HAILE SELASSIE EMPEROR OF ETHIOPIA
The Feud With Italy
The first battle between the Abyssinians and the invading Italians took place in 1887. The events leading up to this clash are worth study, as they reveal the nature of the long and bitter quarrel. In 1870 the port of Assab, about fifty miles north of Aden on the Eritrean shore of the Red Sea, was purchased by an Italian company from the local Sultan. It was extremely doubtful whether he had the right to sell outright land which, though he controlled it, was vested by old-established customs in his tribe; but there was no one powerful enough to protest so the deal was completed. The company did not do a very important trade, but continued nevertheless to acquire land in the neighbourhood of the town whenever possible. A large purchase was made in 1879, and a further tract acquired the following year. Trade did not improve at all, and in 1882 the Italian Government, whose help the company had repeatedly solicited, sent out Count Pietro Antonelli with instructions to examine the whole position, estimate the possibilities of the port, and conclude, if that proved possible, favourable trading agreements with the Sultan of Aussa, through whose lands, which lay to the south of the inhospitable Danakil country and were far more productive, the trade routes reached the powerful kingdom of Shoa. The Count was able at length to open negotiations with both Menelek of Shoa and his rival the Emperor John, who held the rich lands of the Tigre province to the northward, and there is reason to believe that the discussions might have led to profitable agreements, since both rulers needed outlets to the sea; but in 1885 news came that the Italians had occupied the port of Beilu, about thirty miles to the north of Assab and had taken over from the Egyptians the much more important port of Massawa, some 250 miles further to the north.
These moves caused great suspicion in the minds of the Abyssinians, who foresaw that should the Italians gain a monopoly of the coastline they might be in a position to impose heavy dues or at any rate to keep down prices.
In 1884 the Egyptian Government, in conjunction with Great Britain, had sent a trading mission to Abyssinia and had promised among other things that Massawa should be a free port. The arrival of the Italian General Gene, who advanced inland with a detachment of 500 troops, was thus interpreted by the Abyssinians as a threat to the recent agreement with Egypt, and when the General refused to retire he was surrounded and attacked.
It must be made clear that there was not the least suggestion of treachery or ambush about this attack as has sometimes been implied from Italian sources. To the Abyssinians the situation was clear. The Italians were advancing on to their territory and refusing to retreat when this was demanded of them. They were therefore hostile invaders and had to be dealt with accordingly. This first clash took place at Dogali in 1887. The Italian casualties exceeded 400, from which it may be gathered that their defeat was complete. They were surrounded and outnumbered, and but for the fact that at the same time King John was also compelled to meet invasion by the Egyptian Dervishes along his northern frontier, the entire Italian force might have been wiped out.
The British Government were very disturbed that this fighting should threaten the trade agreement which had recently been concluded and did everything in their power to arrange terms between the conflicting parties, but the situation was complicated by the attitude of the Dervishes and by internal rivalries in Ethiopia, while the Italians did not appear willing to negotiate and were massing their forces. Mr. Gerald Portal, who was in charge of the attempts at mediation, concluded that nothing could be done and at length returned to Egypt, having braved considerable danger to no avail.
Freedom of trade was a fixed point in the policies of both Menelek and John. In 1887 John died in battle with the Dervishes, and Menelek gained control of both kingdoms. Count Antonelli, who was actually at his court at the time, seized the opportunity to conclude a treaty. The Count was an able diplomatist but his attempts to arrange for trading concessions had been hindered by the strife between Tigre and Shoa. He was glad that this was now to be ended, and taking advantage of the fact that Italian military operations had so far resulted only in conflict with King John, and could thus be represented as of advantage to Menelek, he persuaded the Emperor to accept Italian friendship and offer trade facilities in return.
Menelek, who had numerous internal difficulties to contend with, was glad to have powerful friends. By the treaty of May 2nd, 1889—usually referred to as the Ucialli treaty—he allowed the Italians various privileges, appointed Ras Makonnen (the father of the present Emperor) plenipotentiary in Rome, and was guaranteed Italian support against rebels.
As has been related the visit of Ras Makonnen to Europe, where he carried out important duties in London, Paris and Rome, was a turning point in Ethiopian history. He was a great thinker as well as an honest and able negotiator. His travels inspired him with a vision of what his country might become. His reports were the first beginnings of a European attitude at Addis Ababa, and he laid the foundations of policy which his son was afterwards to build on so successfully. Previously Ethiopians had considered strict isolation, for which Nature had provided every facility, the only way in which the integrity of their country might be preserved. Ras Makonnen saw that to stand out against the unconquerable march of civilisation impossible and could only lead to absorption by some European power. He saw that the best interests of Ethiopia lay in fitting herself as rapidly as possible to take her place in the Western scheme.
Ras Makonnen’s study of history had filled him with profound misgivings as to the future for he had learned how one by one the countries of Africa and Asia had been seized and exploited by the great imperial powers.
After the treaty of Ucialli was concluded, Menelek first thought that he could consider his foreign policy as settled for some years to come; but he soon had reason to suspect that under cover of their professions of friendship the Italians were preparing either to get him completely into their power or to replace him by some more amenable chief.
The occupation of Asmara by the Italians gave them a base some forty miles inland and it was reported to Menelek that there was great activity in the town. What worried him most, however, was the fact that in their new policy of friendship and conciliation they were making constant overtures to Mangasha, a local chief who was said to be the son and the appointed heir of King John.
