Africa during the Scramble: The Last Kingdom

By Gary Oswald


Flag of the Ethiopian Empire

In 1868, the British Army invaded Ethiopia in order to free hostages that had been taken by Emperor Tewodros II to force the British into giving him the military support he’d asked for. Their General, Robert Napier, bought only 13,000 soldiers, though he had also gathered 26,000 camp followers and over 40,000 animals to support his army due to the British operating so far from their closest base in Yemen. Upon arriving in Ethiopia, the British quickly found local allies and won the support of all the major figures in the Empire apart from Tewodros himself. The Emperor’s own Army disintegrated as rumours of the invasion led to defections. What little was left of his army, somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 men, were ordered to attack the British upon their approach but they were poorly armed and so quickly repulsed with heavy casualties in exchange for only two deaths on the British side. Tewodros killed himself, the British burned down his city, freed their hostages and departed.


In 1896, Italy Invaded Ethiopia in order to annex that country into their burgeoning African Empire. They were operating from bases in Eritrea and Somalia so their supply lines were much shorter than the British. And they had a larger Army, closer to 20,000 men. Despite this they found the opposition considerably tougher than it had been 30 years earlier. The Ethiopian Emperor, Menelik II, had mustered an Army of up to 100,000 men armed with rifles and artillery. The Italian general initially tried to avoid combat in the hope the massive Ethiopian Army would have to be dispersed or starve but his own supply system wasn't brilliant and he was under considerable political pressure to make a decisive battle. A pitched battle was fought at Adwa and was indeed decisive, the Italians were routed entirely and the threat of invasion ended.


In the aftermath, both armies withdrew and considered their next moves. The Ethiopians, like many Africans, were aware of the danger of inviting too much wrath upon them and made sure they couldn’t be painted as aggressors. They treated their white Italian prisoners well (though black Africans fighting for the Italians were seen as traitors and were less lucky, they were routinely castrated in both the first and second Italo-Ethiopian Wars) and sued for peace rather than launched a new campaign into the Italian Lands. Because of this, the Italians kept their pre-war possessions, it was not a total defeat for them. But it was still a famous Ethiopian victory.


So what changed? The performance of the Ethiopian Army in 1868 would not have convinced any observers that a victory like Adwa was on the cards. And it is not as if the years in-between had been easy on Ethiopia. The Rinderpest Epizootic of 1887, which started when the Italian army bought Asian cattle into Somaliland to supply their troops, had devastated Ethiopian livestock and caused a great famine that killed up to a third of their people. You might well expect them to be weaker not stronger in 1896. So why was it the other way around?


Well, to answer that, we need to look at the history of the country, which is a long one. Writing in Ethiopia dates back to the 9th century BC, comfortably before most European states were literate, and so, compared to a lot of Africa, Ethiopia came early to state building. The Kingdom of Axum arose in the 2nd century AD and by the 3rd Century AD was counted alongside Rome, China and Persia as one of the four great powers of the World by the prophet Mani. Axum spread its influence into the Sudan and southern Egypt and across the Red Sea into Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It was a major player in both Middle Eastern politics, where it warred with Persia and allied with Rome, and Middle Eastern religion. It was the second nation to ever adapt Christianity after Armenia and it gave refuge to the first Muslims during the life of Muhammad.


No country lasts 2,000 years. Axum collapsed and was replaced by other Empires. But there was always some continuity of institutions as new Ethiopian Empires rose. And Ethiopia was remembered. It was largely cut off from the West by the Muslim conquests, but there was still the occasional contact between the Emperor and his fellow Christians. During the Crusade era Ethiopian Bishops visited Jerusalem and in 1428, there were letters exchanged between the King of Aragon in Spain and the Emperor. When the Portuguese and Spanish arrived in the Indian Ocean in the 16th century, they were desperate to find this Christian Kingdom that they hoped they could ally with. Their arrival was a mixed blessing to Ethiopia. Portuguese soldiers probably saved the country from an Ottoman backed Somali invasion but Spanish priests caused a civil war after, briefly, converting the Orthodox Emperor to Catholicism.


