Did you know Ethiopia is one of the only two countries in Africa that were not colonized? The Italians went there with tricks, treaties, and guns, but Menelik II managed to resist them.
You see, Menelik II did not have heavy firearms as the Italians did; what he had was undying courage. He was determined to keep his people free and refused to accept that the Europeans, as exotic as they appeared, were anything more than ordinary human beings.
Menelik II was born Sahle Maryam in the 1840s, as the bastard son of the Haile Meleko, the prince and heir apparent to the throne of Shewa, which was located in modern-day Ethiopia. His mother was a poor servant girl in the palace.
When Maryam was still a child, the king of Magdala and his troops invaded Shewa. They took Maryam prisoner and imposed a person of their choosing on the throne of Shewa as a governor. Nonetheless, upon returning to their home in Magdala, they treated the boy, Maryam, well, and even gave him a good education.
Upon becoming an adult, Maryam desired to go back to his own kingdom and liberate his people from Magdala’s domination. After fleeing back to Shewa, he took the power from the governor that the Magdala ruler had appointed, establishing himself as king.
Nevertheless, Maryam was still not at the position he wanted. He desired to be the liberator of all Ethiopians from unfair treatment and to unite all the small kingdoms in the region. Little by little, Maryam began incorporating other kingdoms into his own, and when the king of Magdala died in 1889, Maryam became the most powerful ruler in Ethiopia, and thus assumed the title Menelik II.
It is said that Menelik I was the son of King Solomon and Makeda, Queen of Sheba, and that Menelik I was of the same descent.
At the same time, the Italians were expanding their colonies, and had just taken Eritrea. Baratieri, the Italian governor of Eritrea, approached Menelik II and asked him to sign a treaty, posing it as a peace treaty.
What he didn’t disclose to Menelik II, though, was that the treaty was meant to make Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. When Menelik II found out the truth, he renounced the agreement. This led to several scuffles with the Italian colonial government and subsequently resulted in the famous battle of Adwa in 1896.
The Italians came in thousands and had guns and other heavy weapons, which the Ethiopians did not have. But the Ethiopians had something the Italians did not have – the courage of Menelik II.
On February 29th 1896, Baratieri, the Eritrean governor from Italy, arrived with his army of 15000 men. They had modern weapons far superior to those of Menelik II and his men, who relied more on swords and other inferior traditional weapons. Menelik knew that though he had the edge in terms of numbers, better weapons meant greater chances for victory. And initially, even his men felt demoralized and knew they were marching to their death.
But with bravery, Menelik motivated his men, assuring them he had plans to defeat Baratieri without too many casualties on their side. He instilled in them a deep desire for freedom, explaining that it’s better to die fighting than to live as slaves in their own land.
As a brilliant military leader and strategist, Menelik knew that the Italian forces relied heavily on food, water, medicines and other supplies. So, he had his forces maneuver the Italians to a position where their supplies would be left exposed. Apart from that, the wise king was aware of the dirty tricks and propaganda that the whites were known to utilize against the Africans, which he decided to use against them. He spread rumors that his army was in discord and that their supplies too were depleted.
Hearing the rumors, Baratieri laid down his guard and gathered his men. On the night of February 29th, 1896, they advanced into the Ethiopian camp, thinking they would find a hungry, demoralized army too feeble to fight. To their surprise, Menelik and his men were motivated and well prepared for battle.
Seeing how his army was being laid to waste by the Ethiopians, Baratieri called for reinforcements from Eritrea. Two more teams were sent but even they, Menelik’s men beat. The Italian soldiers were perishing by the thousands. By evening of 1st March 1896, the remaining Italians were in a frantic retreat, hurrying back to Eritrea.
For once, the Europeans had been beaten by ordinary African people. Thousands of Italians had died, and judging by the resilience of Menelik’s forces, the Italian government and other European colonial powers knew Ethiopia was a no-go zone.
What followed was a period of peace and prosperity for Ethiopia. Menelik was able to solidify his position as Emperor. He was also able to expand Ethiopia’s territory to almost its present-day boundaries without having to bow to any whites.
The true story of Menelik II is that of an ordinary black person beating the odds to rise up in unlikely situations and become a light for his/her people. It’s a great illustration that Africans can be self-sufficient, not having to rely on anyone else to secure their freedom and development.
Menelik was born to a poor servant girl as a bastard son, but through resilience, he rose to become king. He had managed to liberate his people and set his kingdom on a path to economic development.