An Affair of Honor: The Abyssinian Campaign
In the year 1862, Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) found himself in dire straits. Much of his own nation had risen up against him, armed revolt spreading across the land. Only the heart of imperial power, from Lake Tana to his fortress of Magdala remained loyal. He found himself in a game of whack-a-mole, constantly engaged in armed conflict with an array of rebel forces. Abyssinia was also under threat from Muslim encroachment- Ottoman Turks and Egyptians threatened Abyssinia from Sudan and the Red Sea, while the Muslim Oromo tribe expanded throughout the highlands. Desperate, and at the end of his ropes, Tewodros begged the imperial powers of Europe for help. "Now came the definitive attempt, at the turning point of the emperor's career. Success might stabilize the internal situation; defeat would pull out the last prop. He proposed to send embassies with the ultimate objective of obtaining military alliances and agreements for technical progress." (Crumney, 1972. Priests and Politicians: Protestant and Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia)
Letters reached most of the major powers of Europe, including Russia, Prussia, Austria, France, and the British Empire. The response was a deafening silence. Only France gave any reply, and they only to make demands on behalf of a catholic mission at the edge of Tewodros's realm.
The Emperor's letter to Queen Victoria appealed to Christian solidarity in the face of Muslim expansion in the region, but this appeal had no effect. The British had a myriad interests across the region, and to them the Ottomans represented a valuable hedge against Russian expansion in Asia. The Suez Canal also motivated cooperation with Egypt and Sudan, as it represented the life-line connecting Britain to India, the jewel in her imperial crown.
In the face of rejection and the increasing hopelessness of his situation, Tewodros lashed out.
He turned his attention first to Henry Stern, a British missionary in Abyssinia. Stern had written about Tewodros before: "The eventful and romantic history of the man, who, from a poor boy, in a reed-built convent became... the conquerer of many provinces, and the Sovereign of a great and extensive realm." (Stern, 1862. Wandering Among the Falashas in Abyssinia) The Emperor had been cultivating a story that he was descended from King Solomon, and so perhaps this transgression is what first caught his ire. Tewodros captured Stern, along with his manservant Mr. Rosenthal. They faced physical abuse and imprisonment in cruel conditions, and many of Stern's household servants were beaten to death.
Initially, protests over Stern's imprisonment were led by the British consul Charles Cameron, until he and his staff were imprisoned too. Soon afterwards, Tewodros had imprisoned most of the Europeans in his royal camp.
The British turned to a man named Hormuzd Rassam, an Assyrian Christian from Mesopotomia. A gifted archaeologist, linguist, and polymath, it was hoped he would find a way to negotiate for the release of the emperor's prisoners. Initially, Rassam seemed to make some progress. The emperor was friendly towards him, establishing him in good quarters on the south shore of Lake Tana.
However, another man arrived at Ottoman controlled Massawa around this time, named C.T. Beke. He came bearing letters from the hostages' families to Tewodros, begging for their release, and these were forwarded to Tewodros. Beke's actions seemed to tip the unstable emperor towards a more hostile path. Rassam stated in his memoirs that "I date the change in the King's conduct towards me, and the misfortunes which eventually befell the members of the Mission and the old captives, from this day." (Rassam, 1869. Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia)
Soon after his change in heart, Tewodros made Rassam a prisoner, and his treatment of all the hostages became far harsher. The British began to consider an alternative plan- a rescue mission for all the prisoners locked in the fortress of Magdala. Authorizing such a venture was no small political feat. At this time, Prime Minister Gladstone and the Liberals were the ruling party in Britain and they were reluctant to embark on any costly imperial adventures. Yet the fact that British women and children were numbered amongst the hostages made for captiivating and hyperbolic newspaper headlines, and this incident was high in the public imagination. During a timely election, the Conservative party milked the situation for all they could, and in doing so committed themselves to sending some kind of military expedition. When they won, Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli found that a military campaign had become unavoidable.
The task was assigned to the Bombay Army, one of three British Indian armies. Veterans of the Persian War of 1856-57, and numerous other colonial campaigns, they would be led by an officer from the Corps of Royal Engineers, one Sir Robert Napier. This was an unusual choice in leadership, but also a sensible one, given the immense logistical challenge of operating in the Abyssinian highlands. They numbered more than 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, more than double that in camp followers, along with 40,000 animals, including 44 Indian elephants. Given the vast distance between any potential landing sites and the Ethiopian interior (Tewodros's seat of power), the British planners knew they would have to forage for food and supplies while on march. They reasoned that to avoid sparking additional resistance everything must be purchased, to maintain amicable relationships with local Ethiopians.
The force set sail from from Bombay in nearly 300 steam and sailing ships. An advance guard of engineers first landed in Zula on the coast of the Red Sea, and began to construct a port in October 1867. Even as they began to stretch miles of railway into the Abyssinian interior, an advance guard under Sir William Merewether was advancing up the Kumayli River to Senafe. Upon reaching the town, he sent two letters: The first was sent to Tewodros, demanding the release of his hostages. Rassam intercepted the message and destroyed it, afraid it would enrage the emperor and risk harm to the hostages. The other letter was addressed to the people of Ethiopia, essentially a piece of PR assuring them of their peaceful intentions towards any who did not support the emperor.
