In 1863, the foreign Office, either through embarrassment or inefficiency, ignored a letter from the brutal, bibulous Emperor Theodore of Abyssinia. Incensed, Theodore imprisoned the British consul and several other Europeans by way of revenge. He accomplished in addition, his own downfall. The British, recently humiliated by the mutiny in India and defeat in the Crimean War, now showed that the lions tail could not be tweaked with impunity after all. A massive rescue campaign was mounted under the methodical and dignified Sir Robert Napier. It was a brilliant success: with no thought of annexing the country, Napier rescued the prisoners, humbled Abyssinia, and withdrew in safety, honour satisfied.
The safety and happiness of expatriates living abroad has always been a problem for their home governments. What should be done if they are imprisoned, robbed, tortured or killed? Nowadays the answer is that nothing can be done beyond diplomatic protest, for direct military action would raise an international outcry. But in the mid 19th century, this was not so. At the height of her power, Britain could protect or avenge her citizens almost anywhere outside Europe if she chose to. The question was - when military action was warranted. Not to act would damage British prestige which depended on a general belief in the Queen’s power to protect her subjects. On the other hand strong military action would aroused a strong reaction of humanitarian criticism and cost large sums of money. Worse, it might add unwanted regions to the empire.
The Abyssinian expedition of 1868, sent to save two minor diplomatic representatives and 58 other European hostages imprisoned by the half-mad Emperor was one of those rare occasions when Victorian Britain decided that honour and prestige justified military action despite its costs. By any standards it was a major undertaking no less that 13,000 British and Indian combat troops, a total of 291 vessels of all sizes, a host of servants and workmen and over 36,000 animals. From the day the first troops set foot in Africa, it took 9 months to reach the mountain fortress of Magdala, release the prisoners held there and evacuate the expedition. The cost was enormous £8,600,000. This astronomical figure raised a parliamentary uproar. It did however do a great deal to re-establish the reputation of Queen Victoria’s British and Native troops in the eyes of Europe and the world. The decision to use troops was only reached after every other form of persuasion even discreet bribery in the form of gifts had failed to free the captives.
In the years of his prime, Theodore was an imposing figure, dark-skinned, 5’8” tall and well proportioned and endowed with a naturally dignified bearing, he was every inch a ruler. A combination of robber-chieftain, idealist and madman. Periods of great courtesy and generosity frequently gave place to fit of insensate rage. Deep religious convictions contrasted with a complete disregard for human life and suffering. He was born in 1818 and was in fact named Liz Kassa the son of a minor Abyssinian nobleman. In 1855 at the age of 37, he felt strong enough to have himself crowned Emperor Theodore II, King of Ethiopia, King of Kings and the Chosen of God. He son turned to the remaining unsubdued portions of Ethiopia and waged a series of wars against neighbouring Muslim tribes. He saw himself as the preordained champion of Christianity and he realised the need to modernise his backward country.
In the 1840’s he made enlightened efforts to push forward social and political reforms. Unfortunately lasting success proved elusive, his country erupted into bitter conflict, revolt after revolt broke out against Theodore’s rule. In addition to his trusted British adviser Plowden being murdered, the death of his Empress affected Theodore’s reason and soon the Emperor devoted himself to mistresses and intoxication.
In February 1862, the new British Consul Captain Charles Cameron arrived in Abyssinia with gifts from Queen Victoria, particularly a pair of fine engraved pistols. The Emperor lost no time in sending a letter of thanks to the Queen and announced in it his intention of sending an Abyssinian delegation to visit London. Regrettably an oversight on the part of the foreign office caused this missive to be overlooked and not even a formal acknowledgement was returned. As month after month passed Theodore’s resentments and suspicions rapidly mounted. In the new year of 1864 he ordered the detention of Cameron and his staff. But this gave little satisfaction and in the weeks that followed a considerable number of missionaries and their families were rounded up and imprisoned. Some of the missionaries were cruelly tortured and Cameron himself kept in chains. It took some time for the news to reach London through Aden. The foreign office refused to regard the matter as serious and decided to send a formal reply to Theodore’s long neglected letter with gifts. The delivery was entrusted to an Iraqi diplomat named Hormuzd Rassam. He was in no hurry to deliver and it was not until January 1866, almost two years later that the letter was in Theodore’s hands. The Emperor expressed himself satisfied and agreed to free the captives. However, shortly after, Theodore’s torturous mind suddenly veered again and on his orders the freed missionaries and consular officials were intercepted on their way to the coast and seized once more.
