How Ethiopian-trained lions helped defeat Italian troops in the Battle of Adwa

Emmanuel Kwarteng November 09, 2022
Photo: Facebook/United States of Africa

Military conquest was a key attribute at the peak of colonization. One reason the Europeans suddenly became interested in Africa was to show how good they were at war. It was believed that the number of territories a country colonized showed how strong its military was. 

This culminated in the famous Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, where African countries were shared among the Europeans to possess colonies. Ethiopia was no exception to these colonial battles. But the Ethiopians taught lions to hunt down enemy soldiers and fought with cheetahs and bees. This helped them win colonization battles and become one of two African countries that have never been colonized. 

At the Battle of Adwa, a group of Ethiopian swordsmen called Shotel beat the Italian forces that were occupying the area. The First Italo-Ethiopian War or Battle of Adwa served as its decisive confrontation. On March 1, 1896, an Italian invasion force was stopped by Ethiopian troops near the town of Adwa. The resounding victory stopped the Kingdom of Italy from trying to make the Horn of Africa part of its colonial empire. 

Ethiopia became one of the two countries in Africa that were never colonized after the victory at Adwa (Liberia was the other country). Adwa transformed Ethiopia into an international icon of black liberation. A report by The Conversation says that this event also led to the formation of a new government in Italy.

The Conversation says that at the Berlin Conference, it was decided that Italy would be able to colonize Ethiopia in the future. Before the Conference, Europeans reigned over just around 10% of Africa, while the remaining 90% was under the power of traditional and indigenous leaders. Beginning in 1882, Italy held colonial sway over the port of Assab.

Treaty of Wuchale

Italy and Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik II agreed to terms in the Treaty of Wuchale in May 1889. Amharic and Italian were used to draft the agreement. This treaty eventually led to the Adwa war. To Menelik’s dismay, he found out that the two treaty texts used different terminology. In contrast to the Amharic version, the Italian one made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate.

On September 17, 1895, Menelik called for all troops to prepare for war with Italy. He told all Ethiopians to stand up for their country, their families, and their religions. The Conversation states that Menelik told everyone who could fight to do so and told those who couldn’t to pray for Ethiopia to win.

The New Times says that when Ethiopia won at Adwa, it was a big turning point that showed both Europeans and Africans that colonial conquest was not inevitable. There were some small protests in Italy against colonialism as a whole, but they were met with a larger call for revenge.

Adwa made Ethiopia the emblem of liberation for black people. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bob Marley, George Padmore, and others were inspired. After they avoided colonial rule, many African countries adopted the red, yellow, and green colors of the Ethiopian flag.

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