Ethiopia's role in European politics resulted from French and British influence in the region. Ethiopia was one of the few territories which had not become a European colony, and Italy, a newcomer in the colonial bonanza, soon made its designs known. Unlike France and the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Italy, formed by the forcible annexation of several Italian monarchies in the 1860s, was not a particularly free or democratic nation. Despite a shadowy constitutional structure, control of the government was in the hands of a king who appointed senators and most ministers, and even determined foreign policy. The Italian nation's army and navy left much to be desired in terms of leadership and general battle readiness, a situation that changed little with the passing decades. Nevertheless, the other powers found it economically convenient to allow Italy to act as their unofficial surrogate, especially if this served to curtail France's occupation of British territories or vice versa. Italy received Massawa from the British in 1885 and occupied several Red Sea ports in 1886. Italy defended its acquisition of these coastal territories on the basis of securing these for trade.
Johannis was allied with the British in their war against Mahdist forces in Sudan, but attacked several of the Italian garrisons during a series of battles in 1887, and usually won. His troops were repulsed at Saati in January, but destroyed a force of 500 Italian troops at Dogali the next day.
In March 1888, when he led a force of around 80,000 Ethiopians to besiege the Italian fort at Saati, the occupiers refused even to leave their refuge to engage the attackers. In March of the following year, Johannis died as a result of wounds inflicted during a battle against Mahdist forces and Menelik II, negus of Shewa, succeeded him as emperor.
Born in 1844 as Sahle Miriam, Menelik II is often considered the founder of the Ethiopian nation as it exists today, having successfully united what were previously several disparate regions and peoples. This resulted from conquest as well as appeasement. He was king (negus) of Shewa from 1865 until 1889, when he became Emperor. The rapid modernisation of his nation was Menelik's greatest domestic achievement.
Menelik II had moved his capital to what was to become Addis Ababa. A rinderpest epidemic spread by cattle imported by the Italians broke out in 1888. In combination with a severe drought and an increase in the locust population, a famine developed that was to last four years. Continued feuding among Ethiopian princes did little to help matters.
In October 1889, Italy unilaterally declared Ethiopia a protectorate on the basis of the Treaty of Wechale, into which Italy had inserted a clause not present in the Amharic version of the document. (This seems incredible in the annals of diplomacy, but in fact Italian foreign policy of the period owed much to such tactics.) In the event, Italy had already secured control of Eritrea, to which Ethiopia's own claims were less than absolute.
But Menelik had to unite his people if he was to confront the Italian threat successfully. This was a gradual process involving extensive technological modernization as much as political maneuvering, but he was eventually able to raise a large, well-armed multiethnic army of 100,000. Outside Adwa (or Adowa) on 2 March 1896, Menelik II personally led his army to defeat an Italian and Eritrean force of around 15,000 troops, of which a third were actually Italian troops.
It was the first African defeat of a European army in the modern era. Italy was made to look incompetent or worse. The Crispi government fell and the Italians retreated to Eritrea. Ethiopian sovereignty was no longer questioned. The factors which figured to Italy's detriment were to Ethiopia's benefit. The Italian army would henceforth be seen as an incompetent force which in subsequent conflicts could achieve decisive victory only with the help of its allies, if at all, while the Ethiopians were viewed as noble warriors.
Menelik continued the modernization of his country. There was much to be done. Wider introduction of electricity, railways, telephones, schools, hospitals and paved roads were a few of his achievements. Though its ruler was Amharic and Christian, Ethiopia boasted absolute religious freedom. Unfortunately, Menelik II did not abolish or outlaw slavery, an institution which, though not widespread, still existed in some parts
of the country.
Upon his death in 1913, Menelik was succeeded by his grandson, Iyasu, who reigned only briefly. Iyasu was overthrown with the support of the Crown Council in 1916 for, among other things, having embraced the Muslim faith in violation of dynastic law.
Menelik's daughter, Zawditu, was crowned Empress in 1917, with the young Tafari Makonnen as regent and heir apparent. Kin to Menelik, Tafari was the son of Makonnen, cousin and advisor to the late Emperor. Makonnen was to have succeeded the Emperor but predeceased him. Tafari Makonnen, born at Ejarsa Goro, near Harer, in 1892, exercised considerable influence at court. He became King of Shewa in 1928. Following the death of Empress Zawditu in 1930, Tafari Makonnen was confirmed as Emperor by the Imperial Crown Council and ascended the Throne as Haile Selassie I, a name which means "Might of the Trinity."
Like Menelik, Haile Selassie was known as a reformer and modernizer, especially during the early part of his reign. He revised the constitution and sought to bring Ethiopia closer to the European style of monarchy and government, introducing various social welfare programs and attempting greater unification of Ethiopia's diverse peoples. It was at his urging that Ethiopia joined the League of Nations in 1923, having finally outlawed slavery.