Tag: menelik II

Ethiopia: From Tewodros II to Menelik II, 1855-89 [part 2]

Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1991.

Thomas P. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry, editors.


Tewodros II’s origins were in the Era of the Princes, but his ambitions were not those of the regional nobility. He sought to reestablish a cohesive Ethiopian state and to reform its administration and church. He did not initially claim Solomonic lineage but did seek to restore Solomonic hegemony, and he considered himself the “Elect of God.” Later in his reign, suspecting that foreigners considered him an upstart and seeking to legitimize his reign, he added “son of David and Solomon” to his title.

Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1869). Between 1769 and 1855

Tewodros’s first task was to bring Shewa under his control. During the Era of the Princes, Shewa was, even more than most provinces, an independent entity, its ruler even styling himself negus. In the course of subduing the Shewans, Tewodros imprisoned a Shewan prince, Menelik, who would later become emperor himself. Despite his success against Shewa, Tewodros faced constant rebellions in other provinces. In the first six years of his reign, the new ruler managed to put down these rebellions, and the empire was relatively peaceful from about 1861 to 1863, but the energy, wealth, and manpower necessary to deal with regional opposition limited the scope of Tewodros’s other activities. By 1865 other rebels had emerged, including Menelik, who had escaped from prison and returned to Shewa, where he declared himself negus.

In addition to his conflicts with rebels and rivals, Tewodros encountered difficulties with the European powers. Seeking aid from the British government (he proposed a joint expedition to conquer Jerusalem), he became unhappy with the behavior of those Britons whom he had counted on to advance his request, and he took them hostage. In 1868, as a British expeditionary force sent from India to secure release of the hostages stormed his stronghold, Tewodros committed suicide.

Tewodros never realized his dream of restoring a strong monarchy, although he took some important initial steps. He sought to establish the principle that governors and judges must be salaried appointees. He also established a professional standing army, rather than depending on local lords to provide soldiers for his expeditions. He also intended to reform the church, believing the clergy to be ignorant and immoral, but he was confronted by strong opposition when he tried to impose a tax on church lands to help finance government activities. His confiscation of these lands gained him enemies in the church and little support elsewhere. Essentially, Tewodros was a talented military campaigner but a poor politician.

The kingdom at Tewodros’s death was disorganized, but those contending to succeed him were not prepared to return to the Zemene Mesafint system. One of them, crowned Tekla Giorgis, took over the central part of the highlands. Another, Kasa Mercha, governor of Tigray, declined when offered the title of ras in exchange for recognizing Tekla Giorgis. The third, Menelik of Shewa, came to terms with Tekla Giorgis in return for a promise to respect Shewa’s independence. Tekla Giorgis, however, sought to bring Kasa Mercha under his rule but was defeated by a small Tigrayan army equipped with more modern weapons than those possessed by his Gonder forces. In 1872 Kasa Mercha was crowned negusa nagast in a ceremony at the ancient capital of Aksum, taking the throne name of Yohannis IV.

Emperor Yohannes IV

Yohannis was unable to exercise control over the nearly independent Shewans until six years later. From the beginning of his reign, he was confronted with the growing power of Menelik, who had proclaimed himself king of Shewa and traced his Solomonic lineage to Lebna Dengel. While Yohannis was struggling against opposing factions in the north, Menelik consolidated his power in Shewa and extended his rule over the Oromo to the south and west. He garrisoned Shewan forces among the Oromo and received military and financial support from them. Despite the acquisition of European firearms, in 1878 Menelik was compelled to submit to Yohannis and to pay tribute; in return, Yohannis recognized Menelik as negus and gave him a free hand in territories to the south of Shewa. This agreement, although only a truce in the long-standing rivalry between Tigray and Shewa, was important to Yohannis, who was preoccupied with foreign enemies and pressures. In many of Yohannis’s external struggles, Menelik maintained separate relations with the emperor’s enemies and continued to consolidate Shewan authority in order to strengthen his own position. In a subsequent agreement designed to ensure the succession in the line of Yohannis, one of Yohannis’s younger sons was married to Zawditu, Menelik’s daughter.

In 1875 Yohannis had to meet attacks from Egyptian forces on three fronts. The khedive in Egypt envisioned a “Greater Egypt” that would encompass Ethiopia. In pursuit of this goal, an Egyptian force moved inland from present-day Djibouti but was annihilated by Afar tribesmen. Other Egyptian forces occupied Harer, where they remained for nearly ten years, long after the Egyptian cause had been lost. Tigrayan warriors defeated a more ambitious attack launched from the coastal city of Mitsiwa in which the Egyptian forces were almost completely destroyed. A fourth Egyptian army was decisively defeated in 1876 southwest of Mitsiwa.

Italy was the next source of danger. The Italian government took over the port of Aseb in 1882 from the Rubattino Shipping Company, which had purchased it from a local ruler some years before. Italy’s main interest was not the port but the eventual colonization of Ethiopia. In the process, the Italians entered into a long-term relationship with Menelik. The main Italian drive was begun in 1885 from Mitsiwa, which Italy had occupied. From this port, the Italians began to penetrate the hinterland, with British encouragement. In 1887, after the Italians were soundly defeated at Dogali by Ras Alula, the governor of northeastern Tigray, they sent a stronger force into the area.

Yohannis was unable to attend to the Italian threat because of difficulties to the west in Gonder and Gojam. In 1887 Sudanese Muslims, known as Mahdists, made incursions into Gojam and Begemdir and laid waste parts of those provinces. In 1889 the emperor met these forces in the Battle of Metema on the Sudanese border. Although the invaders were defeated, Yohannis himself was fatally wounded, and the Ethiopian forces disintegrated. Just before his death, Yohannis designated one of his sons, Ras Mengesha Yohannis of Tigray, as his successor, but this gesture proved futile, as Menelik successfully claimed the throne in 1889.

Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II

The Shewan ruler became the dominant personality in Ethiopia and was recognized as Emperor Menelik II by all but Yohannis’s son and Ras Alula. During the temporary period of confusion following Yohannis’s death, the Italians were able to advance farther into the hinterland from Mitsiwa and establish a foothold in the highlands, from which Menelik was unable to dislodge them. From 1889 until after World War II, Ethiopia was deprived of its maritime frontier and was forced to accept the presence of an ambitious European power on its borders.

Source: Country Study





Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia is a member of an elite minority group, standing alongside the likes of the great Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota Sioux and King Cetshwayo of the Zulu as one of the native leaders whose forces won a great victory over a modern European army. His importance to the survival and emergence of the Empire of Ethiopia would be hard to overstate. He was born Sahle Maryam on August 17, 1844 to King Haile Melekot of Shewa. His father made him heir to his throne but after the death of Haile Melekot he was taken prisoner by Emperor Tewodros II when he conquered the Kingdom of Shewa. Prince Sahle Maryam was well treated until a rebellion flared up in Shewa and after a great deal of fighting in Shewa between various factions Prince Sahle Maryam escaped and claimed the throne of his father. The people rallied to his side and he proclaimed himself King Menelik of Shewa and even asserted a claim on the imperial title though he took no action to press it. He had plenty of more immediate concerns with a number of rebellions and intrigues to deal with, which was not uncommon for the time and place.

When Yohannes IV became Emperor he recognized Menelik as rightful King of Shewa after Menelik formally submitted to him as emperor on March 20, 1878. This proved to be the right decision as Emperor Yohannes IV lavished gifts on Menelik, including modern European weaponry which greatly helped secure his own position. When the Emperor was killed at the battle of Gallabat on March 10, 1889 he named his son as his heir just before his death but Menelik himself claimed the imperial title, arguing that his own descent from the sacred bloodline of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba was in the male line whereas that of Yohannes IV (and thus his son) had been in the female line. Menelik won out with most of the nobility going over to his side and on November 3, 1889 at the Church of Mary on Mount Entoto the Bishop of Shewa formally crowned him Menelik II, “King of kings” of Ethiopia. He did not have long to wait before confronting the biggest crisis of his reign and it related to an earlier issue many have since seen as an error on his part.

On March 2, 1889 Menelik, while still fighting for his throne, had signed the treaty of Wuchale with the Kingdom of Italy acknowledging Eritrea as an Italian colony. A problem in translation, however, led to a dispute over part of the treaty. Menelik II had understood that the Italians have offered him their assistance should he ever need to call on them. The Italians, on the other hand, had written this in a more authoritative way, claiming Ethiopia as a protectorate. When this was made clear to Emperor Menelik II he quickly disavowed the treaty saying that he never had any intention, nor did he at the time have the uncontested right, to make Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy. At this time the liberal nationalists in control of the newly unified Kingdom of Italy were anxious to assert their status as a major power and join the club of colonial nations. Menelik II disavowing the treaty was all the reason Rome needed to declare war and an invasion force was quickly organized in Eritrea to begin a campaign to bring Ethiopia firmly under Italian rule.

The Italians won a number of early victories which caused their confidence to soar and this overconfidence prompted them to make a number of costly mistakes. Emperor Menelik was disturbed by the Italian successes and called upon the French for help, however, they were content to let Italy have a free hand in Ethiopia in return for French control of Tunisia. Oddly enough the only European power to sympathize with Ethiopia was the Russian Empire. Determined to fight on alone the Emperor took great care in securing the allegiance of the powerful nobles of Ethiopia and he had long been working to arm as much of his army with the most modern weapons possible. The Italians expected many of the nobles to join them out of self-interest but this did not happen. The Emperor had taken care that these men were loyal to him and neutralized those whose loyalty was suspect. Furthermore, the Italians were not expecting the Ethiopians to be so well armed or organized as they were.

Emperor Menelik II rallied a massive army and Ethiopian forces surprised the world by inflicting some minor defeats on the Italians which prompted the government of Francesco Crispi to order a final, climactic confrontation. The result was the battle of Adowa fought on March 1, 1896. The Emperor brought roughly 100,000 warriors to the field to meet an Italian army of some 17,800. The Italians were much better armed but the odds against them proved insurmountable. While the Ethiopians fought tenaciously the Italian commander lost his nerve and by mid-day the Italian army was in full retreat. Emperor Menelik II and the country of Ethiopia was suddenly thrust into international fame by their astounding feat. People across the world who had never heard of Ethiopia were suddenly aware that these overlooked African people, led by their Emperor, had defeated a modern European army. In the aftermath Ethiopian independence was recognized and Britain and France both paid their respects and established diplomatic relations with Menelik II.

This whole episode taught the Emperor a valuable lesson and though he was eager to establish friendly relations with neighboring powers, he was always very guarded about his sovereignty and the rights of his country. This, at times, hindered his genuine desire to provide the benefits of modernity to his people but after all he had been through, the Emperor on occasion considered the risks too great. He was a very inspiration leader to his people, particularly in times of crisis, be it war or famine, and he took the first steps toward establishing a modern administration for the country by forming an advisory cabinet to assist him in governing. Menelik II was married and divorced twice before marrying his final wife Taytu Betul who saw him through his declining years, holding power on his behalf when he became unable to do so. Emperor Menelik II died on December 12, 1913 revered by his people and respected around the world. Much of the credit for the creation of modern Ethiopia and the preservation of their independence is due to him.