A British depiction of Tewodros II surrounded by Lions

Much is often made of this history. There is a temptation to go well obviously a country with a long history of strong states and inter-continental trade is going to have stronger institutions and so be in a better position to fight off an invader than a country as newly settled and united as Madagascar. But if that explains 1896 what explains 1868? Moreover the history of the Kingdom of Kongo did not help the Angolans nor did the proud history of the Sahel Empires (Ghana, Mali and Songhai) help the West Africans. The more recent history is perhaps more important.


Ethiopia was so weak in 1868 because of centuries of decline caused by various factors including the Oromo migrations wherein the arrival of a new people into the old Kingdoms led to increased religious and ethnic strife. These internal troubles culminated in a long running civil war called the Era of Princes in which there was no effective central authority from around 1730 to the 1850s. Tewodros II was the first real Emperor in over a century and his authority was still very limited which is why most of the princes turned on him when the British invaded. Moreover this period of civil war disrupted the economy and trade. Tewodros demanded British aid because his own army was poorly equipped and armed with mostly outdated guns, some merely matchlocks. And the artillery situation was even worse, the prize mortar of his army famously misfired and buried itself before combat even began.


It is entirely possible for this era of anarchy to continue for a few more decades and so for the Italian conquest to be successful. In that case I might well be writing an article arguing that the only way to save Ethiopia is for the civil war never to start in the 18th century. But instead there emerged two strong Emperors, Yohannes IV and Menelik II, who built upon Tewodros’ foundation and vastly increased the area under central control. The speed at which this recovery happened must give hope for the ATL chances of other regions of Africa. A strong uniting force can transform a region entirely.


It must be noted that, for many in this region of Africa, the Ethiopian Empire was as frightening an expanding imperialist power as the UK or France. From the 1850s to the 1890s a great number of independent Kingdoms were overrun and annexed by the Ethiopians and their men bought into the Ethiopian Army which was, even at this time, primarily feudal levies. In the aftermath of Adwa, instead of invading the Italian colonies, Ethiopia instead campaigned against the independent Kingdoms of Kaffa and Galla which were sacked and annexed, something that probably did more for their treasury than the Italian indemnity. For that matter, two of the great Muslim anti-colonial leaders, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan of the Dervish State and Abdallah ibn Muhammad of Mahdist Sudan (both of whom will get their own articles in this series), attacked Ethiopia as well as Italy and the UK as Christian Empires ruling over Muslim subjects.


Ras Alula, Ethiopian general, as captured by an unknown photographer

And this helped Ethiopia massively as they were seen in Europe as a Christian ally against the Muslims and so found it easy to obtain weapons. The first modern weapons were obtained by Yohannes IV thanks to agreements with the British he’d made as a local prince during their invasion. These new weapons arrived just in time because In 1875 the other expanding African power in the area, Egypt, invaded Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Army under their general Ras Alula, one of the finest soldiers Africa produced during this era, defeated the Egyptians and captured 20,000 more breech-loading rifles from the invading force. This victory proved the effectiveness of the new Ethiopian Army when its princes were united and when the Mahdist War erupted in Sudan between the rebels and the Egyptian and British forces, the latter wanted nothing more than to bring Yohannes, and Ras Alula, into the fight. More British weapons were sent to Ethiopia in return for opening up another front against the Sudanese. The British also offered promises of support against the Italians and to recognise the Ethiopian claims to Eritrea. Unsurprisingly, these promises were never fulfilled, the British were always happy to drop African allies who were no longer useful.

However the French and the Italians were worried about this potential alliance and about Yohannes growing too powerful so decided to try and check him by feeding more repeating rifles to Sahle, the King of Shewa, who was a powerful but distrusted underling of the Emperor. The Italians hoped he’d either rebel and restart the Civil War or switch alliance from Ethiopia to Italy. And to an extent this paid off. Yohannes IV died fighting the Sudanese and Sahle took power in the confusion and became Menelik II of Ethiopia. Italy now had an ally as Emperor, while Menelik had gained both the weapons he'd obtained from Italy and the weapons Yohannes had got from the UK. And he continued gaining more, the Treaty of Wuchale of 1889 when Ethiopia ceded the Eritrean lands to Italy meant trade in guns with the Italians continued. And Menelik also bought guns from Germany, Austria and France. And it wasn't just sales, there were also gifts. In 1895, Ethiopia agreed an alliance with their fellow Orthodox Christians in Russia after Princes Damto and Belyakio visited St Petersburg. The Russians sealed this alliance with a gift of 10,000 rifles and, a year later, 50 Russian soldiers would fight at Adwa.

