued to rise, the mass migration became a source of embarrassment for the government, emphasizing the tremendous economic struggles of the young nation.


As the Western powers began their so-called Scramble for Africa, bringing the continent’s countries under their colonial rule, the Italian government saw the acquisition of colonies as a means to ease the peninsula’s demographic pressure and boost its international status. The need to find a solution to the country’s population surplus became the main rhetorical trope employed to justify Italy’s role in Western colonialism.

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In 1890, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, proclaiming the colony of Eritrea, explicitly linked Italy’s first colonial endeavors with demographic issues: “Our purpose is the institution of a colony that can accommodate that immense emigration which goes to foreign lands, placing this emigration under the dominion and laws of Italy.”


By the time Crispi held his speech, Italy had already sought to expand its colonial possessions in Eastern Africa. Six years later, however, the surprisingly disastrous outcome of the First Italo-Ethiopian War brought Italy’s plan to build an empire to an abrupt end.


Francesco Crispi’s Colonial Policy

francesco crispi caricature solatium
Caricature of Francesco Crispi, Mario Buonsollazzi (Solatium). Source: Catalogo Generale dei Beni Culturali


In 1870, after the creation of the Suez Canal, Rubattino, a steamship company based in Genoa, bought the Red Sea port of Assab, planning to use its strategic location to increase its profit. The shipping industry also hoped the transaction would encourage the Italian government to launch a colonization campaign, expanding into the hinterland and exploiting the land’s natural resources.


Italy embarked on its first real colonial exploits only fifteen years later when, at the Berlin Conference, the newly formed kingdom was awarded Eritrea, then a territory controlled by Ethiopia. Thus, in 1885, Italy occupied the port of Massawa on the Red Sea. Great Britain, striving to prevent France from advancing in the Nile Valley, supported the Italian government’s aspiration to achieve its own colonial empire. In the following years, Italy, led by Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, a supporter of Giuseppe Mazzini during the Risorgimento, launched an aggressive expansion campaign in East Africa.


dogali massacre commemoration
A flier announcing a commemoration of the “Dogali Massacre” at the theater of Termini, February 27, 1887. Source: Cefalu News


In 1887, however, Italy’s colonial endeavor suffered a setback at Dogali, where the Ethiopian army, headed by Negus (Emperor) Yohannes, defeated the Italian forces, killing more than four hundred soldiers. The event, known in Italy as the “Dogali Massacre,” soon turned into a myth that transformed the trauma into a heroic deed. In particular, Colonel De Cristoforis was celebrated as a 19th-century Leonidas, bravely leading his men into an honorable sacrifice.


The hagiographic narrative surrounding the Dogali Massacre became a useful rhetorical tool to justify Italy’s expansionist campaign in Africa. After the 1887 defeat, Crispi increased the Italian military presence near Eritrea. In 1889, after the death of Emperor Yohannes led to political instability in Ethiopia, the Italian army was able to advance further into the Eritrean territories.


Alongside the military campaign, the Italians exploited the internal rivalry between Yohannes’ potential successor by endorsing Sahle Mariam, the King of Shoa, mistakenly believing he would then facilitate their territorial claims. Ironically, the Italian government supplied Sahle Mariam with weapons, ammunition, and funds that would later help him transform Ethiopia into a modern country able to defeat Italy.


The Treaty of Wuchale: An Italian Deception?

negotations menelik and italy 1889
Illustration of a meeting between Menelik II of Ethiopia and an Italian delegation in 1889, L’Illustrazione Italiana. Source: Library of Congress Blogs


The Treaty of Wuchale (Uccialli in Italian), signed on May 2, 1889, seemed to fortify the political alliance between Italy and Sahle Mariam, then Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. According to its terms, Menelik agreed to grant Italy some territories in modern northern Eritrea and Tigray. In exchange, Italy promised to provide the Ethiopian emperor with modern weaponry and a loan.


Initially written in Amharic, the treaty was later translated into Italian. However, it soon became clear there were discrepancies between the two versions of the text. In particular, the Italian translation of Article XVII implied the establishment of a protectorate over the African country, stating that “His Majesty, the King of Kings of Ethiopia, consents to avail himself of the government of his Majesty the King of Italy for all negotiations in affairs which he may have with other Powers or Governments.”


On the other hand, the original Amharic text merely declared that the Ethiopian emperor “could” choose to turn to the Italian government in his dealings with foreign powers.


portrait menelik ii
Portrait of Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia. Source: Meisterdrucke


When Menelik discovered the fundamental difference between the Italian and Amharic texts, he promptly wrote to King Umberto I to protest the deception:


“When I made that treaty of friendship with Italy…I said that because of friendship, our affairs in Europe might be carried on with the aid of the Sovereign of Italy, but I have not made any treaty which obliges me to do so, and today, I am not the man to accept it. That one independent power does not seek the aid of another to carry on its affairs, your Majesty understands very well.”


In 1893, as the dispute over the treaty continued, Menelik decided to unilaterally abrogate the Treaty of Wuchale. In a letter to the European countries, he additionally denounced Italy’s attempt “under the mask of friendship, to take possession” of Ethiopia.


In the following years, Menelik and the Italian government continued to disagree regarding the borders between the colony of Eritrea and the neighboring country of Ethiopia. In 1895, the contention resulted in war.


