By Haile-Gebriel Endeshaw
The decisive victory Ethiopians gained at the Battle of Adwa has been the source of African pride. It sustained Ethiopia’s national sovereignty and showed generally Africans resistance to colonial rule. Sources indicate that the Battle of Adwa sent shock waves across the world. “The Pope is greatly disturbed,” reported the New York Times. Ethiopian soldiers reportedly killed 3,000 Italian troops, took close to 2,000 soldiers as prisoners of war (PoWs) and seized about 11,000 rifles, four million cartridges and 56 cannons.
Apart from the victory prevailed against the invading Italian forces, the clemency granted to the Italian troops captured and taken as PoWs has long remained fresh in the minds of all peace-loving nations across the world. Let’s touch on issues related to the Italian PoWs, Ethiopian officials who turned their face against Menelik… deserters that joined Italian army versus the compassionate nature of Emperor Menelik.
After the Ethiopian gallant force emerged victorious against the invading force at the Battle of Adwa, about 2,000 Italian PoWS were pardoned by Emperor Menelik-II of Ethiopia. First there were disagreements among Ethiopian high-ranking officials regarding this issue of pardoning with some individuals opposing the release of Italian PoWs. At last a large vote was given for the release of the Italian PoWs. Then they were brought before Emperor Menelik who gave imperial clemency to them. A writer said in connection to this event stating that the Italians did not believe this and carried out to tears. “When the Battle of Adwa ended, about two thousand Italian prisoners of war were forgiven by Emperor Menelik and were led through a long journey to Red Sea to the waiting ship that will carry them home to Italy.”
Taking in to consideration many of the good things he accomplished to his people and country, Ethiopia, one can say that Menelik-II was a kind-hearted leader. Though there are a few individuals who do not agree with this, what history testifies is that Emperor Menelik is exceptionally among the type of individuals with compassionate nature. The Battle of Embabo is one of the incidents we can pick to show his kindness. At this battlefield Menelik and King of Gojam, Tekle-Haimanot fought furiously. Tekle-Haimanot demonstrated prowess commonly expected from an Ethiopian warrior and unfortunately he was wounded and captured. Up on his capture, he was not cuffed as per a special order given by Menelik. This was done to show respect to the captured king. Then he was taken to Menelik. Up on his arrival, Menelik got to his feet from his throne, hugged and kissed him. “My brother, it is God’s will that we have met alive,” said Menelik. Later on, Menelik announced that he was the one who should treat the wounded king, Tekle-Haimanot. He washed and wiped the sore of Tekle-Haimanot… Immediately after, Menelik commanded for the release of all captured soldiers of Tekle-Haimanot.
In the meantime, while chatting, Menelik asked Tekle-Haimanot what he would have done if he was the one who had captured Menelik. Tekle-Haimanot responded bluntly that he would have cut his flesh in to pieces and given to vultures.
Menelik also showed respect to King Kawo Tona of Wolaita after the latter was captured at a big war held between the two. King Tona was believed to be one of the greatest warriors and powerful last king of Wolaita. After being wounded and captured, he was taken to Menelik who rose to his feet and hugged him saying, “my brother, you forced us to kill the people in vain”. After the bloody war, Menelik commanded that all the cattle taken by his troops should be returned to the people of Wolaita. Then he appointed Kawo Tona to govern that part of the country. Similarly, Menelik pardoned many of his prominent officials who had betrayed him and joined the enemy side. This is just to show how kind-hearted Menelik was.
A month after the victory of the Battle of Adwa, Menelik said in one of his letters addressed to an Italian official: “They [the Italians] fought against me at the Battle of Adwa but they were defeated… However, I did not feel happy to shed Christians’ blood for [nothing].”
About 900 Italian soldiers were surrounded at their fortress at the battle ground in Mekele Town. The trapped Italians could not break out of the tightened circle. They had no any chance to get drinking water as the source had been under control of Ethiopian soldiers. They seemed to be dying of thirst. At last Menelik was asked by Barateri, commander of the Italian army, to set free the surrounded Italians. Regarding this, a special envoy, Pieter Filter wrote the following in his book:
“…I was taken to Menelik,” Filter said. “As I walked in to his tent, the king said, ‘you have come here to defeat us. You say you emancipate Ethiopians from slavery. Let alone Ethiopians, you could not come for deliverance of those poor devil Italian soldiers who have been trapped in their strong hold. If I were as weak as you, your people would be made to die of thirst. Tell this to Barateri. Saint Angeles teach us to love our enemies. I am a Christian. I am not a king of barbarians. Therefore, these Christians will not die. Send people who can take them to you. If you need to fight again with us, get together and wait for me. I will come wherever you are’. The king told me this,” Filter said.
Then the next day the Italian troops who were trapped in their strong hold being surrounded by Ethiopian soldiers, were allowed to fetch 30 barrels of water from the source which had been under strict control of Ethiopians.
Three months after the victory (of Adwa) over Italian invading force, Pope Leo XIII wrote a letter to Emperor Menelik asking for mercy to the Italian PoWs. Receiving the special envoy, Menelik sent to the Pope a respectful letter giving his word that the PoWs would not be mistreated in any way. “…my duty as king and father of my people prevents me from sacrificing the sole guarantee of peace that I have with me.” So saying, Emperor Menelik released as a token of his respect to the Pope a prisoner who was seriously ill and allowed him to travel to his country, Italy along with the special envoy.
One day Menelik was told that an Italian PoW who was kept by the imperial household received a letter from his widowed mother in Italy. Upon reading the letter from his mom, the PoW came to be inconsolable, wept bitterly and started suffering from hysteria. Menelik ordered for the soldier to come to him and had the letter translated for him. The poor mother stated in the letter saying that she had been busy weeping in the compound of St. Mary’s church begging the mother of God to bring her son back to her, a weak and lonely widow whose life had no meaning without her only child. A written source from Italy indicates that when Emperor Menelik heard what was written, his eyes filled with tears and said to the PoW, “the tears of your mother, and our shared love for the Mother of God have freed you. Go back to your mother and tell her that the Holy Virgin has turned you to her”.
It is in this way the Ethiopian Emperor, Menelik showed respect and compassion to human beings even if they were his foes. While celebrating the 123rd anniversary of the victory of Adwa, we Ethiopians (the posterity) should give respect to our leaders and forebears who were killed, wounded and tortured so that we can have this independent and beautiful country.
By Haile-Gebriel Endeshaw
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org