How Ethiopia beat The Scramble: Guns

Ethiopia hold the unfortunate and rare distinction of being essentially the only African nation to successfully resist European colonization, humiliating Italy in 1896 at the Battle of Adowa. While they would eventually be defeated in a renewed Italian campaign several decades later, it was a short-lived occupation which would soon see a coalition of Allied forces push Italy back out. As I seem to have fallen into something of a pattern with these floating features, today I’ll be visiting one aspect of this resistance to European oppression, namely some of the arms that the Ethiopians carried, and the complicated history of arms acquisitions which they labored through.
Through the 19th century, Ethiopia had worked to acquire a wide variety of arms in an attempt to present a more modern and capable fighting force. This effort came mostly into its own under the Emperor Yohannes IV who took ascended the throne in 1871. His predecessors had worked to acquire an odd and varied assortment of mostly outdated European arms, some as ancient as the old matchlocks, but this began to change under Yohannes thanks to agreements with the British, although this too remained in small quantities, receiving a mere 725 muskets and 130 rifles at the onset of his reign. Nevertheless, despite only 1/6th of his 60,000 man army carrying firearms and a smaller number still trained in European-style tactics, he was successful in demolishing a well armed, European-trained force from Egypt in a series of engagements in 1875-'76 as the Ottomans unsuccessfully sought to expand into Ethiopian territory.

Not only did the success in the conflict ensure Ethiopia remained out from the Ottoman thumb, but it also provided a veritable windfall as some 20,000 Remington rifles. Although soon to be supplanted by magazine-fed repeaters, the single-shot, breech-loading Rolling Block rifles were nevertheless an effective, modern arm, and that bonanza alone placed Ethiopia as one of the best armed nations on the continent, just as the “Scramble for Africa” began to take shape in the 1880s.
In hindsight, the next series of moves are quite ironic. Sahle Maryam, the King of Shewa, had been building up an alliance with the French, and more importantly, the Italians, through the 1880s. The French saw it as a way to counter British influence in the region, and the Italians thought he would be a useful tool to counter Emperor Yohannes IV as they sought to exert more influence in Northern Ethiopia. The Italians, in 1884 agreed to provide Sahle with 4,000 Vetterli Rifles, a repeating rifle used by the Italians themselves, as well as a 10 year contract to provide 50,000 Remingtons. The French as well provided Sahle with arms, mostly older French or Belgian models that French merchants sold to him at considerable markup. Additional Italian gifts were also forthcoming beyond the contract, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition as well.

By the mid-1880s, Sahle had amassed a considerable arsenal, and at first the overtures of friendship by Italy seemed like they were going to pay off! Italy occupied Massawa in 1885, and Emperor Yohannes IV found himself assailed on two fronts as the Italians pressed along the northern coast and the Mahdist War in Sudan spilled over the western borders. When Yohannes IV fell in battle with the Mahdists, Sahle usurped the throne, declaring himself Menelik II, and signed the Treaty of Wuchale, a very conciliatory document recognizing the newly formed Italian colony of Eritrea, and which Italy considered to have placed Ethiopia under protectorate status.
For the next several years, Menelik II maintained the status quo, using his access to European arms via Italy to continue to modernize his forces as he sought to consolidate his rule over Ethiopia itself. Not only did tens of thousands more rifles arrive from Italy, both via purchase and as gifts, but other countries as well, such as Russia which in 1891 presented the Emperor with a gift of 10,000 rifles. By the early 1890s, some 25,000 rifles were being imported to Ethiopia per year. The variety of sources meant that the Ethiopians possessed a vast and varied array of small arms, of which only some were a modern, repeating design. While especially strong in terms of domestic use, it did nevertheless present an inadequate picture against any European power which.

Hoping to standardize, and also looking to find more independence from Italy in terms of their supply chain, the Ethiopian government attempted to contract for 100,000 German rifles in 1893, although they were rebuffed, as the German government didn’t wish to become caught in the middle. Other countries were not so reticent. In 1894, Austria shipped some 4 million cartridge cases, and the Italians themselves noted with some worry the arrival of French Gras rifles, not to mention Hotchkiss machine-guns and modern artillery. The simple fact of the matter was that after having spent the better part of a decade supplying Menelik II with large quantities of arms to get on his good side, Italy had created a force it couldn’t actually control. In the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale, the Italians had claimed it made them the conduit for Ethiopian foreign relations and thus Ethiopia their protectorate, but the clause was out of the Amharic version Menelik II had read, and when he discovered this, he denied the clause, and in 1893, entirely repudiated the treaty. Relations deteriorated quickly, and in late 1894, war had broken out between Italy and Ethiopia.
Mustering a force of some 10,000 Italians and 7,000 Eritreans, the Italians marched into Ethiopia expecting an an easy victory of European superiority, but were instead in for a rude awakening. Although the estimates vary wildly, the Ethiopians possessed anywhere from 300,000 to 600,000 rifles, of which a significant portion were modern, breech-loading, and often, repeating arms such as the French Gras, Russian Berdan, and British Lee-Metford, not to mention the Italian-supplied Vetterlis and Remingtons. If anything, there were more arms available than could be used, the limiting factor not the availability of rifles, but the availability of men who were adequately trained in their use. Nearly 200,000 men were raised for the force that went to meet the Italian invaders, and while only about half carried firearms, it spoke little to availability, but rather to the system of levies which had brought men into service who simply didn’t know their use so preferred the more traditional implements of war such as spears or bows. Meeting at Adwa, Menelik’s forces carried out a veritable massacre, wiping out roughly 50 percent of the Italian forces, and forcing the new Treaty of Addis Ababa, which assured Italy’s complete recognition of Ethiopian sovereignty, soon to be followed by the opening of formal diplomatic relations with other European powers.

The power of the gun in Ethiopia’s independence did not go without notice, and in the years after the Italian humilation, foreign observers in Ethiopia continually commented on how widespread their possession was, and the pride with which the Ethiopians brandished them, and expounded upon their knowledge of the workings. Nor did Ethiopia stop in its acquisitions. Certainly some acquisitions continued in the same, hodgepodge manner as before, and acquisition was not always easy due to European stonewalling. The first few years after victory, it appeared that Ethiopia was on the path of only further imcreased military might. 30,000 rifles arrived from Russia in 1898, as well as 8 Maxims, and 150,000 Gras Carbines in 1900 from France. So many arms were coming in though it was well beyond the needs of the military, resulting in many being sold or traded, many of them ending up in British and Italian colonial possessions.
After approaching Menelik II to clamp down on the illegal arms trade under the 1890 Brussels Act, and being essentially rebuffed, the bordering Colonial powers took matters into their own hands. Coming together, the result was the 1906 Tripartite Treaty between France, Italy, and Great Britain, which included provisions that seriously limited the importation of arms into the country, and in any case was designed to regulate the levels of influence each power could exert on Ethiopia, regardless of Ethiopia’s interest in the matter.

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