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Colonialism is a form of societal rape, and Italy in Eritrea was a typical rapist. Almost immediately, Italian police began killing civilians and sometimes dividing up their wives among themselves. They took the best land. Existing traditional relationships and institutions were eradicated or gutted. The conquest of the future Eritrean people was total, both physically and psychologically.

In their first colony, Italy did what the British and French were doing in theirs. Desperate to catch up, Italy invested heavily. It looked greedily at the fertile highlands across its southern border in Ethiopia and quickly began nibbling away.

As usual, there were winners as well as losers among Eritreans. The Italians needed cheap, skilled labor and began to train their colonials. Talent, not traditional status, led to advancement so clever peasant boys could become clerks, drivers and housekeepers as easily as well-born sons and daughters. The less talented did manual labor. Women also served their masters in the usual way. Colonialism became a leveler among Eritreans while inflating the egos of many barely literate Italians.

Like other colonial powers, Italy also recruited and trained soldiers, as they would do in Libya and Somaliland in later years. The officers were always Italian, of course.

After Emperor Yohannes’ unexpected death in battle in early 1889, Ethiopia once again came under an Amhara emperor, Menelik. Addis Ababa, a new city he co-founded with Empress Taitu, became his permanent capital.

Even before Menelik’s coronation, Italy announced to European governments that Ethiopia had become its Protectorate, as agreed in the notorious Article 17 of the Treaty of Wichale. It was diplomatic fraud, soon exposed. In the Italian version, Ethiopia agreed to deal with foreign governments only through Italy. The Amharic version said that Ethiopia could, if it chose, avail itself of Italian diplomatic services.

Menelik discovered Italy’s trick in a letter from Queen Victoria congratulating him on his coronation. She expected future communication with her government to come through Rome, she wrote.

For the next six years Menelik tried unsuccessfully to persuade Italy to admit their ‘mistranslation’. Italy refused, all the while continuing its provocations in Ethiopia’s Tigre Province.

Menelik used the time to import arms through the French port in Djibouti. When he finally called on his people to rise up against Italy, 100,000 fighters responded and marched north, led by Menelik and his feisty Empress.

Italy was confident of an easy victory against an African army. It had a well-armed force of 6000 European and 11,000 Eritrean in uniform (sources disagree on exact numbers). Their supply lines were short. Their Italian officers were professionals and their soldiers were also trained and disciplined. Defeat was inconceivable.

Nevertheless, on March 1, 1896, the Italian force was wiped out at the Battle of Adua, their dead and wounded reaching a staggering 70% of the attacking force. They were done in by incompetent leadership and mindless pressure from Rome. Also significant was the betrayal of Italian plans by Eritreans coming to Menelik just before the battle. Faced with the choice, some Eritreans still preferred Ethiopia to colonial Italy. Four thousand Italians were killed along with several thousand Eritreans. Thousands more were taken prisoner.

Europe was shocked. Italy was disgraced. When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, capturing Adua was an immediate objective to erase the stain of a humiliating defeat.

The battle almost didn’t happen. Menelik was within a day or two of dissolving his huge army, which had already stripped the countryside bare to feed themselves. The Italians were on the verge of their own withdrawal, for a similar reason. Fearing criticism of withdrawal without victory, however, the generals instead chose to attack.

Menelik’ did not press his advantage after Adua, suggesting a shrewd long-term vision. He couldn’t keep his army in the field much longer despite his victory, nor could he prevent the Italians from coming back even if he threw them out of Eritrea altogether, which was not assured. Assembling a similar force in a year or two would be impossible.

Ethiopia was generous in victory and relations with Italy were restored surprisingly soon.

A critical line was crossed at Adua. The still small breach between Eritrea and Ethiopia widened dramatically when, for the first time, Eritreans and Ethiopians fought and killed each other while fighting under different flags. The Ethiopians considered Eritreans to be traitors and cut off their prisoners’ right arms and left legs to prevent them from fighting again.

Both sides took home bitter memories from Adua. They had now started down the road to Badme, and to today’s armed standoff.