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The Introduction and Legacy of Menelik’s life- By Samuel Bekele

The Introduction and Legacy of Menelik’s life

A prince and King of Shewa, and later to be Emperor of Ethiopia, Emperor Menelik is one of the most widely renowned and arguably Ethiopia’s greatest Emperor in recent history, most famous for uniting the country and dealing the Italians a crushing defeat at the Battle of Adwa. He also was an innovator for modernization, introducing many modern services and system reforms. This anaysis’s focus is to give a basic thorough introduction of the biography of Menelik’s life, as well as his relationships with his predecessors and achievements to both those familiar and unfamiliar of him.

Early life: Menelik’s ancestors were the rulers of the Semi-Autonomous province of Shewa who hailed descendance from Emperor Lebna Dengel (1508-1540). Starting from the late 17th century, Negassie Kristos and his sons started a reoccurring conquest of reconquering territories in Shewa that were lost from the Oromo invasions in the 16th centuries. Starting from his home base in Menz, him and his descendants gradually started to expand and reconquer many territories. These rulers came to title themselves as “Meridazmatch”, a military and royal title unique to Shewa, bolstered by the provinces now independent autonomy. Gaining strength, it reached its peak during the reign of Negus Sahle Sellasie the Great in the early 19th century. His son, Haile Melekot the next King of Shewa, was the father of Menelik. Born Sahle Mariam, he was conceived by him court consort named Ejigayehu. Her origins are unclear, as some believe she might have been a Oromo or Gurage servant who served in the Royal camp and soon died when Menelik was an infant. Haile Melekot’s reign was culminated with the simultaneous rise of Ras Kassa of Qwara or later known as Emperor Tewodros. Defeating the feudal lords around him in Begemder, Gojjam, Yejju and Simien, Tewodros soon set his sights on Shewa, whose independent autonomy status was viewed as a threat to his rule. Mobilizing to resist, the Shewan forces were no match for the Imperial army of Tewodros and were defeated in Gishe; Haile Melekot’s health also subsequently failed, and he soon died after. Demoralized with the death of their King, the rulers of the other districts peacefully submitted and Menelik, still a child at the time was successfully captured and imprisoned at Meqdela. Tewodros however, had treated the young prince well under captivity. He grew to like him so much that he married him to his daughter Alteyech. Shewan aristocrats plotted to break Menelik and his relatives free from captivity, and with the help of Worqitu, Queen of the Wollo Oromo, they succeeded. When Tewodros heard of, he was enraged and ordered the execution of Worqitu’s son (who was also his godson), as well as the amputation and execution of 30 Oromo and Wollo Amhara nobles. Menelik marched back to Shewa, but Tewodros preoccupied with consolidating his weakening rule of the empire, was unable to act and after the British Napier expedition of Meqdela, committed suicide. Hearing this, people of the country jubilated, including people of Meneliks home province, but Menelik himself was reported to have wept for whom he regarded as a father figure.