By the time of the Italian invasion of 1896, Ethiopia had 200,000 men under arms due to their rapid expansion, a vast army by African standards. They also had between 300,000 to 600,000 rifles, the majority obtained from Italy and of which a significant portion were modern, breech-loading, and, often, repeating. Many African forces in this era would be lucky to have 50 rifles of that quality. So how did they buy so many? Well partly because of a good reputation in Europe and partly because of a bizarre diplomatic mix up.

Menelik II at the Battle of Adwa as depicted by Le Petit Journal in 1898

The villain behind this confusion was Pietro Antonelli, the diplomat under orders by Italy to treat with Menelik. As so often happened in this period, being so far away from his superiors meant he was free to make his own plans they weren't aware of. Rome had asked for him to conquer Ethiopia and yet he had nowhere near the men to do that. So he had the Treaty of Wuchale written in both Amharic and Italian and the Amharic version was merely a treaty of alliance while the Italian version had the Ethiopians lose their independence and become a protectorate. Antonelli later claimed that the Amharic version not including the loss of independence was an honest mistake in translation and that Menelik was lying about not knowing he was signing away his independence because blacks were naturally deceptive but I'm happy to assume it was a deliberate ruse on his part.


I'm also inclined to assume that Italy wasn't aware of the ruse because if the aim was just to get a bad faith treaty they could use to justify an invasion, they wouldn't have kept supplying Menelik with guns and ammo but as late as 1893 they supplied him with thousands of guns and over two million cartridges. This continuing supply of weapons makes more sense if you assume that Rome believed the Italian version was the agreed treaty and saw Ethiopia as a loyal vassal state. Menelik, who could only read the Amharic version, happily accepted the weapons from his ally but had no intention to ever sign away his independence and angrily refuted the treaty once the contents of the Italian version came to light.


As an AH fan this is obviously deeply appealing because its so random. You don't have to change much for Antonelli to not try this trick and so for Italy and Ethiopia to fall out in 1889 rather than the 1890s. This would probably slow down the trade in rifles from Italy at least. They'd still have them in large quantities but probably less than they have men rather than more which, as we'll see later, will have consequences. It might also mean an earlier war with the same result, a war in which the Italians win or even no war at all all of which could see an complete shake up of the politics of the area.


In OTl, Italy, their pride stung by this revelation that their great diplomatic coup hadn't actually happened, resolved to go to war to punish Menelik as the British had punished Tewodros. What had changed between 1868 and 1896 was first that Menelik ruled many more men than Tewodros and second that the Italians had armed the Ethiopians to be on par with a European Army. Racial arrogance had convinced the Italian Government that an African Army could never defeat a European army even if it was larger and equally well armed. It could.


Adwa was far from the only victory an African army would win over a European one during this time but it was the most decisive. The invasion of Ethiopia wasn't that popular and the blame of the loss was put on a government who'd sent an ill prepared army of conscripts into the jaws of a formidable Army who the Italians had themselves armed. The Italians could have sent a new bigger army which is what the British did in the aftermath of defeats at Khartoum, Colenso and Isandlwana. Or they could have called in an Ally like the Spanish did after losing most of their army to the Riffians in the disaster of Annual. Instead they agreed a peace with Ethiopia convinced that, against an Army as well trained and well armed as Menelik's, complete victory would be difficult to achieve.

This was a lesson the Italians would learn, because there is a third example of Ethiopia versus a European force we must talk about. In 1935-37 there was a Second Italian Invasion of Ethiopia. And this one would see the Italians defeat the Ethiopian armies, take the Capital and fully annex the only native Monarchy in Africa which had never previously fallen under European Rule.

Benito Mussolini, once described by Haile Selassie as the 'godless and cruel dragon which has newly risen and which is oppressing mankind'.

So why was this invasion far more successful? Well, first of all the Italian Primer Minister, Benito Mussolini, needed victories to prove the power of his fascist state. The first invasion had been a sideshow, with a mainly colonial force used. This time the Italians took Ethiopia seriously. Instead of less than 20,000 men, they sent more than 500,000 and they had tanks and planes and mustard gas which was deployed on both soldiers and civilians despite that being a war crime. An overwhelming force was used, precisely what Menelik had been afraid would happen if he pushed too far into Eritrea. Mussolini was ready to settle for a more minor exchange of land rather than full annexation if things went against him but he mainly feared intervention from other Europeans rather than the Ethiopians.