The Battle of Adwa 

emperor menelik ii
Emperor Menelik II. Source: St. Mary’s University


As the Italian troops began to advance to Tigray, they quickly realized they had underestimated their adversary. While they imagined a quick and easy campaign against “undisciplined and ill-armed savages,” the Italian soldiers faced forces equipped with modern weaponry.


By the time Italy invaded Ethiopia, Menelik, aided by his wife Taytu, had become a charismatic political leader who had managed to bring his country into the modern era. With the help of Alfred Ilg, a Swiss engineer, Menelik introduced European technology to Ethiopia and launched a series of public works. As his trusted factotum, Ilg also assisted the emperor in building stable relationships with the European powers. In 1895, Menelik was able to unite Ethiopia’s provincial leaders around the common goal of defending their country’s independence. Thus, he thwarted Italy’s attempts to exploit Ethiopia’s internal divisions to undermine his leadership.


In 1896, as General Oreste Baratieri struggled to secure a decisive win against the Ethiopian forces, Francesco Crispi became increasingly frustrated with the military campaign. On February 28, he sent a furious telegram to Baratieri:


“​​This is a military phthisis [lung consumption], not war…It is clear that there is no fundamental plan in this campaign and I should like one to be formulated. We are ready for any sacrifice in order to save the honor of the army and the prestige of the Monarchy.”


battle of adwa 1930
A 1930 painting of the battle of Adwa. Source: Smithsonian


At the beginning of 1896, the Italian troops were experiencing a series of difficulties, including the lack of exact maps, food shortages, and unsuitable clothing. Only the Askari (the native African soldiers fighting with the Italian army) were able to navigate the uneasy terrains of Ethiopia’s highlands. To make the situation worse, General Baratieri relied upon the fake intelligence that Menelik had deliberately leaked to downplay the strength of his forces.


After receiving Crispi’s telegram, Baratieri ordered to engage the Ethiopian army near Adwa. On March 1, 1896, the battle ended in a disastrous defeat for the Italians. Disorganized and outnumbered, Baratieri’s soldiers were forced to retreat, leaving behind about six thousand dead and some three thousand prisoners.


The Aftermath of the First Italo-Ethiopian War

battle of adwa memorial
Commemorating the battle of Adwa in 1935. Source: Quartz


The battle of Adwa was not the first African victory during a colonial war of conquest. In 1879, at Isandlwana, the forces of the Zulu Kingdom had managed to defeat the invading British army. However, the previous military successes of African armies had ultimately failed to prevent the colonial troops from seizing their countries. On the contrary, the Italian defeat at Adwa put a definite end to Italy’s colonial endeavor. As a result, Ethiopia became one of the two African countries to avoid colonization. On October 26, 1896, Italy formally acknowledged its independence in the Treaty of Addis Ababa.


In Italy, the outcome of the battle provoked shock and disbelief. General Oreste Baratieri, who had vowed to bring Menelik to Italy as a prisoner, was tried and later acquitted. Francesco Crispi resigned. The defeat of Adwa also affected the Italian communities overseas, with many Italian immigrants raising money for the families of the fallen or wounded soldiers. In general, Adwa led to a “founding trauma” in the history of the young Kingdom of Italy that led to recriminations and calls for revenge. In 1935, when Benito Mussolini ordered the invasion of Ethiopia, he presented the war as a means to avenge the shameful 1896 defeat.

adwa 125th anniversary
Celebrating Adwa’s 125th Anniversary. Source: Worqamba Tour


In an age when the relentless colonization and exploitation of the African continent seemed inevitable, the battle of Adwa marked a turning point in history. Indeed, at the time, its outcome challenged the existing racial hierarchy. At first, the Italian and international press struggled to fit Adwa into the notion of white superiority.


The Times, for example, attributed the surprising outcome of the battle to the Italian generals’ lack of skills: “While the Italian troops displayed splendid valor, their generals seem to have set at defiance all the elementary rules of warfare, and especially of mountain warfare.” Similarly, one of the headlines of the July 5, 1986 issue of the New York Times read: “Italy’s African Fiasco; Work of an Ambitious Politician and an Incompetent General.”


modern adwa
Photo of modern-day Adwa. Source: Scenic Ethiopia Tours


Besides calling into question the inevitability of colonization, the First Italo-Ethiopian War had far-reaching implications for the Black diaspora and the Pan-African movement. As one of the only two independent African countries, Ethiopia became an international symbol of defiance against racial domination and colonial rule. Across the world, people of African origins were galvanized by Menelik’s victory.


After the First Italo-Ethiopian War, Menelik II became a celebrity. His lithograph appeared in Vanity Fair. The Musée Grévin in Paris displayed his wax figure. More importantly, an increasing number of Western countries (including the US and Great Britain) reached out to Menelik, seeking to establish economic ties with Ethiopia. In September 1923, Ethiopia joined the League of Nations.

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By Maria-Anita RonchiniMA History & Jewish Studies, BA HistoryMaria Anita currently works as a writer in Italy. She holds a BA in History from the University of Bologna and a MA in History & Jewish studies from LMU-Munich. Her primary interest is the relationship between memory and history. Maria Anita is passionate about analyzing the construction of historical narratives and collective memories. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching tv, and writing fiction.