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.