1. Taytu Betul: Empress of Ethiopia

Win the battle or win the war?

The Empress wasn’t convinced. If she turned aside at Mek’ele, Menelik would go on alone. Could she risk the whole war on Menelik making the right choice at the right time? She shook her head.

“Imbi. I will stay with the Emperor. Send Ras Makonnen to Mek’ele.” She saw them exchange glances. Weaklings: they didn’t want to agree with her, but they didn’t want to argue with her either.

“But, Majesty, if I may…”

You may not. I will remain with the Emperor and the main army. Send Ras Makonnen.”

They bowed low. “As the Empress wishes.”

#

WHAT?!

The Empress didn’t match her husband’s shout, but the nobles watched her just as anxiously. Menelik’s displeasure might be loud, but the Empress’s lasted longer.

“What fool gave the order to attack the fort head-on?”

“Ras Makonnen, Majesty. He thought that the fort would be easy to take; there are only a few Italians, and perhaps a thousand Askari*. His guns were better, he said…” the man trailed off.

And how many have we lost to this madness?” The Empress’s calm was more terrifying than the Emperor’s fury: she had already decided the punishment, and they knew it.

“Hundreds, Majesty. Ras Makonnen begs mercy, but …”

“He will beg for his head! Imbecile! The Italians and those traitors are laughing at us! Is this how we fight a war?!” Menelik was storming about the tent threatening his cousin’s death while the messengers cowered. Taytu remained seated for a moment, then rose and spoke to her husband.

“I see only one solution. I must go to Mek’ele and settle this.” She seemed certain, but inside she cursed herself for not going earlier. Who would have thought Ras Makonnen would be so stupid? Must she do everything?

“My love, are you sure?”

“Ishi. I will go.”

#

In the end, the fortress of Mek’ele fell to the most formidable Empress Taytu, by the cunning strategy of diverting the river away from the fortress, so that our men eventually were forced by dire thirst to surrender. But this small victory led to our greater victory, for the Empress had been forced to turn aside from the main army in order to deal with Mek’ele, and thus her husband was left without her advice. Menelik thus decided to halt his armies, and await her return. Hearing that the Empress was not with the main army, I decided to make our attack at Adowa.

The moment of attack could not have been more opportune: the Ethiopians were in fact breaking camp, having exhausted the local population’s food. They were disorganised and unprepared, and our men and the Askari fell upon them and soon had the victory. Our victory will bring glory to all of Italy, for we secured even the person of the Emperor, Menelik, and have sent envoys to his wife the Empress that we will not release him until she agrees to our terms.

Our second empire is begun.

General Oreste Baratieri, letter to Italian parliament, 4 March 1896

What really happened…

Taytu Betul was famous for making up her mind, frequently answering requests with imbi “NO” (her husband was more into delaying tactics, with a “yes, tomorrow” formula). She wasn’t always popular, but the Empress got things done. Ethiopians and Europeans alike regarded her as co-ruler with her husband, as did Menelik himself.

The Empress was the public face of opposition to the efforts of Italian diplomats to make Ethiopia an Italian protectorate (have a look at the underhanded Treaty of Wuchale translation). When the two sides eventually went to war, the Empress was ready. She went straight to Mek’ele, had the river diverted so that the desperate  Italian/Askari garrison surrendered, and made it back to the main army in good time to oversee the rout of the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa. (She probably didn’t ride into battle herself – she doesn’t seem to have had any training – but it’s a popular image that shows just how central she was.)

And thus ended Italian colonial ambition in Africa for a generation.

*Askari: local soldiers serving with European forces

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