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Taytu Betul: The African Woman Who Defeated European Imperialism
Over the past few years, historic African women leaders have been spotlighted like never before. In August, Netflix and Jada Pinkett Smith announced they are teaming up for a much-needed series sharing the history and stories of African Queens during the continent’s pre-colonial area. However, there is one African woman leader who was instrumental in maintaining Ethiopia as the only country on the continent to never be colonized. Her name: Empress Taytu Betul.
The Ethiopian female leader defeated Italian imperialists and also founded Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city in 1886.
Born in Debre Tabor, in Begemdir, Ethiopia, her birth name was Weletta Mikael. She was the daughter of Betul Haile Maryam of Yejju and Yewibdar of Gojjam.
To keep with Ethiopian traditions, Taytu Betul married several times before marrying Emperor Menelik II in 1883 at the Church of Medhane Alem. The couple lived there for some time in a palace on the hill of Entotto. It seems to have been her idea to transfer her home to the city that would become the kingdom’s capital, Addis Ababa, a name given at her suggestion, meaning ‘new flower.’
In 1889, Menelik and Taytu were crowned Emperor and Empress. From the beginning of their reign, Taytu showed her skills as a strategic advisor, wary of foreign influences and distrusted Europeans.
The empress believed that Ethiopia’s strength lay in its culture, religion and mythology. Though well-informed about what was going on in the world, she was resistant to technological innovations and modern models of government. She read in the Geez language (the language of Ethiopian liturgy and literature), wrote poetry, and played instruments native to the country.
Taytu participated with Menelik in fighting the Italians at the Battle of Adwa, contributing a force of three hundred thousand soldiers to the Ethiopian army and leading a group of noblewomen who served as nurses and porters during the fighting.
For many historians, she was a great strategist. It was Empress Taytu Betul who presented the idea that the Ethiopian forces should conquer the area that would cut off the water source to Italian forces. After Ethiopians took the area, the Italians were not able to recapture the place, making this move crucial to achieve victory.
She was also present on the battlefield, praying and encouraging soldiers, and after the conflict, she gave personal assistance to the wounded. Taytu’s private army that took part in the battle had approximately three thousand soldiers and were said to be very well-trained.
In the book A history of modern Ethiopia, written by Bahuru Zewde, the campaign of Adwa had enlisted thousands of women camp-followers.
“At the top of these women, however, comes Empress Taytu, who command her own contingent of about 5000 infantry and 600 cavalry men and accompanied her husband to the Battle of Adwa. Though she was not the first to have accompanied her husband to war, Taytu remained to be the last Ethiopian empress to lead her army to war. Moreover, Taytu fought a war that she had paved the way for from the very begging.”
Taytu had vehemently opposed deals with Italy and the Treaty of Wuchale, which effectively made Ethiopia an Italian protectorate on paper. When Menelik and Taytu finally rode into battle against the Italians, she played a crucial role in strategizing and leading her troops to the front. She scored a significant victory at an Italian-built fort in Mekelle, where she defeated the Italians by cutting off their water supply.
Though an extremely successful empress, Taytu Betul had no heirs. She assumed the maternal role for Zewditu, Menelik’s daughter from another marriage, and exerted a strong influence on the future Empress of Ethiopia.
Taytu arranged Zewditu’s marriage to his nephew, ras Gugsa Wele, and there was suspicion that she intended to assume complete control of the throne after the death of her husband, who became very ill in 1906 and paralyzed in 1908. Her plans were thwarted by the influential Shewa’s advisers, who granted the male successor to the imperial line, Iyasu, the right of succession, forcing the empress to care only for the ailing emperor.
After his death in 1913, she moved to the church of Entotto Maryam and stayed there until 1917, when she died.
In 2020, the African Union honored Taytu Betul as a legendary Black woman on Africa’s Women’s Day, a recognition of her important role as a leader to fight and defeat European imperialist forces in the 19th century.