The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire

March 23, 2012
battle of adwa

by Raymond Jonas 
Harvard University Press, 413 pp., $29.95

JOHN WELSH - Empire defeated

Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army marched a remarkable 135 miles from Chancellorsville, Virginia to the battle of Gettysburg. Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, an arduous three-month march from Vilnus to Moscow, stretched nearly 500 miles. Both campaigns ended in a catastrophic defeat that dramatically altered the course of human history. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg turned the American Civil War against the South and changed the future shape of the United States; Napoleon’s heavy losses in Russia disrupted French European hegemony and led to the Decembrist uprising in 1825 and eventually to Russian Revolution. But 1896 witnessed the culmination of an even longer and, arguably, an even more historically significant military march. The army had traveled for five months, logged almost 600 miles, and—unlike the forces of more universally recognized and celebrated generals Robert E. Lee and Napoleon—this grueling march ended in a monumental victory in which the stakes involved not only the future shape of a continent, but indeed its very color. Most surprisingly? Unlike Lee and Napoleon, you can graduate from an excellent four-year college in this country and know absolutely nothing about it. You may have never even heard the name Menelik; you may know nothing of the Battle of Adwa.

Raymond Jonas, professor of history at the University of Washington, wants that to change. In The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire, Jonas provides the first comprehensive account of this singular and remarkable episode, which he describes as “the signal moment of our times.” According to Jonas, Adwa is “part of our global heritage… one of those events we call ‘world-historical’ because we can readily imagine the world—our world—taking a different path had events gone differently.” Victory for Menelik’s forces, the first comprehensive defeat of a European army by an African one, not only ended an Italian war of conquest and marked the birth of modern Ethiopia, it also “cast doubt upon an unshakeable certainty of the age—that sooner or later all Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans.” To put it even more forcefully, “It was an event that determined the color of Africa.”
The reader of this review could perhaps be forgiven for summoning an entirely inaccurate, Manichean vision of the battle: white Europeans on one side squaring off against the black African forces on the other—armed perhaps with more primitive weaponry and less battle experience. But in the decisive moments of Adwa, when Menelik’s forces met Matteo Albertone’s brigade in the open field, the reality was more complex and even more poignant. “There was a profound visual irony in the makeup of the forces,” Jonas explains, “for the soldiers on both sides were African. Apart from a few dozen European officers and as many artillerymen—maybe a hundred in all—almost to a man Albertone’s brigade was composed of askari recruits, that is, Africans.” The opening shots in the battle for Africa would thus be fired—on both sides—by African soldiers. “The difference, of course,” Jonas explains, “was that on Menelik’s side the soldiers were led by men who looked like themselves, Africans leading Africans. In Albertone’s brigade one could glimpse a different future—Africans under the command of Europeans.” Adwa turned the tides decisively in favor of a future that resembled the organizational structure of Menelik’s army: in the future, Africans would lead Africans.
Beyond a few short comments, it should be noted that—to his credit—Jonas concentrates almost entirely on the first Italian campaign in Ethiopia, leaving the discussion of Mussolini’s Imperialist ambitions in the Second Italo-Ethiopian war (1935-36) to other scholars and other books. Structurally, The Battle of Adwa begins by laying the groundwork for the actual battle in “Part I: The Road to Adwa.” By the time Jonas narrates the fighting between Menelik and the Italian forces, readers are well-acquainted with the ironies, complexities, and serious implications of the battle. They realize that the Italian forces are comprised heavily of native askari solidiers; they know that Italy has played a crucial role in Menelik’s rise to power, providing him with many of the firearms that decimate Italian forces at Adwa; they know that Menelik is a leader of uncommon savvy and charisma who has systematically rewritten the rules of colonial warfare; they realize that—shocking though African victory at Adwa would still prove to be—the Italians are David and the Ethiopians are Goliath. “Part II: The Battle” concentrates on Menelik’s remarkable march to Adwa and narrates the series of tactical blunders, intelligence failures, and political infighting that culminated in the reckless advance of the drastically undermanned Italians to meet the Ethiopians in open combat. “Part III Aftermaths,” quite possibly the most interesting portion of the book, explores the fascinating international response to Adwa: Menelik’s rise to the status of international celebrity; the lives of the Italian soldiers “held captive” in Ethiopia; the witch-hunt trial of Italian commander Oreste Baratieri; the startling “whitening” of the Ethiopians by the international press; and the wounded pride so deeply felt throughout the Italian diaspora.
The Battle of Adwa is a nearly flawless presentation of a fascinating, important, and relatively neglected event in world history. Jonas’s ability to represent the past in a captivating but rigorous style is most apparent in his skillful handling of character. Jonas tells a character-driven story, while gracefully toeing the line between engaging portraiture and distorted caricature. And what a fascinating world of characters it is! In addition to Menelik—a calculating almost Machiavellian leader who is able to incorporate the lessons of Europe and modernity without losing sight of the values of Africa and the past, who understands how to wield “soft power” without being softened—readers are introduced to his glamorous wife Taytu and her enormous entourage. They meet Alfred Ilg, the Swiss engineer who takes an Ethiopian wife, masters Amharic, and becomes Menelik’s most trusted advisor. They ponder the motivations of Ras Makonnen, dubbed “the most intelligent man in Ethiopia” and father to the eventual cult hero Ras Tafari, who travels to Italy to sign the Treaty of Wichale and present the Italian king with a live baby elephant. But perhaps the most intriguing characters are the minor ones, the nameless ones: the thousands of mercenary askari, native African soldiers of uncommon speed and endurance who fought on the side of the Italians; the scores of Eritrean madamas who, “somewhere between a courtesan and a spouse,” formed temporary families with the Italian colonists; the some two-thousand Italian soldiers captured at Adwa who live among the Ethiopians for nearly a year and become prolific memoirists; the nine Italians who chose to remain in Ethiopia at the end of 1897, no longer prisoners but lingering all the same, somehow sentimentally or otherwise captivated.
The Battle of Adwa is a five-star effort. Jonas’s ability as a researcher inspires confidence and trust in the reader, who will be consistently surprised and impressed by just how comprehensively and minutely Jonas is able to recreate 19th century Ethiopia. Perhaps more importantly, Jonas is pitch-perfect not only in terms of his characterization, but in his prose style, narrative emplotment, and his skillful, balanced handling of sensitive subject matter. He does not sidestep questions of race and cultural specificity, but he also avoids the temptation to make Adwa entirely about race. This was a monumental military victory by any possible measure, and not simply because the victors happened to be Africans. Although Jonas’s appreciation of Menelik’s skill and accomplishments is readily apparent, he is not seduced to the point of blindness by his subject matter and maintains balance and impartiality. He does not emplot Adwa as a fable of African good vs. Imperialist evil; he does not tell the story of a plucky underdog that succeeds despite overwhelming odds. He does not summon an Italian stereotype as a straw man, berating Italy for its ineptitude as a colonial power. In this sense, book’s subtitle is apt—the battle of Adwa is a story of “African Victory in the Age of Empire”; it is not a parable of Italian defeat. To speak of the physical object, The Battle of Adwa is a beautiful hardcover with a lovely dust jacket, a large readable font, nearly forty illustrations and six maps. Moreover, the project extends beyond the book itself to which presents a variety of additional maps, timelines, and features of the research that were born digital. For military history buffs, scholars of European or African history, or anyone who loves a good read or simply appreciates exceptional execution, Raymond Jonas’s The Battle of Adwa cannot be recommended highly enough.