How the Western Press Reported on the Defeat of the Italians on the Battle of Adwa

The western press of those days was indeed the first to report on the defeat of the Italian colonialists at the Battle of Adwa. Three days following the defeat of Italy at the Battle of Adwa on March 4 1896, the Tribune wrote:

Italian defeat in Abyssinia after a desperate struggle they are finally vanquished by overwhelming odds…… crushing defeat for Italian arms, Crispi resigns. Whole battalions had slain an irreparable disaster.

Another weekly newspaper, Lloyd’s Weekly News Paper, London 1896, March 8 came out in the same vein.

“Disaster has over taken the Italian forces in Abyssinia. A desperate battle was fought with the Shoans at Adwa on February 29 and resulted in General Baratieri being almost annihilated.”

The New York Times, of March 3, 1896 added:

Italy’s terrible defeat, three thousand men killed. Sixty guns and all provisions lost. Baratieri’s strategy condemned. All available streamers for transport for reinforcement to Abyssinia are ordered.

The London Times almost foresaw the future impact of the war:

“The defeat of the Italians will go through the annals of history. This history will invigorate the fighting spirit of Africa which was hitherto considered as savage.”

The paper seemed to forecast the impact of the defeat of the Italians on the future emergence of Pan Africanism both in the US, the Caribbean and the African continent.

March 4, 1896 in the New York Times wrote,

Details received here today of the defeat on Sunday of the Italian Army show that the Italian losses were very heavy, they being placed by some at 3,000 killed. It is still impossible to ascertain the precise losses, but popular opinion credits the report that the number of killed is not overstated. Thus far the reports make no mention of the number of wounded. Among the dead are Gen. Albertone, Commander of the Left Brigade, and Gen. Dabormida, Commander of the Right Brigade.

The news of this latest disaster has caused the greatest excitement throughout Italy, and the Opposition party is taking advantage of it to make violent attacks upon the Government’s policy in attempting to extend the sphere of Italian influence in Abyssinia.

The Pope is greatly disturbed by the news.

The European media spread the news of the Italian humiliation primarily because this was not what they were expecting. This was not what the world was expecting.

Menelik defeated the war not only at the battle field but also in the realm of diplomacy and foreign policy. The emperor was able to clearly view the alliance of forces in Europe and acted accordingly. He was able to clearly show the nature of the aggressor without resorting to the escalation of war propaganda.

New York Times reported that “the pope was disturbed by the news”. This somehow indicates that the Pope Leo XIII must have blessed the Italian aggression. He later on wrote a letter to Emperor Menelink II requesting for compassion for the POWs detained after the war.

In fact, Menelik II had a deeper compassion even to individual POWs. The Emperor was told that one of the Italian soldiers being kept by the Imperial household had received a letter from his widowed mother in Naples. Apparently, upon reading her letter, the soldier had become extremely inconsolable and was weeping loudly and bitterly. Menelik ordered the soldier brought before him and had a translator read the letter. The distraught mother had written her son saying that she now spent her days weeping in the local St. Mary’s church, begging the Mother of God to bring her son home to her, a weak and lonely widow whose life had no meaning without her only child. When the Emperor heard what was written, his eyes filled with tears and he said “The tears of your mother, and our shared love for the Mother of God have freed you. Go back to your mother, and tell her that the Holy Virgin has returned you to her.” (Source: Archive: Conti sui prigionieriitaliani in Etiopia 1900 – 1913)

The European media covered the Battle of Adwa in a rather scanty manner but had it been the reverse in which the Italians had won the war, they could have written otherwise. As London Times had written, “The defeat of the Italians will go through the annals of history”

The above citations clearly indicate that the European press was overwhelmed by the swift nature of the defeat of the Italians in just a single day and were unable to go into deeper analysis of the entire situation.

In those days, Ethiopia had still not joined the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society but the news that I have quoted earlier clearly show that although he was the commander in chief of the Ethiopian army, Emperor Menelik devotedly kept the faith and showed compassion even to an individual POW in the standards of the Geneva Convention. Reportage from New Work Times is quite revealing.

