Who was Menelik II?
Menelik II was the King of Shewa (1865–89), and the Emperor of Ethiopia (1889–1913). One of the most popular kings to have ruled over the African nation, he embarked on extensive expansion campaigns leading to the creation of a modern empire-state by 1898. A courageous and valiant warrior, he led his army to repel an invasion attempt by the Italians which earned him great fame and glory. Menelik was the son of Haile Melekot, the King of Shewa, and a court servant. Even though his parents were not married to each other at the time of his birth, his grandfather declared him as a legitimate heir. His forefathers had ruled over the kingdom of Shewa from the 17th century. His father died in a battle when Menelik was a young boy and Menelik himself was taken captive by the enemies. He eventually escaped and returned to his homeland which had since then been taken over by Bezebeh. A brave young man, Menelik successfully ousted Bezebeh and became the ruler of the kingdom that was rightfully his. Over the years he gained a reputation for fighting off Italian invaders and for expanding his territories. He was also known for modernizing Ethiopia and was respected for being a just and kind king
Childhood & Early Life
Menelik II was born as Sahle Maryam on August 17, 1844, in Angolalla, Shewa. His father Haile Melekot was the Negus (King) of Shewa while his mother Woizero Ijigayehu, was a servant in the household of Haile Melekot's grandmother, Woizero Zenebework.
His parents were unmarried at the time of his birth though they got married afterwards. In spite of being born out of wedlock, the child was ordered legitimized by his grandfather, and Haile Melekot named him the successor to the throne of Shewa.
In 1855, Tewodros II, the Emperor of Ethiopia, invaded the kingdom of Shewa. Haile Melekot died in one of the early battles and Menelik was captured and taken to Tewodros II’s mountain stronghold of Magdala. The young prince was just 11 years old.
Tewodros treated the prince well. He took a special interest in his education and ensured that he received martial training and learned about politics. The boy was even made a dejazmach, or earl, and was offered the hand of the emperor’s daughter, Altash, in marriage.
Meanwhile, Menelik’s uncle, Haile Mikael had been appointed as Meridazmach (“Supreme General”) of Shewa by Tewodros II. However, Haile Mikael rebelled against the Emperor and he replaced him with Bezebeh. He too rebelled against the Emperor and proclaimed himself Negus of Shewa.
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Ascension & Reign
After being in the captivity of Tewodros II for ten long years, Menelik was ultimately successful in escaping in July 1865. Aged 21 by now, he was a strong, well-built, and courageous youth who was determined to reclaim the throne of Shewa that rightfully belonged to him.
Menelik returned to Shewa and Bezebeh attempted to raise an army against him. However, Menelik had overwhelming public support and he proclaimed himself Negus.
After reclaiming Shewa, he set his ambitions higher and laid claim to the imperial throne. However, he did not take any overt action for as long as Emperor Tewodros was alive. Tewodros died in 1868 and Menelik decided to take action regarding his claim to the emperor’s throne.
Menelik was not the only claimant to the throne. Yohannes IV, a very powerful Ethiopian prince also vied for the emperor’s crown and was successful in becoming the Emperor of Ethiopia in1871.
Meanwhile Menelik focused on expanding his territories and directed his ambitions to the south and east. He successfully captured Arusi, Harer (Harar), Jima, Kefa (Kaffa), and several kingdoms of southern Ethiopia thus extensively adding to his territories.
Emperor Yohannes was killed in the Battle of Gallabat in March 1889, providing an opportunity for Menelik to claim the throne he desperately sought. Menelik acted quickly and was crowned Negus Negast (king of kings), or Emperor, on November 3, 1889.
Menelik had signed the Treaty of Wuchale with the Italians on May 2, 1889, ceding the northern province of Eritrea to Italy. However, there was a confusion regarding the interpretation of an article of the treaty—the Italian version declared Ethiopia in effect a protectorate of Italy while there was nothing in the Ethiopian version to support this claim.
In 1893, Menelik renounced the entire treaty and launched an attack on the Italians who had established themselves along the Red Sea coast. Several small battles were fought between the Italians and the Ethiopians over the years, culminating in the major Battle of Adwa (1896) in which the Ethiopians defeated the Italians.
Following the decisive victory at the Battle of Adwa, Menelik was accepted by the European powers as a formidable political force and the victory also made the emperor an internationally recognized figure.
Menelik is best remembered for the valor he displayed in the Battle of Adwa, which was fought between the Ethiopian army and Italian forces in March 1896. The Ethiopians soundly defeated the Italians who tried to invade the Ethiopian territories and attempted to build their own empire in Africa. It was the first crushing defeat of a European power by African forces during the colonial era.
Personal Life & Legacy
Menelik II was married thrice. His first marriage was to Altash Tewodros in 1864. The short-lived marriage ended in 1865.
He married for the second time in 1865. His second wife was Befana Gatchew, whom he divorced in 1882.
In 1883 he married Taytu Betul, a noblewoman of Imperial blood.
Menelik had fathered several natural children, including the three he recognized: Shoaregga Menelik, Zauditu Menelik, and Asfa Wossen Menelik.
The emperor began suffering from a series of seizures starting from 1906. His health steadily worsened over the years and Taytu Betul ruled on his behalf during his illness.
He died on December 12, 1913 after years of deteriorating health. Ethiopia was ruled by regents for a few years before his oldest daughter Zewditu I succeeded him in 1916.