Professor A. Chowdhury
March 7, 2013
Russian Protection of Ethiopian Independence in the Nineteenth Century
In the latter half of the nineteenth century the significant powers of Europe, including Britain, France, and Italy began fixing their sights on the ‘uncivilized’ nations of Africa for potential colonial expansion. While resistance was common, Africa was not equipped to defend against the industrialized armies of Western Europe. Thanks to Russian friction with Italy, along with both financial and military aid from Russia, it was possible for Ethiopia to stand as the only African nation able to resist European colonization during the scramble for Africa. Though not the only industrialized nation to aid the expansion and independence of Ethiopia, Russia is the key force behind the success of Ethiopian anti-imperialism in the 1890s. Relations between Ethiopia and Russia were stronger than those of any other European-African relationship at the time. Menelik’s eager-to-please attitude towards all European nations played a small role in this development. However, after tentative connections were established, Russia became extremely interested in the relationship, for the sole reason of religious similarity between Russians and Ethiopians. The Russian population and government were dominated by Orthodox Christianity; the nation of Ethiopia was predominately Christian as well. It is important to note that despite these partial religious overlaps, contact between the two churches had been sparse and largely negative. The Russian Church originally saw the beliefs of the Ethiopian Christians to be misguided, and even heretical. The Church in Russia, eager to improve relations with the Ethiopians and extend the influence of their faith, pushed toward a reunion of the two churches. The Russian’s goal was to bring Ethiopia into Orthodoxy in order to extract concessions from the population of Ethiopia. Even those exterior to the church’s influence declared Ethiopians as friends. Russia’s vested interest in the well-being of Ethiopia served to provide the Ethiopians with a powerful ally with which to repel European colonialism. The most significant barrier preventing Italy from expanding their influence within Africa upon arrival was rival European nations, not the resistance of the target nations of Africa. Even previous to the budding friendship between Russia and Ethiopia, or the show interest in Ethiopia by the Italians, Italo-Russian tension occurred within Africa. The deteriorating relationship between Italy and France – Russia’s ally– created friction between the two nations. When Russia began taking root within Ethiopia, violent conflicts between the two powers ignited, and Ethiopia was put into a situation describable by the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Though lasting Russian settlement within Ethiopia was limited, the presence of an opposing industrialized power weakened the ability of Italy to colonize the nation. Italy moved to extend their power within Ethiopia by declaring it an official protectorate in the Treaty of Uccialli in 1889. Both France and Russia refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of this protectorate. At the brink of war within Europe, France agreed to withdraw Ethiopian aid. However, Russia refused, and declared Ethiopia as an independent state. Due to loyalties of Italy to the Triple Alliance – consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy – they were deemed by the Russians (as well as the French) to be outside the European laws regarding the colonization of Africa. With resistance in both Europe and Africa, the Italians were severely crippled in their ability to conquer Ethiopia. This provided a significant foundation for Ethiopian resistance and was a strong factor in the outcome of the Italo-Ethiopian War which would ignite several years later. It is incorrect to...