The new war culminated on March 1, 1896, at Adwa, when the Italian force of around 18,000 allowed itself to be drawn into battle against an Ethiopian army at least six times larger. The Italian force was utterly destroyed as a fighting unit, suffering at least 6,000 dead and losing all artillery and equipment. Only Menelik’s diplomatic sense and restraint prevented his forces from sweeping up all the now defenseless Italian territory that remained on the Red Sea. Why risk his gains when he already had achieved everything he needed? (The campaign is expertly described in Raymond Jonas’s 2011 study The Battle of Adwa.)
The sheer scale of the European catastrophe demands attention. This was a period when White empires might lose the occasional battle, as the British had to the Zulus some years before, but they certainly did not lose whole wars to despised Black Africans. Nor did the familiar stereotype allow for a situation where African commanders outmaneuvered imperial invaders and deployed modern weaponry against them. To put such a reversal of expectations in a US context, we would have to imagine an alternate world where Native forces both triumphed at Little Bighorn and then went on to secure the independence of the whole Black Hills region for a generation.
That context explains the very long shadow cast by Adwa, on Europeans and Africans alike. Italy recalled the battle as an epic humiliation, a horror made all the worse by propaganda tales of the atrocities inflicted on their prisoners of war….
— Bob Marley (@bobmarley) March 1, 2020