Part I: 1885-1897

Just twenty-four years ater the achievement of national unity and still beset by the many and grave problems pertaining to the amalgamation under one government of the territories of as many as six pre-1861 indipendent states, the young Kingdom of Italy deliberated that it had to have a part in the "Scramble for Africa".

Motivations of international prestige lay behind this decision: the colonial party feared that the exclusion of Italy from the partition of African territories would have fatally lessened her standing in the Concert of European Powers. The direction of the first serious colonial committment is likewise incidental: the presence of an embrional colonial possession in the bay of Assab at the southern end of the Red Sea. First acquired in 1870 by the shipowner Rubattino for the Italian Government and abandoned soon after for economic and politacal reasons, the bay and its immediate surroundings were revived in 1882, when the De Pretis governement decides to took over administration from Rubattino and officially styles them as colony under Italian sovereignity.

This consolidation of the Italian position is preceded and fostered by a diplomatic agreement with the European Power which holds the most conspicuous interests in the area: Great Britain. Worried by the rising of Urabi Pasha in Cairo and fearing that a power vacuum in the lower Red Sea would be exploited by France, Britain encouraged the local ambitions of a traditionally friendly nation like Italy. This would show more clearly with the following decisive step of Italian colonialism: the occupation in January 1885 of the island and port of Massowa (Massaua in the Italian sources), a former Egyptian possession.

In 1884 the growing power of the Mahdist revolt in the Sudan pushes Gladstone to suggest to the Khedive of Egypt to withdraw his garrisons from outlying Sudanese provinces; France quickly grabs at the opportunity and reinforces her hold around Obock and occupies several localities on the Gulf of Tajura, the future territories of French Somaliland. Italy and Britain, equally worried by the French moves, reached an agreement by which the Italians could occupy the Red Sea ports of Beilul and Massowa.>[?

On February 5th 1885 Col. Tancredi Saletta lands at Massowa with 807 men, quickly reinforced with artillery, engineer and more infrantry soldiers. The Italians, also, take in their pay the existing Bashi-Buzuks, a sort of military police serving the Egyptian authorities, and reinforce the military forces by enlisting the so-called "Black Bands", armed groups of natives serving under a local chief, whose status could range from a dispossessed prince to an outright brigand.

The Italian takeover of Massowa causes misgivings in the Ethiopian Empire (Abyssinia), a great christian indigenous state south of Sudan, ruled since 1872 by the Negus Johannes IV. Anxious to recover the Red Sea coast, wrestled from him by the Egyptians in the '70s, Johannes looks with deep concern at the expansion of the Italian settlement around Massowa, soon undertaken by the Italian military authorities. The first clash between troops of the two states occurs on 25th Januuary 1887, when ras Alula, the ethiopian governor of the Hamasen, attacks Saati fort, a small outpost on the Abyssinian tableland 20 kilometres due west of Massowa. After a two hours fusillade, the Abyssinian retire, but two days later ras Alula surprises at Dogali a supply coloumn escorted by 500 Italian soldiers and utterly destroys it.

The shock in Italy is great: the anti-africanist party gathers consensus in the public opinion; the colonialists clamour to defend the nation honour and ask for vengeance. An expeditionary corps of 15.000 soldiers and 1.900 bashi-buzuks is assembled at Massowa in November, commanded by General Alessando Asinari di San Marzano. This force reoccupies Saati fort, evacuated after Dogali, and consolidates the occupation of the area around Massowa, but is not engaged in any real fighting. At the end of March 1888 the military operations are at a standstill: the Italians keep to their fortified line near Saati, the Abyssinians dare not attack them and suffer from supplying problems. Confronted with the mounting opposition of two of his greatest vassals, Tecla Haimanot, king of Gojiam and Menelik, king of Shoa, Negus Johannes enterns into negotiations with the Italians; the Expeditionary Corps is reembarked and by mid May 1888 only the African Special Corps (6.000 men) remains in Massowa. The military forces are now under the overall command of Lieutenant General Antonio Balidessera.

