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Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the Glory of People and Kings: Abyssinia, the Battle of Adwa, and the Rise of the African Diaspora

On the continent of Africa, Ethiopia possesses one of the most distinguished histories in the world. This vast and complex history includes: the earliest hominids, the ancient empire of Aksum, the thirteenth century text, the Kebra Negast (“The Book of the Glory of Kings”), the legacy of Tewodros II (Kassa Hailu), the Meneliks (I and II) and the Solomonic lineage of Kings, and the rule of Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie). There was a time when Ethiopia, also known as Abyssinia, was the touchstone for blacks the world over. In ancient times Blacks were collectively referred to as “Ethiopians” or “Abyssinians” by the Greeks. The often quoted biblical passage, “Princes (or ambassadors/envoys) shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will soon stretch out her hands to God” (Psalms 68:31) was considered a prophecy which confirmed black radiance and deliverance from the struggles against racism, colonization and imperialism. As the only black nation not under European colonization, Ethiopia fueled the rise of the modern-day African diaspora. In 1896 the Ethiopians defeated the Italian Fascists in their unrelenting attempts to colonize the entire country. The struggle between Ethiopia and Italy over the terms and true meaning of their political and diplomatic relationship culminated in The Battle of Adwa and saw the defeat of a European power with nearly 20,000 troops with 14,500 rifles and 60 cannons. The Ethiopians possessed much larger troops guided by regional leaders united, representing all parts of the country. With more than 70,000 rifles and the tactic of bombardment of fire, the Italians relented quickly. The Battle of Adwa ultimately forced the colonizers to view Ethiopia as an independent and sovereign nation. After generations of conflict over the sovereign monarch, in 1930 Haile Selassie became emperor of Ethiopia and this event was widely noted by Africans in the diaspora. Notably, Jamaicans in the West Indies saw his coronation as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy (note another interpretation of Psalms 68:31—“Kings would come out of Africa”). This reaction began a new religious expression among people—The Ras Tafarians. However, in 1935 the Italians launched another strategic attempt to conquer Ethiopia in the Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1936). They brought in massive troops and advanced weapons technology, including poisonous (mustard) gas. In many ways they were avenging their bitter defeat at the Battle of Adwa, in addition to the overarching assertion of “civilizing” the nation of Ethiopia. Ethiopia Gondor 17thc CastleAfricans on the continent and in the diaspora publically deplored the extension of imperialism and were particularly protective of Ethiopia and its ancestral legacy. The president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and the President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah both fighting for the independence of their own countries, and for a unified Africa, rallied around Ethiopia in the face of Italian military aggression.  In the United States African Americans held informational meetings, protested the war, raised funds for the relief of the people—and through the NAACP called on the League of Nations to act more forcefully in defense of Ethiopia against Italian invasion. The League of Nations condemned Italy in the fall of 1935. It could be argued that World War II in effect began with Italy’s assault on Ethiopia. An aim of one American umbrella organization empowered to support Ethiopia stated that their mission was to impart “…a keen sense of the ties which bind them to their blood-brothers in Ethiopia.” Rooted in the World War II anti-imperialist struggles, the black diaspora united in support of Ethiopia, because “…colored peoples of African descent must shoulder their own responsibilities and fight their battles… In this case, it can be done by helping the last independent colored empire.”[1] However, the long history of Ethiopia cannot be told without appreciating the 30 year struggle with Eritrea, and which is well-established in European colonization efforts. The coastal country of Eritrea, with its critical access to the Mediterranean through the Red Sea, was an Italian colonial holding in 1890 (“New Rome”), ultimately used as a base to invade Ethiopia in 1935. By the end of 1950 Ethiopia’s claims to Eritrea supported an autonomous federated union sustained under United Nations Resolution 390A. This was despite Eritrean calls for independence and reports that their autonomy was disregarded by Ethiopia. Eritrea ultimately gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1992. Yet the convoluted and celebrated history of Ethiopia does give us a legacy of human determination and dignity in the face of oppression; and one of global solidarity among people of African descent.—Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

[1] SOURCES: James H. Meriwether, Proudly we can be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935-1961. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002; United Aid for Ethiopia (booklet), New York: United Aid for Ethiopia, 1936; William Leo Hansberry, Pillars in Ethiopian History. Washington: Howard University Press, 1974; Miriam Ma’at Ka Re Monges, Kush The Jewel of Nubia, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1997; Ethiopian National Archives and Library Agency, http://www.nala.gov.et/