It seemed to Menelek that there was danger to his regime in such a friendship, but in thinking this he was doing Mangasha a great injustice. This chief, though he might well have sided with the Italians in return for their support of his claim to the throne of Tigre, recognised the ties of blood as of greater consequence than his personal ambitions. He gave Menelek faithful service, informing him of Italian movements, and later fought with great bravery in the Adowa campaign.
For three years after the signing of the treaty there was an uneasy peace in Ethiopia. Menelek strengthened his position, showing great statesmanship in his treatment of the tributary tribes, and trade improved considerably. But it was not long before his suspicions of Italian duplicity were shown to be well grounded.
The making of a treaty with a people whose language and general standards are widely different from those of Europe naturally presents certain difficulties, and Amharic is admittedly an awkward tongue for rendering into a Latin language; but it is hard to believe that the difference of opinion concerning the Ucialli agreement which was now revealed was entirely the result of genuine error. While in Europe Ras Makonnen was in touch with several representatives of great powers, one of whom, an Englishman, showed him a note which had been circulated by Italy to the other European nations. This said that Ethiopia, having accepted the protection of Italy, had agreed that all communications with others powers should take place through Italian channels.
Ras Makonnen was astonished when this note was shown to him, as it appeared inconceivable that Menelek should have agreed to what was in effect the handing over of his country to Italian control. He communicated at once with Menelek and the Amharic version of the treaty was carefully examined. The only clause which could have provided any basis for the Italian note was discovered, but the Amharic version made it plain that it contained no sense of compulsion. Rather its sense was that the Emperor might—presumably as a favour—avail himself of Italian services when dealing with other European nations. There was nothing to suggest that he was compelled to do so; nor was there any abdication of sovereignty such as the Italian note had apparently inferred.
It is related that the Italian representative in Addis Ababa, when called on to explain the treaty, produced an Italian draft in which the disputed clause was definitely compulsory in character, and proceeded to adopt a threatening attitude at what he described as a breach of good faith on the part of the Emperor. He pointed out that Menelek’s hold upon his country was far from sure and that serious consequences might follow any withdrawal of Italian favour. When Menelek, who was furious at finding himself manoeuvred into such a position, and who resented as the bitterest of insults any suggestion that he had parted with independence, intimated that he cared nothing for Italian friendship, the Italian envoy’s patience was exhausted and he showed his hand. This, he said, flourishing his own draft, was the treaty as Italy understood it, and any denunciation of its terms could only be followed by war.
The exact course of this interview is difficult to reconstruct, but it appears that the Empress was present and that the tone of the envoy’s remarks was interpreted by her as a personal insult. At all events she seized the offending treaty and tore it in pieces, with which climax the audience presumably concluded.
In seeking for the exact truth of this affair the impartial historian is in a difficulty, for there have been copious justifications from the Italian side and very little comment from Ethiopia. That Menelek in the earlier stages of his reign was glad enough to make concessions to Italy in return for support is certain, and a cynical view would be that later, when he felt more secure, he seized the first opportunity of ridding himself of irksome obligations. That, roughly, is the Italian view. It overlooks first Menelek’s known character, which was not such as would permit him to sign away, no matter for what purpose, any vestige of power; and it begs the question of the conflicting drafts. Clearly it was the duty of the Italian experts to see that the Amharic version tallied with the other.
The Italian translation reads:
This wording, while it is quite easy to understand that to the Italians it implied a virtual protectorate, is hardly very forceful in meaning, and it is plain that Menelek may well have signed it without the least appreciation of its possible significance.
In the year 1891 Britain and Italy signed two agreements in which Abyssinia was mentioned as an Italian sphere of influence—presumably on the strength of the Ucialli treaty, and Ras Makonnen was compelled to warn Menelek that his country was being partitioned by the European powers as though its loss of independence was already regarded as an accomplished fact. As a result of this Menelek in 1893 denounced the treaty of Ucialli, saying: “My empire is powerful enough to ask no protection and to exist in freedom.”
This denunciation of the treaty had no effect on the European Powers and in a further agreement between Britain and Italy signed in the following year the same assumption appears—Italy is recognised as having prior claims on Abyssinia.
But France was determined to stake a claim, and in the same year the Compagnie Imperiale des Chemins de Fer Ethiopiens was granted a concession to build a railway from Jibuti to Harar. The story of this railway is instructive for it resulted in the most complicated financial manoeuvres. The syndicate which had originally planned the line was assured unofficially of government backing and thus pushed on with the undertaking even when it became clear that owing to the disturbed state of the country the traffic receipts might not justify for many years the huge initial expenditure. After six years of ceaseless difficulty, for the surroundings of Jibuti (one of the hottest places in the world) are such that heavy labour is bound to proceed slowly, about 300 kilometres of line were completed, serving no useful purpose. By this time the funds of the company were completely exhausted and appeals for help were made to the government of France. This had, it appears, been secretly promised on several occasions during the construction of the line, but had been slow in forthcoming. When, however, it became known that British capitalists had been interested in the venture and that the line was on the point of passing out of French control, the Colonial Party in France was able to force the Government’s hand, and in February, 1902, a convention was signed by which the company was granted an annual subsidy from the State of half a million francs. This was to last for fifty years. The concession for the line was for ninety-nine years, of which ninety years had still to run.
