emperor yohannes iv

Emperor Yohannes IV with his son and heir, Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes
Yohannes IV (Ge'ez ዮሐንስ ፬ኛ Yōḥānnis ዮሓንስ, Amharic Yōhānnis, also known by the English equivalent “John”, 11 July 1837 – 10 March 1889), born Lij Kassay Mercha Ge'ez, was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1872 until his death.

World Head of States in 1889


A photomontage made in 1889 featuring the heads of state of several countries at that time.

From left to right: Yohannes IV (Emperor of Ethiopia), Tewfik Pasha (Khedive of Egypt), Abdülhamit II (Sultan of the Ottoman Empire), Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (Shah of Persia), Christian IX (King of Denmark), Dom Luís I (King of Portugal), Willem III (King of the Netherlands), Dom Pedro II (Emperor of Brazil), Milan I (King of Serbia), Leopold II (King of the Belgians), Aleksandr III (Emperor of Russia), Wilhelm I (German Emperor & King of Prussia), Franz Joseph I (Emperor of Austria & King of Hungary), Victoria (Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland & Empress of India), Jules Grévy (President of the French Republic), Leo XIII (Pope), Meiji (Emperor of Japan), Guangxu (Emperor of China), Umberto I (King of Italy), Don Alfonso XII (King of Spain), Oscar II (King of Sweden and Norway) and Chester A. Arthur (President of the United States).

When Africans Blew the Conqueror Out of the Water

THE BATTLE OF ADWA by Gicheruwagicheruposts

Adwa, a dusty little village in Tigre, was put on the map of the world by the mighty and valiant Emperor Menelik II who decisively defeated the Italian army there by a brilliant strategy not unlike that of Napoleon at the battle of Austerlitz. “This is the story of a world turned upside down.” So begins The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. As much as the victory by the colonials was a rebuke to conventional wisdom so the battle of Adwa was to European attitudes towards Africans during the Age of Imperialism.

The story begins with one of the oldest empires in human history. From the mid-19th century, Ethiopia was an aggregate of semi-independent kingdoms, which were presided over by the Ethiopian emperor. The 1889 death of Emperor Yohannes IV was followed by great disorder as his potential successors fought for ascendancy. The Italians had supported Sahle Miriam of Shewa (Shoa) in the years prior to this, supplying him with modern weaponry, ammunition, and funds that helped him acquire military strength. He used that strength to incorporate smaller Ethiopian kingdoms under his rule and, after Yohannes IV’s death, to secure his claim to the title of emperor, taking the name Menilek II.

The infamous Berlin treaty that justified the scramble for Africa was already in motion and Italy already in control of Italian Somaliland, Eritrea and Djibouti sook to expand their influence and the Abyssinian Empire (Ethiopian empire) with its juicy resources showed promise. Upon Menelik’s assumption of the role as Emperor the Italians were quick to send a treaty his way. This treaty later to be known as ‘The treaty of Wichale’ had with it no small degree of deception. Article XVII interpreted in Amharic stated that in addition to other promised benefits(such as a much needed loan which the Ethiopians would receive ), the Ethiopians would use the Italian government while dealing with foreign governments. The Italian translation on the other hand stated that the empire had to use the Italian government whenever dealing with foreign powers as a matter of obligation which meant that Menelik II’s signing of the treaty on May  2 1889 would be giving the Abyssinian’s protectorate status under Italy just like neighboring British protectorates Kenya and Uganda. One would conclude that this was a sad end of sovereignty for the Ethiopians. Luckily, this story had only just begun.

In March 1896 a well-disciplined and massive Ethiopian army approximated at 100,000 marched relentlessly towards the Italian occupied North region of Tigray. A 500 mile march from Addis Ababa as a result of a call to arms by Emperor Menelik II. “Assemble the army, beat the drum. God in his bounty has struck down my enemies and enlarged my empire and preserved me to this day…Enemies have come who would ruin our country and change our religion. They have passed beyond the sea which God gave us our frontier…These enemies have advanced, burrowing into the country like moles. With God’s help I will get rid of them.” He wrote to the provincial governors. How did it come to this you ask?

Sahle Miriam of Shewa (Shoa) during his eleven year rule of Shoa had ensured great expansion and trade unparalleled in quantity and quality to the efforts of the other rulers of the various kingdoms. Upon learning of Ras(Emperor) Johannes IV’s death due to injury in combat against the Mahdists whom he worked hard to check under the conditions of fighting war on two fronts (The East against the Mahdists invading from Sudan and West against the Italians as a result of being double crossed by the Brits who promised not to lay claim to the region giving Abyssinians access to the Red Sea later to be known as Eritrea but later gave it to the Italians in exchange for blocking the French from acquiring territory in Italian Somaliland) ,Sahle Miriam proclaimed himself negus negast(King of Kings) with little resistance .He took the name Menelik II and moved his headquarters from the mountain range of Entoto to a new site in a valley south of the mountains which he called Addis Ababa(New flower).His first act as Emperor which was to make peace with the Italians who had now spit on his face was to become the worst failure yet for the old empire.Gratefully, thanks to his wife Empress Taitu Betel who convinced her husband to defy the treaty, his love for modern technology and military genius the stage was set for one of the bluntest challenges to white supremacy at the time.

The shrewd emperor downplayed his military might such that the Italians 15,000 strong led by General  Oreste Baratieri pressured by Rome to assure a swift landslide victory, left the comfort of the mountains and rushed into the Adwa plains to annihilate the ‘cheap threat’. Despite the Italian’s advantage of better skilled men and weapons, it was a massacre in that valley. The Italians lost up to above 8,000.More than half were Italians the rest Askaris (African recruits into the European armies) in addition to some 3,000 taken prisoners. The death toll to the Abyssinians was also above 8,000 but as a fraction of their total force, they had landed a decisive victory. The Italians were forced to retreat under poor conditions of lack of food and resources.

The loss was difficult to bear. The news was reported in western media leading to reactions of both shock and outrage. Special attention is drawn to USA where the emperor was depicted as a white man almost perfectly resembling any of the Russian Tsars and Britain where they referred to the Emperor as ‘The great…’ as was often their habit with war heroes. This led to a lot of backlash from Italy who said it not only shamed them but jeopardized the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo had already been obliterated as far as the Abyssinians were concerned. Abyssinia was declared an autonomous state that was even able to lay claim to lands as much as France or Britain leading to the raising of Abyssinian flags in regions that were not originally their territory such as Ogaden region in Somalia and as far south as the shores of Lake Turkana. Eritrea was left to the Italians explaining the former’s constant misunderstanding and mistrust to Ethiopia up to the present. The effects of this victory were bitter sweet. It led to a great sense of pride among Ethiopians and Africans at large who were subject to oppression, consolidation of Emperor Menelik II’s rule and preservation of Abyssinian sovereignty, deep loathing of Ethiopians by Italians( leading to the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy in 1936 and eventual exile of Emperor Haile Selassie. However,totalitarian domination was not achieved and Ethiopia became autonomous again having played a role in causing the second world war) and feeling of Abyssinian superiority over other Africans which has led to conflict within present day Ethiopia.

In conclusion, despite the negative effects of the outcome of this conflict, it nevertheless served as a source of pride, a beacon of sovereignty that went on to fuel the fight for independence across Africa and the formation of OAU now AU headquartered in Addis Ababa. It was a rebellion from the status quo. An episode of world history 

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