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History Part III

The End of Colonialism

WelcomeEthiopia's role in European politics resulted from French and British influence in the region. Ethiopia was one of the few territories which had not become a European colony, and Italy, a newcomer in the colonial bonanza, soon made its designs known. Unlike France and the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Italy, formed by the forcible annexation of several Italian monarchies in the 1860s, was not a particularly free or democratic nation. Despite a shadowy constitutional structure, control of the government was in the hands of a king who appointed senators and most ministers, and even determined foreign policy. The Italian nation's army and navy left much to be desired in terms of leadership and general battle readiness, a situation that changed little with the passing decades. Nevertheless, the other powers found it economically convenient to allow Italy to act as their unofficial surrogate, especially if this served to curtail France's occupation of British territories or vice versa. Italy received Massawa from the British in 1885 and occupied several Red Sea ports in 1886. Italy defended its acquisition of these coastal territories on the basis of securing these for trade.

Johannis was allied with the British in their war against Mahdist forces in Sudan, but attacked several of the Italian garrisons during a series of battles in 1887, and usually won. His troops were repulsed at Saati in January, but destroyed a force of 500 Italian troops at Dogali the next day. Menelik IIIn March 1888, when he led a force of around 80,000 Ethiopians to besiege the Italian fort at Saati, the occupiers refused even to leave their refuge to engage the attackers. In March of the following year, Johannis died as a result of wounds inflicted during a battle against Mahdist forces and Menelik II, negus of Shewa, succeeded him as emperor.

Born in 1844 as Sahle Miriam, Menelik II is often considered the founder of the Ethiopian nation as it exists today, having successfully united what were previously several disparate regions and peoples. This resulted from conquest as well as appeasement. He was king (negus) of Shewa from 1865 until 1889, when he became Emperor. The rapid modernisation of his nation was Menelik's greatest domestic achievement.

Menelik II had moved his capital to what was to become Addis Ababa. A rinderpest epidemic spread by cattle imported by the Italians broke out in 1888. In combination with a severe drought and an increase in the locust population, a famine developed that was to last four years. Continued feuding among Ethiopian princes did little to help matters.

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In October 1889, Italy unilaterally declared Ethiopia a protectorate on the basis of the Treaty of Wechale, into which Italy had inserted a clause not present in the Amharic version of the document. (This seems incredible in the annals of diplomacy, but in fact Italian foreign policy of the period owed much to such tactics.) In the event, Italy had already secured control of Eritrea, to which Ethiopia's own claims were less than absolute.

But Menelik had to unite his people if he was to confront the Italian Seal of Menelik IIthreat successfully. This was a gradual process involving extensive technological modernization as much as political maneuvering, but he was eventually able to raise a large, well-armed multiethnic army of 100,000. Outside Adwa (or Adowa) on 2 March 1896, Menelik II personally led his army to defeat an Italian and Eritrean force of around 15,000 troops, of which a third were actually Italian troops.

It was the first African defeat of a European army in the modern era. Italy was made to look incompetent or worse. The Crispi government fell and the Italians retreated to Eritrea. Ethiopian sovereignty was no longer questioned. The factors which figured to Italy's detriment were to Ethiopia's benefit. The Italian army would henceforth be seen as an incompetent force which in subsequent conflicts could achieve decisive victory only with the help of its allies, if at all, while the Ethiopians were viewed as noble warriors.


Menelik continued the modernization of his country. There was much to be done. Wider introduction of electricity, railways, telephones, schools, hospitals and paved roads were a few of his achievements. Though its ruler was Amharic and Christian, Ethiopia boasted absolute religious freedom. Unfortunately, Menelik II did not abolish or outlaw slavery, an institution which, though not widespread, still existed in some parts Ethiopian Warriors 1924of the country.

Upon his death in 1913, Menelik was succeeded by his grandson, Iyasu, who reigned only briefly. Iyasu was overthrown with the support of the Crown Council in 1916 for, among other things, having embraced the Muslim faith in violation of dynastic law.

Menelik's daughter, Zawditu, was crowned Empress in 1917, with the young Tafari Makonnen as regent and heir apparent. Kin to Menelik, Tafari was the son of Makonnen, cousin and advisor to the late Emperor. Makonnen was to have succeeded the Emperor but predeceased him. Tafari Makonnen, born at Ejarsa Goro, near Harer, in 1892, exercised considerable influence at court. He became King of Shewa in 1928. Following the death of Empress Zawditu in 1930, Tafari Makonnen was confirmed as Emperor by the Imperial Crown Council and ascended the Throne as Haile Selassie I, a name which means "Might of the Trinity."

