Wichale: The Attempt to Establish a Protectorate over Ethiopia

​On May 2, 1889, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and Count Pietro Antonelli of Italy signed the Treaty of Wichale. Menelik had a relatively long relationship with Italy in his rise to power, and the Italians supported him as he sought to become Emperor. The Treaty of Wichale, according to the Italian version, gave Italy a protectorate over Ethiopia, while the Amharic version did not. The events surrounding the Treaty of Wichale were of the critical moments that significantly altered relations between the two nations, culminating in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, where an Ethiopian victory maintained and asserted its independence.

Sven Rubenson collected the original treaties and their drafts, in Italian and Amharic, and presents a history of the Treaty of Wichale in his publication "Wichale XVII: The Attempt to Establish a Protectorate Over Ethiopia" (1964). This book was the first of the Historical Studies series published by the Haile Sellassie I University. In addition to reproducing the original treaties, Rubenson discusses the history of the treaty itself, the representation of this period in history (i.e. was Ethiopia a colony for these years or not), and a host of misunderstandings that have arisen regarding it. The author explores opinions about whose action, fault or intention it was to have different texts, with accusations made on both sides as well as possibilities of simple translation error. The matter remains unresolved, but available historical evidence points toward intentional Italian action.

This book is an excellent reference work and provides interesting insight on the use of the Treaty by different writers. At the time of signing, Italy shared the Italian version of the Treaty with European powers, which largely accepted it. The issue of different versions of the Treaty – one version in Italian and another in Amharic – only came to the attention of Emperor Menelik II after a correspondence with Queen Victoria. The discrepancy was identified, and Italian efforts to resolve the issue with Menelik II were not successful. After the signing, in many Italian works, Ethiopia was considered effectively a colony for the period that the Treaty was in effect, while Ethiopian and some alternative sources call into question the claim. Rubenson analyzes past Treaties and explores rich historical evidence in English, Italian, French and Amharic. This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the subject.

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