Remembering Adwa

The defeat of a European invasion force by Africans 120 years ago presents challenges for how we remember. How are historical memories kept alive? And what meanings should we assign to them?

Jed Stevenson

This week in 1896, an army under the command of Emperor Menelik defeated an Italian invasion force at Adwa, in Ethiopia. In the previous decades most of Africa had been conquered by a handful of European states: French, British, German, Belgian, and Portuguese. Ethiopia stood out, unique within Africa as country ruled by an indigenous monarch. If we want to understand how Ethiopia retained her independence, we must consider the decisive events surrounding this battle. How can we understand what happened on that day in Ethiopia? What lessons can we derive from it?

Africa 1932

Africa circa 1930. Ethiopia (labeled Abyssinia) was at the time the only country in sub-Saharan Africa ruled by an indigenous government. [1]

Understanding and remembering are linked concerns — Knowing that something happened in the past is a precondition for understanding it. But what does it mean to remember something that happened 120 years ago? The way most of us remember such things is in that special sense of the term reserved for events that we haven’t actually lived through, but learned about from others: collective memory. This kind of memory depends greatly on the way events are represented in history books, of course, but also in art, in monuments, and in conversation.

Personal and collective memories

As it happens, 120 years is about the maximum length of time that any human being has ever lived. Jeanne Calment, a Frenchwoman, died in 1997 at the age of 122 — she had been born in 1875, and her birth was recorded in the 1876 census. [2] Nobody now living is verifiably older than 117, but it’s worth considering the possibility that there may be people still alive who were born before the battle of Adwa took place.

Jeanne Calment, at approximately 20 and 120 years of age (circa 1896 and 1996)

Jeanne Calment would have had memories from 1896 (she would have been 21 years old). Many of the men and women at Adwa would have been her peers, or her juniors. Though she wasn’t in Africa, she would have heard about the battle; it was big news at the time. But it would have been, for her, one memory among many — something she might easily have forgotten; like some distant conflict we could read about in today’s paper; something that might have been less important than the memory of, say, her first cigarette, or her first kiss.

For those who actually fought in the battle, or who served as porters; or who saw the armies passing through their homelands; or who lost sons or brothers in the fray, the events would have been etched deep into their memories. [3] For Menelik’s subjects and for Italians it would have had a special relevance, even if they were far away. And for Africans in general, and for the diaspora — including slaves and descendants of slaves — it would be a source of inspiration. It came to symbolise the possibility of victory over forces of racism and colonialism that sometimes appeared invincible.

But to the extent that Adwa becomes a symbol, its meaning is also changeable. What we see in it depends in part on the events that have occurred in between then and now, and the meaning we assign to them. I’d like to draw a comparison between the way we remember Adwa and the way we remember what at the time was called the Great War — what we now refer to as the First World War, which began 100 years ago, in 1914.

Comparisons with the First World War

The parallel with the First World War points up many contrasts: Adwa was a battle, lasting just one day, in one location; the First World War dragged on for years, was fought in multiple theatres, and incurred not thousands but millions of casualties. Other contrasts are more subtle. The aims of the conflict at Adwa, for example, were clear: for the Italians, to subdue and colonize Ethiopia; for the Ethiopians, to expel the invader. The aims of the First World War, by contrast, were not at all clear; indeed, they were not publicly articulated by the British government or her allies until almost four years into the war, after millions had died. [4]

There also commonalities between the two conflicts. The most relevant of them for our purposes is that both the First World War and Adwa present us with challenges in how to remember, how to commemorate.

The First World War is remembered in many ways: In the work of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen; in novels; in paintings. [5] The most prominent, however, are the monuments. Before the centenary of the war last year, I barely noticed them, but since then I’ve come to see plaques and statues in almost every public place I visit in England. Sometimes these consist of no more than a list of names, and the words Lest we forget; other times a crucifix, or martial imagery such as a soldier standing to attention or poised for attack. The imagery is meaningful: Christian symbols suggest sacrifice, martial ones courage or chivalry. Depending on the imagery, different aspects of the war are privileged — the sacrifice of those who lost their lives, or the heroism of the fighters. [6]

The profusion of statues and plaques commemorating the First World War in England contrasts with a paucity of memorials to Adwa in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa there are monuments recalling Magdala and Emperor Teodros’ honourable death there; statues of Menelik (near St George’s Cathedral in Piassa); and a stela at Sidist Kilo honouring those who resisted the Italian occupation of 1936-194. But to my knowledge there are no memorials devoted to Adwa.