Under the strong-willed and ruthless leadership of Baldissera the Italian position is consolidated, the colonial troops reformed with the dismissal of the Bashi Buzuks and the creation of the first four Native Infantry battalions, for a total of 1.900 Eritrean Askaris at the end of 1888. Led by Italian officers and NCOs, this troops will form the backbone of the colonial military forces and give good proof of their abilities in the future wars.

Meanwhile civil war breaks out between Johannes and the ras Tecla Haimanot and Menelik. Italy supports Menelik in exchange for territorial acquisitions. In the same period, the Sudanese raid northern Abyssinia. On 9th March 1889 Negus Johannes is killed at the battle of Metemmeh fighting against the Dervishes; his nominated successor is his illegittimate son ras Mangasha, who continues the war against Menelik,Tecla Haimanot having submitted to the latter shortly after the death of Johannes.

On 2nd May 1889 Menelik signs the treaty of Uccialli (Whichale), permitting Italy to occupy the lip of the Ethiopian tableland, from Arafali on the coast to Asmara, the future capital of the Colony. Menelik, that will shortly proclaim himself as new Emperor of Ethiopia, agrees also to article 17, regulating his future foreign relations with the European powers. But while the amaric text of the treaty speaks only of the possibility that the Emperor will conduct his foreign affairs with the help of the Italian governement, the Italian text reads as follows: "H.M. king Menelik consents to his using the governement of H.M. the king of Italy for all the negotiations he should have with other powers and governements", effectively establishing an Italian protectorate on Ethiopia. This ambiguous misunderstanding sowed the seeds of future war.

Between June 1889 and January 1890 Italian troops occupy Keren, Asmara and even Adua (Adowa), chief town of the Tigrè, well outside the boundaries established in the treaty of Uccialli, while the Abyssinian civil war continues. On January 1st 1890 the Italian possessions are reorganized and styled as the Colony of Eritrea, with General Baldassarre Orero as new civil and military governor, soon to be replaced (June) with General Antonio Gandolfi. In March, ras Mangasha and ras Alula pledge their submission to Negus Menelik II. Further negotiations permit the Italians to push up their boundary to Shiket, 20 kilometres south-west of Asmara; Adua is given back to the Negus.

Diplomatic relations with the Ethiopian Empire remain tense, though. Menelik's discontent about the art.17 of Uccialli treaty is growing; on her part Italy, having notified to the European Powers her protectorate on Abyssinia, wants to mantain at least a shadow of paramountcy. To make matter worse, the Italian governement tries again to foment internal division, supporting ras Mangasha, the discomfited son of Emperor Johannes, against Negus Menelik. All these diplomatic bickerings come to a head on 27th February 1893, when Negus Menelik finally denounces the Uccialli treaty, rejecting any pretence of an Italian protectorate on his Empire. War becomes inevitable.

The political situation in Italy and Eritrea favours a military showdown. From February 1892 the new governor of the colony is General Oreste Baratieri, an authoritarian and warlike officer that concentrates in his hands the economic and military control of Eritrea as never before. His policy is one of hostility towards Menelik. In Italy, corruption scandals, economic crisis, foreign difficulties and the agitations of the Sicilian peasants, united in syndicate-like associations called Fasci", brought down the Giolitti governement: the new premier was a tough and stern ex fighter for the Italian liberty, now turned colonialist and reactionary: the 75 Francesco Crispi. His tenure of office (1894-1896) took soon the character of an anti-parlamentarian dictatorship.

For the time being, however, military operations against the Negus are delayed by the need of the new governement to assess the situation and by a renewal of the Dervishes incursions toward the northern boundary of the colony. On 21st December 1893 a strong force of 10.000 warriors led by Amir Ahmed Ali of Ghedaref are defeated in battle around the fort of Agordat by an Italian force composed almost only of Askaris and led by Colonel Giuseppe Arimondi. Between June and July 1894 new movements of Dervish raiders prompt Gen. Baratieri to organize an expedition against Kassala, on the Sudan border, which is stormed and conquered on 17th July 1894. The war with Abyssinia is heralded by the rebellion, in December 1894, of Batha Agos, the chief of the Okulé Kusai region formerly in the Italian payroll. The uprising is quickly quelled, but reveals the close connection of Batha Agos with ras Mangasha of Tigrè, definitively reconciled with Menelik and willing to trow the Italians out of Eritrea.

