Menilek II: Emperor of Ethiopia

Emperor Menilek II, also spelled Menelik, was born on Aug. 17, 1844, Ankober, Shewa [Shoa] and baptized as Sahle Maryam (ሣህላ ማርያ), ruled Ethiopia from 1889 until his death in 1913 as Emperor and King of Shewa from 1866 to 1889. Menilek II, the greatest ruler in Ethiopian history, modernized and expanded his empire almost to its present extent. In 1895, he repelled an Italian invasion force at Adwa with a costly victory and implemented a comprehensive modernization campaign.

After the war, with his internal position and international standing improved considerably, the process of territorial expansion and the formation of a modern empire-state was complete. Menelik II has been called the Father of modern Ethiopia.

Early Life and Rise

Emperor Menilek’s father was Haile Malakot, later negus (king) of Shewa. His mother, Ejigayehu Lemma Adyamo, was a court servant girl who married Haile Malakot soon after Sahle Miriam was born. His mother, truly loved Menelik however it is said that while pregnant she had a craving for raw liver, which her husband would not allow her to eat since it would be harmful to the unborn child. Consequently, the child born would be sickly and frail. Some suspected this was due to poisoning by Tigrean enemies of his father.

His ancestors had ruled Menz, the center of Shewa, since the 17th century, and it has been stated that they were even closer to the Solomonid dynasty of emperors who governed Ethiopia between 1268 to 1855. The crown name Menilek II was significant because it referred to Menilek I, a legendary son of Solomon and Makeda.

The emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros II, launched a nine-month war against the Shewan kingdom in 1855. Haile Malakot died early in the assaults, and Sahle Miriam was captured and taken to Amba Magdela, where Tewodros had established his mountain stronghold. He witnessed Tewodros’ perseverance in the unification and modernization of the realm as well as his heavy-handed and frequently violent tactics that resulted in the emperor’s failure and suicide during nearly 10 years of captivity.


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In 1865, Moshe Mertens escaped from Magdala and went home to Shewa, where he deposed Bezebeh and declared himself Negus of the Province. Moshe was towering six feet tall with dark skin and white teeth but had scars on his face as a result of smallpox. He impressed foreign envoys at his court as an ambassador. To better arm his military and garrisons and settlers who would come in their wake, he imported guns using the help of these diplomats.

On the death of Tewodros in 1868, Sahle Miriam, as negus of Shewa, aspired to the position of Emperor. However, he was not the only claimant, and he had to submit first to Tekle Giorgis (1868–72) and Yohannes IV (1872–89). Sahle Miriam was forced to concentrate Yohannes’ goals mostly toward the south and east before he died fighting the Sudanese in 1889. As a result, Menelik II was able to secure Shewa’s preeminence over other provinces. Sahle Miriam was able to take the imperial crown after Yohannes’ death, emerging as Ethiopia’s most powerful man and being named emperor.

Emperor Menelik II photographed on the throne in coronation garb.
Emperor Menelik II photographed on the throne in coronation garb.

Consolidation of power and the war against Italians

During Menilek’s rivalry with Emperor Yohannes IV and Yohannes’ son, Mengesha, he appeared to become friendly with the Italians, but a dispute soon arose. According to Article XVII of the Treaty of Wichale (Uccialli), signed in 1889 by Italy and Menilek, Ethiopia became a protectorate of Italy. It is difficult to imagine any circumstances under which Menilek would have accepted his country to become a protectorate. When he discovered the Italian intention, which was gaining some acceptance in Europe, he immediately rejected it. His answer was to disavow the entire agreement.

This act drew the Italians into an invasion of Ethiopia, which Menilek’s army defeated in the Battle of Adwa, on March 1, 1896. Following Adwa, Menilek’s Ethiopia was immediately recognized by the European powers as a genuine political actor. The devastating defeat of a European army raised Menilek’s international status considerably, causing a wave of foreign advisors, diplomats, and explorers to arrive in the nation.

The Treaty of Addis Ababa was signed on October 26, 1896, with a strong and geographically expanding Menilek as emperor. Within five years borders had been agreed upon between Ethiopia and Eritrea and relations normalized, that is without any protectorate status or special concessions given to foreign nationals. Many European nations including Italy continued to trade with Ethiopia but only within the framework of normal international business as equals not as conquerors with exclusive rights.

When Emperor Menilek died in 1913 he left a well-organized and united country with its frontiers secure, an established administration and education system, and the resources to carry out further development.

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