Africa Review of Books

The Centre of Scientificand Technical Research in Social and Cultural Anthropology

The Siege of Magdala: The British Empire against the Emperor of Ethiopia
by Volker Matthies
Markus Wiener Publishers, 2012, 207 pp., ISBN 978-1-55876-552
The Maqdala Campaign – the expedition of the British army into Ethiopia in 1867 to get the release of Europeans (including the British consul, another British envoy and his two assistants) taken hostage by Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia (r.1855-1868) and to punish the emperor for incarcerating them – was a strange campaign of its time. It was a shortlived military expedition. It took place just before the onset of the era of colonialism in Africa, which meant that the victors could not entertain the idea of establishing permanent occupation. The campaign has attracted the interests of historians – professional and amateur alike – who have produced some of the best historical works on the subject. Unlike many of the earlier books, which were produced by Britons, the work under review is written by a German.
The grand expedition involved the participation of no less than 62,200 men (13,088 troops and 49,112 strong support staff), not to mention the huge number of animals put into use and, for its time, its staggering cost (£9,000,000). Ultimately, it was triggered by a small diplomatic dispute going back to October 1862, soon after the newly appointed consul of the British Empire, Captain Cameron, arrived at the court of Emperor Tewodros. He brought along two silver pistols for the African monarch. Tewodros took the gesture as a sign of friendship and wrote a letter to Queen Victoria (whom he considered to be his peer), asking for Christian solidarity in his struggle against the ‘Turks’, that is, the Egyptians. When it received the letter, the Foreign Office was not impressed and simply passed the document to the India Office for the
appropriate response. The latter did not find the missive of interest either, nor did it consider the African chief deserving of a prompt response. When he saw that there was no reply to his letter, Tewodros felt very much slighted. One thing led to another and, finally on January 4, 1864, the king placed Cameron and a number of other Europeans in custody.
The British responded to the act with an alacrity that contrasted with their earlier tardiness! They sent an envoy of Iraqi origin (Hormuzd Rassam) at the head of a small delegation consisting of two assistants and with a letter requesting the release of the hostages. Initially, the delegation appeared to have succeeded in its objective. Eventually, however, not only did it fail in its mission of securing the release of the hostages but Rassam and his colleagues also ended up being incarcerated. In 1866, Tewodros sent the two British diplomats, together with most of the other Europeans (missionaries, craftsmen, adventurers and explorers) who had also been taken hostage as well as their families, to his mountain stronghold of Maqdala. The British government considered this act a violation of international law, which guarantees diplomatic immunity. Even if there are no documents to support it, one can assume that Tewodros would not have had the slightest idea about the international law that governed relations between European countries. The British also regarded the hostage taking as ‘a humiliating insult to England’s national honour’ (p. 27). Yet, it was not easy to persuade the government to commit itself to the idea of sending an army to liberate the hostages and to punish Tewodros, who in their eyes was an uppity African chief! The advocates of a military solution to the hostage problem had to carry out considerable lobbying of politicians, write articles in influential newspapers and engage in debates in parliament to obtain the decision.
Finally, on 13 August 1867, Great Britain decided on a military solution. The sole purpose of the expedition was to liberate the prisoners and to punish Tewodros. In his communiqués to the expeditionary force, the commander, General Robert Napier, highlighted the fact that they were going into Ethiopia as ‘liberators’ while in his declarations to the chiefs and people of Ethiopia he made it abundantly clear that they had no designs on Ethiopia. ‘The sole object for which the British force has been sent to Abyssinia is the liberation of Her Majesty’s subjects,’ declared Napier in his missive addressed to the ‘governors, the chiefs, the religious orders and the people of Ethiopia’ (quoted on pp. 87-88).
After narrating the circumstances that led to the Maqdala expedition, the author moves on to the description of the campaign. Indeed, by the standards of the time, the force that was sent was a huge one – the biggest yet sent from Europe to Black Africa. This big force called for a formidable infrastructure to facilitate its journey to Maqdala and back – a modern harbour was built out of nothing at Zula, some one hundred and ten kilometres to the south of the major Red Sea port of Massawa; a 17- kilometre long railway line was constructed to facilitate the movement of people and goods from the point of disembarkation to a suitable location inland; and a telegram line was put in place along the route all the way to the mountain fortress, 640 kilometres away. The campaign took about six months (from December 1867 to June 1868). Thanks to the cooperation of some of the most important chiefs, who were already at loggerheads with Tewodros and who controlled the provinces traversed by the expedition, the march to Maqdala was fairly smooth. In fact, the ordinary people benefited from the arrival of the army by selling grains, forage, sheep and cows at a very generous price. The most formidable challenge came from the terrain: going up the numerous steep mountain slopes and descending down as many sharp gorges was extremely tiresome and presented to both men and animals the risk of falling off high cliffs.
