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Preliminary events-Letter from King Theodore to Queen Victoria- Imprisonment
of Englishmen- Ineffectual efforts for their release - Military expedition determined upon-Arrival of British troops in Annesley Bay-Address of General Napier to the ariny-Letters from the Captives-March on Magdala— The Bashilo ravine crossed - Encounter with King Theodore's troops-Surrender of the Captives-Storming of Magdala - Death of King Theodore-Magdala burnt-General Napier's address to the army- Results of the campaign.
In 1848 Mr. Plowden was appointed British Consul in Abyssinia, and he continued to hold that office until 1860. The ruler of the country was Dejajmatch Kasai, who had usurped the throne, and on his coronation in 1855 assumed the name and style of “ Theodorus, King of Ethiopia,” there being an ancient prophecy that a king of this name would reform Abyssinia, restore the Christian faith, and become master of the world. He had a new seal engraved with the motto “ King of Kings." His capital was Magdala, a fortress crowning a steep and lofty height, which properly defended would be almost impregnable.. In 1860 Mr. Plowden, while on his way to Massowah, was attacked near Gondar by a band of rebels, and received a wound of which he soon afterwards died. King Theodore seems to have sincerely lamented his death, and he took signal vengeance on his murderers. In 1861 Captain Cameron was appointed Consul in the place of Mr. Plowden, and he proceeded to Abyssinia. At the end of October in that year the King addressed a letter to Queen Victoria, which was in the following terms :
“ In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, one God in Trinity, chosen by God, King of Kings, Theodorus of Ethiopia to her Majesty Victoria, Queen of England. I hope your Majesty is in good health. By the power of God I am well. My fathers the Emperors having forgotten our Creator, He handed over their kingdom to the Gallas and Turks. But God created me, lifted me out of the dust, and restored this empire to my rule. He endowed me with power, and enabled me to stand in the place of my fathers. By His power I drove away the Gallas. But for the Turks, I have told them to leave the land of my ancestors. They refuse. I am now going to wrestle with them. Mr. Plowden, and my late Grand. Chamberlain, the Englishman Bell, used to tell me that there is a great Christian Queen, who loves all Christians. When they said to me this, “We are able to make you known to her, and to establish friendship between you,' then in those times I was very glad. I gave them my love, thinking that I had found your Majesty's good-will. All men are subject
to death, and my enemies, thinking to injure me, killed these my friends. But by the power of God I have exterminated those enemies, not leaving one alive, though they were of my own family, that I may get, by the power of God, your friendship.
“I was prevented by the Turks occupying the sea-coast from sending you an Embassy when I was in difficulty. Consul Cameron arrived with a letter and presents of friendship. By the power of God I was very glad hearing of your welfare, and being assured of your amity. I have received your presents, and thank you much.
“I fear that if I send ambassadors with presents of amity by Consul Cameron, they may be arrested by the Turks.
“And now I wish that you may arrange for the safe passage of my ambassadors every where on the road.
“I wish to have an answer to this letter by Consul Cameron, and that he may conduct my Embassy to England. See how the Islam oppress the Christian!"
