Amen Teferi 03-06-17
The battle of Adwa is a flagship event that draws attention to many issues in the modern Ethiopian and African history. The battle of Adwa illustrates the high-mindedness of the Ethiopian people and show-cased the meanness of the invading European colonial force, i.e. Italy. It also highlights the strategies the Ethiopian people employed in bringing about national reconciliation.
Ethiopia’s handling of the vanquished Italian force after the battle of Adwa was simply incredible. The magnanimity emperor Menelik had shown to the Italian prisoners of war was even inconceivable to the invading force that boasts and flatters itself for being an icon to the European civilization. This magnanimous act was done half a century before the promulgation of the Universal Human Rights Declaration and the Geneva Convention.
Then there were no international laws that govern states’ response to prisoners of war. Hence, the clemency Ethiopia had shown to Italian prisoners of war after the battle of Adwa precedes the international convention that come into force in 1948 to govern states’ response to prisoners of war. This magnanimous act might have served as template to set an international norm in handling prisoners of war.
As many historical records could testify, clemency or granting amnesty to officers and soldiers was a rule of war that Ethiopia upholds for centuries. Therefore, Ethiopia’s decision to grant amnesty to the Italian officers and soldiers was not unusual. According to Charles Schaefer, showing clemency to the vanquished is a value ingrained in the cultural milieu of the Ethiopian society.
Example abounds concerning the tradition of clemency for militias and recruits. As we see in the annals of our history, clemency of the sovereign had been encouraging imperial aspirants to continually resurrect themselves to fight another day. In this regards, Schaefer wrote “often defeated feudal princes were allowed to escape or when captured were forced to sign treaties or other notes of non-aggression and then after an indeterminate time were permitted to return to their own provincial bases. There was a sense of cordiality and chivalry given to rivals reminiscent of feudal Europe. Wars were waged within an aristocratic fraternity where leniency was considered good form.”
On the other hand, Arnauld d’ Abbadie wrote, “Ethiopian soldiers are so secure in the solemnity of warfare that these beliefs contribute to their ability to give clemency to the vanquished. One observes the victorious and defeated recognizing each other, embracing, inquiring with concern about the wellbeing of recent adversaries, or interposing in order to improve the fortunes of friends.”
Ethiopian rulers recognize and honored the neutrality of the peasant soldiers to serve whoever may be dominant in their locale. It may appear to be inconceivable, but at the conclusion of a battle, rank-and-file soldiers would embrace, attend to one another and even recount their versions of the battle. Moreover, it was customary for victorious leaders to quickly decide upon the few who were to be taken prisoners and to release all other defeated combatants within twenty-four hours. Hence, to offer to release Italian prisoners after the siege of Meqele in December 1895 was standard procedure.
As Henry Salt, who came to Ethiopia as traveler (1809-1810), had suggested that “the Bible narrative served as the political and judicial model for Ethiopian state. Thus, they have got good examples of when to be vengeful or forgiving and the rationale and consequences of both. The biblical narratives also impart and devote equally important ideals for model ruler.”
Therefore, the clemency shown to Italian officers and soldiers at Meqele or Adwa is a good example that show-case not only the justness and mercifulness of Emperor Menelik, but also the piety and prowess of leadership that most Ethiopians upheld as their ideal. It divulges the moral embodiment Ethiopian society and how victors in Ethiopia treated the vanquished.
There were approximately 1700 Italian prisoners of war after the battle of Adwa and they were treated well. As historical records tell us fewer than one hundred had died of complication in Ethiopia. Those with severe injuries were transported to Addis Ababa and Harar and treated by either Russian or Italian physicians. Others were divided up and given to various victorious Rases (princes) to be sheltered in aristocratic house-holds throughout the kingdom.
The tradition of parceling the prisoners out to various aristocratic households went back centuries. This is because there were no fix prisons and this system was developed out of expediency at a time when Ethiopia did not have an established capital city. Roving tent capital made it necessary to disperse prisoners to distant regions where they could be watched relatively effectively at a little cost.
Thus, some prisoners, often aristocrats themselves, were considered booty to be ransomed off to their relatives or districts as part of the settlement or repatriation-package of feudal Ethiopia. Others were used as laborers or, if they possessed special skills, were employed for their technical expertise.
By 1896 Addis Ababa was taking shape as national, modern capital thus demanding skilled laborers to construct its infrastructure. Hence, the majority of Italian prisoners was settled in Talian Safar (Italian Quarters), a neighborhood around the central city of Addis Ababa, and was allowed to work on engineering and construction projects. On these projects they were given significant freedom and even authority over hundreds of unskilled Ethiopian laborers. Prison hardly existed and escape was considered a remote possibility for Italians were truly outsiders in Ethiopia.
To the chagrins of the Italian statesmen who later tried to vilify Ethiopia’s treatment of their prisoners, many of these prisoners of war chose to stay in Ethiopia, some for the duration of their lives.
Many of them were treated well and, at the initiation of the aristocrat or of their own volition, stayed in Ethiopia even after the opportunity for repatriation was made available to them. In fact, the humiliated Italian rulers were keen to exploit the repatriation effort to gain political advantages. Italy had tried to delay the repatriation process because it was prevaricating over revoking the treaty of Wuchale for it was interested to use the negotiation process to turn their military defeat into diplomatic victory. Under these circumstances Menelik used the prisoners as leverage until the treaty was abrogated and Ethiopian sovereignty was recognized. Immediately after a new treaty was negotiated, a convention for the repartition of prisoners was signed, and by late 1896, all soldiers were allowed to Italy or stay in Ethiopia under general amnesty.