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Abyssinia, Episode 54 - 02/03/06


British elephant convoy (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

British army elephant convoy, 1868
(Getty Images)
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Abyssinia was not a colony but it illustrated the anxieties and vulnerability of the British in spite of their apparent global authority.

In the 19th century the new emperor, Tewodros II, Theodore as the British called him, complained that he needed help to defend Ethiopia against Islam - specifically from the Muslim Egyptians of the Ottoman Empire. But the British did not condemn the Ottoman Empire, which they thought might keep the Russians in check nor Egypt because it was an important source of cotton.

Theodore wrote to Victoria for help. She did not write back. Worse, Foreign Secretary Lord Russell announced that the consul in Abyssinia was to be withdrawn. Theodore regarded this action as demeaning. So he gaoled the consul. The British, three years after receiving Theodore's letter, sent a reply by envoy. Theodore, with all courtesy, put him in the same gaol as the consul.

In September 1867 the British told Theodore that they were coming to get their men out of gaol. His reply was to burn down his capital at Dabra Tabor and marched his army to the mountain fortress at Magdala. Roped to the end of his battle line were Her Majesty's local diplomatic corps.

The commander in chief of the Bombay army, Sir Robert Napier set out to rescue the two men (Abyssinia was in the theatre of British India) and teach Theodore a lesson. Napier had 60,000 troops, the latest Snider rifles, a railway, a naval brigade, a water condenser and well-boring equipment. Napier's genius was in his planning. The first battle, on Good Friday 1868, turned into a massacre of the Abyssinians. Napier demanded Theodore's surrender. Theodore's reply was "A warrior who had dandled strong men in his arms like infants will never suffer himself to be dandled in the arms of others." On Easter Monday, at 4pm, the British advanced on the citadel and within the half hour their flag flew over Magdala. Theodore was dead and British pride restored.

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Historical Figure

Robert Napier (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

Robert Napier
(Getty Images)
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Lord Robert Napier 1810-1890

Robert, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala, was a colonial soldier and born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He joined the Bengal Engineers in 1826 fought in the Sikh Wars (1845, 1848) and distinguished himself during the Indian Mutiny in 1857 especially during the campaign to relieve the siege of Lucknow (1858). He is most remembered for his campaign against Theodore II and the way he planned the expedition from India to Abyssinia leaving nothing to chance and deploying his men wisely over alien terrain. He was given a barony as a result. Later he was Commander-in-Chief in India (1870), Governor of Gibraltar (1876) and held what was then the army's highest rank, Field Marshal.

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Did You Know...

That when Theodore died, probably by committing suicide, a crowd came round the body, gave three cheers over it as if it had been that of a dead fox and then began to cut and tear the clothes to pieces until it was nearly naked.

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Contemporary Sources

An early British opinion of Tewodros the Second

Excerpt from a report by the British Consul, Walter Plowden, to the Foreign Office, 1855

"The king is young in years, vigorous in all manly exercises, of a striking countenance, particularly polite and engaging when pleased, and displaying great tact and delicacy. He is persuaded that he is destined to restore the glories of Ethiopian Empire and to achieve great conquests. He is of untiring energy, both mental and bodily; his moral daring is boundless. The latter is well proved by his severity towards his soldiers, even when these, pressed by hunger, are mutinous and he is in front of powerful foes; more so even by pressing reforms in a country so little used to any yoke, whilst engaged in unceasing hostilities and suppression of the power of the great feudal chiefs at a moment when any inferior man would have sought to conciliate them as the stepping-stones to empire."

An eyewitness describes how the Abyssinian soldiers were no match for British firepower

From Sir Clement Markham's notes on the Abyssinian expedition, 1868

"The Snider rifles kept up a fire against which no Abyssinian troops could stand. They were mown down in lines, and unable to get in range themselves. Hope left them. Led on by their gallant general, the Fitaurari Gabriyè, they returned again and again to the charge with great bravery. But it was like a man struggling against machinery. The most heroic courage could do nothing in the face of such vast inequality in arms. The Abyssinians in the ravine were hemmed in both in front and on their left flank and suffered fearfully. The ravine sides were covered with myrsine bushes, crotalarias, the labiate plant called tchendog, and gaunt kol-quall trees, so that the frightful havoc could not be seen at a glance. The river Dam-wanz that night was chocked up with dead and dying men and the little rill ran at the bottom with blood."

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