[ History of 
the Battle of Adwa ]

The Logistic Base and Military Strategy of the Ethiopian Army: the Campaign and Battle of Adwa, September 1895-February 1896.

By Tsegaye Tegenu
(Part One of Three)
[Part Two] [Part Three]


The battle of Adwa had a significant national and international consequences and it occupied a unique place in the Ethiopian and African historiography. The background and the events leading to the battle have been explained mainly from the perspective of diplomatic and political history . This perspective emphasises the military doctrines of Ethiopia (national ideology and military missions), skilful diplomacy of the emperors in the acquisition of war materials and the making of allies, the capacity and readiness of the Ethiopian army to undergo the hardships of the war, its morale, etc. These factors have been overemphasized so much so that in some circle they are being ascribed as determining factors for the outcome and aftermath of the battle.The present paper, however, attempts to explain the background and aftermath of the battle of Adwa from the perspective and analysis of the resource system of the Ethiopian state and its military strategic culture. Basically the paper deals with the manner of the acquisition and use of resources to accomplish concretely defined strategic tasks of the armed force. Within such framework of approach and analysis, the paper attempts to address two central issues: why Menelik won victory, and why he could not continue his military success and drove the Italians out from their colonial possession of Eritrea? An explanation to these complex issues lies in the study of the resource system and military strategic culture of the Ethiopian state. One premises of this paper is that the scale of military operation, the ways and means of preparing for a war depends on the form and size of the economy and military resources of a state. A military strategy which fails to consider the real military-economic resources of a state and the capabilities of an enemy to conduct war is adventurist, and as a rule, it ultimately suffers defeat.

The second premises of this paper is that the Ethiopian army was based on two qualitatively different types of resource acquisition and allocation systems during the second half of the nineteenth century. The first type of logistic system was based on the Rist-Gult system which was geographically entrenched in what was commonly called M!s!fint Hag!r, namely the present day highlands of Eritrea, the region of Tigray, Gonder, Gojjam, and Wello. The rest of Ethiopia was under the second type of resource system, namely the Gebar Mad!riya system, which formed the basis of the fiscal and military organization of Menelik's government .

The battles against the British military expedition at Meqdela (1868), against Egypt at Gundet (1875) and Gura (1876), against Italy at Dogali in 1887, and against the Mahdist Sudan at Metemma in 1889 were conducted based on the Rist-Gult system, while the battle of Adwa against Italy in 1896 was based mainly on the Gebar Mad! riya system. In terms of the social and ethnic origins, the identity of the troops which participated in all these battles was similar. All were drawn from the various ethnic groups and constituted the class of military nobility, regional aristocracy and peasantry. However, there was a difference in the manner of administration and using the human and material resources of the war. The troops of Adwa wererecruited basically through the Gebar Mad!riya system, which had qualitatively different methods of remuneration, revenue administration and provisioning which was in harmony with the form of the economy.

Methods and Means of Troop Remuneration in the Rist-Gult System

The army of Tewedros and Yohannes were raised by a fiscal system called here the Rist Gult system . Since the crisis of the sixteenth century , troops recruited through this fiscal system consisted basically two categories. The body guard/central troops and provincial troops. There were differences in the method of remuneration, command hierarchy, and service base of the two categories of troops. Body guard troops received annual salary and q!l!b-ration payment and their function was to guard the property and security of the prince, and perform some departmental functions including household services. Provincial troops were recruited from peasants who served as field force, and/or as transport and provision corps, and they were commanded by the local chiefs. During the Z!m!n! M!safint the source of income for the court troops came largely from the domain of the princes (known by different names as Gult B!t, Wusti Gulti, Y!-N!gash Gult, etc.). Provincial troops were recruited by tax exemption, as in the case of z!mach- soldiers and grant of the right of land tax collection such as Amisho. During this period ordinary land tax was administered privately by the Gult!gna, and princes were dependent on the local chiefs and the peasants to raise force . Since the time of Tewedros kings wanted to take over the responsibility of remuneration of troops and securing an independent provisioning system. Tewedros created a central treasury from which funds were drawn to pay the army. Initially he confiscated properties of regional princes, but these measure served as temporal relief of financial burden. With the increase in the frequency and scale of the kings campaign, more troops were recruited or integrated into the imperial army. At one time the number had increased so much increased that the tall of deaths and famine stricken among the king's soldier were quite many .

The emperor declared policy of Hag!r B!ge and collected payment of ordinary land tax through royal officials. With this policy the king abolished offices of hereditary govornorship, both at the local and regional level . The tax document of Tewedros, indicated that the total revenue of the king amounted to a quarter of a million in 1863/64. This amount excluded unrecorded revenue from direct and indirect tax collected from the regions of west and eastern Begemder, Wello. There were also other unrecorded sources of revenue such as livestock, judicial fee and extraordinary land tax. The amount of the king's revenue was a considerable when compared to the income of the king's of Z!m!n! M!safint . The income was, however, collected by attacking the privilege of the local and provincial Gult!gna, and this policy became a source of conflict. As his soldiers and number of campaign increased, the king introduced extraordinary land tax (F!s!s) in some region, and claimed payment of tax traditionally belonging to the church, and even demanded that some clergies must cultivate and pay him tax. Again this led to conflict with the church. The policy of T!s!ri (quartering of soldiers on peasant houses), which the king used it both as a means of provisioning and salary payment, became a burden on the peasant . The king looked desperately for a variety of sources of revenue which led him into conflict with the family of regional princes whose property he confiscated, with the local Gult!gna whose privilege he deprived by the policy of Hag!r B!ge, conflict with the clergy who were forced to pay extraordinary tax and relinquish some of their judicial right, and with the peasants who were burdened by the T!s!ri (billeting) and F!s!s (payment of extraordinary land tax) policy of the king. In his last letter written to Robert Napier, commander of the British military expedition force to Ethiopia, Tewedros wrote that his country men turned their back againsthim because he wanted them pay tax .