Negus of Shewa: Upon his return to Shewa, Menelik quickly consolidated his rule over the province, overthrowing Bezabih, a pretender. With the death of Tewodros, a power vacuum was left to who would succeed him as Emperor. The claimants were Kassa Mercha of Tigray, Wagshum Gobeze of Wag and Lasta, and to a lesser degree Ras Adal Tessema of Gojjam. Wagshum Gobeze had rose as the most powerful and demanded the submission of the other lords. Menelik was also eager to challenge claim for the title of Emperor due to his royal Solomonic descent, but due to his inexperience and upon the advice of his Uncle Ras Darge, after negotiation submitted to Wagshum Gobeze, who soon became Emperor Tekle-Giorgis. Tekle-Giorgis’s reign however was underwhelmingly short lived, Kassa Mercha had refused to submit to him and the two battled. Tekle-Giorgis’s men vastly outnumbered his, but the latter had acquired several arms from the British for his help in their raid on Meqdela. These arms proved decisive as Kassa defeated Tekle Giorgis’s forces and in turn, proclaimed himself Emperor Yohannes IV. Menelik was yet to submit to him, but Yohannes could not purse him as his rule was immediately threatened with the invasions of the Egyptians under Khedive Ismail Pasha. Mobilizing forces from across the country, Yohannes confronted the Egyptians and crushed them in the Battles of Gura and Gundet. Bolstered by his victories, Yohannes turned his attention to Menelik. During the war, Menelik had acquired additional territories and strengthened his forces until he felt he was in a powerful enough to declare himself “Atsey” or Emperor. Unable to ignore the threat, Yohannes marched to Shewa. Menelik had mobilized his own forces and was prepared to confront the Emperor but upon the advice of Ras Darge, who argued such a large conflict would only cause much bloodshed and he had little chance of winning. Darge, who was Menelik’s uncle, was a senior advisor of Menelik’s and mentored him since he was a child. He was the only one would openly scold the young King and whom he regarded as his own son. Listening to his uncle, he submitted, entering the court with a rock on his back symbolizing his humility; this decision would later prove wise in the long term. Yohannes accepted and permitted Menelik to continue attaining his title as Negus, to solidify dynastic peace between the two, Menelik’s daughter Zewditu was married to Yohannes son Ras Araya Sellasie. Yohannes then set the council of Boru Meda, inviting Menelik, to address the religious controversies plaguing the country. Given the green light, Menelik soon set his sights on incorporating the territories south of Shewa, which were largely inhabited by Oromo and Gurage peoples. He was engaged diplomatically with the Italians who were a new presence in the region. In the meantime, Ras Adal, who had become Negus Tekle Haymanot of Gojjam had also strengthened his provinces position and viewed Menelik’s territorial ambition as a threat. The two Neguses clashed in the Battle of Embabo in 1881, and Menelik’s forces led by his loyal commander Ras Gobena defeated the Gojjame army. This left a wide opportunity as Menelik quickly capitalized and acquired the Gibe and Limmu territories that were previously held by the defeated, further strengthening his position. Ironically, after some time the two would later secretly make an alliance with each other against Menelik. Outraged, Yohannes went out to confront them, first pursuing the latter and devastating much of Gojjam. In the meantime, Yohannes was prepared to once again confront his old foe before hearing the presence of a Mahdist Sudanese threat. Menelik had previously sent Ras Gobena to confront the Mahdists in Wellega and with his combined Wellega and Shewan Oromo armies defeated their forces in 1888 in the Battle of Guti Dille, but they returned the following year and after defeating Negus Tekle Haymanot, pillaged Gonder. Yohannes went out to fight them and while winning the battle, was killed. He had named his son Mengesha Yohannes as heir, but the latter was unable assert himself, domesticated with the internal domestic problems in the Tigrayan court and with no other challengers to the throne, Menelik soon declared himself as Emperor Menelik II.

Expansion: Now as Emperor, Menelik would pursue his policy of expansion and reunification that his predecessor Tewodros had started. Already in the 1880s, Menelik had subjugated the rule of the territories south and west of Shewa, first expanding its rule towards the Oromo and Gurage. It was an act to restore its territories once held that were lost during the Muslim Adal and Oromo invasions. Once they ventured out to gain tribute, the response was varied. In the case of the Oromo, Ras Gobena, an Oromo himself had carried out the conquests along with his Shewan Oromo army and the Abichu Oromo had previously allied themselves with the Kings of Shewa. But thef Arusi Oromo had resisted bitterly, engaging in long lasting wars with Shewan forces led by Ras Darge that lasted a decade. Their response to the request of submission to Shewa is what ultimately decided the state. Aba Jifar who submitted peacefully to Menelik could retain autonomy of Jimma and accumulate wealth until his death, as did the Leqa Nekemte rulers of Welega who prospered and later even married within royal family but the Arusi and Karayu were left devastated. The Gurage too, had met with mixed reaction. The Northern Gurage, the Soddo-Kistane (or Aymelel), had submitted peacefully to Meneliks forces as early as 1877 and their land was left untouched but the Western Gurage, largely composed f the Sebat Bet (Cheha & Enemor), Qabena and Welene had resisted fiercely. Led by Hassan Injamo of Qabena, the resistance was reputed to be fiercely great that in one battle killed 1/3 of Shewan forces until his forces were finally defeated by the cavalry of Gobena. He then ventured out to capture Harer, which had been under Egyptian control. His forces easily defeated the Harari forces in the Battle of Chelenqo. Eventually Menelik gathered further and further out until he reached as far south as Lake Stephanie and east to the Ogaden, where he subjugated the rule of the Welayta (led by King Tona, had proved particularly difficult), Sidama, Keffa, Gedeo and various other ethnic groups (often with persistent difficulty), making the country amalgamated of many ethnic groups not seen since the time of Amda Tseyon in the 14th century and even beyond, finalizing Ethiopia’s official political borders. 