Mr. Cameron forwarded this letter to England, and then went into the frontier province of Bogos. The Christian inhabitants of that region had been under the protection of the British Consul, and Mr. Cameron thought that he was justified in following the steps of the former Consul, Mr. Plowden. King Theodore, however, imagined that he was interfering with the internal politics of the country in behalf of his enemies, and was especially angry because Mr. Cameron, after visiting Bogos, went into the neighbouring Egyptian provinces. To use the King's own expression, “He went to the Turks, who do not love me. . . . He stayed with them some time and returned to me.” Earl Russell also signified his disapproval of Mr. Cameron's conduct, and in a despatch to Colonel Stanton, the British Consul in Egypt, dated the 5th of October, 1865, he said, “ Captain Cameron in going to Bogos acted without orders, and incurred the displeasure of his own Government.” And no doubt if Captain Cameron did interfere in the obscure politics of the country he did wrong, for no one can doubt the wisdom of the course prescribed by Lord Stanley in a despatch addressed to Colonel Stanton on the 15th of December, 1866, when he said, “Her Majesty's Government do not feel themselves in any way called on to interfere in differences and disputes between native tribes residing respectively on the frontiers of Egypt and Abyssinia.” But it must be stated in Captain Cameron's defence that he was not without excuse for the course he adopted in visiting the Egyptian provinces. He says in a letter written by him from Magdala on the 13th of November, 1866, “At Bogos I got a letter from the Foreign Office directing me to report on the comparative merits of Souakin and Massowah as the seat of a Consulate ; also to report on the trade of Souakin. It was this which led me to go to the trading stations of Cassala and Matamma.” And in another letter he observed, " I feel somewhat like the lad in the Arabian Nights,' who made his cheese
cakes with pepper, and found that in so doing he had committed a great political offence.”
In the meantime no notice was taken by the British Government of the letter addressed by King Theodore to the Queen,' It 3 lay neglected in the archives of the Foreign Office, and when Earl 4 Russell wrote to Captain Cameron in answer to the letter from him which accompanied the King's letter, he made no allusion to it. This gave mortal offence to the King, and he determined in revenge to make prisoners of all the Europeans he could lay hold of in Abyssinia. Ineffectual attempts were made to induce him to release them, and the Armenian Patriarch at Constantinople addressed a letter in February, 1867, to King Theodore, praying him to set free the captives. He said,
“I have long been seeking an opportunity of offering my prayers and homage to your Majesty's throne. I therefore now venture to forward my present petition, and avail myself of the opportunity to solicit the pardon and liberation of your Majesty's slaves the English Consul and his companions, who have been for some time past imprisoned in Abyssinia. Indeed, I beg leave to observe that the said Consul and his companions have been for a very long period in confinement, and that they have no help or refuge save in the mercy and clemency of your Majesty.
“Should your Majesty be pleased to pardon them, your doing so would afford much gratification to the whole of our Christian community, and also great satisfaction to the illustrious British Government, whose efforts in the interest of Christianity are well known.”
He also despatched Archbishop Sahak on a mission to the King, in hopes that by a personal interview the object might be attained.
We need not detail all the efforts that were made to persuade Theodore peaceably to release the prisoners, as they were abortive, and at last the English Government determined to send a military expedition to Abyssinia and effect the object by force.
General Sir Robert Napier, an Indian officer of Engineers, was selected for the command of the expedition, which was to be wholly fitted out in India.
The first detachment of troops arrived in Annesley Bay on the coast of Abyssinia in October last year. The locality has been thus described :
“The view from the anchorage at Annesley Bay is magnificent; high ranges of mountains rise close from the shore in some places, and on a clear day other ranges may be seen, still more elevated, far behind them. The higher peaks of the first range are said to be 5000 feet in height, and so deceptive are distances in this dry, clear climate, that they seem quite close, although upwards of thirty miles distant.
“Between the mountains and the shore there is a sandy plain, in many places covered with a saline incrustation and flooded with the higher spring tides. Broad watercourses, which during the
rainy season must be foaming torrents, traverse this plain, and in many places their beds are filled with large boulders, washed down from the hills."
The advanced guard under Brigadier-General Merewether pushed on to Senafe, on the highland of Abyssinia, and on the 3rd of January this year General Napier arrived in Annesley Bay. He issued an address to the troops in which he said that he was “confident that every soldier in the force appreciates the honour of having been selected to carry out the commands of her Majesty the Queen of England, and that neither hardships nor dangers will arrest it in pursuit of the objects of the expedition, the release of our countrymen detained in a painful captivity, and the vindication of the dignity of her Majesty's empire.”
The whole force consisted of 11,770 soldiers (most of the regiments being native infantry), and about 14,000 followers attached to the land transport train, commissariat department, and regiments.
