Who was Taytu Betul?
Taytu Betul (also Taitu Betul), whose name Taytu means Sunshine, was a sunshine for her nation when it was about to fall into the hands
of the Italian colonizer. Perhaps, there would not have been the famous
Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896, which marked the Ethiopian victory against colonialism, without Empress Taytu, for she inspired it.
Empress Taytu Betul was born in Wollo from a Christian and Muslim family. She had a comprehensive education and was fluent in Ge’ez,
the classical Ethiopian language; which was a rare achievement for a
woman at the time, as education was mostly reserved for boys. Taytu was
the third of four children in an aristocratic family related to the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia. Her uncle, Dejazmach Wube Haile Maryam, was the ruler of Tigray and much of Northern Ethiopia in the 1840s, and a rival of Emperor Tewodros II. Her father’s family were the ruling family of Semien province, claiming descent from Emperor Susenyos I. Her grandfather was Ras Gugsa, a member of the powerful ruling family of Yejju, of Oromo origin, which had ruled as Regents in Gondar during the Zemene Mesafint (“Era of the Princes”). After four failed marriages, Taytu Betul was married to Emperor Menelik II (he was still King of Shewa at the time) in 1883
in a full communion church service and thus fully canonical and
insoluble, which Menelik had not had with either of his previous wives
(whom he had divorced). Their marriage was not just about romance but
was also a political marriage sealing alliances with the northern
regions of Begemder, Lasta, Semien, and Yeju. She remained his wife until his death in 1913.
Empress Taytu was a loyal and respectful wife to her husband Emperor Menelik II.
According to royal historians, she was co-equal with Menelik, who
always consulted her prior to making important decisions. She was the
one who pushed him to declare war against Italy at the Battle of
Adwa—tearing up the 1889 Treaty of Wuchale between the Ethiopian Empire and Italy, a treaty whose article 17 had two different meanings in Amharic and Italian versions: The
Amharic version recognized the sovereignty of Ethiopia and its
relationship with Italy as just a diplomatic partnership, while the
Italian version made Ethiopia Italy’s protectorate. The moment that discrepancy was uncovered, Empress
Taytu was the first to agitate the hesitant Emperor and other men to
stand up for liberty, dignity and against Italian aggression.
Empress Taytu, as a military strategist, facilitated the downfall of Italy at the Battle of Adwa. She
had her own battalion, which she bravely commanded in the battlefield,
fighting in the frontline and motivating men against retreat. She also
mobilized women, both as fighters and nurses of wounded soldiers. At the Battle of Mekelle, she advised Ras Mekonen to cut off the water supply to the Italians in order to disgorge them from their entrenched and heavily fortified positions at Endeyesus Hill on the eastern part of Mekelle City. Taytu
was also the receiver and analyzer of intelligence information
collected by spies, which historians have characterized as of crucial
importance to the Ethiopian victory at the battle. This information enabled Menelik to attack the Italians, at a site of his choosing, at Adwa instead of Adigrat, near the Eritrean
border where the Italians expected to have a relative logistical
advantage. The Italians were hoping that Menelik would meet them in Adigrat, close to where they had a well-protected military base.
Independence and cooperation defined Taytu’s relationship with
Emperor Menelik II. Their marriage was that of equals characterized by
trust, respect and reciprocity. After Menelik was incapacitated due to
strokes in 1906, she essentially governed the country, angering all the rivals to the throne. She was ousted from power in 1910. After Menelik II’s death in 1913, she was banished to the old palace at Entoto.
Taytu Betul was an authentic Ethiopian leader. Her deeds at a
critical moment in Ethiopian history not only saved Ethiopia from
European colonization, but it also paved the way for the decolonization
of Africa. Her advice and action resulted in the defeat of the Italian
army at the 1896 Battle of Adwa, a
mighty European army defeat at the hands of Africans. Taytu strongly
defended national interests by overcoming challenges both from within
and from without. Just as there
was no Menelik II without Taytu Betul, there would have been no Ethiopia
without Taytu’s great strength, courage, devotion, and determination.
Taytu Betul was truly Ethiopia’s sunshine, and should forever be
remembered as one of the greatest empresses of Ethiopia and of Africa as