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A Mistranslated Peace Treaty Led to the Brutal First Italo-Ethiopian War

What started out as a miscommunication escalated to full-scale conflict.

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  • The Battle of Adwa, 1896.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The United States and Russia. Britain and France. Greece and Persia. History has been shaped by long-standing rivalries between kingdoms and nations. The feud between Italy and Ethiopia might not come to mind as easily as these legendary schisms, but the states fought no less than three wars in a span of less than 50 years. The Italo-Ethiopian War was not fueled by any ancestral grudge, but rather misunderstandings over a poorly translated treaty and lingering embarrassment for a bested European power.

In 1869, an Italian shipping company purchased land in the bays of Assab and Buya in what is now the country of Eritrea. When the former went largely unused for a decade, the company offered its Assab territory to the Italian government, which decided to make that land the kingdom’s first colony in 1882. 

The timing was poor, as a Mahdist uprising between Egypt and Sudan was spilling over into the Horn of Africa. The Italians garrisoned a fort on Ethiopian land that had been vacated by the invading Egyptians, but they were driven out in 1887 by a combination of fierce Ethiopian ambushes and devastating disease.

Italy returned after this initial skirmish with new forces and funds, along with alliances within the Ethiopian Empire, which was on the brink of civil war. After the death of Emperor Yohannes IV, the Treaty of Wuchale was signed with Ethiopia. Since the Ethiopians had better success on the battlefield, but the Italians were able to hold onto their land, a compromise was made. Italy would keep its colonies along the Eritrean coast (land that had previously been claimed by Ethiopia), and in exchange Italy would offer financial and military support to Ethiopia, along with assurance of Ethiopian independence. The treaty would encourage friendship and trade as the Scramble for Africa reared its ugly head throughout the rest of the continent.

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Or so it seemed. Article seventeen of the treaty had a single mistranslated verb that had lasting consequences. In Amharic, the article decreed that Ethiopia could use Italy to conduct foreign relations; in Italian, it was written that Ethiopia must use Italy. This meant that the Kingdom of Italy considered Ethiopia a protectorate, which most of Europe accepted. It was only when Britain and Germany responded to letters from newly enthroned Ethiopian emperor Menelik II that he discovered the differences. 

The Italians alleged that the Amharic version was an early draft and that Menelik had knowingly signed an updated treaty with them, one that gave Ethiopia significantly less autonomy. This claim is likely untrue, given Menelik’s ambitions and the context of his letters to Queen Victoria and Emperor Wilhelm II. The mistranslation was more plausibly deliberate, as the Italian government had instructed Count Antonelli, the minister in charge of negotiating and interpreting the treaty, to gain as many concessions as possible. Antonelli was fluent in both Amharic and Italian, but he knew that Menelik didn't read Italian, paving the way for subterfuge.

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  • Emperor Menelik II in coronation garb.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

With Menelik now crowned Emperor, he had considerable power. As Menelik unified the once-warring states of Ethiopia, many heads of Europe called for Italy to stem the growing expansion of the empire, giving Antonelli plentiful motive for his “mistake.” For his part, Antonelli would eventually resort to claiming that Menelik’s race made him untrustworthy. 

In 1893, Menelik repudiated the treaty. By late 1894, Italy sent a military campaign across the Mareb river. Although it wasn’t the first conflict between the two nations, this would officially be the opening campaign of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. 

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Italy expected disillusioned African vassals to take their side, but most joined Menelik. Early Italian battles against Ethiopian neighbors were comfortably successful. Menelik’s proposed alliance with France failed, leaving Russia his only European ally. Not all was lost for Ethiopia, however. Newly updated taxation systems helped the huge army mobilize quickly and efficiently, the majority of whom were equipped with modern firearms.

The Italians were massively outnumbered and forced to flee from a few key positions after initial clashes and sieges. However, General Baratieri figured the empire did not have the means to support such a large army for too long, and wished to dig into his fortifications and wait out the war rather than face the Ethiopians directly. 

His government thought otherwise. They had matters of public perception to consider, and feared the kingdom would be embarrassed on the world stage were they to lose to an African army. Baratieri was ordered to seek out a battle. In the early hours of March 1, 1896, three Italian brigades marched into the city of Adwa.

In the darkness, the brigades became separated, a problem worsened by one general leading his troops up the wrong hill. Armed with European artillery and superior manpower, the Ethiopians attacked the advancing Italians, and quickly outflanked them. By noon, the Italians were in full retreat.

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  • Italian prisoners of war, 1897.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In total, both sides suffered a similar number of casualties; the significant difference being that Ethiopia lost around a tenth of their forces, while the Italian brigades were nearly decimated. The Italian prisoners were, by most accounts, treated well. The same could not be said of Eritreans who had served in the Italian army. Viewed as traitors, they had their right hands and left feet amputated by the Ethiopians, and many did not survive their punishment.

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Menelik did not pursue the fleeing Italians, instead focusing on a new treaty that did not differ too much from the original Treaty of Wuchale. His main goal was Ethiopian independence, and he feared any further Italian losses would trigger a major retaliatory attack. The domestic reaction to the defeat back in Rome was nevertheless one of pure fury and embarrassment, with demonstrations held on the streets. 

Ethiopia would be one of a very select few African states to keep their independence until 1935, when Mussolini launched an invasion to start the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. Before World War II had ended, the Italians would vacate the Horn of Africa once again. Ethiopia’s resilience against European colonization remains a symbol of pride and independence for the nation. The Victory of Adwa is a public holiday still celebrated in Ethiopia—a rare positive to come from a war that took thousands of lives over what may have been the deadliest mistranslation in history.

Sources: ThoughtCo.com