In the years between 1840 and around 1915, Africa’s tale was that of infliction and aggression from European powers. With a desire to plunder Africa’s natural resources and kidnap people to work in their fields back home, the whites invaded the continent, taking what they liked and leaving a wave of destruction.
Some decided to stay and make Africa their colony, destroying the local people’s administrative frameworks and establishing their own.
Mostly, the African armies who tried to fight against the invading forces fell.
But not Ethiopia.
When Italy tried its hand at taking Ethiopia, Menelik II of Ethiopia and his soldiers gave them a beating so bad that they backed off, humiliated.
Help from An Unlikely Source
But Menelik II and his soldiers did not do this alone. The women of Ethiopia played a key role in the triumph of Ethiopia over the hostile Italian forces.
They would feed the armies and keep their supply of resources including water and weapons replenished.
One of the most important figures was Taytu Betul, without whose help, Ethiopia’s victory probably wouldn’t have been, or would have taken longer to happen.
Who Was This Taytu Betul?
Taytu Betul was the empress, the wife of Emperor Menelik II. But many things were unlikely about Taytu, that the first time I heard about her, I wondered how it came to be that she did all that she did.
At the time that the empress got married to the emperor, she was nothing of what monarchies picture as their ideal queen. She was over 30 years old, wasn’t able to have kids, and had been in marriage 4 times prior.
Kingdoms never loved that sort of a woman as their queen. Kings/heir apparents had to marry young virgin girls who were fertile to produce heirs.
But Betul wasn’t any of those things.
What this lady was, though, was an extremely clever plotter from an influential family.
Betul Helps Menelik II Unite the Ethiopians
Back then, Ethiopia was made of different factions that were constantly at loggerheads with each other. Menelik needed Betul’s influence and wisdom not only to cement his claim to the throne but also to bring some harmony among Ethiopia’s warring sections.
Betul did not just do her duty; she exceled at handling her task. You see, though history paints Menelik as an indomitable conqueror, he didn’t achieve all he did alone.
And he definitely wasn’t constantly strong. When Menelik was weak and ready to give up, Betul stepped in and took care of things, preventing the fall of Ethiopia.
The empress operated under the adage “don’t harm but don’t tolerate shit”. While she fed the soldiers and cooked for the country people, Betul poisoned the people who frustrated her. To my mind, she did harm, but then, I am reminded that she harmed only those got in the way of her country’s success.
With his powerful queen by his side, the emperor was able to unite the different groups into one. This turned out to have been a critical step, because just then, an external threat presented itself, which would have easily overpowered a divided people.
The Italians’ Arrival
The external threat was the Italians, who had laid their eyes of Northeast Africa. They arrived in Eritrea in 1885.
The reason why the Italians were in Eritrea is not exactly clear. It is said they believed they had a claim to the region, following negotiations with other European powers.
Back in Italy, there was discontentment from the citizens in the way the government was conducting business. In those days, nothing served to distract a rowdy populace better than a new agenda. In this case, the prospects on a new colony full of resources would be an excellent distraction.
So, after taking Eritrea, the Italians expanded down to the south and intended to venture into Ethiopia.
The Shady Treaty
Seeing Ethiopia was more organized politically, the Italians decided to use trickery, which the Europeans were known for those days. In 1889, they tricked Menelik II into signing a treaty.
The treaty document was bilingual, meaning it was written in two languages – Amharic, for the sake of Menelik and his people, and Italian for the Italians.
Surprisingly (not), the things written were not uniform. In Amharic, Menelik II was recognized as Ethiopia’s ruler, but in Italian, he was just a puppet ruler of the Italian government, and Ethiopia was an Italian protectorate.
Legend says that Empress Betul was the first person to realize something was off about the treaty. She would go on to try and forge peace with the Italians.
Not interested in peace, the Italians went ahead to bring in more troops. Their intent was to take complete control of the land.
Faced with the threat of impending invasion by the foreign power, the emperor and empress started mobilizing their people.
The First Battle
As the Italian forces approached the border, Menelik II’s armies rushed to meet them. The armies of Menelik were subdivided in legions of 5000 soldiers.
Betul was among the insurgent forces, heading one of the legions. As expected, her troops were highly organized, garnering praise from both the Italians and the Ethiopians.
The empress and her fighters gave the Italians hell, ensuring the victory of the Ethiopians.
But it’s not just force and resilience that gave Betul and her troops victory. The prowess of the empress to think quickly and critically really played out.
At one time, she instructed her soldiers to cut off the water supply to a fort where the Italians operated from. After 10 days of being without water, the Italians had no choice but to surrender.
The Final Battle
In 1896, the Ethiopians and the Italian forces clashed at Adwa for the final time.
According to many sources, the empress was at the center of the conflict, and it was she that ensured Ethiopia did not lose.
One legend says that at some point, the Ethiopians felt demoralized and were under pressure to give into the Italians’ might. But then, Taytu Betul raised her sword over her head and shouted at the Ethiopian soldiers to be brave and charge.
And it did work! Suffering an embarrassing defeat, the Italians backed away.