Once again Menelek had brought home to him the difficulty of preserving independence when dealing with Europeans. He had granted the concession to a private company. He now found himself dealing with a Government.
At first he withheld his sanction from the proposal, but it was soon clear to him that the best interests of his country would be served by the completion of the line, and in 1904 he authorised the construction of the track as far as Addis Ababa.
In 1906, under the well-known Tripartite Treaty, it was agreed that an extension of the railway to the Sudan should be undertaken by British capital while the Italians should be free to build lines both to Eritrea and Somaliland.
It is easy to picture Menelek, by this time somewhat confused by a maze of agreements and counter-agreements, through which the keen mind of Ras Makonnen was steering him, feeling that his only hope of preserving territorial integrity lay in playing off the various powers one against the other. In 1902 he had signed with Great Britain a treaty which settled the boundary line between Abyssinia and the Egyptian Sudan and definitely established certain British rights in that region irrespective of Italian claims. The most important provision of this treaty concerned the Blue Nile and read:—
The promise was also made that a trading post should be granted to the British for the purpose of controlling commerce with the Sudan, and later, after some discussion, this post was established at Gambela in the heart of the Wallega country, about eighty miles from l’Akobo, which marks the extreme western limit of Ethiopia. Permission was also granted to Great Britain to connect the Sudan with Uganda by means of a railway passing through Abyssinian territory.
It was the possibility of confusion being caused by the existence of conflicting concessions which led the three great Powers which were manoeuvring to obtain a hold on Abyssinia to frame a three-cornered agreement in 1906. But before this time the situation had been completely altered by the battle of Adowa.
The advance of General Napier, which has already been described, had been apparently so easy that the Italians were of the opinion that no great difficulties would be presented in a campaign against Menelek. They overlooked two most important points: first, that the Napier expedition had been aided not only by disgruntled chiefs but by the spontaneous assistance of the people who were terrified and disgusted by the brutalities of Theodore. Second, that even with this help the journey to Magdala had been far more difficult than it appeared, and that only amazingly good staff work had enabled the force, with all its elephants, camels, mules and several thousand native porters to cover the ground. On several occasions during the 360 miles of march provisions had been a serious problem and there had been constant difficulty with water supplies.
It is usual to dismiss the Adowa campaign as a piece of utter folly on the part of an inexperienced commander, who pushed forward into unknown territory with a force far too small for the work entrusted to it and which was further weakened by division into three columns. This is by no means the case, as a careful examination of all the facts will show. The Italian general, though guilty of errors (which are naturally magnified by tacticians since the defeat which followed them was so terrible) was neither inexperienced nor a fool. Nor was the victory of the Ethiopians a foregone conclusion owing to their tremendous numbers.
General Baratieri bore a high reputation. He had served with distinction under Garibaldi, and such was his charm of manner that he was as popular with his men as with the social circles of the Italian capital. Sent out to Eritrea, he had, while still a colonel, co-operated with Colonel Arimondi, who, in December, 1893, had inflicted a crushing defeat upon the Dervishes at Agordat, 100 miles inland from Massawa; and he had followed up this victory by a forced march to Kassala (some ninety miles farther and just across the border of the Sudan) which had been rightly hailed as a brilliant military achievement.
This had effectually checked the raids of the Dervishes, but on returning to Massawa Baratieri discovered that his rear was menaced by the movements of Mangasha (of whom there has already been mention), whom he suspected of having intrigued with the Sudanese raiders.
There is little evidence that Mangasha had done this, and in view of the hatred which existed between both Tigre and Amhara and their Dervish neighbours it is extremely unlikely that Baratieri’s suspicions were well-grounded. His chief cause of complaint against the chief was that he refused to intrigue against Menelek, but that could hardly be publicly stated. Mangasha was probably less of an intriguer than most men in his position would have proved, and though his attack on the Italian rear was naturally timed to take place while the trouble in the north was engaging the attention of Baratieri’s main forces, it is difficult to believe that this was pre-arranged with the Sudanese.
Mangasha was attacking in consequence of the Italian threats which had followed the tearing up of the Ucialli treaty. Menelek knew that an attack was meditated by the Italians and that it would be bad tactics merely to wait for it, since every arrival of reinforcements improved the chances of the invaders. He had thus ordered Mangasha to move forward and was hastening north to support him with an army which has been estimated at 100,000 men and certainly consisted of 60,000.
The worst mistakes of generals are nearly always traceable to unreasonable demands for quick results on the part of the politicians. It was so with General Baratieri (for he had newly received promotion) and the blame for what followed must be shared by the wire-pullers in Rome. There was no appreciation whatever by the Government of the state of the lines of communication in Eritrea. The general had only 20,000 troops, of whom little more than half were Italians, and the necessity for constant watchfulness on the primitive supply bases reduced considerably the effective force available for an advance.
The first warning came when an advance column, which had pushed forward through the hills to Makale, was forced to surrender for lack of supplies. This news was very ill received in Rome and Baratieri did not improve matters by his explanation. It was quite true that he had telegraphed orders for the battalion to retire and for reserves to move up in support, and that owing to loss of one order and the delay of the other there had been confusion for which he was not personally responsible. But commanders should never explain the reasons for their errors, and it probably indicates a weakness for self-justification in Baratieri’s character that he should have done so.