Like Menelik, Haile Selassie was known as a reformer and modernizer, especially during the early part of his reign. He revised the constitution and sought to bring Ethiopia closer to the European style of monarchy and government, introducing various social welfare programs and attempting greater unification of Ethiopia's diverse peoples. It was at his urging that Ethiopia joined the League of Nations in 1923, having finally outlawed slavery.

At War Again

Haile Selassie continued Menelik's modernisation efforts but, like him, was to become best-known as a warrior king. It was Ethiopia's role in the Second World War that defined the nation's identity internationally for the second half of the twentieth century. Italy had never forgotten her humiliating defeat at Adwa. Seeking to expand beyond its Somalian dominions, Fascist Italy had coveted Ethiopian lands for some years, provoking a border dispute which the emperor sought to resolve peacefully. Despite the disagreement, relations with Italy seemed cordial, and in 1930 Haile Selassie accepted the Order of the Annunciation from King Victor Emmanuel III.

Unfortunately, the establishment of a vast colonial empire was integral to Fascist foreign policy, and the Italians invaded Ethiopia on 3 October 1935, with no declaration of war. (Thus the precise terms of the Pact of Paris, or Kellogg-Briand Pact, were not actually violated.) Despite heroic efforts which significantly delayed the enemy advance, the Imperial troops were overwhelmed by the Italians, who made early use, even against the civilian population, of poison gas, flame throwers and other weapons outlawed by international treaty. Just prior to the fall of Addis Ababa in early May, the emperor, his staff, and part of what remained of his army, retreated into exile. Rock ChurchStopping briefly to pray at one of Ethiopia's famous rock churches, Haile Selassie vowed to return, but whether he could make good on his promise remained to be seen.

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The emperor addressed the League of Nations on 30 June. His impassioned plea for the liberation of his people is now famous, and resulted in limited trade sanctions against Italy, but it was several years before the world responded in an effective way. Meanwhile, Italian-backed forces murdered the monks of the Debre Libanos Monastery, and executed Archbishop Petros, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. (Sadly, such behavior was not to be unique to Ethiopia; it became the blueprint for Fascist activity in occupied territories following the outbreak of the Second World War, when Orthodox clergy in the Balkans were executed with little or no protest on the part of Italian military chaplains --Catholic priests supposedly more loyal to the Pope than to the Duce.)

Notwithstanding such tactics, certain regions of the country were never completely controlled by the occupying troops, whose efforts were rendered difficult by a fierce guerrilla movement supported by the rural nobility. The emperor's regent, Ras Imru, maintained an underground government in western Wolega.

In February 1937, in bitter retaliation for a coup d'etat attempted by Ethiopians loyal to their emperor, the Italian army, acting on the orders of the viceroy, General Rodolfo Graziani, attempted to decimate the population. Graziani, a vehement Fascist later tried and sentenced by the Italian Republic for war crimes, was following Fascist dictates; Mussolini had demanded "ten eyes for every eye." Some estimates place the total number of civilian Ethiopian deaths resulting from punitive actions of this kind at approximately a quarter of a million. As a result of its conduct of the Ethiopian campaign and occupation, Italy would become the first nation ever cited for crimes against humanity by the United Nations War Crimes Commission.

From the seat of his government in exile in Bath, England, the emperor sought international support, with disappointing results. The United Kingdom and France recognized Italy's de facto administration of Ethiopia in April 1938. In one of his more comical gestures, Mussolini offered the exiled emperor money to recognize Italy's rights in his country. It was a tacit acknowledgement that controlling Ethiopia was difficult at best. Guerrilla leaders like Abebe Aregai, formerly police chief of Addis Ababa, made it so, and they were encouraged by the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, accurately predicting that Italy would be involved soon. Italy's declaration of war on the Allies in June 1940, and its subsequent seizure of British Somaliland two months later, paved the way for Allied military assistance. The British had no intention of permitting Axis control of the Red Sea.