The army marched from Senafe to Attegrath, and thence through a country which was thus described in an account written on the spot : “ The road from Attegrath to the front runs for the first five miles up a gently rising valley, bounded on the east by stony hills covered with cactus and acacia, on the west by the towering and precipitous cliffs of Mount Alequa. Then one of the spurs of the western mountains stretches straight across the valley, and bars the way. The labours of the Beloochees have made a road
the side of the Goon-Goona spur, which is surmounted by a wide plateau of sandstone. After keeping two miles over this plateau, the road plunges down suddenly into a deep and rugged ravine. The road both down and up the banks of this ravine is extremely difficult, and its difficulties had, unfortunately, been overlooked by the pioneer force, which, as a rule, has been more careful in marking out the easy parts of the level, which required little labour, than in tackling the rugged defiles or steep and broken hills.
Here the guns had to be unlimbered to allow them to be got round the sharp angles of the track; horses had to be taken out and led up singly, while the gunners and some of the 10th Native Infantry dragged the guns up by hand for a distance of about half a mile. Beyond the GoonGoona ravine the road again passes over a wide plateau bounded by distant cliffs, which raise their sharp and serrated peaks clear against the sky. The plateau itself, clothed with short grass in which lie enormous numbers of loose stones, and occasionally broken by massive lumps of sheet rock, bears a slight resemblance to the moor-land on the Scottish border—a resemblance which was heightened, as the column passed, by a storm of thunder and lightning, and the downfall of a most excellent African imitation of a Scottish mist."
A letter from Mr. Rassam, one of the captives, dated Magdala, September 7, 1867, was published in the newspapers, and it gave some
interesting particulars of the state of affairs in Abyssinia. He said, “The rebellion has now become general all over Abyssinia, the few districts between the royal camp at Debrataboor and this place have thrown off their allegiance to King Theodorus, and consequently they have closed the roads against all travellers, and have succeeded so far as to prevent public communication from taking place between Debrataboor and Magdala. For the last four months the Emperor has only communicated three times with this place, and even then he was obliged to employ a servant of one of the native prisoners in order that he might not be recognized. Our royal friend is now becoming quite desperate, and consequently he spares neither male nor female if any of the rebels happen to fall into his hands; the rebels, on the other hand, imitate the practice of their late master by butchering any person found outside the hedge which is now built outside the royal camp. I have only been able to communicate with Mr. Flad at Debrataboor since his return. Every time I tried to send a messenger they were plundered, but the letters they have always managed to save. The carnage which takes place daily in the royal camp from famine, pestilence, and the sword is quite terrifying. 2500 men who had intended to run away were butchered like sheep, and 295 chiefs were starved to death, after they had had their arms and feet cut off, for the same
For two whole days, from morning till evening, nothing was heard but reports of musketry, and at each discharge either the wife, mother, or child of a deserter was killed. Ladies of noble families were tortured to death, and the poor creatures breathed their last under most frightful agony. Men are now held responsible for the desertion of their brothers-in-law, sons-in-law, or fathers-in-law, as they are expected to know the movements of their marriage relations. Between forty and fifty persons die daily of different diseases.
“Some one has told the Emperor that if he persisted in keeping me and my fellow-prisoners in this country, England would be compelled to fight him. “Let them come,' said he, and call me a woman if I do not beat them.'
And in a letter written by Lieutenant Prideaux, one of his captives, on the 28th of January this year, he thus described the situation : “On Sunday, the 26th inst., the detachment of troops which had been summoned from the mountain by the King returned, bringing with them, besides a large quantity of baggage, 180 native and five European prisoners. The latter consisted of Messrs. Staiger, Brandeis, Schiller, Essler, and Makerer, who had been accused of attempting to make their escape from the royal camp in January last. Since that period these unfortunate men have suffered nearly incredible hardships. Up to the end of the rainy season they were chained two and two together by the hands and feet, their servants all seized, and some of them afterwards killed, and themselves condemned to lie, naked and starving, upon the bare ground, Daily the fear of death was before them.