Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Menelik II: Ethiopian Independence and Modernization

Menelik II
In 1885, the Berlin Conference resulted to the infamous Scramble for Africa. European imperialism devoured all of Africa. Even a tiny European state, like Belgium, acquired territories in the African continent larger than their own. However, in the Horn of Africa, one Kingdom stand tall among others. Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) managed to defend itself from the clutches of the Europeans. Credited of this defense was the modernization efforts of its ruler – Menelik II. 

Menelik II was born to a period of political chaos and upheaval. He was born on August 17, 1844 with the name Suhle Maryam. At a young age he was imprisoned by the reigning monarch, Tewodros II. He managed escape imprisonment and became the Negus or King of Shewa (Shoa) in 1866. He would hold the position until 1888.

As the King of Shewa, he aimed to modernize and strengthen his military. His diplomatic skills played a key role. He negotiated with Europeans, in particular, the British, the French, and the Italians. He imported new weapons for his army. He then trained them to the new armaments. His army then later became the foundation of the future modern Abyssinian Army.

In 1888, the Negus Nagast or Emperor, Yohannes II died. He was killed during a campaign against the onslaughts of the Muslims from Sudan. Immediately, proclaimed himself as Emperor of Abyssinia and took the name Menelik II. He would hold the position up to his death in 1911.

Menelik became the Emperor under terrible circumstances. The coffers of the stae were few and limited. In addition, encroachment of the westerners, especially the Italian intensified. In May 1889, he decided to enter into an agreement with the Italian with the hope it would protect the independence of Abyssinia. The Treaty of Wuchale (Ucciali, Wechale, & Wichale) was signed as an assurance of safety of the Abyssinian sovereignty.

Nevertheless, it was not firmly cemented. Misunderstanding and mistranslation plagued the agreement. Two versions were made of the treaty: an Italian version and an Amarhic version. The particular problem in translation laid on the Article 17 of the treaty. In the Italian version, it stated that Abyssinian ruler would conduct foreign affairs through the Italian foreign ministry, inferring that Abyssinia was under the control of Italy. But, it the Amarhic version, it only stated that the Emperor could conduct foreign relation solely but could ask assistance from the Italian foreign ministry. Menelik II disregarded the Italian version and hold onto the Amarhic version.

Eventually, the disagreement led to conflict. In 18956, Italian forces from Eritrea and Italian Somaliland invaded Abyssinia. The Italian clearly underestimated the Abyssinians and Menelik II. The highlight of the conflict was the famous Battle of Adowa on March 1896. In Adowa (Aduwa/Adwa), Menelik II and his modern equipped army stopped the Italian advanced and stroked a humiliating defeat to the Europeans. The Italians would later avenge this defeat.

After Adowa, in October of 1896, a new agreement between Abyssinia and Italy was forged. The Treaty of Addis Ababa secured the independence and integrity of Abyssinian territory. Soon, more Europeans secured a treaty as well. After the news of triumphant victory of an African state against a European army led to many powers to take Menelik II seriously. France signed a border treaty with Abyssinia on March 20, 1897. Britain then soon followed two months later. By 1906, a treaty with European power firmly cemented Abyssinia’s faith as an independent state.

Following securing its border, Menelik embark his own imperialism. He launched a major southern campaign, capturing most of its neighbors to the south. In 1896, he incorporated the lands of the Borana Oromo people. In the following year, he annexed the Kingdom of Kaffa to the south, giving him access to the coffee trade. By the end of his southern campaign, Menelik II had forged the modern day territories of Ethiopia.

After the military campaign and diplomatic maneuvering, it was time for Menelik to shift his focus to a much important issues. Menelik II realized that to cement further Abyssinia’s independence, it must become a modernized nation. At the start of 1890’s Menelik II already began the modernization of his Empire. In 1886, he founded a town – Addis Ababa- meaning “new flower.” In 1891, he decided all together to move his seat of power to it. It then saw growth as well as flow of new technology later. In 1892, Menelik reformed the tax system in order to earn the needed funds for modernization. It was then followed later in 1894 with the establishment of national currency based from the Maria Theresa Thaler and also a mint to produce it. In the same year, he established the first postal system of the kingdom and distributed the first postage stamps of Abyssinia, which was printed from Paris, France. The stamps depicted the lion herald of the country and the face of Menelik II.

Modernization efforts soon intensified by the start of the 20th century. In 1900, telephone, telegraph, and electricity line were laid out and began service. In 1905, the first national bank was established – the Bank of Abyssinia. In 1907, Addis Ababa was filled with diplomat and investors willing to do business with the Empire. Thus, the first hotel, the Itegue Taitu, in Abyssinia. On the following year, Menelik II founded the first modern school, the Menelik II School. It teaches western subjects, such as science, mathematics, astronomy. In state affairs, in 1906, when Menelik II suffered a stroke, which would mark his health decline. He then organized a cabinet of ministers which would handle the state affairs as he tried to recover from his ailment.

But the hallmark of Menelik II modernization program was the establishing of a railroad line in the country. A French company was contracted to build the said railroad. It would connect Addis Ababa to the French controlled port of Djibouti. The construction, however, lasted a decades. The construction began in 1897, but controversy and lack of funds hampered its completion. It was only in 1897 when the railroad line was completed.

Menelik II, however, won’t see the line finish. In 1911, his health finally. Succession became a problem as Menelik II did not have any surviving son. It would be six years before a true successor, Zewditu I, rose.

Menelik II lasting legacy would be his preservation of Abyssinian/Ethiopian independence. His diplomatic and military skills allowed him to be taken seriously by the great powers. His foresight also allowed him to see the need to modernize and reform his Empire if it was to survive. These efforts of his made him one of the greatest rulers of Ethiopia.
Adejumobi, S. The History of Ethiopia. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007. 

Herb, G. & D. Kaplan. Nations and Nationalism: A Global Historical Overview. California: ABC-CLIO, 2008. 

Lipschutz, M. & R. K. Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. California: University of California Press, 1986. 

Del Testa, D. (ed.). Lives & Legacies: An Encyclopedia of People Who Changed the World – Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activist. New York: Routledge, 2013.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Lots of facts that aren't true and an amount of spelling errors throughout the article