“I am a woman and I do not love war, but rather than accepting this (colonialism) I prefer war.” Those were the exact words of Taytu Betul, Empress of the Ethiopian Empire, ruling from 1889 to 1913. She was the third wife of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and she founded Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.
Empress Taytu Betul (1853-1918) understood internal and foreign politics. She counseled the emperor on the devious notions of the colonialists. The Emperor consulted her before he passed a decision on key governance issues.
Combined with her compassionate nature was her passion and resolve to safeguard her country’s independence and history.
Of all the good qualities for which Empress Taytu is credited, her dedication to the emperor during the crisis that followed the dispute over the Wichale Treaty stands out. The supposed Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of Friendship and Commerce was discovered to include in Article 17 the intention of Italy to make Ethiopia a protectorate. This infuriated Taytu. During the course of the deliberations, the empress demonstrated considerable indignation and determination to oust the Italians of Ethiopian territories. As tension mounted, the empress persuaded the emperor to declare war against Italy. This culminated in the 1896 Battle of Adwa.
Count Pietro Antonelli, the lead negotiator is said to have remarked, “Menelik is playing games on me by giving up his regal authority to a woman.” To this the empress issued a retort; “My womanliness and your manliness is going to be tested on the battle field. Do not absent yourself!”
The empress seemed to be the main architect of the battle as she had her own contingent of close to five thousand troops and 100 women, including Princess Zewditu Menelik. She took command of provisional and medical operations during the battle, and positioned herself as a powerful moral force. Most importantly, she commanded operation to prevent Italian military access to all sources of potable water. This strategy worked in favor of the emperor and the Ethiopians prevailed in the battle. In the event of the Italians’ second coming (1935) Empress Menen, spouse of Emperor Haile Selassie I admitted the exemplary role of Empress Taytu when she said, “I shall do it as the august Empress Taytu did in her time. “ (Lancaster New Era, p.9)
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Empress Taytu not only excelled in matters of war, but also in times of peace as a champion of development. She founded Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia and named it. She built the Etoto Maryam Church, which still stands to date. She gathered homeless orphans and educated them to be deacons, priests, and raised many others to several prestigious government positions. She erected the first hotel, Etege Taytu Hotel, after her name that stands till today. She also established an association to promote agriculture and trade among many other initiatives. (Zewlede, p. 30).
Emperor Haile Selassie I indicated in his memoir that Menelik’s cabinet members resented Empress Taytu’s handling and running all major functions of government, and plotted to overthrow her. The interregnum between the avowed passing of Emperor Menelik and the ascension to power of Emperor Haile Selassie was full of intrigues and conspiracies. Empress Taytu struggled to maintain balance between the feuding groups, with the hope to help Princess Zewditu ascend the throne. But she finally was unable to withstand the crafts of her enemies and succumbed. The empress was ultimately exiled to Entoto and passed her last days in a reclusive life of prayer and fasting.
Powerful or controversial, Empress Taytu rose to the occasion and helped lay the foundation for a modern Ethiopia that is today. As such, her legacy has become a significant part of the contemporary Ethiopian history.