At the end of December begins the Italian invasion of Tigré. Having defeated the troops of ras Mangasha at Coatit and Senafé (13th and 15th January 1895), General Baratieri occupies and consolidates the entire region by Octorber 1895. Meanwhile Menelik has gathered warriors from the whole of Abyssinia and arms and ammunitions from Russia and France; in November the Negus begins his march from Addis Abeba towards Eritrea with about 150,000 men. The first clash occurs at Amba Alagi on 7th December. The rashness of the commander, Major Toselli, and a series of conflicting orders and reports leaves his column of Askaris and "black bands" unsupported and isolated: 1,800 officers and men are massacred by the vanguard of Menelik's army. On 21h January 1896 the Abyssinian capture Makallé fort, between Amba Alagi and Adua, after a siege of 14 days.

In Eritrea the first months of 1896 are occupied in receiving and lodging the great reinforcements hastly sent from Italy, while Meneliks opens negiotiations and keeps his troops on a tight leash. But the new troops lack any cohesion, being composed of soldiers and companies assembled shortly before leaving for Africa. Moreover, they arrive too late to get accustomed to the land and the climate. Supplies, draught and pack animals are of low quality and scarce.

From mid February the two armies watch each other uneasily; the Italian have concentrated 10,000 metropolitan soldiers and 7,000 Askaris and irregulars around the heights of Saurià, west of Adowa, where Menelik waits with some 120.000 warriors. In the imminence of battle General Baratieri, who is conscious of the mounting problems of the Army, adopt a prudent, even indecisive conduct: he is ill and his relationship with the bellicose Crispi, once so close, has considerably worsened, so much so that, on the 21st of February, the Italian governement secretly resolves to relieve him of command and appoints in his place an old Africa hand, General Antonio Baldissera, that leaves Brindisi for Massowa on the 23rd. In the Italian camp, the prudence of Baratieri is more and more resented by his brigadiers: Generals Arimondi, the winner of Agordat, Dabormida, Albertone and Ellena, arrived with the troops from Italy and eager to deliver the decisive blow to the Abyssinians. Crispi, on his part, rends even more bitter the Commander's predicament bombarding him with scathing and reproachful telegrams, defining his campaign a "military tubercolosis" and exhorting him (after having replaced him with Baldissera!) to give a coherent shape to the operations.

In the evening of the 28th February Baratieri calls his brigadiers at council and asks them their opinion on his intention of withdrawing to Adi Cajéh, given the supply problems and the risks involved in attacking an enemy without clear knowledge of his force. The generals counsel an advance, lest the retreat give a serious blow to the morale of the troops. Albertone says that the Abyssinian coloumns are affected by the same logistic problems as the Italians and are disunited, some foraging, some others already retreating. Arimondi estimates Menelik's forces at 50-60,000 warriors: not an impossible match for 17,000 better armed troops. Baratieri, convinced by the unanimous eagerness of his generals, yelds and resolves to advance towards the Ethiopian camp at Adowa. His objective, detailed in the orders of the 29th February, was an offensive thrust to occupy a solid position on the hill east of Adowa and, from there, react according to the moves of the Abyssinians: defend if attacked, keep the position if unmolested, attack the rearguard of the Negus army if it retreated from Adowa.