Theodore now sent a new message to Queen Victoria indicating that further donations to Abyssinia would be welcome in the form of a number of skilled workmen, various types of machinery and an expert manufacturer of ammunition. The ruler of Abyssinia was impudently blackmailing the British Empire. On his return to Abyssinia in December, Victoria’s emissary, found that Theodore had transferred most of his captives to the isolated rock fortress of Magdala which the emperor was coming to regard as both his capital and his refuge. The government in London, far from complying with his requests now dispatched a formal note of protest dated April 16th 1867, but Theodore remained intractable. There was however a noticeable reluctance in London to take binding decisions on the matter in view of the fact that very little was known about Abyssinia. It was inaccessible and the Suez canal was not yet open and it would not be feasible to send troops from Britain direct. It was clear that any rescue operation would have to be mounted from India: nevertheless it became clear that the matter would have to be tackled.
It was obvious that the expedition to free the captives would best be mounted from Bombay, the largest naval station in East India with plentiful resources of supplies and shipping, and its army was in cantonments conveniently close by. The commander of forces there was considered loyal and capable in the person of Commander-in-Chief Sir Robert Napier. Her decided that any expedition would have to be landed near Massawa, on Egyptian territory and a large base established. The distance from Massawa to Magdala was estimated at 400 miles. When Sir Robert's extensive list of supplies required was received in Whitehall it caused a few raised eyebrows. The expense would be immense. The final decision was eventually taken that intervention was essential and placed Napier in command of the expeditionary force.
Robert Corneilus Napier, was a dignified man of 56, born in Ceylon in 1810 and the son of a gunnery officer, he had spent 30 years in India making his career in the engineers. He served with distinction both in the Indian Mutiny and the Second Opium War in China. Thus Sir Robert Napier was a soldier of no mean operational or administrative experience, although it was the first time an engineer had been selected for such an appointment. His career to date had taught him three main lessons which he now strove to apply, first the paramount importance of a properly equipped commissariat, secondly, the advisability of retaining a free hand over the conduct of the expedition as a whole, and thirdly the need to resist all pressures to mount ill-advised hasty operations.
He faced formidable operational problems, the complete lack of good roads and the extremely precipitous nature of much of the terrain would inevitably impede the 400 mile advance to Magdala. Then there were the problems of climate and health in Abyssinia. Lastly there was the need to consider the fate of the prisoners, any ill considered move might result in their immediate execution. Stage by stage preparations went steadily forward. The home government spared no pains. The foreign office secured Egyptian permission for a temporary base on their territory and sent its representatives scouring Spain and the Middle East for baggage animals. The Admiralty undertook the lighting and buoying the approaches to Massawa, provided three hospital ships and vessels specially converted for shipping animals. In India on November 11th after months of remonstration details of the composition of the force were announced.
There were to be 4 British and 10 native infantry battalions, a squadron of British Cavalry and 4 regiments of native horse, 5 batteries of artillery, a rocket brigade and a total of 8 companies of sappers and miners. In round terms this constituted a fighting force of 4,000 Europeans and 9,000 native troops, over 7,000 camp followers accompanied these units.
While all these arrangements were being pressed ahead in Britain and India, a reconnaissance party was on its way to Massawa. It was found to be inadequate but a practical disembarkation point was discovered at Zula. Preparations for the base camp did not always go smoothly at Zula, there was serious indiscipline among the native labourers and before the arrival of the water condensers fresh water resources proved incapable of providing the minimum rations. Not surprisingly, moral soon began to sink. In January 2nd 1868, Sir Robt. Napier and his staff arrived. Once ashore he immediately conducted a thorough inspection of the work in hand and was soon telegraphing the authorities in India requesting the provision of among other items 15,000 pairs of woollen socks, 15,000 blankets 500,000 lbs of biscuit and 100,000 lbs of salt meat and 30,000 gallons of rum. During the month of December 1867 a report was received that Emperor Theodore was slowly wending his way with some 8,000 warriors and 6 large guns to Magdala, but Napier was convinced that no “rapid dash” was possible. On January 29th the time had come for the commencement of movement of the main force. That same day the long, green, red and khaki clad columns with their seven mile tail of mule-trains, gun-teams, elephants and servants snaked their slow way over the coastal plain.
At the beginning of February Napier and the advance brigade were at their first base Adigrat. The higher ground was a welcome relief from the steamy heat of the coastal plain and the men were glad of their ground sheets and blankets. Alarm was spreading at home at the mounting expense of the expedition. The railway which had been intended to carry the bulk of the supplies across the coastal plain from Zula to Kumayli was making disappointing progress
From the start the builders were beset by harassing difficulties. Most of these were due to the Bombay authorities, “five different descriptions of rail” having been provided for the work ”on four different principles of fixing”. Several of the engines and much of the rolling stock proved defective. The advance brigade reached Antalo - 200 miles from the coast on February 14th and 4 days later the main body set out from Adigrat to join them. The going proved extreme and it was very difficult for the transport division to bring up the 170 mule loads a day needed to keep the force supplied. Napier had to order a large reduction on the amount of personal equipment being carried. Eventually even the coveted daily ration of rum had to be suspended. Nevertheless the health and morale of the British and Indian units remained satisfactory for the greater part of the long march.
