Abebe Hailu, ESFNA Chairman, Special to The Informer
Ethiopia, Yesterday and Today
Ethiopia has a significant history reaching over 3,000 years into the past. The word “Ethiopia” has become a term for the idea of African solidarity and freedom, not just the name of a nation or a region. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus noted the region of Ethiopia as home to “people with burnt faces.” During the Greek and Roman eras, everything south of the Sahara Desert in Africa was generally referred to as Ethiopia or Abysinnia.
Biblical references also label Ethiopia as Cush, Kesh, Ekosh and Shewa (Sheba) in the Hebrew language. These were the names used in Solomon’s courts when he received a visit from the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba. The biblical “Song of Solomon” praises her physical beauty. In modern times, especially since the battle of Adwa, Ethiopia has been seen as a de facto model of freedom for all black cultures sand societies world-wide.
This held true up until the time the current political regime came to power. At least this is a homegrown terror and not a conquering white European army. This renegade regime has been busy throwing fellow citizens off of their ancestral lands and leasing them to international corporations. Freedom of the press is nonexistent and journalists are jailed regularly. The current corrupt politicians have even set about the process of changing history by denying the importance of the Battle of Adwa, and mocking the reign of Menelik and Taytu.
Commemorating the Victory at Adwa
In an effort to head off the rewriting of history, Ethiopian-Americans and other members of the African diaspora will commemorate the Victory at Adwa at Veterans Plaza in the Silver Spring Civic Building in Maryland. Historians will be on hand to offer their take on the importance of the battle – and its global impact – at the gathering that will take place on Sunday, March 2, 2014. All citizens of the D.C. Metro area are encouraged to attend.
European Might is Turned Back at Adwa
King Menelik exposed the treachery and would have none of the treaty. The Italians, claiming that Menelik knew what he was signing, decided to use military power to force compliance. The Italians had about 18,000 men armed with around 56 pieces of artillery. King Menelik II was able to organize and structure an army within a very short period of time. Though the Ethiopian forces out-numbered the invaders, they lacked the technological advantage held by the Italians.
Command of the Ethiopian forces was split between Menelik, the Empress Taytu, and a number of other leaders. These forces positioned themselves on the hills overlooking the Italian-occupied Adwa Valley. By noon on March 1, 1896, the Italian army was in full retreat with a considerable number of casualties. The Italians left most of their military equipment while they fled and this allowed the forces of Menelik and Taytu to increase their armories considerably.
Taytu, an Empress at War and a Wily Politician
Before the battle, the Empress Taytu had held a hard line against the Italians at the Ethiopian Imperial Court. When talks over the spurious treaty broke down, Italy assembled a force to invade Ethiopia. Empress Taytu joined her husband.
Among Taytu’s army was a force of cannoneers that rained fire down onto the Italians in the valley of Adwa. After their kingdom was secured, during their reign the king played the good and beloved king. The empress played the strict monarch. This good cop/bad cop division of duties and politics helped ensure their long reign.
Adwa Affected America
The unexpected victory at Adwa spurred the birth of a Pan-African solidarity that was evident in America. The African-American Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois was a major spokesman for freedom for Black Africans. He also edited the “Crisis” magazine, the voice for the NAACP. He devoted a whole chapter of his book, “The World and Africa,” to a history of Ethiopia as a state, while promulgating Ethiopia as an idea of global African unity.
In 1936 there were some so-called black riots in Harlem. These were really just demonstrations against the treatment of Ethiopia by the Western powers. No property damage or casualties were declared. John Hope Franklin wrote a book, “From Slavery to Freedom,” that helped Black Americans to become more worldly in their politics. African-American communities adopted the words “Ethiopia” or “Abyssinia” to rename their churches to push the idea of black global unity.
“… Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands …”
These words are from the biblical Psalm 68:31 and seem to reflect the modern global rise of a Pan-African vision of freedom. After the success of Ethiopia against colonial rule, some began to think of forming a United States of Africa. Others broadened their political views to include black societies throughout the world, as well as members of the African diaspora. A racial Pan-Africanism began to grow around the globe.
Ethiopia, as an idea of black solidarity, did indeed stretch forth her hands. 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 thwarted any future movement by Europeans to colonize the nation, and shattered the centuries old negative myths that Africans were no better than “savages.”
The victory at Adwa helped produce a new phase of Pan-Africanism. It planted the seed of unity and cooperation of blacks throughout the world. It helped to break the yoke of colonialism in a united way. The African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, summed up the forces unleashed by the victory at Adwa, and could have used his famous quote to fit the Ethiopian struggle: “It’s better to die free, than live as a slave.”