If you know anything about Africa’s interactions with Europeans in the 1800s, you know that things didn’t go great for the Africans. Time and time again, a European “ally” nation would just happen to witness some malady befall one of their new African buddies. As a good neighbor, the Europeans would then prescribe their traditional folk remedy: military invasion. And so, time and time again, African armies would go up against European ones and lose.
But not in Ethiopia.
When its “ally” Italy began invading, Ethiopia defeated them in battle, and in so doing, made Italy collectively lose its mind. And this crushing victory? Due in large part to the foresight, skepticism, and unrelenting sass of one of the toughest women in Ethiopian history: Empress Taytu Betul.
Here Comes the Sun
From the get-go, Taytu (Amharic for “sun”) was an odd choice for empress. As one of the Oromo people — a historically-downtrodden ethnic group in Ethiopia1 — Taytu was subjected to female genital mutilation before she was even three months old. This left her unable to bear children2, one of the main expectations of any female royal. Moreover, before marrying emperor Menilek II3, she’d had four husbands4 and was over thirty years old (an eternity in Ethiopian marital terms).
But they were a good match. Not only did her lineage give his reign legitimacy (she was linked to the Solomonic dynasties5, a fact that overrode any concerns over her Oromo heritage), but she made him a more serious ruler by curtailing his womanizing ways6. A popular song of the time played off Taytu’s name and that of Menilek’s hated mistress, saying “the sun [Taytu] has dissipated the fog [the mistress].” With Taytu’s help, Menilek gradually united the warring factions of Ethiopia under one banner.
The two settled into a well-polished good cop/bad cop routine. Menilek II would regularly straggle and avoid taking unpopular stances by saying “Ishi, nega,” (yes, tomorrow), while Taytu would decisively say “Imbi” (absolutely not). She became a savvy adviser to his every political move, interrupting negotiations “often in a decisive and resolutely hostile way.” She was one of the first to realize Italy’s intentions to make Ethiopia its thrall7, and bluntly called Italy out on it: “You want other countries to see Ethiopia as your protege, but that will never be.”
By the time Italian-Ethiopian relations broke down in 1891, Italian diplomats came to describe Menilek as “weak, uncertain, and in the hands of his wife.” Which is to say, good hands.
“Weak, uncertain, and in the hands of his wife.” Which is to say, good hands.
After multiple attempts to sue for peace, Menilek and Taytu settled in to repel Italy’s immiment invasion. Taytu joined her husband on the front lines, traveling around with a personal force of 5,000 soldiers who, under her taskmaster guidance, “kept perfect order.” Witnessing the professionalism of her troops, a European observer wrote that Taytu “is a great lady, who perhaps in another milieu would have been a Christina of Sweden or a Catherine the Great.”
(White person code for “if she wasn’t black.”)
Taytu’s shining moment in the war came with the 1896 Siege of Mek’ele. Here, the Italians were holed up in a fortress, where they easily repelled Ethiopian assaults. Taytu took 900 of her men aside and instructed them to cut off the fort’s water supply8. They did so, and after 10 days of increasingly horrific suffering, the Italians surrendered.
A month later, the war ended with the Battle of Adwa, where Italy suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a united Ethopia. In multiple (likely exaggerated) histories of the battle, Taytu strode into the fighting herself. After seeing her soldiers beginning to lose heart, she dismounted, removed her veil, and yelled, “Courage! Victory is ours! Strike!” Some tellings even have the middle-aged woman armed to the teeth and plunging headlong into the fray. Which provided much fodder for earlier drafts of the above illustration.
“Who does she think she is? Empress Taytu?”
After the Italian defeat, the European nations, shocked at the Ethiopian victory, began negotiating in good faith — often with Taytu herself. The Italians, when negotiating for the release of their prisoners of war, specifically asked to speak to Taytu9. The Italian accounts of the time showed a country as divided as the United States after the Vietnam War, with some clamoring for revenge and others questioning why they’d even gone there in the first place. The Italian press took very polar stances on Taytu herself. While some compared her to Zenobia, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc, others spun up hoary tales of how she bathed in blood10, gossiped about her earlier marriages and purported side lovers, and began calling her a modern-day Jezebel.
To be fair, she was a divisive figure even among her people. On the one hand, she was capable of great mercy and societal progress: she personally cooked for prisoners and starving countrymen, inaugurated the Ethiopian Red Cross, founded the new capitol of Addis Ababa, and worked to kickstart many national industries, including wine production, candle-making, and more. In the words of one observer, she “applied herself not only to feminine works, but like quicksilver attended to perplexing business usually done by men, and succeeded at it.”