Each day brought its own crop of difficulties, reveille was sounded at half an hour before dawn and the next nights camp was rarely reached before dusk. Later in February there came something of a breakthrough: a rendezvous was arranged on the banks of the river Diab with Prince Kassai of Tigre. The prince appeared with an imposing escort of 4,000 warriors. Napier spared no pains to impress the visitor. When the two leaders parted on the 27th February Prince Kassai had promised Napier every possible assistance.
BATTLE OF AROGI PLAIN. In March 2nd, Napier reached Antalo and the force reorganised into its two final divisions, the first commanded by Major-General Sir Charles Staveley, would become the striking force comprising 5,000 men, the second would be made up of the Antalo, Adigrat and Senaffe garrisons. The columns of the strike force set out from Antalo at daily intervals, the first on March 12th. Magdala lay about 100 miles ahead. Despite all this Theodore won the race to Magdala. Tensions were now mounting, news filtering through from Magdala on Theodore’s preparations to meet the invasion. At the end of the first week in April, Napier sent a demand for surrender to the Emperor, to which he did not reply.
Napier was somewhat reassured to learn that that the Muslim-Gallas tribes from whom Theodore had originally captured Magdala, had sealed off the fortress from the south. When the first division converged on the River Bashillo, the last obstacle between Napier and his quarry was overcome, and Magdala lay just 12 miles ahead. Theodore was meantime busy whipping up confidence in his 10,000 warriors, promising rich booty for one and all if they performed well. Throughout the night of 9th April 1868, Theodore went on a spree butchering several hundred of his hapless Abyssinian prisoners, hurling many, chained in pairs down a precipice. Early on the 10th April the warrior monarch left Magdala and marched to occupy the height of Fahla where 7 cannon including a 70 ton giant was sited. The climax of the campaign was near.
The fortress of Magdala itself forms part of an inaccessible mountain range that describes a half circle from west to east about 5 miles in diameter. The position which Theodore had occupied on top of Fahla, overlooked the Arogi plain and the sole practicable approach to Magdala - The Kings Road. Napier could not escape the fact that the mountain of Fahla was the key to Magdala. He would have to attack from the west and tackle each obstacle in turn. The precipices and ravines of the surrounding rocky terrain ruled out any other course. In addition, between the River Bashillo and Magdala there was no water. Every drop would have to be carried forward from the river.
On April 9th the order was given to advance and a reconnaissance team set off towards the head of a pass onto the Arogi plateau. The going proved exceptionally difficult even for Abyssinia. Within a few hours several infantrymen had collapsed from heat-stroke. The good news came that the head of the pass into the valley below through which the advancing force must go had been undefended and was now secure. Unfortunately a vulnerable defile through which everything must pass had conversely not been secured making Napier extremely anxious. He ordered the 23d Punjab Pioneers to move left to secure the head of the pass and join the mountain guns. It was not a minute too soon, for as the leading mules of the gun batteries emerged from the pass a salvo thundered out from Theodore’s cannon on the summit of Fahla.
Watching from the crest of Fahla, Theodore had noted the mule trains approaching up the Kings Road, but had failed to spot the position of Napier’s infantry column. Theodore ordered his favourite chieftain “Fitaurari Gabi” and 6,000 men to swoop down and loot the apparently unprotected convoy. Under cover of fire from Mount Fahla the whooping hordes of Abyssinian warriors covered the one and three-quarter miles to the British positions.
The King’s Own fanned out into skirmishing order and opened fire on Theodore’s warriors at a range of 150 yards with telling effect. Faced by the fire from breach-loading rifles the Abyssinians started to falter and soon began to fall back towards Fahla. The Abyssinians suffered heavy casualties from bullet, shell and bayonet. By seven in the evening with everyone soaked to the skin by torrential rain the action of Arogi was practically over. The superiority of well trained and well armed troops had been amply demonstrated. As dusk descended Sir Robert Napier ordered his jubilant troops to halt.
Theodore spent the night with his troops on the inhospitable slopes of of Mount Selasse. He decided shortly after midnight to negotiate. Sending two of his prisoners to Sir Robert to sound him out. Sir Robert told them to convey to Theodore that prisoners must be handed over without delay and he must accept an unconditional surrender. Theodore received Napier’s answer with scorn and returned his letter unopened.