At all events it gave his enemies in Rome a chance to intrigue against him and a new commander was suggested. Learning this—rumour has it through the letter of a society woman, once a dear friend of his, who sent him the news of his disgrace and begged him to do something brilliant at once in order to save his reputation, Baratieri gave the order to advance.
From that moment, say the strategists, he was lost.
This is not altogether true. What was his alternative? Clearly an ignominious retreat, on which Menelek’s forces might well have overtaken him. Baratieri knew quite well that his advance was under the circumstances (it is said, for instance, that he had only provisions for ten days and that his ammunition was running short) sheer bluff, but he must have felt that a bold move was called for and might well succeed. To have retreated from the native forces which had just won a victory at Makale in the south would have weakened Italian prestige to such a point that the tribes of the surrounding districts might well have turned against the retiring army. There was a good deal to be said for a forward policy had things been properly managed.
As it was they went wrong from the start. Bad maps, unreliable guides, the deceptive nature of the country, and a heavy morning mist at the critical hour were all contributory reasons for the disaster; but the speed with which the Abyssinians moved, their reckless bravery in the face of heavy fire, and their quickness to take advantage of errors on the part of the Italians were the decisive factors in the victory.
The country round Adowa is not rugged. It consists of rolling hills with here and there a somewhat cone-shaped peak. One peak is very like another and the country between them is particularly difficult to distinguish. Ridge conceals ridge in bewildering fashion, and the main ranges are very puzzling, since they follow no set direction and are thus difficult to grasp. You can see the same sort of thing in parts of Wales and on the edge of the Scottish Highlands.
Baratieri, who was twenty miles from Adowa, where the forces of Menelek were concentrating, decided to occupy a ridge of hills between the two armies. He would thus put the Italians on the defensive in the actual fighting, and yet at the same time be able to claim that he had advanced to meet the enemy.
To seize the ridge it was necessary to make a night march, but as the country was not difficult for marching and the distance only some ten or twelve miles no great trouble was expected. For the march the forces were divided into three columns, the objectives of these bodies being three crests in the ridge ahead. The central crest was Mount Belah and that to the right was named the Spur; but the hill to the left had no name on the maps and the guides seemed uncertain as to what it was called. In his orders to his staff, the General had named it Kidane Meret, but this, as it subsequently turned out, was the name of a hill several miles farther on, a position much more exposed.
During the night all went well on the march, for the native guides proved very efficient, but it was difficult to maintain communications between the three columns as there were not enough guides for the work and it could hardly be entrusted to soldiers who would almost certainly have been lost once they left their line of march. There was thus practically no contact between the three brigades such as would certainly have prevented the misunderstanding which developed in the morning.
Shortly after dawn Brigadier Albertone, who was in charge of the ill-fated column of the left, having safely posted his men on the hill which had been pointed out to him as his objective, scanned the neighbouring hillsides for signs of the rest of the Italian force. There were mists around the various summits and heavy vapours in the valleys, but the adjoining hill where the centre column should by that time have been stationed was clearly visible—deserted. Had Albertone been in touch with the centre during the night he would have known that they had been slightly delayed. As it was he gained the impression that he had made some error, and questioned the guides as to whether he was on Kidane Meret. They, of course, told him no, that Meret was some miles farther on; and Albertone, thinking that he was lagging behind, hastily got his troops on the move again and occupied Meret by sunrise.
The mists rolled away, and to the Brigadier’s surprise he found himself separated by some ten miles from the centre column and right in the track of Menelek’s advance, which was already commencing. It was too late to retreat, the damage was done. Not only was Albertone’s force exposed to overwhelming enemy numbers and utterly unable to avoid being completely cut off, but the flank of the centre column, which the left wing should have been covering, was exposed to attack.
The rest of the story is well known. Within two hours each of the three brigades was surrounded and fighting desperately. At noon there was a pause, and Baratieri, who could not follow the state of the battle and had no despatches, was compelled to abandon all thought of saving his advanced left and ordered a general retreat. It is difficult to see what else he could have done, but the Abyssinians, whom he had thought temporarily checked, resumed the attack with increased ferocity now that they saw that they were winning, and within an hour there were signs that discipline was breaking in the Italian ranks. Their only chance of retreating safely was to fight doggedly back to back, but at this critical moment they broke and fled. Here and there a gallant square formed round an officer and died fighting to the last man and giving an excellent account of themselves; but most were caught in their headlong flight, and the rout soon became a massacre.
That there were atrocities committed by the victorious troops is possible; but the worst stories are told of the native tribes in the surrounding country who, with their womenfolk, were guilty of hideous barbarities.
The most reliable figures of this engagement give the Italian losses, prisoners and casualties, as ten thousand. It was given out at the time that the army of Menelek had only three thousand dead. Later estimates of the Ethiopian losses placed them at about three times that figure. Statements that the Italians inflicted enormously heavy losses before they broke line (twenty thousand is one figure which has been claimed) can be dismissed as quite outside the range of possibility even with a most cursory study of the battle. On the other hand it is unwise to lay too great stress on the errors of the luckless Baratieri. He had a totally inadequate force, and was, it must be remembered, utterly without motor transport, aeroplanes and the modern machine gun. The Emperor, Haile Selassie, who, together with his military advisers, made a careful study of the victory at Adowa, while he believes that the chief reason for the rout of the invader was the splendid fighting qualities of the Ethiopian warrior, and that the victory may thus be repeated, has no illusions concerning the new factors which science has introduced into the military equation.
