Menelik (Menilik) II (1844-1913) was an Ethiopian emperor, who preserved the independence of his people by defeating a major Italian military expedition and who strengthened his kingdom through expansion and political and economic modernization.
Menelik II was born Sahle Mariam on August 19, 1844, in Ankober, one of the capitals of the autonomous central Ethiopian province of Shoa. The infant boy was formally named by his paternal grandfather, Sahle Sellasie, who was the first Shoan leader to rise to become a negus, or king. The name, Menelik, recalls the legendary son of Solomon and the queen of Sheba who, according to Ethiopian tradition, was the first ruler of Ethiopia, and the one to whom the family traced its ancestry. The story is told that the old Shoan king foretold that the boy would one day be a great man who would rebuild the Ethiopian empire. That such a day would come, however, was anything but certain since Ethiopia was then beset by wars and rebellions and lacked any strong, centralized authority.
Shoan independence came to an end following the brief and undistinguished reign of Menelik's father Haile Malakot (1847-55). The Shoan army was defeated by the forces of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II (1855-68), and Menelik's father died while on campaign. Along with his mother, a woman of humble origins, and leading Shoan nobles, Menelik was sent into exile at Tewodros's court, and Shoa was incorporated into the renascent Ethiopian empire. The boy was tutored by his guardian, Ato Nedaw, and, beyond receiving a clerical and martial education, learned much about politics from living at the court. Not only was Menelik well treated by Tewodros, but the emperor took a personal interest in the youth's education. Menelik rose to become a dejazmach, or earl, and married Altash, Tewodros's daughter.
By 1865, Menelik was faced with a difficult personal decision. Shoa had broken away from Tewodros's fledgling empire and a usurper claimed the Shoan throne. Deciding to flee the imperial court to reclaim his patrimony, Menelik quickly defeated the Shoan usurper and proclaimed himself negus. The young king built his power base from the Shoan army and conservative nobles. At the same time, he pursued enlightened policies such as extending religious toleration to Muslims and animists in his Christian kingdom. Fortunately for the young monarch, Shoa was relatively insulated from the civil wars which ravaged northern Ethiopia during the last years of Tewodros's reign. When Tewodros became involved in a diplomatic imbroglio with Great Britain over the taking of British hostages, Menelik remained neutral. Unable or unwilling to move against his former benefactor, Menelik's failure to join forces with the Europeans resulted in a major setback for the Shoan's ambitions after a British expeditionary force defeated Tewodros at Magdala in 1868. With Tewodros dead, power now passed to a rival named Kasa who used British arms to advance his claim to the imperial title. Although Menelik had also proclaimed himself emperor, he could only watch and wait when Kasa assumed the crown as Yohannes IV (1872-89).
Menelik had made a serious strategic blunder, as his biographer Harold Marcus points out, but he had also learned the value of using European power and technology for furthering his aspirations. He turned to the Italians and French for weapons as well as to other European countries for Western technology. It was roughly at this time that Alfred Ilg arrived from Zurich and began a long sojourn in Ethiopia, serving as an engineer, architect, and eventually as a trusted advisor to his royal patron. Likewise, Menelik also permitted foreign missionaries to enter his kingdom to convert the Oromo peoples who constituted a significant proportion of the population.
Beyond the importation of technology from Europe, Menelik recognized the importance of establishing diplomatic ties with foreign powers. Although he was forced to renounce his claim to the imperial throne and to do fealty to Yohannes in March 1878, in reality he continued to act as an independent sovereign. The Shoan negus had earlier cultivated the friendship of Egypt in its short-lived attempt at imperialistic expansion into the Horn of Africa. Menelik next went behind Yohannes's back and negotiated with the Mahdists, a group of fundamentalist Muslims who had taken power in neighboring Sudan. Furthermore, Menelik had long maintained friendly relations with Victorian England and had, in 1883, entered into a treaty of amity and commerce with the Italians.
The other significant development during this part of Menelik's life was the expansion of the Shoan kingdom. Imperialist adventures were made necessary by the need for increased revenues to pay tribute to Yohannes. Blocked toward the north by Yohannes, Shoan armies marched south into Oromo-speaking areas and to the east where they conquered the Muslim emirate of Harar. Using arms purchased from the West, these expeditions not only plundered these prosperous regions, but also gave Menelik access to important trade routes and new sources of ivory and slaves. Moreover, the Shoans established fortified villages throughout the newly conquered territories from which they maintained control and into which settlers and missionaries came from the north. Such colonization led to the diffusion of Shoa's Amharic culture into these newly aggrandized lands. This Amharization was a significant development because it contributed to the integration of diverse societies into Menelik's burgeoning empire. It is important to note that by forcing Menelik to pay tribute, Yohannes's policies had the paradoxical effect of strengthening his rival. Indeed, these decades were a turning point in Ethiopian history as there was a strategic shift in the locus of wealth and power in Ethiopia from the north to the south.
Menelik's growing might put him on a collision course with Yohannes. At a time when Yohannes was preparing to fight the Italians, Menelik concluded a secret agreement with Italy (1887), whereby he exchanged Shoan neutrality for European weapons. Although nominally a subject to Yohannes, Menelik even proposed that he act as a mediator between the Ethiopian emperor and Italy. However, the seemingly inevitable confrontation between the Ethiopian rivals was not to be. At the battle of Metemma in March 1889, Yohannes died fighting, not Menelik or the Italian colonialists, but a Mahdist army. Henceforward, no force could stand in the way of Menelik's ambitions.
Acting quickly, Menelik was crowned negus negast (king of kings), or emperor, on November 3, 1889. By May the following year, he had concluded the famous Treaty of Wichale with the Italian representative Pietro Antonelli. As the historian G.N. Sanderson has observed, the treaty was important because it insured that Italy would not recognize any other claim to Menelik's imperial title. For the Italians, the treaty confirmed their special relationship with Ethiopia.