Menelik and the Italians: During the power struggle Menelik was engaged in Yohannes with, the former had seen the major impact foreign arms had in major warfare, as he had witnessed in Yohannes’ battle with Tekle Giorgis where the he arms Yohannes had acquired from the British were instrumental in defeated the latter’s numerically superior army. Wanting to counter-balance Yohannes’s British alliance, Menelik accepted Italian proposals of diplomacy, whom were a new presence in the region. The Italians had only recently become a federated country in 1861 and were eager to join the British and French ambitions in East Africa. The Italians, wanting an local ally had offered Menelik arms, in the hope that he would become powerful enough to overthrow Yohannes on their behalf and continue their coastal ambitions. Menelik had accepted their arms, acquiring great firepower that would bolster Shewa’s military force, however despite their pressures to move against Yohannes he did not move against the Emperor in open conflict, wary of their ambitions especially after his submission to Yohannes. By the time Menelik became Emperor, the Italians had already occupied much of the Eritrean hinterland such as Bogos, as well as controlling the strategic ports of Massawa and Asab, with the encouragement of the British. The occupation of the former had particularly aggravated both Yohannes and Menelik, as Massawa had been a historical Ethiopian port that was occupied by the Egyptians and then transferred over to the Italians. The Hewitt treaty, signed by Yohannes and the British, gave Ethiopia free access and trade to the Red Sea outlet in exchange for Yohannes allowing British Garrisons to cross over his territory in Eritrea. But the British, not wanting the Ethiopians to control such a key area had encouraged the Italians, as fellow Europeans to occupy it instead and pursue their own colonial ambitions at the expense of Ethiopia. Aware of their ever-increasing presence into the region, the relationship between Menelik and the Italians soon became strained. In order to officially define the boundaries within their relationship, 1889 Menelik signed the treaty of Wuchale. This treaty would be the fundamental key and spark in Ethiopian-Italian deteriorations, as well as defining the future border of the country that would remain a controversy for decades. The treaty, proposed by Count Antonelli on behalf of King Umberto of Italy, was drafted in both Amharic and Italian. In Article 17, the Amharic version stated, “For whatever needs the Emperor of Ethiopia may have vis-à-vis European potentates, he can avail himself of the liaison services”. The Italian version however, deliberately mistranslated without their knowledge, stated that it was mandatory for him to ask permission; essentially making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate colony. When Menelik had realized this, he was outraged at the deception, sending at once letters to the other European heads of states to address the misunderstanding. But Queen Elizabeth, acknowledging the Italian claim to Ethiopia responded accordingly, refusing to address him as a fellow sovereign leader “(The) Italian government has notified us that a treaty concluded on the 2nd of May..(1889) between Italy and Ethiopia. It is provided that his Majesty consents to avail himself on the government of his Majesty the King of Italy for the conduct of all matters which he may have with other powers or Governments”. The idea that Ethiopia would be a protectorate of anyone was an insult to Menelik, but it was not Menelik who caught the deception in Article 17, the credit was reserved for the Empress and consort of Menelik, Empress Taytu. 