The sequel to Adowa is soon told. To avenge the defeat, General Baldassera advanced from the coast as soon as possible with every man he could muster, but Menelek was wise enough to see that the best tactics now were gradual retirements aiming at drawing the Italians farther into the hills. In any case he was hard put to it to feed his huge army and wanted for reasons of internal policy to disband his forces without undue delay. He knew the difficulties and dangers of keeping so large a mass of men under arms.
The Italians proved unwilling to be lured to destruction in the mountain passes, and having relieved the town of Adigrat without opposition were glad enough to conclude peace with Menelek on his own terms. There was scarcely a skirmish in the rest of the campaign.
By the treaty of Addis Ababa signed in the October of the same year, the Ucialli Treaty was revoked and the absolute independence of Ethiopia recognised by Italy. There remained, however, the question of the demarcation of frontiers, and it was this which was to occasion in the years to come a gradual renewal of the tactics of bluff and chicanery by which the wrath of the great Menelek had been so dangerously roused.
As for the Emperor, his victory at Adowa increased his prestige to such an extent that he came to be considered as directly inspired by God. “The guardian angel of Menelek” became a phrase to conjure with. To-day, many years after his death, the magic of his name still holds complete sway over the imagination of his people, while any Ethiopian warrior of ripe age, under the influence of sufficient good wine will almost certainly proclaim to the world at large: “I was at Adowa! I killed our enemies! Like this! Like this! Like this!...”
If any evidence were required that Ethiopia has no designs upon the Italian colonies and is prepared to live in peace with her neighbours provided always that her integrity is respected, it is the attitude of Menelek in 1896. As has been shown he made no attempt to push back the boundary of Eritrea towards the sea. The coastal strip about fifty miles in width from Fatima to Assab has practically no habitable value being largely salt desert of the most inhospitable kind. It is the stretch of plateau between Adi Kaie (30 miles due south of Massawa) and Om Agar (on the Sudan border) that gives colonial value to Eritrea, apart from the fact that a certain amount of trade seeks an outlet through the seaports which Italy holds.
There were many Ethiopians who considered Menelek at fault in not requiring that the plateau should be taken once again within his country’s boundary at the time when the victory of Adowa had placed him in so strong a position that he could doubtless have dictated exemplary terms. When it was clear that the present conflict was inevitable and that these high lands were being made use of as a starting point of a great drive into Abyssinia, the Emperor Haile Selassie said many times, gazing at the map before him, “We should never have let them become established on our mountains. The hills are our natural frontier. They could never have hoped to attack successfully from the plains.... Menelek was so great an Emperor. Why did he make this one mistake?”
Menelek was probably of the opinion that with the signature of the treaty of Addis Ababa the threat from Italy was over and done with; and, in the years that followed, the swift rise of British prestige in the Sudan following the cleaning up of the Dervish menace created the opinion in Ethiopian government circles that Britain was the power whose good graces were most to be courted and whose penetration was most to be feared.
The frontier settlements made by Menelek are an interesting study. In 1897 he made treaties not only with Italy (regarding the Somaliland frontier) but also with France concerning her Somaliland territories; and with Great Britain concerning the movements of nomad tribes in the province of Ogaden. This last treaty was the work of Rennell Rodd and has always been regarded as a triumph of straightforward negotiation on both sides.
The Abyssinian cattle have a very poor time during the dry season when lands which have been almost swamp during the rains change rapidly to arid, scorched wastes, only a little brown grass remaining here and there. It is thus a matter of life and death to the tribes to have access to such pasture as remains and to move freely in search of it. Nature pays no attention to man-made frontier lines, and in the regions along the British Somaliland frontier it was impossible to restrain the movements of the tribes by allotting certain areas to each and insisting that the boundaries were respected, since year by year the position of the last remaining dry season pasture varied. A tribe might easily find themselves pastureless and yet barred by the boundary line from grazing lands which were untenanted. It was necessary that in times of drought tribes should be able to move inland in search of grass and wells as they had done for centuries before the frontier existed.
The problem was one which gave every possible chance for bickering, and it was, in fact, regarded by some officials of both nations as insoluble. Rodd took the line that it had got to be solved or there was no chance of peace on the frontier. He set himself to the task of working out a solution.
Once good faith was established on both sides the details proved surprisingly easy to adjust, and the resulting agreement, which laid down, in addition to frontier lines, certain principles concerning friendship and the development of trade, has worked fairly well ever since. Nor has the French boundary given rise to any difficulties. As the Emperor Haile Selassie said at the time of the Ual-Ual ‘incident’ (1934)—Why is it always with Italy that these frontier troubles arise? The question was very much to the point, and there has never been a satisfactory answer.
The 1897 Somaliland boundary treaty with Italy was never published by the Italians, and it was only during the attempted arbitration of the Ual-Ual trouble that the Abyssian government issued a statement concerning it. The actual line drawn by Menelek on the map, which he handed back signed to Major Nerazinni of the Italian boundary mission, was about 100 miles inland and ran parallel with the Somaliland coast. The Ethiopians admit, however, that the line as agreed upon should have run at a distance inland of 180 miles. The Italians deny now that the line has any significance and seek to enforce ‘ethnic criteria’ as laid down by the subsequent published treaty of 1908.
