Articles in this series:
Series: Nineteenth Century
04. An Essay in Nineteenth Century Ethiopian History
`We saw last week that the British Government, after several years’ inaction, had agreed to Emperor Tewodros’s request to obtain craftsmen for him, but that his renewed detention of the Europeans at his court had led, in the autumn of 1866, to a hardening of the British attitude.
The Emperor’s attempt to pressurise the British Government by imprisoning its functionaries, though up to then surprisingly successful, had miscarried. British policy was now reversed. Rassam’s imprisonment, wrote Merewether on 25 September, 1866 was “so great an outrage and insult” that adherence to the plan of despatching the artisans to Tewodros was no longer possible. The British Government therefore decided that the workmen should still be despatched to Massawa, but not allowed inland until the prisoners were released ,and sent down to the port.
The workmen duly left the British port of Southampton, on 4 November, and arrived at Massawa on 10 December, but by then mistrust on both sides was so great that no agreement could be reached. Tewodros declared that he would not release the prisoners until the workmen arrived at his camp, while the British refused to send up the latter until the former reached the coast.
The Collapse of Tewodros’s Position
Tewodros, by this time, was no longer the powerful monarch he had appeared to be at the beginning of the dispute with Britain. His attempts at unification had entirely failed. Menilek, heir to the kingdom of Shawa, had escaped from detention at Maqdala, and declared his independence. Gobaze, son of the deposed ruler of Lasta, had seized power in that province. Kasa, a nobleman of Endarta, had made himself ruler of much of Tegray. Gojjam was also in revolt.
Tewodros, though still nominally Emperor of all Ethiopia , was in fact in control only of part of Bagemder, and even there faced many rebels.
Decision to Intervene
The British Government, fully aware of Tewodros’s declining strength, and increasingly angered by the long protracted imprisonment of Cameron, Rassam and their colleagues, at last decided, in July 1867, to despatch a military expedition to force the Emperor’s hand. The task was entrusted to a noted British officer, Sir Robert Napier, whose expeditionary force landed at Annesley Bay, near Massawa, on 21 October, before beginning the long march inland to the Emperor’s fortress at Maqdala. Tewodros meanwhile was making desperate efforts to transport the artillery made at Gafat and Dabra Tabor by his missionary craftsmen to that same mountain. There he had decided to give battle to the invaders.
The British expeditionary force, composed of 12,000 fighting men, two-thirds of them Indian, advanced inland without encountering any opposition. The British received considerable co-operation from Kasa of Tegray, while the latter’s rivals, Gobaze and Menilek, both showed themselves sympathetic to the expedition.
The first battle between Tewodros and the British took place at Aroge, just below Maqdala, on 10 April 1868. The invading force, which enjoyed overwhelming superiority of fire-power, inflicted massive casualties on Tewodros’s men.
On the following day, Napier wrote to the Emperor, declaring, “Your Majesty has fought like a brave man, and has been overcome by the superior power of the British Army. It is my desire that no more blood may be shed. If, therefore, your Majesty will submit to the Queen of England, and bring all the Europeans now in your Majesty’s hands, and deliver them safely this day in the British Camp, I guarantee honourable treatment for yourself and all the members of your Majesty’s family”.
The Emperor, an intensely proud man as Plowden had noted two decades earlier, refused to accept such humiliation. He replied to Napier with a remarkable letter which constitutes in a sense his last testament to the Ethiopian people. Addressing the latter he declared: “My compatriots, will you not stop running away unless I, by the power of God, attack (lit. come down) with you”.
Later in the same epistle, he turned his attention to his victorious adversaries, the British, he recalled the difficulties he had encountered, as a reforming ruler, and observed: ‘When I used to tell my compatriots, ‘submit to taxation and discipline’, they refused and quarrelled with me”. Alluding to the superiority of the British army, organised on modern lines, over his traditional-type forces, he added, “you have defeated me through men obedient to discipline. The people who loved me and followed me fled, abandoning me, because they were afraid of a single bullet”.
Writing in a sense his own epitaph he added:
“My countrymen were giving me ten reasons (for opposing me) saying, ‘He has adopted the religion of the Europeans, or he has become a Muslim..
“If God had allowed me, I had planned to rule all; if God prevented me, (my intention was) to die… From when I was born until now, no man knew (how to) take hold of my hand”.
After dictating these heroic words Tewodros attempted to commit suicide. He placed a pistol to his head, but his soldiers snatched the weapon from his hand. Negotiations with the British were then resumed. On 12 April the Emperor sent them a considerable gift of livestock, according to one account 1,000 cattle and 500 sheep, and, on being informed that they had been accepted, he released the prisoners.
Napier at first contemplated accepting the gift, which would have been interpreted as agreeing to make peace, but, on learning of the “magnitude and nature of the offering”, refused to accept it. On learning of this development the Emperor attempted to flee the citadel, but almost immediately afterwards changed his mind, and returned to Maqdala.
The British then launched their final assault, on 13 April. Tewodros, realising that resistance was useless, dismissed his followers, saying, “It is finished! Sooner than fall into his hands I will kill myself”. He then placed a pistol to his mouth and committed suicide, thereby winning himself a permanent place in Ethiopian history and mythology.
The British, having thus accomplished their mission, at once prepared to leave. From the outset they had no intention of remaining in the country, and had promised to withdraw as soon as the question of the European prisoners had been solved. It was only on that understanding that Kasa, the ruler of Tegray, had allowed them to pass through his province without opposition. Before departing the British troops destroyed virtually of Tewodros’s artillery (though one great mortar can still be seen at the site), and put Maqdala to the flames. They took with them the Emperor’s young son, Alamayehu, at the request of his mother, and close on a thousand manuscripts. Some of the latter were subsequently left behind in Tegray, but almost five hundred, including many of the finest, were taken to Europe, the largest number ending up in the British Museum (later the British Library).
The last act of the expedition was to reward Kasa for his cooperation by presenting him with twelve heavy guns, 725 muskets, and a goodly supply of ammunition.
As a result of the expedition, the European captives were thus successfully released. Tewodros’s attempts at unification and modernisation had, however, largely come to naught, and the country was once more faced with civil war.