Menelik and Taytu: Leading up to Adwa: Taytu’s family hailed from Simien in the north but had lineages from Begemder and Yejju as well. After several arranged marriages, she was married to Menelik in 1883 to cement dynastic ties between the rivaled lines of Gonder in the north and Shewa in the south. Despite the arranged settlement, the two would be one of the most iconic royal couples in African history. Taytu had equal say as Menelik in court and Menelik was reported to have always consulted his wife before making major political decisions. When the Italians had continued relations with the Emperor, Taytu was deeply suspicious. She had frequently reprimanded Menelik not to engage to closely with them in case of trickery, a case she confirmed after thwarting Italian trickery and confronting Antonelli. Caught, Antonelli attempted to make excuses, all of which were adamantly unaccepted by both. Instead, the diplomat started to hurl abusive insults at the two, threatening to make Ethiopia a permanent colony under Italy. Taytu, as dignified as a queen eloquently responded iconically “Start your war next if you wish. No one here will be scared of your threat, Go carry out your threat and wish and we will deal with whatever transpires. Do not fool yourself into thinking that there is nobody around here who would commit his feet to the gravel and his chest to the spear to save his country. It is not death but honor for anyone to shed his blood for his country. So, let it not be nightfall and too dark for you to travel in order to consummate what you have bragged about and we of course shall await you here.” And they did. After a few skirmishes in 1895 and minor victories at Amba Alage, the Italians camped in Adwa, awaiting. the Italians pursued their goal of “divide and conquer”. Similarly to how they approached Menelik as way to undermine Yohannes, they soon approached Ras Mengesha, son of Yohannes on friendly terms. General Crispi sent instructions to Bareteri as stated “Menelik’s inexcusable behaviour compels us to prepare from now on a defense plan. As we did with Menelik against Yohannes, we should now encourage pretenders against Menelik. Mengesha in Tigre, Makonen …If Menelik disappears the empire could be divided into two kingdoms, one in the north and another in the south, under Italy’s lofty protection…” (Battaglia, Roberto: La Prima Guerra d’Africa, Torino 1958). Aware of this, Menelik summoned all the governors and rulers, and prepared to gather their forces at Adwa, inspiring them against a common enemy who threatened their livelihood, and freedom, and dignity, of which was received with wide approval. Sending out the various Ras’s with instructions to assemble at Adwa, Menelik camped at Were Illu where he started gathering forces. Soon all the forces had arrived camp at Adwa. Together, the combined forces numbered to more than 100,000 men, the largest African army ever assembled since Hannibal, and consisted of multiple different region, ethnicities, religions and rulers. (The details of the Battle and its huge international significance, already heavily analyzed in multiple different books, is beyond the scope of this article and won’t be discussed).
Diplomacy and international recognition: As seen, Menelik was a skilled diplomat. Shrewd, manipulative and conniving, these traits were lacking in his predecessor’s efforts of diplomacy with the Europeans that had hampered them in the long run. Menelik spent much of his time embarking diplomatically with other world powers since he was monarch of Shewa. Reaching out to the British Italian, French, and Russians, he established cordial relationships with all of them. Importing arms from the French, Russians and the Italians themselves, Menelik ascertained himself with international pedigree while simultaneously bolstering his military power. But It wasn’t until his victory over the Italians when he was truly heralded as a force to be reckoned with. The British, Italians and French, now forced to negotiate were forced to recognize Ethiopia’s full independent sovereignty, as well as Menelik’s status as an equal power amongst the negotiations regarding national boundaries. His diplomacy allowed him to extend his borders into shaping the modern boundaries of what it is today. He was also a master manipulator, sending many contradicting letters to different leaders and leading many Italian emissaries sent to believe he would inevitably move against Yohannes on Italy’s behalf, all the while importing arms that would ironically prove to be their own undoing. When the Italians attempted to convince Ras Mekonnen, Ras Mengesha and Ras Mikael to conspire against him, he quietly instructed them to send letters agreeing to their terms to gain their trust all the while strengthening their military forces, sending them into uncertainty and unease. Tactics employed by this were unheard and unexpected of by the Europeans who did expect a Black African leader to deploy similar tactics they used to divide and conquer the rest of Africa. Menelik’s recognition as an Black leader victorious against a European power also earned praise from Black people on the continent and around the world, who were marginalized and were also having their land and livelihood threatened by the Europeans. Menelik previously appealed on behalf of his race with the Mahdi Abdullahi against the Italians, who was also struggling to deal with the British and Italians. He sent a letter to him stating “When you were at war against Emperor Yohannes, I was also quarrelling with him, there has never been a war between us…Now, we are confronted by an enemy worse than ever. The Enemy has come to enslave us both. We are of the same color. Therefore, we must co-operate to get rid of our common enemy”. Earning the praise of Black revolutionaries Marcus Garvey and Benito Sylvain, the latter went to Ethiopia where he was warmly received by Menelik. On his visit, his actions were narrated “One of Menelik’s first actions was to grab his hand and say to his advisors and consort, Queen Taytu who were with him ‘Look! He is completely a man of our race’ “.