This tangle will be dealt with in detail later. It is impossible to resist contrasting the Italian muddle with the workmanlike settlement of a similar, and in fact more difficult problem, arrived at by Rennell Rodd. “Either these Italians are very clumsy people,” said a counsellor of the Emperor, “or there is cleverness hidden in their blunderings.”
Between 1900 and 1902 there were three further treaties concerning the frontiers (that of 1902 with Great Britain has already been summarised) and then in 1906 came the famous tripartite treaty between Britain, France and Italy, in which, although Ethiopia had not been consulted, elaborate arrangements for her future were made.
It is a liberal education for the citizen of a great imperial power to hear the ironic comments with which the educated Ethiopian of to-day discusses that strange document, and indeed it seems difficult in the light of world opinion in 1935 to understand how so shabby a pact ever came to be made. But it must be remembered that in 1906 it was a quite natural thing for three great European powers to consider an African territory as so much prey to be shared between them. What makes the treaty so amusing, however, even in the light of an imperialist code of conduct, is that before arranging for the division of the spoils, the three powers involved solemnly pledge themselves to preserve the integrity of Ethiopia!
Their reason for doing this is explained quite frankly in the prefatory passage, which runs as follows:
“It being in the common interest of France, Great Britain and Italy, to maintain intact the integrity of Ethiopia, to provide for every kind of disturbance in the political conditions of the Ethiopian Empire, to come to a mutual understanding in regard to their attitude in the event of any change in the situation arising in Ethiopia, and to prevent the action of the three States in protecting their respective interests... from resulting in injury to the interests of any of them...”
If anything is plain from this laboured verbiage it is that the word integrity is thought of as implying not independence but ‘wholeness’ from the administrative point of view. What the powers were afraid of was that after the death of Menelek his empire might fall to pieces and its internal discipline vanish; in which event the work of ‘cleaning up’ the country would have to be begun afresh with an expenditure of European life and capital.
The rule of Menelek had, in fact, brought his country to a relatively peaceful condition in which it could be taken over en bloc with the least possible trouble. It was important therefore that this ‘integrity’ should be preserved. If after his death there were rivalries for the throne it would be a very bad thing for European interests in general were Great Britain, France and Italy to back different chieftains who had claims to the dominions of the great Emperor. This could only result in prolonged struggles with loss of trade and danger to the white man’s life and property. Whatever happened in the future all three great powers must unite in supporting the central government. Then, when a stable system of control of the whole country had been achieved, it could be conveniently divided as laid down in the 1906 treaty.
The wording of the more important clauses of this treaty is worth further study:
At this point are listed the frontier treaties, nine in all, which had been already concluded, the more important of which have already been dealt with in this chapter.
This list is seen, on closer examination, to have implications much harder to define than at first sight appears. The treaties and protocols enumerated include one made concerning Ethiopia and to which she was in no sense a party. It is the 1891 agreement, already mentioned as having been signed between Great Britain and Italy on the strength of the Ucialli Treaty of 1889. In this treaty of 1894 and in a subsequent protocol, practically the whole of Abyssinia is admitted by Great Britain to be an Italian ‘sphere of influence.’ There seems to be no recognition in the 1906 agreement that the battle of Adowa (1896) has been fought and won, and that in consequence the treaty of Ucialli is no longer in existence. But perhaps there is a guarded, or rather, a hidden reference to these facts in the vital paragraph which follows:
It is understood that the various conventions mentioned in this article do not infringe the sovereign rights of the Emperor of Abyssinia, and in no respect modify the relations between the three powers and the Ethiopian Empire as stipulated in the present agreement.
The second article provides that the interested powers are to consult together concerning the concessions which they intend to demand (the true intentions of the treaty makers are, it is to be feared, shown only too plainly in the use of this word) so that there is no overlapping of concessions with consequent friction and injury to all concerned.
Article III is the sort of clause which diplomatists delight in—the sort which, while apparently limiting action, in reality provides limits which are almost infinitely elastic should it prove expedient at a later date to extend them. It reads thus:
“In the event of rivalries or internal changes in Ethiopia the Representatives of France, Great Britain and Italy shall observe a neutral attitude, abstaining from all intervention in the internal affairs of the country and confining themselves to such action as may be, by common consent, considered necessary for the protection of the Legations, of the lives and property of foreigners, and of the common interests of the three Powers. In no case shall one of the three Governments interfere in any manner whatsoever except in agreement with the other two.”
The operative phrase here is clearly ‘... and of the common interests of the three Powers’ which can be stretched to cover action of almost any kind.
Article IV pursues the subject of common action in defence of common interests.
“In the event of the status quo laid down in Article I being disturbed, France, Great Britain and Italy shall make every effort to preserve the integrity of Ethiopia. In any case they shall act together, on the basis of the Agreements enumerated in the above-mentioned article (i.e. the nine protocols listed in Art. I) in order to safeguard:—
(a) The interests of Great Britain and Egypt in the Nile Basin, more especially as regards the regulation of the waters of that river and its tributaries (due consideration being paid to local interests) without prejudice to Italian interests mentioned in paragraph (b).
