In March 1896, the Ethiopian army, led by Emperor Menelik II, decisively defeated the Italian army near the town of Adwa, in northern Ethiopia, just south of today’s Eritrean border. As one of the very few military victories enjoyed by an indigenous people over an invading European army during the period of colonial expansion, Adwa served as a potent symbol for Third World nationalists. On a more practical level, the victory allowed Ethiopia to maintain its sovereignty even as the rest of the continent was carved up by the European powers. And it saved the Ethiopian monarchy, which would survive for another eight decades. Jonas tells the story well, aided by the presence of colorful characters, such as Menelik’s fiery wife, Empress Taytu, and the Italian officers whose bumbling ensured their own defeat. Jonas has little to say about Menelik’s other accomplishments as emperor, but the Adwa campaign was probably the high point of his reign, and he emerges as a crafty monarch and sharp strategist who ably manipulated the Western press in order to shape his reputation in Europe.
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