"It is known to you that Theodorus, King of Abysinnia, detains in captivity the British Council Cameron, the British Envoy Rassam and many others, in violation of the laws of all civilized nations. all friendly persuasion having failed to obtain their release, my sovereign has commanded me to lead an army to liberate them. All who befriend the prisoners or assist in their liberation shall be well rewarded, but those who may injure them shall be severely punished. When the time shall arrive for the march of a British Army through your country, bear in mind, People of Abyssinia, that the Queen of England has no unfriendly feelings towards you, and no design against your country or your liberty. Your religious establishments, your persons and your property shall be carefully protected. All supplies required for my soldiers shall be paid for. No peaceable inhabitants shall be molested. The sole object for which the British force has been sent to Abyssinia is the liberation of Her Majesty's subjects. There is no intention to occupy permanently any portion of the Abyssinian territory, or to interfere with the government of the country."
Within months, the British had trekked 600 kilometers into the Abyssinian interior, right to the very foot of the emperor's fortress of Magdala. It was an arduous journey, with each soldier carrying more than 50lbs of equipment, and traveling through rough terrain. Trails were at times non-existent and ropes and pulleys had to be employed to move stores and equipment up steep terrain. All along the way they were hemorrhaging men, who were posted at intervals to guard their tenuous supply lines. Despite these challenges they faced little resistance. The emperor's strength was already crumbling, with local lords quick to defect to their side. By this point, desertion had reduced the emperor's army to little more than 10,000 men, and those who remained were far less well trained or equipped than their British counterparts. Tewodros had marched to meet the British at Magdala, but barely arrived in time to put up a defense of the fortress. As historian Sven Rubenson notes, it was Tewodros, not the British, who found himself travelling through hostile territory. (Rubenson, 1966. King of Kings, Tewodros of Ethiopia)
On April 9th, the British reached the Bashilo, and "on the following morning, Good Friday, they crossed the stream barefooted, stooping to fill their water-bottles on the way." (Moorehead, 1972. The Blue Nile) That afternoon, the Battle of Magdala began. In the open valley between the British and the fortress, several thousand Abyssinian soldiers were camped, with as many as 30 artillery pieces. Foolishly, Tewodros ordered an immediate attack, and the soldiers, many of whom were only armed with spears, charged the British as they deployed. The British responded with a withering barrage of rifle and artillery fire. One captain remarked that "many a charred mass and mangled heap showed how terrible was the havoc, how awful the death" (Matthies, 2012. The Siege of Magdala: The British Empire Against the Emperor of Ethiopia). After a short and chaotic battle, the mangled remnants of the Abyssian advance guard retreated into Magdala fortress. From this point onwards, the fortress was under seige.
Negotiations began, and two hostages were released to offer Napier the emperor's terms. Napier continued to insist on the release of all the hostages- and here we see an example of the differential treatment afforded to the European hostages, as opposed to their native counterparts (some of whom had collaborated with various European powers). The European hostages were released, while the native hostages had their hands and feet amputated, before being thrown from the precipices surrounding the plateau on which Magdala sat. Following this, the assault of Magdala began.
Under covering fire from the British riflemen, members of the Royal Engineers blew up the first gate, driving the defenders in retreat beyond the second gate. They met little resistance from here on out, and as they passed the second gate, they found the emperor dead. He had taken his own life, with a pistol that Queen Victoria had sent as a diplomatic gift many years ago. A British eyewitness described the sight:
"Climbing a narrow rock stairway, we advanced quickly toward a second gate, through which we passed without meeting resistance. About a hundred paces beyond it lay the half-naked body of the emperor himself, who had taken his own life with a pistol shot. A strange smile was on the remarkably young and attractive-looking face, and I was struck particularly by the finely drawn, boldly aquiline nose."
The emperor was cremated in a local church, and as his body burned, the British began to loot the fortress, carrying away a treasure trove of golden crosses, rare antiquities, and other prizes, some of which remain in the British Museum to this very day.
The British destroyed Magdala, to prevent the local Oromo tribe- who were muslims- from seizing it. After the destruction of the fortress, they began the long march back to Zula. The expedition left many problems unanswered, one being that many of the hostages were unhappy about the prospect of returning to Europe. They had lived in Abyssinia for many years, and in some cases felt more closely connected to Abyssian culture than European culture. One observer stated that:
"Most of them, instead of thanking Providence for their final rescue, were not all happt with the new turn of events. They were indignant, upset, at having to leave Abyssinia. "What" they said, "are we suppoed to do in Europe now, what are we supposed to do with our wives and children back in our homeland- which has become alien to us? How are we supposed to live now among people who have becoe alien to us and whom we no longer like? What are we supposed to live on?"
Many of them would return to their adopted country later on. The lasting result of the campaign had less to do with the rescue of the hostages and more to do with the death of Tewodros, the destruction of Magdala, the looting of many Ethiopian treasures, and the birth of a new British military battle honor- Abyssinia. In the power vacuum left by this campaign, Ethiopia fell further into bloody civil war, which lasted until 1872, when Dajamach Kassai of Tigray crowned himself Emperor, taking the name Yohannes IV.
Historian Harold Marcus described the campaign as "one of the most expensive affairs of honor in history." (Marcus, 1995. The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia, 1844-1913)
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