Representing Adwa

The most common medium in which Adwa is commemorated is painting. Conventionally these paintings show the Ethiopian and Italian armies facing each other on the battlefield, with the flags of each country flying above them. Between the two armies lie the dead; and in the sky above, St George, patron saint of Ethiopia, presides over the battle. The faces of the Italians are usually depicted in profile and the Ethiopians in full face. (In Ethiopian church art, full-face depictions are used of saints and other figures of virtue, while profile views are reserved for the devil or sinners.)


The Battle of Adwa. Painting by an unknown artist. The British Museum.

Just as First World War monuments highlight one side of the reality of that war and hide others, we may ask: what do these conventional paintings of Adwa privilege? What do they omit?

At least four things:

  1. The forces are conventionally represented as equal in number; but in fact the disparity was at least 4:1 — approximately one-hundred thousand Ethiopian soldiers versus twenty-thousand Italians.
  1. Soldiers and generals are shown, but not the camp-followers, those who provided victuals, the villagers upon whose production the army depended, or the women who supported the army.
  1. The good versus evil framing renders the soldiers on each side into stereotypes. This obscures the motivations of individual participants, which were almost certainly mixed — some were doubtless motivated by patriotism, and others by fear, or desire for personal glory, or profit; or some complex combination of these.
  1. St George’s rôle suggests that destiny was on the side of Ethiopia.

My aim in analyzing the painting this way is not to show that it’s wrong (No single image can show all sides of a story, not least a complex event like a battle.), but to get you to consider it afresh.

Interpreting and understanding

Adwa is glossed over in many Western history books in part because it doesn’t fit a dominant narrative of European dominance, or because it’s seen as a temporary setback (Italy would later succeed in colonizing Ethiopia, in 1936). This is unfortunate: The battle deserves to be remembered. But in celebrating it we should be careful not to set up a simplistic counter-narrative of Ethiopia’s manifest destiny. [7] The battle might better be interpreted as an example of the power of multitudes to prevail even when their opponents have access to superior weaponry; or of the capacity of groups with diverse motivations to come together to achieve common goals.

But perhaps the greatest lesson we could derive from Adwa is that history is contingent — that no Master Narrative may apply at all. That might be an unwelcome message; we like to see clear morals in history. But it can also be interpreted optimistically, as a sign that, if we try, we might break free from the chains history seems to forge for us. One of the most powerful ways in which the past affects the present is by influencing our sense of what is possible in the future. In how we choose collectively to remember historical events, we make possible new understandings of our history. And in doing so we lay foundations for the building of new worlds — one book, one monument, and one conversation at a time.

This is an adapted version of a talk given at the Victory of Adwa Memorial Celebration in London, at St George and All Saints Church, Tufnell Park, on February 28, 2015.


[1] George Philip, ed. (1932). Philip’s Handy-Volume Atlas of the World. London: Philip & Son.

[2] Craig Whitney (1997, August 5). Jeanne Calment, World’s Elder, Dies at 122. The New York Times. Retrieved from:

[3] Raymond Jonas (The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011) provides an engaging and readable overview of the Adwa campaign, and the cast of thousands who contributed to the victory.

[4] Timothy Mitchell (2010). Carbon democracy: Political power in the age of oil. London: Verso (p. 79).

[5] “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War” brings together many of the paintings (showing at the Imperial War Museum, London, until March 8, 2015). See also Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss, eds. (2014), The Great War as recorded through the fine and popular arts. London: Liss Fine Art.

[6] Jay Winter (1998). Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History. Cambridge University Press. As Winter relates, one of the best known monuments, the Cenotaph (literally, “empty tomb” — a monument to the dead whose bodies were never identified) is vaguely Classical in style, but contains no explicit imagery; in a sense it’s a blank canvas on which you can project your own feelings about the war, whether or not you feel it was justified.

[7] On ‘manifest destiny’ in writing on American history, see for example David Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, and Thomas Bailey (2010). The American Pageant (14th edition). Wadsworth / Cengage Learning.

This entry was posted in africa, Ethiopia, history, Italy, lifespan, memory, war and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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