The other clauses of interest to-day are Articles VI and VII which deal with the continuation of the railway (which at the time of the treaty had only reached Diredawa) and which provide that an Englishman and an Italian shall always be on the board of management of the Compagnie Imperiale des Chemins de Fer Ethiopiens (together with a representative of the Emperor of Ethiopia) and that in return a Frenchman shall be appointed to the board of any railway which either the Italians or the British may build in the country. East of Addis Ababa the British are to have a monopoly of railway construction, and to balance this the Italians alone are to receive concessions for lines west of the capital.
The question of the smuggling of arms is also dealt with, and it is agreed that the Emperor alone is to have the power to license imports of war materials, while in the enforcement of this ban boats may be searched even within territorial waters if evidence is forthcoming that they are likely to be engaged in the gun-running trade.
This provision is of special interest in view of subsequent events along the coast.
The feelings of Menelek when he learned of the Treaty of 1906 can be imagined. He had fought and won, and now his enemies, provided with powerful allies, were encircling him once more, and quietly arranging the division of his land. He gave way to a dreadful outburst of anger; then instructed his representative to refuse to admit the legality of a treaty to which the country most concerned had not been party. Later when he found that his protest was unavailing, he made a further pronouncement which, while it did not admit in the least degree the validity of the agreement, placed it on record that the Emperor noted that in the treaty the independence of Ethiopia was specifically guaranteed.
That it was guaranteed in the treaty there can be no dispute; but it is doubtful if the guarantee existed with equal force in the minds of the contracting parties.
While it is no doubt true that judged from pre-war standards the imperialist powers had concluded a very gentlemanly agreement which provided for the inevitable to the benefit of all concerned (including, of course, Ethiopia, who would benefit beyond measure by the developments which European capital would attempt), it is plain that by their action they became in the eyes of Menelek a band of robbers who were to be frustrated by every means in his power. And he soon showed, in fact, that this power was considerable.
In valuing the many complaints which were made in the following years of the difficulty of obtaining concessions and of the obstacles which the central government placed in the way of European enterprise, it must be remembered that in the Ethiopian mind the great powers had by their duplicity forfeited their claim to considerate treatment.
Menelek was eventually persuaded to permit the continuation of the Jibuti railway to Addis Ababa, but the line had still not reached the capital at the time of the Emperor’s death. No other concessions for railways were forthcoming; and there was no progress in the building of the Lake Tsana dam, so very much desired by the Governments of Egypt and Great Britain.
In March 1906 Ras Makonnen, who had been Menelek’s right hand man in the handling of foreign affairs, died unexpectedly. His work of opening his country to western enlightenment had been valuable, but it appeared at the time that he had merely played into the hands of his country’s enemies and it is said that he was somewhat estranged from his Emperor in the last months of his life. His idea had been that the best way to preserve independence was to open negotiations with as many powers as possible, treating each of them fairly but insisting in return on similar treatment. Ras Makonnen always did business as between equals. He, the representative of a great Emperor, was willing to conclude a bargain with the representative of any other ruling power. He was never arrogant, but quietly and with a perfection of manner which his son has inherited, insisted on the courtesy which he considered due to him, his bearing and personality making a very deep impression on open-minded observers in every capital which he visited.
Gradually the powers were recognising the importance of a foothold in Ethiopia. Great Britain had sent a permanent official ‘Minister-Plenipotentiary and Consul General’ to Addis Ababa as early as 1897. He was Lieutenant-Colonel Sir J. L. Harrington, who became a very popular figure in the capital. In 1903 the Americans sent a mission for the purpose of concluding a commercial treaty, and two years later a German mission arrived with a similar aim. It is doubtless in the arrival of these missions, who were well-treated by Menelek, that the raison d'etre of the Tripartite Treaty is to be found. With the commercial interests of the world converging on Ethiopia the old established claimants to influence felt that they had better make some arrangement to stake their claims and combine for mutual support in maintaining them before their ‘rights’ were seriously challenged.
Those were busy years at Addis Ababa. The influx of foreigners whose governments supplied them with money for the upkeep of prestige led to the first noticeable attempts at westernising the capital. Menelek had bought a motor car, and soon the wondering natives grew accustomed to the presence of several of these strange monsters in their streets. Country houses with hedged gardens in English fashion appeared on the hills around the town, and a social life on western lines sprang up, which reached its highest achievement in the construction of a racecourse. But beneath all this free and easy intercourse there was always perpetual intrigue.
There is no reason to single out the Germans as intriguers but their shrewdness was nevertheless to have awkward consequences for Abyssinia on the outbreak of the World War. There was perhaps no corner of the globe which escaped entirely from the effects of that upheaval and Ethiopia, though it never featured in the war news, was involved, since the Germans had obtained considerable influence over Lidj Yassu, the youthful successor of Menelek, and used him to embarrass the British in adjoining territories. The whole story of this has been told elsewhere in this volume. In referring to it here the only purpose is to suggest by concrete illustration the sort of moves which were continually taking place behind the scenes.
In these years a very shy, but alert and clever child was gazing curiously at the newcomers to his country. No one ever took much notice of him, for after his father’s death he was not considered of great importance, since though of royal descent he was not thought of as a possible heir to the throne. He was a rather timid boy to judge from his manner; but those who observed him closely knew that, although the acutely sensitive mind was no stranger to fear, there was a strange tenacity in that keen young brain and a strength of character of no common order. That boy was Tafari Makonnen, one day to reign on the Imperial throne.