Yohannes, his successor, did not resort to the policy of centralization concerning the collection and administration of ordinary land tax payment. He followed the earlier practice of the system, and reinstituted Gult to their former holders . According to a preliminary study, with this policy the kings revenue from ordinary land tax decreased by 30 %, and this had an effect on government military expense. The king's income from ordinary land tax (Gebr) was that part allocated in the form of Wust Gulti and Y!-N!gash. His revenue from the ordinary land tax was not that considerable in size when compared to Tewedros. The total revenue of Yohannes includes from ordinary land tax, 35,927 Maria Theresa dollar (henceforward abreviated as MT$) from Mereb Melash, Tigray 20,851 MT$ , Begemder when controlled by his relative could amount 34,740 MT$ excluding payment in cloth. Compared to Tewedros, the income of Yohannes from ordinary land tax (Gebr) was less than at least by one-third. However, the emperor attempted to cover the decrease in revenue, through expanding imperial control over regions hitherto not yet integrated into the royal tax system and by other means such as imposing provincial contribution. Following the policy of Hag!r-Maqnat, the king quartered royal soldiers in the province of Hamassen, and eastern parts of Wello . The provincial contribution he could get from Gojjam and Shewa constituted a substantial amount.Assuming the figure of Branchi and Anatolle were correct, Shewa gave 80 000 MT$, and Gojjam 10000 MT$ three porters of gold, and a great number of cattle . The king's troop were fed largely by extraordinary land tax (F!s!s) and T!s!ri-billeting system. No figure for size of extraordinary tax F!s!s, but if we are to judge by the period of Menelik, the districts in the provinces of Sere paid 13090 MT$, Aksum paid 13090 MT$, Enderta 53360 MT$, Hult Awulalo 18612 MT$, Temben 110890 MT$, Agame 36294 MT$, and Adwa 34169 MT$. Total revenue from extraordinary land tax amounted to 279505 MT$. From salt trade about 6000 MT$ was collected , and no amount was given for custom tolls and market dues. In the 1880s emperor Yohannes could raise annually around 566,000 MT$, an amount which could be used for the court and royal military expenditure. The major part of the revenue came from extraordinary land tax and provincial contribution, which constituted additional burden to the peasant and imposition on regional princes. Income from these sources were precarious, and their continues flow depended on permanent hold of increasing number of troops, which again raise problem of expenditure. The purpose of discussing the revenue sources of Tewedros and Yohannes was to show the fiscal limits of their governments to raise more money in par with the frequency and scale of war . According to preliminary study, during the time of Tewedros there was about eighteen number of major imperial troop movements, and during the time of Yohannes, there was more than 31 major imperial troop movements. Constant mobilization and recruitment of soldiers was an increase in military expenditure, both for the troops of the court and the provincial-chifra. The emperors resorted to look for various sources of revenue, which were not dependable in nature. Ordinary land tax was not collected and administered by the state. It was localized and was in private administration. Through centuries, Gult, the benefit right from ordinary land tax, had become part of family property, and to abolish the system would cause conflict as was the case with Tewedros. To increase tax kings had to know who was paying and who was exempted, but this was the responsibility of the peasant community. In the Rist Gult system, land tax assessment and distribution was in the hands of the peasant community. The level of the total tax demanded from the decent group was fixed by negotiation with the community. Once this was done, the distribution of the land tax payment among descent members could be made according to custom and principles of measurement laid down by the peasant community itself. Princes did not know who was paying or exempted, and thus could not increase tax vis a vis the large number of troops and frequent of war. In regions where the ordinary land tax was paid in the form of Amisho, calculation of payment was made by percentage on the amount of produce from the land. Peasants paid one-fifth of the produce, and the total size which an ordinary soldier could receive depended on the number of cultivated farm lands. Uncultivated farm lands were not subject to taxation. The size of revenue which a soldier was entitled to receive could thus fluctuate from year to year by the system of rotation, bad harvest or household labour situation. There was therefore insecurity to guarantee the ideal needs of a soldier; indeed the whole method of remuneration affects the service base of soldiering. Peasants who owned land communally paid the expenses in keeping Z!mach soldiers and constantly supplying provision, in addition to the regular payment of the ordinary and the extraordinary land taxes. In the Rist Gult system, the peasant community and Gult!gna were the primary force in providing the logistic base of the state. Military expenses were rigidly dependent over a given portion, no mater how they fluctuated over the years. Increase in the number of soldiers and thus payment to them means, reclaiming of alienated land tax and/or increasing the burden of taxes on peasants. These were discretionary measures which could alienate the support of the Gult!gn and the peasants. Kings could not increase the basis for the land tax. Neither could they introduce land survey nor did the register the number of tax paying individuals. Other alternatives, such as extraordinary taxes and provincial contribution had their own problems. Extraordinary taxes were introduced in limited regions, and F!s!s and T!s!ri means burden to the peasants. Provincial contribution depends on the kings power and relationship with the princes. Thus, payment of soldier was not regular, and in fact there was no difference between provision and payment. With this method it was difficult to put troops on permanent footing. The battles of Meqdela, Gundet, Gura, Dogali and Metema were based on a precarious resource system. It is not difficult to see the desperate effort of the kings to over come the fiscal limits of the system to fight against external aggression.
(end of part one)
[Part Two] [Part Three]

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