Articles in this series:
Who Lost the Battle of Maqdala?
Ethiopian students over many years have often asked why the British, after defeating Emperor Tewodros at Maqdala, in 1868, did not stay on in the country, and make it a “colony”, “protectorate”, “condominium” or “sphere of influence”.
I always gave three answers:
1. That the British had promised from the outset that they would leave as soon as the dispute with Tewodros had come to an end; further, that it was only on that undertaking that they had been allowed, by the Ottoman Empire, to land on the Red Sea coast, and, by Dejazmach Kasa (the future Emperor Yohannes IV) to pass across Tigray; and on that undertaking that they were assured the support of Gobaze, ruler of Lasta, and of Menilek, ruler of Shawa.
2. That the Scramble for Africa, which started only in the 1880s, had not yet begun at the time of the Maqdala battle, but that, had it already started things might have been different.
3. That in terms of comparative profit and loss, Ethiopia, with its difficult mountains, absence of roads, and relatively well armed soldiers, was not then as attractive as many other parts of Africa for the British to colonise.
Our dear friend Dr Berhanou Abebe has just completed an important new history of Ethiopia, in French, entitled “Histoire d’Ethiopie d’Axoum a la Revolution”. It is published in Paris, for the Centre Francais des Etudes Ethiopiennes, by Maisonneuve & Larose – and is already available in Addis Ababa bookshops.
In this book we find an interesting new analysis of the question of Maqdala and the British withdrawal.
Berhanou argues that the “unknown and difficult conditions” of the Maqdala campaign, including the 640 kilometre march inland, presented the British commander Robert Napier with immense logistical problems. He found it impossible to transport all his men and equipment to the theatre of battle. At the end of the journey victuals for the troops were scarce. No less than 10,000 beasts-of-burden, and 50 per cent of British Light Cavalry’s horses, perished. The first coming of the rains rendered any delay in withdrawal hazardous. There was no written guarantee of continued support from the local chiefs. As it was, the Maqdala “victory” cost the British Government nine million pounds Sterling.
The British evacuation of Maqdala thus appears, to Berhanou, not so much a “voluntary withdrawal” as a “retreat in calamity”; and Maqdala, as he sees it, was in fact not a British victory, but “a defeat for both Tewodros and Napier”.