Modernizaton, Achievements and Legacy: After the Battle of Adwa, in addition to his international diplomatic achievements, Menelik had also focused on modernizing the country domestically. His wife Taytu had discovered Addis Ababa upon bathing in its springs named Filwoha. Menelik soon found remenants of a city believed to have been built by Emperor Dawit (1381-1410). He was reported to have declared “God has caused us to find the remains of the Emperor Dawit’s city of Entoto. Since this discovery has been made in our time it is incumbent on us to resurrect it” (8 Guebre Sellassie, Chronique du Regne de Menelik I). Menelik’s grandfather Sahle Sellasie had also discovered the site 8 Kilometers west of Filwoha in 1843 and “had conceived a similar idea, but after discussing the matter with his priests, had returned to his capital in Ankober”. Prior to this with the exception of Gonder, Ethiopia did not have a functioning capital and base of the empire since Debre Berhan and Tegulet. Setting his foundation on Entoto, Menelik and Taytu established the cite as the new Capital, renaming it “Addis Ababa”. The city underwent a massive urban growth, with thousands flocking nearby to the city and building it, particularly the Gurages. But its geographical topography and lack of aroma made it struggle to sustain growth. To solve this, Menelik imported and planted several thousands of Eucalyptus trees from Australia, where it continued to spike in population as well as urban development. While Tewodros is considered the first Emperor to attempt to modernize the country, Menelik had undergone the first actual steps of modernization. Hiring several foreign advisors and skilled engineers, he built the country’s first infrastructure, building several roads and easing communication lines as well introducing the first telegraph and postal services, being the first African monarch to introduce electricity. He also built several health facilities, introduced economic and land reforms and developed a new currency. With his health failing though, he was unable to extend these beyond its first steps, as he would have further alienated his conservative wealthy nobles. Nonetheless, these steps provided the foundation of future modernization policies that would be significantly pursued by his distant nephew Haile Selassie. Failing in health, he suffered several strokes, being put on bedrest until his death in 1913.

Conclusion and legacy: Menelik serves to be one of the greatest, if not arguably the greatest Ethiopian monarch since Emperor Zara Yacob. He was different from his predessors and learned from their mistakes. Tewodros, in his quest for reunification alienated and was hostile of almost all his subjects, earning their hatred and what ultimately led to their indifference to the British’s invasion of Megdela. Yohannes gave much more leniency towards his vassals, giving them extended influence so long as they remained loyal, which allowed him to mobilize a large army to combat and defeat the Egyptian threat. At the same time, as a vigorous Christian he had marginalized and alienated his Muslim subjects, particularly in Wollo. He had also lacked the diplomatic skills and awareness that Menelik possessed, as the British who had aided him in the past, later double crossed him by signing the Hewitt treaty inadvertently allowing the British and later the Italians occupy and menace the coast. This would have double consequences as it allowed the Italians to encroach on such a strategic area while simultaneously earning the enmity of the Mahdist Sudanese whom he fought with and died in battle against. Menelik however, was wary not repeat the same. Through dedicated good ruling and his genuine concern for his subjects well being he gained their unabiding loyalty, affectionately earning the moniker “Emiye Menelik”. He was careful not to alienate groups based on background or religion, giving Muslims much more religious freedom than they had under Yohannes. Adept on diplomatic manoeuverability, he opened relationships with various nations, promising proposals under the pretense of friendship while strengthening his own base so long as they did not undermine Ethiopia’s best interests. When threatened however, he was able to rally his former political rivals and the countries diverse peoples under one goal against the threat of a common enemy, mustering an enormous force that crushed the Italian army as well as its colonial ambitions. Even more, he pursued modernizing efforts to improve the countries functioning well being and image to the rest of the world, building the foundation of which Haile Selassie would continue and effectively perfect. Nowadays, it can be no coincidence that with all his achievements and international symbol of colonial resistance, his image has become the target and scapegoat of Ethno-nationalist deconstructionist propaganda who have in recent decades, villainized in the pursuance of their own ethno-political quo from which venomously painting him as an aggressor is what ultimately is their political narrative is entirely revolved around. Despite many attempts, the legacy of Menelik and his international pedigree as a symbol of colonial resistance, a modernizer, petulance righteousness amongst Ethiopians, Africans, the Black Diaspora and the World remains unchanged and will be forever remembered through our memories.

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