That night (29th), at 9.00 p.m., the Field Force moves on divided in four coloumns, commanded by General Vittorio Emanuele Dabormida (right coloumn), General Giuseppe Arimondi (centre coloumn), General Matteo Albertone (left coloumn, composed of the Native Battalions) and behind Albertone General Giuseppe Ellena (reserve). The advance was soon marred by the highly unreliable sketch of the hilly zone attached to the official orders. Albertone's coloumn, due to the faulty indications of the map and also probably to the willingness of his commander to win a personal success surpirsing the Abyssinian camp at dawn, passes the the centre and reserve brigades during the night and occupies a position well in advance of the other formations. Dawn on the 1st March finds Arimondi's brigade behind Dabormida and not on his left; Ellena is behind Arimondi and not in the center. The Abyssinians, spotting at 6.00 a.m. the coloumn of Albertone, isolated around the hill and village of Adi Becci, attack it vigorously. Baratieri, informed that Albertone is engaged, orders to Dabormida and Arimondi to advance their position in order to form a forward defensive line. At 10.30 Albertone's brigade is effectivly destroyed, the General taken prisoner, and a stream of fugitives runs towards the rear brigades. Dabormida's brigade is ordered to advance south-west in support of Albertone, but, probably again due to the faultiness of the map sketch, marches notrh-west and finds itself isolated in the valley of Mariam Shoaitù, where is engaged in a vicious fight.

The Italian central position, running from Mount Erar in the north to Mount Zeben Darò in the center and Mount Raio in the south and defended by Arimondi and Ellena Brigades, is under attack from 10.30 a.m. and soon completly encircled. By midday the Italian formations disintegrate; the precipitous retreat turns into a fearful slaugther; among the fallen is General Arimondi. Meanwhile, Dabormida's brigad continues its lonely battle in the valley of Maria Shoaitù and even wins some ground against the Abyssinians, who content themselves to contain it, while completing the destruction around Mount Raio. By 15.00 the Ethiopian Army is free to converge on the last Italian brigade. The pressure is unbearable and at 16.30 Dabormida orders a withdrawal that soon turns into a rout, during which he is killed among many of his soldier.

In the battle of Adowa (Adua) the Italian Field Force losed around the 50% of its force: 289 officers, 4,600 Italian soliders and 1,000 Askaris killed in battle; 500 white and 1,000 Askaris wounded; 1,900 Italians and 800 Askaris prisoners. The Army of the Negus loses about 7,000 killed and 10,000 wounded. In the aftermath of the battle Crispi's governement was overthrown and peace negotiations opened with Menelik. On his part, the Negus retreated soon after his victory, beset by the eternal supply problems and preferring to reap as soon as possible the fruit of triumph and settle his dispute with an humbled Italy, rather than risking a long and gruelling war with a nation that was still, after all, militarily stronger than Ethiopia. Baldissera, landed at Massowa on 4th March, reorganized his shaken troops into a new Field Force. Having taken charge of the prisoners of Adua, released in November, Baldissera led his troops back to Eritrea. On 26th October 1896 Italy and Ethiopia signed the final peace treaty, with which Italy recognized the full indipendence of Ethiopia.

After further small operations against the Dervishes, concluded with the cession of Kassala to British control on 19th December 1897, the Colony Eritrea slipped quietly into obscurity; the new course marked by the appointment of his first civilian governor, Feridinando Martini, at the end of 1897. The guns will rumble again in this region only 37 years later, when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia to "avenge Adua".


  • Angelo DEL BOCA, Gli Italiani in Africa Orientale; vol. I Dall'Unità alla Marcia su Roma; Milano, Mondadori, 1992.
  • Raffaele RUGGERI, Le guerre coloniali Italiane 1885/1900/Italian Colonial wars 1885/1900; Milano, Editrice Militare Italiana, Serie "De Bello" n. 7; 1988; italian and english text.
  • Mario MONTANARI, Politica e strategia in cento anni di guerre italiane; vol. II: il periodo liberale; tomo I: le guerre d'Africa; Roma, Ufficio storico delleo stato Maggior dell'Esercito, 1999.


The english reader will find useful references in the following volumes:

  • G.H.E. BERKELEY, The Campaign of Adowa and the rise of Menelik; London, Constable, 1901.
  • John GOOCH; Army, state and society in Italy 1870-1915; Basingstoke, 1989.
  • Thomas PAKENHAM,
  • The Scramble for Africa; chap. 26; London, Abacus, 1991.


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