The final clash of arms was a bare three-hour long affair. It was a battle fought at the foot of Maqdala on the afternoon of 10 April 1868 and that came to be known as the Battle of Arogé. As the author quite rightly shows, it was in actual fact a massacre of Ethiopian warriors rather than a battle in the true sense of the word. Of the estimated six to seven thousand Ethiopians who attacked the Anglo- Indian army, 700 to 800 were killed while 1,200 to 1,500 were wounded; this was against only twenty wounded on the British side, of which two subsequently died. The latter casualty figure was out of a total of 4,000 troops that had taken part in the battle.
Last minute negotiations were held on the following two days (11 and 12 April). Napier wanted his nemesis to surrender while Tewodros could not hear of it. At one point, the Ethiopian monarch even entertained the wishful thought that amicable relations could be established between his kingdom and Britain. Realizing that Tewodros would not surrender, Napier decided to storm the last stronghold (the palace, the royal treasury and the like) on 13 April. The assault did not encounter any serious resistance. When he saw that all was over, Tewodros committed suicide, depriving the British of the glory of capturing him. Matthies offers the following casualties: ‘…the British artillery’s bombardment killed about twenty Ethiopian warriors and civilians and wounded about 120, whereas a further forty-five Ethiopians were killed by rifle fire during the infantry assault. Altogether, the British troops’ casualties included only ten seriously wounded and five lightly wounded’ (p. 128). None of the hostages was hurt; in fact, they were well-fed and did not show signs of hardship. For all these reasons, Maqdala may not count for much as a military operation by any standard (indeed, it was no more than an event in British history). But it certainly left behind long-term consequences that would make it a landmark in the modern history of Ethiopia.
During his reign, Tewodros had many enemies, redoubtable rebels who succeeded in controlling most of the provinces of the kingdom and who commanded sizeable armies. But they were not able to depose him. In fact, he was so feared that they made it a point to avoid a showdown with him. The British army marched to his mountain stronghold and easily defeated the remnants of his once invincible army. When he saw the annihilation of his army, Tewodros committed suicide in a grand gesture of defiance to the mighty British Empire. This act absolved him, in the eyes of later generations of Ethiopians, from his tyrannical and very unpopular rule, and made him a hero and a martyr, an iconic figure of superhuman proportions.
On the ground in 1868, however, the sudden death of the monarch left behind a power vacuum. Ethiopia was even more divided than it was when the tragic ruler had taken over power thirteen years before. In the early 1850s, when the future Tewodros was fighting his way to the throne, all the regional lords recognized – at least formally – the supremacy of Ras Ali II. In the last years of his reign, however, the country came to be divided between (at least) three rebel lords (Gobaze of Lasta, Menelik of Shewa and Kassa of Tegray). Following Tewodros’s death, they contended for his throne. But none of them had built up the requisite military force and political following that would have enabled him to sit on it right away. Hence, a succession struggle ensued that lasted ten years, from 1868 to 1878. The tripartite division of Ethiopia ended three years after Maqdala when Yohannes decisively defeated one of his rivals (the former Gobaze of Lasta), using to good effect the arms that the British had given him. The training that his troops got from Kirkham, the soldier given to him by Napier, played a decisive role in the battle that annihilated the numerically superior forces of his rival. This victory over the lord of Lasta reduced the division of the ancient polity to two halves – between the newly crowned Yohannes (the former Kassa), who controlled the Northern provinces, and Menelik of Shewa, who controlled the central provinces. This division lasted until 1878 when, at last, Yohannes succeeded by virtue of his superior army in obtaining – without fighting – the recognition of his suzerainty by Menelik. The political centre thus shifted to the north after several centuries.
An important outcome of the Maqdala Expedition stemmed from the ease with which the British army scored victory at the Battle of Aroge on 10 April 1868. It led to two contradictory perceptions by foreigners and Ethiopians. Observers and diplomats in Europe and Egypt concluded that the Ethiopian army could be defeated easily. This under-estimation of the military strength of the country seems to have been behind the decision of the High Command of the Egyptian Army to try and invade Ethiopia in 1875 and 1876 without due consideration to the military strength of the Ethiopians. Such underestimation also seems to have informed the decision of the commanders of the Italian colonial army to venture into a frontal confrontation with the Ethiopian army at the end of the nineteenth century, with a relatively small force, culminating in the Battle of Adwa. Both invaders paid dearly for their bravados.