But there was also another reason. In some ways the Ethiopians had been better armed in 1896 than they were in 1935. The truth is the Ethiopians in the 1890s were buying so many guns that they were able to replace their rifles as new models came out. The obsolete models, which were still very good by African standards, were then sold. Often they ended up in European colonies in the hands of rebels. This, as you might imagine, tarnished Ethiopia's popularity among the European colonialists, something that could be avoided if they had obtained less rifles from Italy due to no Antonelli and still managed to maintain their independence.

In 1906, France, Italy and the UK responded with a treaty that limited the number of weapons that could be sold to Ethiopia. This was partly dictated by European politics and the desire of the Entente to draw Italy away from Germany. But diplomatically this pushed Ethiopia into a corner. They attempted to bypass it by ordering German rifles but the Italians had that shut down and likewise an offer to sell their old rifles directly and exclusively to the British in return for new ones was rejected. When Italy joined the French and British in WWI they were rewarded by a complete Embargo of weapons sold to Ethiopia in 1916 that remained in place throughout the 1920s.


Ethiopia was at a disadvantage because it only had land borders with those three countries and no coastline. They must have regretted both not pushing further into Italian lands in 1896 and that their old allies Russia had been unable to establish the colony in Djibouti they’d attempted to in 1889. The French asked the Russians to withdraw and the Tsar obliged but it is possible for an agreement to be reached that saw the Russians stay. There is no reason to think a Russian African colony would have survived WWI and the revolution but as long as it lasted, it might have given an option to bypass the Embargo. Or the Russians might have simply joined in on the embargo. Alliances with African states were routinely abandoned by Europeans when convenient.


In OTL it wasn’t until 1930 that the Embargo was lifted and arms were allowed to arrive in Ethiopia once again. And that simply left it far too late for Ethiopia to rearm effectively without spending money it didn't have. Ethiopia did buy weapons during the 1930s, Nazi Germany supplied many in the hope of distracting an Italy that it viewed as a potential enemy, but 30 years can't be caught up in 5. Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations, as a Christian centralised state it was in many ways treated with respect but the embargo shows the way that respect only ever went so far. Part of it was that Ethiopia was a feudal state with no real democracy and where slavery was still legal, reform was happening in these areas but it was slow and halting and ultimately wouldn't save the Empire from revolution. But a lot of the treatment was simply because it was African. It was easier to throw Ethiopia under the bus than a European state and colonialists are never going to be happy about an independent state next to their colonies acting as an example.


The road-map for an African country to survive a European invasion was set out by Adwa. You need a united country under a strong leader which can muster a large army and buy weapons in large quantities. Too many African polities were too small and divided to manage that. It must be emphasised however, that Ethiopia itself was also too small and divided mere decades earlier. This is something that can change quickly.


You also need an Enemy that is willing to accept defeat and cut their losses. There are circumstances in which European countries were willing to do that, the First Boer War for instance, and there are circumstances in which they were not, such as the Second Boer War. Menelik was very aware of not making this into a war the Europeans felt they had to fight to the death but so were the leaders of the Herero and the Zulu and they weren't given the option of an honourable peace after their initial victories.


And, lastly, you need people willing and able to sell them weapons in large quantities. In 1896 Ethiopia proved that an African Army with modern weapons and experience using them was equal to a European Army but Italy in the 20th century proved how easy it was to prevent that situation from arising by cutting off the sale of modern weapons. For any African countries to survive the scramble in an ATL they need some access to rifles, if not necessarily in the amount that Ethiopia had, otherwise they’d be unable to match the European armies. Where those rifles are coming from is one of the first things you need to work out logistically if you want another country to pull an Ethiopia.


As Ethiopia also proves that this is trickier the further a country is from a port. There is a reason that they were so eager to annex Eritrea and gain sea access in the post WW2 era. The subjects of our next article, the Great Lakes Kingdoms of Buganda, Rwanda and Burundi, would find it particularly difficult due to both their isolation and their distance from the Indian Ocean.

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