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124th Anniversary of the Ethiopian Victory at Adwa: some misconceptions that should be rectified

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                   February 28, 2020

Adwa is a constant reminder of the resounding victory of Ethiopians over the invading forces of Italy, but it is not only a remarkable milestone in Ethiopian history and an historic dignity and pride of Ethiopians, but also a great inspiration and an awakening spirit to all African colonized nations and the Black Diaspora as well. In just four years after the victory of Adwa, the pan-African movement had begun in earnest. In point of fact, Henry Sylvester Williams, a Trinidadian barrister, called upon the first pan-African conference in 1900 in London. He was assisted by two other brilliant pan-Africanists, George Padmore and CLR James, who were very influential in the pan-African agenda that was aimed at liberating the whole African continent.

Soon after the first pan-African conference, the trio Trinidadian pan-Africanists were joined by other giant pan-Africanists such as WEB Dubois (USA) and Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), who also in their own way organized respective and successive pan-African congresses, on top of their individual organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, Dubois) and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA, Garvey).

The above mentioned pan-Africanists, in turn, produced young pan-African politicians such as Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Ladipo Solanke (Nigeria), Duse Mohammed (Sudan), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and many other Africans who valiantly fought for African independence. Incidentally, George Padmore and WEB Dubois became close associates and advisors to Kwame Nkrumah, and Dubois lived to witness the independence of Ghana and as per his wish he ended up in Ghana and when he died he was buried in Ghana.

On the cultural front or the cultural dimension of pan-Africanism, two poets and politicians who contributed immensely to the independence of Africa, and more so to the liberation of the African mind from the yoke of colonial indoctrination, are Aime Cesaire (Martinique) and Leopold Sedar Senghor (Senegal); these political personas elevated the political consciousness of Africans in the continent and the Diaspora via Negritude, that is, African personality and pride.

Ultimately the spirit of Adwa culminated in the first all-Africa conference of independent African nations (only eight at the time) that was held in Accra, Ghana in 1958 and presided over by Nkrumah; the pan-African movement further culminated in the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), whose charter was signed by 31 African nations (minus Togo, because Sylvanus Olympio, who could have represented Togo, was assassinated) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and was hosted by Emperor Haile Selassie.

For six and half solid decades, thus, the African leaders in Africa and the Diaspora waged relentless struggle against colonial subjugation and European imperial domination, but the one great victory at Adwa was shrouded in mystery due to lack of knowledge of Adwa both by Ethiopians and foreigners, and hence I offer rectification to the misconceptions as explained below

Misconceptions regarding the Battle of Adwa and the Victory of Ethiopians:

1.      Some historians and observers think that Adwa was the first victory of Ethiopians over a foreign enemy. To begin with, Adwa was the culmination of two other victories over the Italians, one at the Battle of Amba Alage and the other during the siege of Mekelle over Italian forces; and most importantly, before Adwa, Ethiopians had scored two victories over the Italians at Sahati and Dogali (near Massawa), led by Ras Alula and Emperor Yohannes in 1885 and 1887 respectively, not to mention the defeat of Ottoman Egyptian forces at Gura’e and Gundet in 1875 and 1876 respectively by Emperor Yohannes.

2.      Some historians thought that Ethiopians defeated the Italians by their sheer number because the 120 thousand Ethiopian troops overwhelmed the 17,700 Italian ground forces, but this rational is untenable because it is firearms and not the number of fighting forces that decide the outcome in conventional wars.

3.      Some Ethiopians and foreign nationals thought that Ethiopians won the day at the Battle of Adwa miraculously because they fought with spears and shields. This misconception reflects a tragic historical error and is contrary to the historical fact embedded in Adwa itself; Ethiopians, on the contrary, fought with guns and advanced artillery and canons. Three years before Adwa, Emperor Menelik had purchased thousands of guns, including Remington and Winchester guns made in the US; he also acquired Hotchkiss guns that had longer range than the Italian artillery, and due to this distinct military advantage, the Ethiopians managed to route the Italians and capture 11,000 of their guns and artillery. Moreover, Menelik possessed close to one million cartridges in his magazine, and all other commanders, the Rases and Dejazmachs (see below for definition) were well armed too.

4.      Some observers believed that Ethiopian fighting forces were not trained in military academies and they were ill-organized; there is some truth to this: Ethiopia had no military academy during the Battle of Adwa, but its fighting forces were well-organized under the aristocratic-feudal military hierarchy, ranging from the commander-in-chief of the armies (Negus or king) to the Ras (just below the king), and the Dejazmach (commander of the Gate), Kegnazmach (commander of the right flank), Grazmach (commander of the left flank), Fitewarari (commander of the vanguard), and at the very bottom is the Balambaras, coordinating the movements of the rank-and-file.      

For further reading on the Ethiopian victory at Adwa, please make reference to the following title and read it by opening the link: The Ethiopian Victory at Adwa: Meanings for Africans and People of African Descent in the Diaspora: www.africanidea.org/ethiopian_victory.html

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