Menelik II

by Kelly Houser
Class of 1997

Menelik II was the Ethiopian emperor (1889-1909) during the frantic race for African protectorates by European countries. African land was especially enticing since the French had built the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869. With this new trade route, land in Africa was particularly attractive to European forces. As France made its way into Egypt, Britain, Belgium, and Germany raced to establish claims on African lands. As these European forces gobbled up land, Italy too saw an opportunity to enter into Africa as imperialists. Italy targeted Ethiopia, whose location on the Red Sea made it a choice spot for control, as the object of their desire for a protectorate. Menelik II's reaction, as Emperor of Ethiopia, to Italy's invasion helped to establish Ethiopia's independence, and enouraged future interaction with European powers.

Attracted by its position on the Red Sea, which was close to the Suez Canal, Italy pursued a protectorate in Ethiopia. Italy was ignited into action as other European powers gained control throughout Africa. Italy, unwilling to be left without any power in Africa, moved into action. As Germany claimed a protectorate in East Africa, and France moved in to claim Obock, Italy seized Massawa in 1885.

Just after Menelik II became emperor in 1889, Italy moved in on its main target of Ethiopia. The Italians and Ethiopians signed the Treaty of Whichale, which was an agreement promoting friendship and cooperation between the two countries. But the Italian concept of this "friendly" treaty greatly differed from the ethiopian interpretation of the agreement. Italy perceived the signed treaty as permission to take Ethiopia on as a protectorate. Menelik vehemenently disagreed.

Disagreement over the Treaty of Whichale led to war between Ethiopia and Italy. Italy declared war on the Ethiopians in 1895 in an attempt to preserve the power they thought they had achieved through the treaty. Menelik's forces defeated the Italians at Aduwa one year later. This victory forced Italy to accept Ethiopia's independence, and drop any further plans to take the country as their protectorate. Menelik II's defeat over the Italian forces helped Ethiopia to gain their independence, and established Ethiopia's reputation as a competent military force in Africa. As conflict ignited between France and Britain over control of land along the Nile River; Ethiopia entered the dispute on France's side. They pledged to help France if need arose against Britain. Britain moved to support the Italians. Such military alliances created more animosity between European nations. Struggles to protect newly acquired African land were on the horizon, and resentment over land agreements created wounds that were easily re-opened into conflict. Such disputes led to further disruptions between European powers, and eventually into war in order to protect African investments.