An effort was made to "develop" the territory called "Italian East Africa" and make it profitable, but Fascism's economic policy was no better than its foreign policy. Nevertheless, the Italians improved Ethiopia's network of roads, built hospitals and attempted to improve agriculture. Their efforts might have been better directed toward Italian regions such as Basilicata and Sicily, where this form of economic help was sorely needed.

In early 1941, Haile Selassie and his troops arrived in Ethiopia with the British. Entering from Sudan, the emperor led his personal army, Gideon Force, into Gojam, while Crown Prince Asfa Wossen entered from the South. The entrenched but demoralized Italians were routed in the face of a British force vastly superior in terms of training and determination, if not numbers. The liberation often had bizarre results. The larger battles were actually sieges of Italian forts. At Debre Markos, the capital of Gojam province, some 14,000 Italians were surrounded by about 300 Ethiopians and forced to surrender. (This shouldn't be exaggerated, however. That most of Italy's troops were poorly motivated and poorly trained was well known; just two years later they proved reluctant to defend even their own country in Lampedusa and Sicily.) The emperor re-entered Addis Ababa on 5 May, five years to the day after the capital's capture by invading troops, proving premature Mussolini's assertion that "Ethiopia is Italian."

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The Lion had returned. Upon his restoration, one of Haile Selassie's first acts was to ensure the protection of Italian prisoners and civilians in his dominions. In a 1947 treaty, Italy acknowledged its wrongdoing in Ethiopia and pledged to pay that nation 35 million dollars in reparations --a sum dwarfed by Italy's 125 million dollars in reparations to Yugoslavia.

The British at first treated Ethiopia as a conquered foreign colony, but following the Second World War recognized her full independence.


A rapprochement of sorts took place with Italy decades later, when the emperor met with Amedeo of Savoy, the young Duke of Aosta, in Ethiopia in 1968. Amedeo's uncle, also Amedeo, who was Viceroy of Ethiopia during the final occupation years, was taken prisoner in 1941 and died of natural causes as a British prisoner of war at Nairobi in 1942. During the visit in 1968, a company of the Imperial Palace Guard gave his namesake a royal salute, a privilege usually reserved to heads of state. Italian Foreign Minister Pietro Nenni treated this as a quasi-official visit, even though the Duke of Aosta had no position in the Italian government; the first Italian head of state to visit Ethiopia since the Second World War would be President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in November 1997. The emperor made a special effort to meet again with the Duke of Aosta during a state visit to Italy in 1971.

Even as the emperor was meeting with the young duke, revolutionary forces were stirring in Ethiopia. Following much political unrest, a coup d'etat took place in 1974. It was not the first attempt at revolution. The Soviet-backed "revolutionaries" showed little respect for human rights. The emperor was imprisoned. His son, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen, born Haile Selassiein 1908, was named "emperor-designate" in absentia as Amha Selassie I but in March 1975 he was "deposed" from a symbolic throne and the monarchy illegally abolished. Several members of the Imperial Family were imprisoned but others went into exile. Haile Selassie was assassinated in August 1975. Asfa Wossen was not present in Ethiopia when these events transpired, as he had been abroad for medical treatment.

The replacement of the monarchy by a Marxist council called the Derg (Dergue) led to the Haile Meriam Mengistu military dictatorship, which ruled Ethiopia with an iron hand until its overthrow in 1991. Apart from the suppression of personal liberties normally associated with regimes of this kind, this government's economic and social policies aggravated domestic difficulties, often at great human cost. Ethnic tensions and famine were foremost among these problems. Today, despite a more tolerant government, Ethiopia is still far from economic or political stability.

A revolution finally became possible with the fall of Communism and subsequent erosion of Soviet support. The transitional government of Meles Zenawi, installed in 1991 under difficult circumstances, has sought to stabilize and strengthen Ethiopia. Unfortunately, certain human rights abuses (imprisonment of political opponents, journalists and trade union leaders) have continued, as a matter of practice if not of policy, and factional strife is rampant. Conflict between Eritrean and Tigrean rebel groups worsened, and in April 1993 Eritrea, an autonomous region of Ethiopia since 1952, became a sovereign nation. The government has not attempted a formal reconciliation with the Imperial Family. Yet, it was a hallmark of the Imperial reign that the polyglot Ethiopian peoples were united as a cohesive nation, and this unity fostered an economic and political strength that otherwise might not exist. In view of recent developments, further division may follow.

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