It takes a good man to learn from his friends and a greater man to learn from his enemies. Menelik II, then Sahle Miriam, was born on August 17, 1844, in Shewa, Ethiopia. Menelik was still just a child when Emperor Tewodros II invaded the Shewan region and killed his father, Prince Haile-Melekot. Rather than ending Haile-Melekot’s line and killing a potential threat to his rule, the Emperor Tewodros decided to take the young boy into his court in Magdala. Miriam was by no means free — he was a political hostage. However, Tewodros didn’t relegate Miriam to some distant tower. Tewodros raised Miriam alongside his children and treated him well. Miriam learned what he could during this time from Tewodros, ultimately coming to understand and even share Tewodros’s hope for a unified Ethiopia. However, Miriam still wanted to be free, and in 1865, he fled the court with the help of other Shewan hostages.
The current governor of Shewa fled when Miriam arrived home, and the returning prince assumed the throne with little resistance, becoming King of the Shewa. He wasn’t willing to settle for just Shewa, though. Miriam watched Tewodros, and waited. Even when Emperor Tewodros died in 1868, Miriam remained patient. Miriam knew he would need support if he wanted to become the next Emperor. He also needed allies if he wanted to see his dream of a modernized and unified Ethiopia come to fruition. With that in mind, Miriam made connections between Shewa and nearby kingdoms. When the Emperor Yohannes, caught between expansionist Europeans in Egypt to the north, and a religious fundamentalist movement in Sudan, to the West, fell in battle, Miriam knew it was time.
Miriam took the title of Emperor and assumed the name of Emperor Menelik II on November 3, 1889. He drew inspiration for his new name from Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Under this name, he planned to make his reign a long one filled with prosperity for the people of Ethiopia.
One of Menelik’s first challenges as Emperor was the encroachment of the Italians, who had been, in a bit of double-dealing on the English part, “given” the Red Sea coast (the English wanted a buffer between their newly-acquired Egypt and French Somalia). Menelik negotiated with the Italians, signing the Treaty of Wichale. The treaty was intended only to give the newly established colony of Eritrea to Italy; however, it was misinterpreted to allow the Italians the right to claim Ethiopia. Menelik tried to resolve the issue peacefully, but he was ultimately forced to reject the treaty and defend Ethiopia’s land. Several skirmishes and one major battle at Adwa later, Menelik and Ethiopia stood victorious. With this victory, he negotiated the Treaty of Addis Ababa, which further established that Ethiopia was independent.
The Battle of Adwa was a turning point in world history. Before, European countries had thought of themselves as superior to nearly everywhere else in the world. But now, an African nation had successfully defended itself against a European one. With this success, colonized people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas took notice. Colonialism was not long for the world.
Following the treaty, Menelik moved to start modernizing Ethiopia and establishing it as a powerful nation with its own identity. He built the capital of Addis Ababa and created a national currency. Menelik further worked to develop a national infrastructure by building schools and making travel more accessible and comfortable through the creation of railways. He also made sure that people could remain in contact through a postal and telegraph system. Menelik wanted his country to prosper and grow both metaphorically and literally. He expanded his borders to almost the same size as the current ones thanks to his previous coalitions.
There were still voices, however, that Menelik knew weren’t being heard, and he was determined to make sure their words were spoken. He actively worked to suppress and ultimately destroy the slave trade within Ethiopia. Although previous rulers outlawed the “industry”, Menelik punished slavers with amputation and broke apart slave trading towns. Although he couldn’t change the minds of everyone within his nation, he made sure that the seeds were sown for future generations.
Menelik married three times both before and during his rule. He left behind his first wife after escaping Emperor Tewodros. It’s uncertain whether either of them was heartbroken over the matter since both married other people soon after. The same year that Menelik “divorced” his first wife, he married Woizero Befana Wolde Michael. Menelik loved her dearly, but he was forced to divorce her after multiple allegations of treason. Despite these allegations, Menelik still professed his love to her until his third and final marriage to Taytu Betul. He remained with her until his death. Taytu proved to be a powerful monarch and was an influential woman even before their marriage.
In 1909, Menelik suffered a stroke that left him a shell of his former self. The Empress stepped up to reign in his stead until Ras Bitwaddad Tesemma took over. His rule was short lived, however, and a council was formed to rule until Menelik’s death in 1913. The Empress was, to her chagrin, not invited to voice her opinions within the council. Menelik’s burial was quiet and sudden. There were no announcements, no ceremonies—just the silent passing of one of the most favorably remembered rulers of Ethiopia. His legacy left behind a stable country with an identity that remained even through modernization.