“Rome, March 3, 1896 – The present campaign against the Abyssinians threatens to become one of the most disastrous in which the Italians arms have ever taken part, and what the final outcome will be it would be hard to predict. It was rumored today that the latest defeat of the Italians by King Menelik had compelled Ministry to resign, owing to the popular disapproval of the Government’s policy, but tonight this report is denied.”

The paper mentioned earlier seemed to forecast the impact of the defeat of the Italians on the future emergence of Pan-Africanism both in the US, the Caribbean and the African continent. The founders of Pan Africanism were definitely inspired by the victory at the Battle of Adwa which has played a role in unifying Africans in the region and at the Diaspora. The spirit of the movement spread across the world calling for unity among all black people in their quest for self-assertion, freedom from colonial rule and oppression.

Fentahun Tiruneh, Area Specialist for Ethiopia and Eritrea, African and Middle Eastern Division. At four Corners of the world quotes Anchi Hoh who wrote:

“In the aftermath of the war, Pope Leo XIII and King Menelik exchanged letters to affect the release of Italian Prisoners of War, and the Vatican turned to the Church of Alexandria for help with mediation. Trade cards of the day reflect current event in brightly colored images. Here we see Monsignor Macaire of the vicar of the Egyptian Coptic Church approaching Emperor Menelik on behalf of the Pope of Rome; a prudent example of religious diplomacy since the King of Kings and Monsignor Macaire both belonged to the Orthodox faith.

Negotiations between the two dignitaries bore results. On November 20, 1896, the Emperor released 200 Italian POWs in honor of the Queen of Italy’s birthday, and successive releases were affected in February and June of 1897, when the last of the Italian POWs left the country.”

Emperor Menelik proved that he was able to conduct religious diplomacy to show the moral standard of his government and his adherence to the principles of international law related to the handling of the POW in the battle. He demonstrated that even if Ethiopia had defeated Italy and in spite of the fact that some wester painters had tried to show a bad image of the emperor, Ethiopia had a noble duty to adhere to the fundamental ethical standards of conducting war.

During this Battle that was completed in a single day, 5000 Ethiopian warriors we killed in action while 8,000 were wounded. The Italians lost 6,000 well rained soldiers while 1,500 were wounded and 3,000 were taken as POW.

Jonas, Raymond, in his book entitled The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011. Wrote:

“Figures throughout the African diaspora immediately grasped the significance of Adwa, Menelik, and an independent Ethiopia. Writing deftly from a transnational perspective, Jonas puts Adwa in the context of manifest destiny and Jim Crow, signaling a challenge to the very concept of white dominance. By reopening seemingly settled questions of race and empire, the Battle of Adwa was thus a harbinger of the global, unsettled century about to unfold.”

He added “Adwa reminds us that the only freedom we truly possess is the freedom we are able to defend. Only on the scale of Ethiopia itself could resistance have succeeded.”

Indeed, Black people across the globe celebrate one historical asset that occurred 126 years ago in a small town in northern Ethiopia. The Battle of Adwa was a rocket booster or a launching pad for the inception of Pan Africanism. This historic battle and the subsequent victory registered by irregular peasant army of Ethiopia resonated across the world as the first victory against a colonial power ever to be won by an African country.

History proves that the victory at the Battle of Adwa was not a victory only for Ethiopia. Although the Battle was fought in Ethiopia, the entire global community of peoples shares this outstanding victory against a European colonial power that was thought to be invincible.

Today, inspired by the victory of Ethiopians at the Battle of Adwa, Pan Africanism has developed with much wider spectrum to include not only political but also economic, cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation among African countries.

Even today, the western media outlets have continued to either under report or misinform the world about the current developments in Africa. Their reports seem to appreciate the neo-colonial machinations of a number of western countries. Africans therefore need another victory against poverty to supplement to their victory at the Battle of Adwa.

Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The



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