Articles in this series:
Series: Nineteenth Century
03. An Essay in Nineteenth Century Ethiopian History
We saw last week how Emperor Tewodros, recalling the treaty which Britain had signed with his predecessor, Ras Ali, wrote to Queen Victoria, on 29 October 1862. The British Government, apparently not wishing to become embroiled in Ethiopia’s relations with the Ottoman Empire, however, filed his letter, with the result that no reply of course arrived.
A Letter Unanswered
As time passed and his letter remained unanswered, Tewodros, whose pride in his royal status had earlier been noted by Consul Plowden, became increasingly convinced that he was being deliberately slighted. Consul Cameron meanwhile made matters worse, for instead of travelling to the coast with the Emperor’s letter, as Tewodros had requested, made his way instead to Kassala and Matamma, on Ethiopia’s western border. He undertook this journey, as Plowden had done before him, to assist the people of Bogos, whom the Turks were then taking as slaves. Despite this laudable objective, his visit, which Tewodros considered as an act of deliberate disobedience, took him into Egyptian-occupied territory, and greatly angered Tewodros. The latter, learning of the exchange of courtesies between Cameron and the Turks, concluded that the consul was siding with the enemies and invaders of his country.
Not long afterwards the Emperor learnt that Henry Stern, a highly bigotted London-based Protestant missionary, had written a book Wanderings among the Falashas, which contained a number of unfavourable remarks about him, including the statement that his mother, so far from being a noble princess, had actually sold kosso, the traditional Ethiopian cure for tapeworm. Regarding such remarks as laissez-majesté Tewodros had Stern questioned, and a servant of the latter flogged to death. The missionary at this point put his finger to his mouth in a gesture interpreted as one of defiance, and was duly whipped. Stern, and another missionary, Rosenthal, were subsequently placed in close confinement.
“No Representative Character”
Shortly after this, in November 1863, Cameron’s secretary, Kerens, arrived from England with a letter from Earl Russell’s secretary, James Murray, reminding the consul of the minister’s earlier instructions to return to the coast. The message went on to state that Cameron was consul only at Massawa, and had “no Representative character in Abyssinia”. This statement seemed to signify a change in British policy, for Cameron, like Plowden before him, had originally been appointed “Her Majesty’s consul in Abyssinia”. The suggestion that he was now representative only at Massawa, a part of the Ottoman Empire, lent itself to the interpretation that the British, so far from responding to Tewodros’s advances, were withdrawing from contact with Ethiopia, and might indeed be about to recognise Turkish sovereignty over the country. That Murray’s letter reflected official policy was apparent from the fact that Lord Russell subsequently wrote to him that the British Government “do not approve of your proceedings in Abyssinia nor your suggestions founded upon them”.
Instead of the long awaited reply from Victoria, Tewodros thus learnt that the humiliating news that the British Government was actually withdrawing its consul. His anger crystallised around the rather paltry gift of a carpet which Kerens brought him. It bore the effigy of a turbaned soldier, attacking a lion, and behind the former a mounted European. Tewodros chose to give the picture symbolic significance. He declared that the lion signified the Lion of Judah, i.e. himself, the turbaned soldier the Turks or Egyptians attacking him, and the horsemen, the French, backing up the Egyptians. “But where”, he demanded, “are the English to back up the lion?”
The Emperor’s belief that the British were abandoning him to the Egyptians was no wild assumption, for British policy was then strongly pro-Egyptian: Britain, with its great cotton factories, was anxious, as Beke observed a few years later, to remain on friendly terms with Egypt, which produced 150 million pounds of cotton a year. This consideration was at that time of especial importance, for the American Civil War had made Britain more than ever dependent on Egyptian cotton.
News from the Holy Land
Further evidence of a British change of heart, to Ethiopia’s disadvantage, reached Tewodros almost immediately afterwards. The head of the Ethiopian convent in Jerusalem arrived at court with news that the Coptic Egyptian priests in the Holy City, with the help of the Turkish authorities, had endeavoured to seize his convent. Though the former British representative, Consul Finn, had protected the Ethiopians against such depredations, his successor, Consul Noel Moore, declared himself powerless to act without instructions from his superiors, who were in fact unwilling to intervene.
Tewodros, who had waited over a year for a reply to his letter of October 1862, had now reached the end of his patience. He responded, on 4 January 1864, by chaining Cameron and his party.
The Question of Foreign Artisans
News of Cameron’s detention led the British Government to search out Tewodros’s unanswered letter. A reply was speedily drawn up, and entrusted to Hormuzd Rassam, the Assistant British Resident at Aden, who after much delay, reached Tewodros’s camp in February 1866.
(For a fuller account of the above negotiations, and their sequel, see Percy Arnold’s lively, and very readable, book “Prelude to Magdala. Emperor Theodore of Ethiopia and British Diplomacy”, published by Bellow publishers in London, in 1991).
On receipt of the Queen’s letter the Emperor released Cameron, Stern, Rosenthal and his other European prisoners, but soon afterwards re-arrested them, together with Rassam, apparently in the hope of persuading the British Government to listen to his request for the despatch of artisans. Tewodros shortly afterwards sent another of the Protestant missionaries, Martin Flad, to England to arrange for the recruitment of such personnel.
The detention of Rassam, Cameron and their colleagues at first had precisely the effect Tewodros desired. At the end of July, 1866 the British representative in Egypt, Colonel Stanton, bluntly observed that “the release of the captives” depended “very much” on the “amount of satisfaction” Tewodros received on the question of the artisans. Lieut. Colonel Merewether, the British Political Resident in Aden, took a similar view, from which he concluded that the British Government should seek to gain the Emperor’s confidence by meeting the Ethiopian ruler’s requests ‘”frankly and most liberally”.
This view was accepted by the British Government, with the result that Flad was able to report to Tewodros, on 1 September, “The business Your Majesty sent me for to England is, through the grace of Christ our Lord, accomplished. The artists [sic] Your Majesty was anxious to get are found, and ready to come with me to your country’. As for the Emperor’s European captives, Flad added, “Queen Victoria is a little grieved, saying, Why has the Emperor not sent over to me the prisoners, whose relations are daily weeping before me. In reply to this I said, After having conveyed the artists to Your Majesty I shall come back, and bring the released prisoners over with me to England. This hope I gave to Her Majesty”.
Flad’s mission for the next few weeks seemed completely successful. On 18 September the missionary reported that the manufacture of the machinery needed by the artisans was “progressing well”, and was expected to be ready by 10 October. Four days later, however, news was received from Flad’s wife Pauline, who was still in Ethiopia, that Tewodros had again imprisoned the Europeans. The Emperor’s relations with them had indeed taken a turn for the worse. Rassam, in trying to arrange their departure, had aroused the monarch’s anger, while a false report that a British company had a contract with the ruler of Egypt to construct a railway in the Sudan for the invasion of Ethiopia increased his suspicion of Britain.
Tewodros thereupon ordered the captives to be taken to his mountain fortress of Maqdala. Flad reacted immediately, advising Merewether to abandon his plan of sending the workmen to the Emperor. “It is no advantage”, he declared, ‘”to send him the required artisans, because the release of the prisoners would, I fear, not be obtained. Most likely he would go on requiring other things from the British Government to which they could never surrender… I deem it advisable that Her Majesty’s Government should at once use stronger terms”.
The stage for war was fast approaching.