The Sunday Mail

Empress Betul: Architect of the Battle of Adowa

Sunday Mail

HAD it not been for the lioness-hearted Empress Taitu Betul, most probably the Battle of Adowa might not have occurred (as it did) and the Abyssinian Empire might not have flabbergasted the invading Italian forces as they did.
March 8 was International Women’s day, in peace and love, long live all women globally. But in light of this, world history is greatly dominated by male heroes and their female counterparts, heroines, are usually nowhere to be seen or heard.
It is as if the phenomenon only applies to masculine members of society. Empress Taitu (Taytu/Taitou) proved this false assumption wrong long back before feminism and the gender equality “madness” became mainstream movement.
Empress Taytu Betul (Bitul) was born in Wollo from a Christian and Muslim family. She had a comprehensive education and was fluent in Ge’ez, the classical Ethiopian language. This was a rare achievement for a female at the time, as education was mostly reserved for boys.
Although Her actual date of birth is not known, Her baptismal name is Walatta Mikael. Her name Taytu means sunshine and She surely was, is and will always be sunshine unto her people, providing both warmth and security.
Empress (Itege/Itegue) Taytu was the third of four children in an aristocratic family related to the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia. Her uncle, DejazmatchWube Haile Maryam, was the ruler of Tigray and much of Northern Ethiopia in the 1840s, and a rival of Emperor Tewodros II.
Her father’s family were the ruling family of Semien Province, claiming descent from Emperor Susenyos I. Her grandfather was Ras Gugsa, a member of the powerful ruling family of Yejju, of Oromo origin, which had ruled as Regents in the Gondar during the ZemeneMesafint (Era 0f Princes).
After four failed marriages, Princess Taytu was married to Emperor Menelik II, who was still King of Shewa at the time (1883), in a full communion church service and thus canonical and insoluble. Menelik had not had such a ceremony with either of his previous wives whom he had divorced.
Their marriage was not just about romance but was also a political union sealing alliances with the northern regions of Begemder, Lasta, Semien, and Yejju. Empress Taytu was a loyal and respectful wife to her husband Emperor Menelik II. According to royal historians, she was co-equal with Menelik, who always consulted her prior to making important decisions.
Empress Taytu is the one who pushed Menelik to declare war against Italy at the Battle of Adwa, tearing up the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale between the Abyssinian Empire and Italy. Article 17 of the Treaty had two different meanings and the Amharic version contradicted the Italian version.
With no shame, Italians twisted words and matters to their advantage and their version proclaimed Abyssinia their protectorate. The clinically sound Amharic version recognised the sovereignty of Ethiopia and its relationship with Italy as just a diplomatic partnership, while the Italian version intended to subjugate Ethiopians.
The moment that discrepancy was uncovered, Empress Taytu was the first to agitate the hesitant Emperor and other men to stand up for liberty, independence and against Italian aggression. Menelik, who often prevaricated and postponed unpleasant decisions with answering, “Yes tomorrow”, found it useful to have his wife be in a powerful enough position to say “Absolutely not” to people on issues that he just didn’t want to personally refuse them.
As a result, Empress Taytu was increasingly unpopular while Menelik remained very much loved by one and all at court and beyond.
As a brilliant military strategist, Empress Taytu facilitated the downfall of Italy at the Battle of Adowa (Adwa). She had her own battalion, which Her Imperial Majesty (HIM) bravely commanded in the battlefield, fighting in the frontline and motivating men against retreat.
The Empress held a hardline against the Italians and when Italy invaded the Empire from its Eritrean colony, HIM marched north with the Emperor and the Imperial Army, commanding a force of cannons and cannoneers.
She also mobilised women, both as fighters and nurses of wounded soldiers. She fiercely led from behind the scenes without taking any credit for it.
At the Battle of Mekelle, HIM advised Ras Makonnen to cut off the water supply to the Italians in order to disgorge them from their entrenched and heavily fortified positions at Endeyesus Hill on the eastern part of Mekelle City.
Empress Taytu was also the receiver and analyser of intelligence information collected by spies, which historians have characterised as of crucial importance to the Ethiopian victory at the battle. This information enabled Menelik to attack the Italians at a site of his choosing, at Adowa instead of Adrigat, near the Eritrean border where the Italians expected to have a relative logistical advantage.
The Italians were hoping that Menelik and Taytu would meet them in Adrigat, close to where they had a well-protected military base.
Although Menelik was much younger than Taytu, love and cooperation defined Empress Taytu’s relationship with Emperor Menelik II. Their marriage was that of equal rights characterised by trust, respect and reciprocity.
Empress Taytu, architect of the Battle of Adowa, was an authentic Ethiopian leader and motherly figure who defended her nation by all means possible. Her deeds at a critical moment in Ethiopian history not only saved Ethiopia from European colonisation, but also paved way for the decolonisation of Africa.
This victory was the most significant of any African Army battling European colonialism during that time and it was practically and literary led by an African woman – Empress Taytu.
European papers praised HIM comparing Her with, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra of Egypt, Semiramis, the great Queen of the ancient East, Theodora, who ruled with the wise Justinian at Byzantium, Catherine of Russia and Tsi-An the dowager Empress of China.
Empress Taytu is also the founder of the city of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia and the first home to the prestigious Organisation of African Unity, founded by His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I in May 1963.
Just like HIM, Theodora, Catherine, and Tsi-An were of humblest origins, even a beggar maid may become a Queen. This is not a transformation to be realised in antiquity.