It would have been well for Ethiopia had Menelek survived the years of World War. In 1913 he was approaching his seventieth year, having reigned for fifty years, during the latter half of which period he had been ruler of the whole country. He had defeated all his enemies, both foreign and internal, and had welded a collection of warring kingdoms into one powerful whole. But all observers were agreed that though the power of his name held the realm together it was unlikely that this unity would last long when once the great personality which inspired it no longer sat upon the throne. Great and feared as he was, the Emperor had rarely been free from rebellion in one quarter of his kingdom or another. Mangasha, for instance, a possible successor, who had fought so bravely against the Italians, employed his last years in flaunting independence and defying his Emperor; and though he died in 1906, it was not for some two or three more years that those parts of the country which he had held were finally quieted. Direct proof of the influence of the Italians behind these minor revolts is lacking, but Menelek is known to have held them to blame.
Menelek died, and upon the confusion which followed his passing, there fell in the following year the further confusion of European war using the whole world as its battlefield. Once again Ethiopia was the subject of a secret treaty of which she had no knowledge. It is little to be wondered at that some Europeans have complained that as a race the Abyssinians are distrustful.
It is easy to blame Great Britain for the private pact with Italy, by means of which that country was induced to abandon the Triple Alliance and enter the war on the side of the Allies; but when a country is hard pressed the finer points of conduct cannot be too pedantically insisted upon, and in any case it can be argued that Article XIII of the Treaty of London does not necessarily affect the position of Ethiopia at all since the concessions mentioned are to be made at the expense of Britain and France.
The clause runs as follows:
“In the event of France and Great Britain increasing their colonial territories in Africa at the expense of Germany these two Powers agree in principle that Italy may claim some equitable compensation particularly as regards the settlement in her favour of the questions relative to the frontiers of the Italian colonies of Eritrea, Somaliland and Libya and the neighbouring colonies belonging to France and Great Britain.”
But however innocent the exact wording of this clause may be, the fact is that the Italians both at the time and subsequently interpreted it as reserving Abyssinia for them to ‘expand’ in, and it was always pointed to by Italy in the disputes that followed as evidence that Great Britain and France were morally bound to support Italian claims.
The Great War ended, the victory of the Allies was unqualified; there only remained the wrangle over the spoils. Italy got very little. All the former German colonies in Africa went to either England, France or Belgium. While it may be argued that Italy had not engaged in the campaigns by which these colonies were won, the plain truth cannot be avoided that she had expected, and had in fact been led to expect, much better treatment. Perhaps her disturbed condition in the years following the War may have led the other great powers to underrate her capacity for successful colonial adminstration. At all events she felt herself seriously aggrieved, especially since even in these matters so clearly provided for in Clause XIII of the Treaty of London she was a very long while in securing settlement, and then had only very meagre concessions to show for her pains.
During the peace conference of 1919 there were certain negotiations between Great Britain and Italy, particularly with regard to Lake Tsana. The Italians did their utmost to obtain admission of the principle that while the “territorial zone recognised as pertaining to Great Britain in respect of (her) predominant hydraulic interests” had still to be demarcated, the whole region was to be regarded, subject to such demarcation, as an Italian sphere of influence.
This point of view was expressed in a note of November, 1919, in which it was implied that in return for recognition of her general claims in that region, the Italian Government would support any British claim for a concession to build a dam at the lake and thus regulate the flow of the Nile. British support was at the same time solicited for the concession to Italy of the right to build a railway from Eritrea to Somaliland passing to the west of Addis Ababa.
At that time this feeler from Italy was rejected on the grounds (as was stated later) of “the strong objection felt to the idea of allowing a foreign Power to establish any sort of control over the headwaters of rivers so vital to the prosperity or even to the existence of Egypt and the Soudan.”
In 1925, however, after a Labour Government had in the previous year made tentative proposals concerning Lake Tsana to the Ethiopian Government, though without result, the Conservative Government which followed them in office took up the matter with the Italians and revived the rejected proposals with only slight alterations. Sir Austen Chamberlain arranged that should England obtain the Tsana Dam Concession the Italians, on undertaking never to tamper with the flow of water into the Nile, should be recognised by Britain as having ‘an exclusive... economic influence to the west of Abyssinia.’ They were also, should they obtain permission for the railway, to be recognised as having exclusive rights in the whole of the territory crossed by the line; while Britain would support their application for any further concessions which they might require. There was trouble over this with the French, who were not consulted, and who claimed that the Tripartite Treaty of 1906 had been violated—which indeed would appear to be the case. Sir Austen took some time to straighten matters out, and eventually was able to assure the House of Commons that the French were mollified.... But before the dispute between the Powers had advanced to this stage there had been remarkable developments in the status of Ethiopia. The small, pensive, unnoticed boy who had watched the first advent of European diplomatists to Addis Ababa, had come to manhood and to a throne. He was not yet sole ruler of his country, but under his control Ethiopia, after a thousand years or more of seclusion, had become once again a recognised member of the comity of nations. Ethiopia had joined ‘The League’ in 1923, and her territorial integrity was thus no longer guaranteed among themselves (with various private reservations) by three great powers—it was pledged by the fifty-two signatories of the Covenant, that is by almost the whole civilised world.
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May 30, 2021