From this point forward, however, relations between Italy and Ethiopia progressively degenerated. It soon was revealed that there was a difference in the Amharic and Italian translations of Article XVII of the Treaty of Wichale. Basing their assertion on the Italian text of the treaty, Italy claimed protectorate status over Ethiopia even though the Amharic version recognized Menelik's sovereignty. Beyond this diplomatic deception, Menelik became more and more suspicious of Italian ambitions in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigre. He renounced the treaty in 1893 and, even while famine raged in his kingdom, imposed new taxes to pay off the huge debts he owed to Italy. The failure of Italian attempts to divide and conquer Ethiopia through an alliance with rebellious Tigre ultimately led Italy to take more forceful measures. Italian forces moved into Tigre in December 1894, and Italy publicly proclaimed Ethiopia as its protectorate. In September of the following year, Menelik called for the mobilization of Ethiopia. Able to amass an army of 120,000 men, the emperor moved north and at Adwa, on March 1, 1896, met an overconfident Italian expeditionary force composed of 20,000 troops. By inflicting a crushing defeat on the Italians (70% of whom were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner), Menelik won Ethiopia another 40 years of independence.
The battle at Adwa also put an end to centuries of Ethiopian isolation. Menelik had demonstrated to the world that an African kingdom could defeat a European army and diplomats flocked to his new capital, Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian emperor proved himself an astute statesman and beat the Europeans at their own diplomatic game. Pragmatic in victory, Menelik did not seek to expel the Italians from their colony of Eritrea; instead, he settled for Italy's recognition of Ethiopian independence. Moreover he used the Europeans' concept of "effective occupation" to wring territorial concessions from neighboring French and British colonies. Finally, Menelik's policy of detente with Mahdist Sudan saved Ethiopia from continued warfare with his Muslim neighbors.
With the threat of foreign intervention removed, Menelik spent the last active decade of his rule strengthening centralized power and modernizing Ethiopia's political system. In the provinces, he replaced hereditary rulers with appointed officials and garrisoned troops in some of the empire's potentially rebellious districts. Changes were also made in the judicial system whereby appellate judges were placed over the provinces. As the emperor sought to enhance the national power of Ethiopia, he increasingly took a direct hand in administration and, like the great French monarch, Louis XIV, he identified himself with the state. Only when he recognized the nature of his declining health, did Menelik create Ethiopia's first cabinet in 1907. In addition, he sought to regularize taxation and end a system whereby soldiers in effect looted the peasantry.
In his last years, Menelik promoted a host of notable reforms in Ethiopia. Bridges and modern roads were built, a postal system was organized, and telegraph lines were erected. More important still, a railroad was begun which eventually linked Addis Ababa with the French-controlled Red Sea port of Djibouti. The creation of this transportation and communications infrastructure opened new markets as well as contributing to the national integrity of the empire. Among many other changes which occurred in this period were the introduction of a national currency and mint, as well as the establishment of the Bank of Abyssinia. The capital had its first hotel, Western-style school, and hospital, and a state printing press began operations in 1911.
Menelik at the height of his power was often compared with the great German nation-builder, Otto von Bismarck. Along with his diplomatic and military accomplishments, there was near unanimity among foreign visitors as to his intelligence and ability. Fascinated by Western machinery and technology, Menelik took a personal interest in photography, medicine, and mechanical devices.
Perhaps the greatest failure of his reign was his inability to provide for a stable succession. Beginning in 1906, he suffered a series of apoplectic seizures and gradually began to lose his faculties. The emperor designated his grandson, Lij Iyasu, as heir in 1908, and a regency was created since Iyasu was still a youth. By Octoer 1909, Menelik lay paralyzed and totally incapacitated. With the emperor supine, his wife, the empress Taitu, ruled in all but name until she was deposed by a palace coup in 1910. The untimely death of the regent and the impetuosity of young Lij Iyasu further contributed to the breakdown of centralized authority in Ethiopia. While the emperor lingered on, much of the work which he had done to build a strong national monarchy came undone. The merciful denouement came on the night of December 12-13, 1913, when Menelik breathed his last. The great task of modernizing Ethiopia lay unfinished and would be left to another great emperor—Haile Selassie.
Further Reading on Menelik II
A good analysis of Menelek is in Harold Marcus's chapter in Lewis Gann, ed., Colonialism in Africa, vol. 1 (1969). Richard Greenfield, Ethiopia: A New Political History (1965), is a good general history of the country, and Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians (1960; 2d ed. 1965), is a fine treatment of the people and their culture.
Additional Biography Sources
Akpan, M. B. "Liberia and Ethiopia, 1880-1914: the Survival of Two African States," in General History of Africa, VII. Edited by A. Adu Boahen, University of California Press, 1985.
Berkeley, G.F-H. The Campaign of Adowa and the Rise of Menelik. 1902, reprinted, Negro Universities Press, 1969.
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. Aldine, 1978.
Marcus, Harold G. "Imperialism and expansionism in Ethiopia from 1865 to 1900," in Colonialism in Africa 1870-1960. Vol. 1. Edited by L. H. Gann and Peter Duignan. Cambridge University Press, 1969.
—. The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844-1913, Clarendon Press, 1975; Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1995.
Prather, Ray, The King of Kings of Ethiopia, Menelik II, Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1981.
Prouty, Chris, and Eugene Rosenfeld. Historical Dictionary of Ethiopia. Scarecrow Press, 1981.
Pankhurst, Richard. History of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Ministry of Education and Fine Arts, 1970.
Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910. Trenton, N.J.: Red Sea Press, 1986.