Addis Ababa, Treaty of

views updated


Concluded on 26 October 1896, the Treaty of Addis Ababa ended the First Italo-Abyssinian War of 1895–1896, confirmed the independence of Abyssinia, and ratified the decisive defeat its armies inflicted on an Italian expeditionary force at the Battle of Adwa six months earlier. The origins of the conflict can be traced to the previous decade. Italy, ambitious to assert its great-power status by establishing an empire in Africa, was sufficiently late on the scene that its greatest initial success was occupying the decrepit Red Sea port of Massawa in 1885. Italy continued to penetrate inland into Eritrea, whose mutually antagonistic tribes were increasingly coerced or compelled to accept Italian suzerainty.

An Abyssinian government regarding Eritrea as its territory encouraged local resistance and committed its own forces with fair amounts of success. Then in 1889, a coup brought Menelik II (r. 1889–1913) to Ethiopia's throne. For the sake of consolidating his power in a strongly feudal system, he negotiated the Treaty of Ucciali (or Wuchale) in 1889. Italy recognized him as emperor in return for his conceding their position in Eritirea, which was established as an Italian colony in 1890. The treaty, however, had two texts. The Amarhic version allowed Menelik to use Italian good offices in corresponding with other powers. The Italian version specified that Abyssinia's foreign relations must go through Rome.

The exact balance of conscious duplicity and linguistic confusion in the document remains debatable. What is certain is that Italy used the Treaty of Ucciali to proclaim a protectorate over Ethiopia. Menelik protested, and took advantage of the protracted negotiations to mobilize domestic support and import modern weapons from Turkey, Russia, and especially France, Italy's principal direct rival in the Mediterranean. He financed the imports in good part by the results of trading and raiding expeditions to Abyssinia's perimeters and occasionally across its borders. Gold and ivory, animal hides, coffee, and slaves were exchanged for rifles and ammunition. In September 1893, Menelik denounced the Treaty of Ucciali. In June 1894, the feudal lords of Ethiopia proclaimed him "King of Kings."

Italy responded by pushing its local forces across the Eritrean-Abyssinian frontier. For a year the adversaries jockeyed for military and diplomatic advantage. The Italian government and army were confident that a limited commitment, even by the standards of colonial conflicts, would be enough to finish Abyssinia, and began fortifying several towns in northern Abyssinia as a preliminary to further operations. Menelik in September 1894 summoned a levée en masse amounting to about 200,000 men to his capital of Addis Ababa. He took the best half north, destroyed a force of 1,300 askari (local troops under Italian command), and besieged the garrison at Makalie for a month and a half before allowing it to withdraw under safe conduct.

That and other gestures of conciliation failed in the face of the Italian government's increasing determination to make its protectorate of Abyssinia a political reality. In February 1895, Prime Minister Francesco Crispi (1818–1901) informed his field commander General Oreste Baratieri (1841–1901) that Italy was ready for every sacrifice, accused him of lacking a plan of campaign, and spoke of needing to save the honor of the army. The effect was like a backhand slap to the face. Baratieri took the field and advanced on the Abyssinian camp at Adwa with about 18,000 men, two-thirds Italian and the rest askari. On 1 March, he attacked in four uncoordinated columns and was overwhelmingly defeated.

It was the most spectacular disaster suffered by a Western army during the entire conquest of Africa. Italian losses amounted to 11,000 dead, wounded, and prisoners. Menelik counted around 17,000 casualties, but his force was much the larger. He withdrew to Addis Ababa, where he received a discomfited Italian government's overtures for peace.

Menelik set two conditions: nullification of the Treaty of Ucciali and recognition of Abyssinia's independence. With over 3,000 of its soldiers captives, Italy had no leverage. The Treaty of Addis Ababa confirmed Abyssinia's status as a full member of the world community of nations. In the next few years, other European nations established diplomatic and commercial relations with the last independent African government. Menelik proved a shrewd and flexible negotiator, taking advantage of his European connections to suppress the last remnants of resistance to central authority. In 1900 he even established a more or less firm boundary with Italian Eritrea. Abyssinia became, and to a degree remains, a symbol and a source of pride for people of African descent everywhere in the world.

See alsoCrispi, Francesco; Imperialism; Italy.


Ahmad, A. H., and R. Pankhurst, eds. Adwa Victory Centenary Conference. Addis Ababa, 1998.

Rubenson, Sven. The Survival of Ethiopian Independence. London, 1976.

Vandervort, Bruce. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa, 18301914. London, 1998.

Dennis Showalter