It was the oldest Christian monarchy in the world predating the nominal Christian monarchies of Europe by centuries and it had been fighting moslems since long before the Crusades – fighting for its very existence. Just as the United States today regularly abandons Christians in Africa – and almost everyplace else around the world – the British did the same thing in the 19th century. Both nations did it and do it for the exact same reason – political expediency. Theodore II would certainly not have met Aquinas’s definition of a Christian monarch but his betrayal and destruction at the hands of the British is just another black mark in the dark history of their empire.
In 1862, King Theodore II of Abyssinia made a request to the British for munitions and military experts. He was a Coptic Christian who was regularly engaged in warfare with his Moslem neighbours. He thought that an infusion of expertise from the British could help his realm in this turbulent part of the world. With this in mind he dispatched a letter to Queen Victoria asking for help. As time passed by, it became clear that the British Foreign Office had completely ignored this particular request. This did not please the King at all. He became even further infuriated when he found out that the British Consul, Captain Charles Cameron, had just returned back to Abyssinia after a visit to neighbouring Egypt; A country that the King considered to be one of his enemies. Exasperated by this antipathy of the British, King Theodore decided to hold Captain Cameron, and others, as hostages until he received a reply to his letter.
In what was little more than a creative accounting dodge, it was decided that the whole affair would be run and organised by the Indian Army. In this way, the British government could honour their expensive social programs at home, but still finance their expensive imperialist adventures overseas. In actuality, the government did not dodge the issues of cost at all. They merely delayed their installments by making the accounting trail travel over the Indian Ocean before being redirected to London with all of the consequent and timely delays that this involved. This political and financial chicanery meant that Bombay would provide all the necessary organisation and personnel. Sir Robert Napier was duly appointed as the Commander of the operation and he set about organising an effective force that could land in Abyssinia, march deep into the interior of the continent, keep supply lines open and fight and win a battle at the mountain fortress of Magdala. He estimated that he would require at least 12,000 soldiers to be successful in the endeavour. In the end, 13,000 troops, 8,000 labourers, thousands of horses, hundreds of camels and even elephants were despatched from Bombay on the 21st of December 1867. It took them little more than two weeks to reach Annesley Bay on the East Coast of Africa.
The long and arduous journey took nearly two and half months to complete with each infantry man carrying upwards of 55 pounds of equipment. In the course of the journey, they crossed plains, scrubland and farmlands before finally meeting with the hills and mountain plains that they would have to traverse in order to get to the fortress of Magdala. These mountains would present serious logistical problems. The trails were at times non-existent and ropes and pulleys would have to be employed in order to move stores and equipment. The unusual peoples, fauna and animals would make the whole experience seem quite surreal to the soldiers as they saw strange new animals or met with strangely attired native villagers. The weather was also unsettling, tropical downpours appeared from nowhere to drench the hapless expeditionary force. And all the time the force was loosing men as the commander ensured that his supply lines remained open by posting units and guards along the length of the route.
The intention of King Theodore may well have been to take the initiative, but the result was that he had completely and utterly lost it with his ill-advised attack. He had lost the bulk of his foot soldiers and most of the artillery. He had no option but to retreat into the fortress itself and await the final assault. He attempted to sue for peace but was only informed by the British that he and his family would be honorably treated. The British soldiers had become noticeably less sympathetic to their Abyssinian adversaries on discovering a mass of putrefying corpses who had been forced over a precipice near the fortress. They were thought to have been his prisoners, but the fact that a number of women and children were amongst the dead did not endear King Theodore to the British soldiers or elements of the British press. Some honour was slightly restored when he released all of his British hostages unharmed.
The body of King Theodore was discovered by soldiers of the 33rd near to the gate. He had committed suicide by discharging a pistol in his mouth. Ironically, this pistol had been a present from Queen Victoria. The remainder of King Theodore’s forces were rounded up and the fortress was cleared out. A few days later, the engineers destroyed the gates, the remainder of any ammunition and the city was torched. The troops then had to turn around and march the 400 miles back to the coast.
The barefoot emperor : an Ethiopian tragedy London : HarperPress, 2007 Philip Marsden Magdala, Battle of, Amba Maryam, Ethiopia, 1868, Theodore II, Negus of Ethiopia, d. 1868 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. xxviii, 404 p. : ill., maps, ports. ; 22 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 351-404). Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/ VG
A fascinating narrative excursion into a bizarre episode in 19th century Ethiopian and British imperial history featuring a remote African despot and his monstrous European-built gun. On one of Addis Ababa’s main roundabouts today sits a huge recently installed mortar. This is a replica of ‘Sevastopol’, a 70-ton lump of ordnance commissioned by one of the most extraordinary leaders Africa has ever produced – King of Kings of Ethiopia, the Emperor Theodore.
In 1867, as his kingdom collapsed around him, Theodore retreated to his mountain-top stronghold in Magdala. It took his army six months to haul ‘Sevastopol’ through the gauges and passes of the highlands. Sixty miles to the north, a British expeditionary force under Sir Robert Napier consisting of more than 10,000 fighting men, at least as many followers and 20,000 pack-animals, including a number of Indian elephants had been ferried to the Red Sea Coast and built a railway line through the desert.
Their object: to rescue the British consul and sixty Europeans, held prisoner by the increasingly erratic Theodore, who had taken to massacring his prisoners-of-war and pitching captives over the cliffs of Magdala. The resulting fate of Theodore and his mortar forms the climax to this strange extravaganza, in which an isolated medieval kingdom came dramatically face-to-face with an ascendant Europe.