On the other hand, Ethiopians seem to have drawn a completely different lesson from the experience. As Matthies puts it, ‘the defeat at Maqdala thus resulted in a very successful collective learning process among the ruling elites of Ethiopia’ (p. 178). In all the engagements with foreign forces that the Ethiopian army got into after Maqdala, the blunder of Aroge was not repeated – that is, a massive frontal attack on a disciplined enemy, which was waiting, lined up to fire modern firearms – unlike Mahdist generals in 1898 who sent their forces headlong to attack the British forces! The latter simply pounded the Mahdist infantry and cavalry with their artillery and mowed them down with their machine guns, leaving on the battlefield 10,800 dead and 16,000 wounded to their 48 killed (p. xv).
When we study the battles fought in the subsequent years with foreign armies, we see that the preferred tactic of Ethiopian commanders was envelopment; it could be single or double envelopment or (as at the Battle of Adwa) multiple envelopment! This tactic turned out to be an effective one to cancel out the advantages of the enemy (a well-equipped and disciplined army) by optimal use of one’s own advantages (a much less equipped and less disciplined but numerically superior force). In this envelopment tactic, the enemy would be attacked from several directions, thereby preventing him from using his fire power to the full1. ‘Therefore,’ as the author rightly concludes, ‘Magdala became a turning point in the military history of Ethiopia’ (p. 177).
Another development that made the Napier Expedition a landmark in the history of modern Ethiopia is the looting of national treasures – a large number of medieval and post-medieval manuscripts, crosses and other holy objects of the Ethiopian church – by the British army. This unlawful plundering came to have ‘a very special significance for future scientific research on Ethiopia’ (p. 6). The treasures that were looted constituted ‘an incalculable loss’ for Ethiopia; conversely, they were, together with other sizeable collections in French and other libraries in Europe, a huge gain for European orientalists, who embarked on the study of the codices to reconstruct Ethiopian history, to translate them into one or another
European language, to study the Ge’ez language (the ancient Ethiopian language) – in short, to lay down the foundations of Ethiopian studies in European universities. Thus, the expedition was an important landmark when looked at from the perspective of the history of modern Ethiopia, even if it was a mediocre affair in military terms.
For a historian without a background in Ethiopian studies, The Siege of Magdala is indeed a successful work. But because the author is new to the field, several errors have crept into the book that would not normally appear in works produced by Ethiopicist scholars. He writes that Tewodros ‘was born in 1818, near Lake Tana in Qwara province…’ (p. 7). Lake Tana is not by any means in Qwara province. Moreover, historians now agree that the future king was born not in Qwara but in the city of Gondar. His homeland was not threatened in his boyhood, as the author would like us to believe, by ‘the Muslim Galla tribe that was expanding from Central Ethiopia’ (p. 7). The statement that Tewodros ‘…built a powerful and well-disciplined, and welltrained army, introduced fundamental reforms, and accelerated a modernization of Ethiopia along the lines of European technology’ is also not entirely accurate (pp. 7-8). The hapless monarch only tried to do all of these things; he was not successful in any of them! Matthies refers to the Amharic language as ‘Amharan’ throughout the book! The head of the Ethiopian delegation to the coronation of Edward VII in 1901 was not Teferi Mekonnen (p. 138) but rather his father, Ras Makonnen. It was the son – and not the father – who went on a grand tour of Europe in 1924 (p. 138).
A rather hard-to-explain omission is the failure to use the translation of Ethiopian letters done by Sven Rubenson et al (Acta Aethiopica, Vol.2: Tewodros and His Contemporaries, 1994) rather than reproducing (on pp. 116-117, 120-121) faulty translations from Holland and Hozier’s Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia. Matthies himself offers to his readers a significant mistranslation by the contemporary Britons in a long quotation taken from one of the articles of Rubenson (p. 119).
Towards the end of his book (pp. 169-178), the author raises the question – asked many times by readers (especially by Ethiopian intellectuals and university students) – of why the British walked out after they successfully occupied the country. It would have been interesting if he had sought the reflections of the actors themselves by going through the archives rather than offering his readers speculations. In actual fact, there is little need for speculation as the era of colonizing Africa lay in the future, thus rendering the question anachronistic.
In spite of these shortcomings, Matthies has given us a comprehensive account of the famous campaign and has succeeded in producing a good book. The engravings are very helpful to the reader. For anyone who seeks to get a good introduction to the Maqdala expedition, this book can be confidently recommended.


1 In some cases, Ethiopian commanders adopted other tactics. When they saw that the enemy had a small force under his command (as in the Battle of Dogali, 1887), they decided to lay ambush; or, when, realizing his weaknesses, the enemy built fortifications (as in the Battle of Gura, 1876,or the Siege of Mekelle,1895/6), they laid siege rather than attacking him frontally. Almost invariably, they scored decisive victories.


Shiferaw BEKELE


Pages  12-13

Africa Review of Books / Revue Africaine des Livres

Volume 09 N° 01,​ Mars 2013