Taytu Betel: The Woman Who Saved Ethiopia

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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The story of Africa between the years of 1870 and 1900 is a tale of unbridled aggression and imposition. European powers, desiring Africa’s plentiful natural resources and operating under the incorrect assumption that everyone in the world needed pasty white people leading them, forced themselves on the continent, taking what they pleased and leaving widespread destruction in their wake. For the most part, the African armies that stood against these invasions fell.

Except in Ethiopia.

There, an army of thousands, led by an empress named Taytu Betul, served the Italian army a defeat worthy of centuries of existential crisis.

The Unlikely Empress

There were many things unlikely about Taytu Betul’s defeat of the Italians, not least of which that she was at the head of Ethiopia’s armies in the first place.

Betul was a surprising bride for then Emperor Menelik II: at the time of their union, she was over thirty years old, unable to have children, and had been married four previous times.1 If you know anything about monarchies, you know that they like their brides young, virginal, and ready to pop out heirs. Betul was none of these things.

What she was, however, was an incredibly shrewd strategist from a powerful Ethiopian family. At the time, Ethiopia was a collection of warring factions. Menelik needed Betul’s pedigree to help legitimize his own claim to the throne and unite the different groups.

Betul was more than up to the task. Where Menelik was weak and capitulating, Betul was strong and decisive. It could be said that Betul operated under the maxim: “Do not harm but take no shit.” She was known to both personally cook for prisoners and starving countrymen, but also to poison people who disagreed with her.2  (So maybe she did cause a little, tiny bit of harm, but only if you got in her way.)

With Betul by his side, Menelik set about uniting the various factions into one, united front – just in time to deal with a threat from overseas.

Benvenuto in Ethiopia

In 1885, the Italians arrived in Massawa, Eritrea.

Why they were in Massawa, specifically, is kind of complicated – for the purposes of this story, all you need to know is that the Italians believed they had a claim to the land in Eritrea based on a series of complex negotiations and posturing between them, the Egyptians, the French, and the British.

The Italians were really excited about their adventure into Eritrea. The Italian government had been dealing with some discontent at home, and nothing distracts an unruly populace like a shiny new imperialist agenda. They arrived in Massawa firm in their belief that the time was ripe to seize their manifest destiny.3

In 1889, Menelik and the Italians signed a treaty which granted the Italians control over Eritrea in exchange for acknowledging Menelik and Betul’s claim to Ethiopia. Shockingly (not), the treaty was not on the up-and-up. The bilingual document said different things in Italian and Amharic: in Amharic, Menelik was the ruler of Ethiopia. In Italian, Ethiopia was a protectorate of Italy and under the control of the Italian government.

Unsurprisingly, things between the Italians and the Ethiopians began to deteriorate. According to legend, Betul was actually the first one to realize that the Italians were being a bit shady – but there are no actual sources to corroborate this claim.

By 1895, Menelik and Betul had spent the better part of a decade trying to forge peace between the two parties. The Italians, though, weren’t interested in anything that wasn’t complete control over Ethiopia and moved to bring more troops to rule by force.

Facing an imminent invasion, Menelik and Betul mobilized their people.

The Great Lady

As the Italians sailed to the coast, the armies of Ethiopia rose to meet them. At the end of one 5,000-person legion was Betul. Unsurprisingly, under her command, the troops were in perfect order, garnering praise from both sides.4  

Betul and her legion wreaked havoc on the Italians. Betul was basically single-handedly responsible for the Ethiopians eventual victory. At the Siege of Mek’ele, Betul told her troops to cut off the water supply to the Italian’s fort. Ten days later, running out of water, they surrendered.5

Betul was at the final battle of the war, too.

In 1896, the Italians and Ethiopians met for the final time at the Battle of Adwa. Multiple sources place Betul in the center of the conflict, raising her sword above her head and shouting at her men to take heart and charge.6

Whatever she did, it worked.

The Italians suffered a humiliating defeat and backed off, ready to negotiate sans shady treaties.

We’ll Only Speak to the Jezebel

The Italians weren’t the only ones shocked at their defeat. All of Europe looked at Ethiopia differently after the Battle of Adwa.

Not interested in suffering further embarrassment, the Europeans negotiated with the Ethiopians, for real this time. And most of the time, they met with Betul, recognizing the defiant nation’s real leader.

Betul became something of a legend in Italy – reports compared her to everyone from Cleopatra to Jezebel, by turns admiring and cursing her cleverness. To this day, she remains a linguistic legend in Italy. The phrase “Chi si crede di essere, la regina Taitu?” (“Who does she think she is, the Empress Taytu?”) is still used to describe women who act like they’re above their station.

Or, you know, women who just don’t have any qualms about using their plentiful gifts to show just how badass they really are.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910
  2. Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910
  3. Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910
  4. Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910
  5. Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910
  6. Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Taytu Betul: The Bad Cop Empress of Ethiopia.  Retrieved from https://www.rejectedprincesses.com/princesses/taytu-betul
  • “Taytu Betul: the Rise of an Itege.” Unesco.
  • Prouty, Chris. Empress Taytu and Menilek II: Ethiopia 1883-1910

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