On the other hand, she could be a brutal politician and ruler. She filled the government with nepotistic political appointments in order to solidify her political base, especially as Menilek’s health declined. She was linked to a staggering number of poisonings11, she persecuted those who spread foreign religions, and she was rude to the point of xenophobic with European envoys – although, given Ethiopia’s history with Italy, that last point is a bit more understandable.
Also, in the accounts of many Europeans, she grew fat. Not that it had anything to do with anything — but they felt the need to mention it. At length. Repeatedly.
When Menilek’s health took a plunge, Taytu became de facto ruler for a couple years12 — and it took the a massive conspiracy on the parts of much of the Ethiopian elite to oust her from power. When Menilek finally died, Taytu stepped down and lived a fairly quiet life until her death.
Her reputation lived on long past her death – both in Ethiopia, where she became a national heroine, and in Italy, where she was, for a time at least, the linguistic gold standard for a lofty woman. The once-popular phrase “Chi si crede di essere, la regina Taitù?” translates to “Who does she think she is? Empress Taytu?”
- This is a much longer point than there’s time for — essentially, the Oromos used to be their own nation, but were conquered and made a part of what is today Ethiopia. While many Oromos have made it to positions of power, notably emperor Haile Selassie, to this day there is no shortage of anti-Oromo discrimination. ↩
- This cannot be concretely proven by historical record — but she had no children, despite having many husbands, extreme pressure to make a male heir, and a reported love of sex. The oral histories claim she was left barren from the procedure, which involved (be prepared to shudder) unsterile knives, shards of glass, or sharp rocks. ↩
- Although he wasn’t the emperor yet when they married, he would be soon, due in part to her helping Menilek solidify power. ↩
- Actually not that uncommon in Ethiopia, at least at this time. ↩
- A lineage mentioned at greater length in the entry on Gudit. Basically, much of the Ethiopian ruling lines trace their origins back to the pairing of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There is some suspicion on the part of historians that Taytu may have fictionalized parts of her biography, but it’s hard to prove. ↩
- According to one tale, when Menilek had one last fling with his mistress before marriage, Taytu promptly left him in disgust and set to marrying someone else. Menilek panicked and bribed off her new beau so that Menilek could carry through with the marriage. ↩
- Her being the first to realize it may be a bit of historical invention from Ethiopian propagandists, but the details of this whole fiasco are actually a fairly hilarious bit of political chutzpah. In the Treaty of Wuchale, Italy and Ethiopia laid out a partnership, but the translations of each side’s treaty were different. The Italian one said Ethiopia was now an Italian protectorate, while the Amharic one said that was just an option, for future discussion. After the Ethiopians found out, they were furious. What followed was a lengthy period of recriminations, and eventually an attempt to make another treaty. However, after signing the the second treaty, the Italians realized that the Ethiopians had used their own tricks against them: the Amharic version completely nullified the previous treaty’s offensive clauses, but the Italian translation didn’t mention that whatsoever. When the Italian envoy realized this, he publicly tore the new treaty apart and went back to Italy in a huff. Menilek and Taytu had some brass ones. ↩
- A trick straight out of the playbook of Mai Bhago. ↩
- This was probably a good idea, since Menilek II was determined to just screw around with them. The meetings that took place right after the battle saw him making small talk for days, asking Italy whether it was true that they had a type of chicken that laid giant eggs. Not a gracious winner, that Menilek. ↩
- See: Elisabeth Bathory. ↩
- The historian Chris Prouty dismisses most of these claims as rumor-mongering due to a lack of evidence, and so I’ve not really gone into them. Suffice to say, there were a lot of accusations of her poisoning people, dating all the way back to her first husbands and continuing throughout her life. While many of these claims don’t make any sense, a couple aren’t out of the question. ↩
- Europeans: “”It is the forehead of Taytu that is holding up the empire.” ↩
- Taytu is here depicted in a tent before the Siege of Mek’ele, playing chess with a European.
- She’s knocked over both his pieces and his glass of water — a callback to how she cut off the fort’s water supply.
- The European diplomat is standing up, soaked from having water tossed on him.
- She is, of course, holding up the queen. She was actually quite a chess player in real life.
- In the background, Menilek II is rallying the troops to take on the fort. Throughout, the crowd you can see tiny red umbrellas – these are parts of Taytu’s personal unit, which had a number of women in it, escorted by men shading them with red parasols.
- The man in the background is just a personal bodyguard, no real story there.
- The chair, table, tent layout, her clothing, and that of everyone else, is as period accurate as I could make it.
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Killing over three hundred people was a strange way to become Eleanor Roosevelt’s new best friend, but it worked for this Russian major.