There are events in Ethiopian – and world – history which are constantly told and retold. One such story relates to the rise and fall of Emperor Tewodros. It is a tale which features the Ethiopian monarch’s attempted reforms, his dispute with the British Government, the British Expedition to his mountain fortress of Maqdala (Magdala), his defeat and subsequent suicide, the sad story of Prince Alemayehu – and much else.
The Tewodros story has most often been told by British authors, who have largely based themselves on the memoirs of the Emperor’s British “captives”, and those of the British troops who marched half way across Ethiopia to liberate them- Not surprisingly this has made the writings of such authors in some instances excessively parochial and British-centered.
It is therefore pleasant to be able to report that the Tewodros story has now been taken over by a German, Hamburg-based historian of Africa, Professor Volker Matthies. He has given his book, which is published in both English and German by Markus Wiener Publishers in Princeton, in the United States [www.marcuswiener.com] the challenging title and sub-title: The Siege of Magdala. The British Empire against the Emperor of Ethiopia.
The book seeks objectivity. It examines the reasons for Tewodros’s dispute with the British Government before turning to the fate of the British “hostages”, British preparations for war, and the despatch of the Napier expedition. Professor Matthias concedes that this military operation was carried out magnificently – but remarks that it was in other respects seriously mis-conceived. He likewise takes a poor view of the looting of Tewodros’s citadel of Maqdala – and believes, like an increasing number of present-day commentators, that the Ethiopian treasures in question should be returned.
Mattheis quotes numerous important, but in many cases little-studied documents. These include Tewodros’s original letter of 1862 to Queen Victoria out of which the Anglo-Ethiopian dispute historically developed; Napier’s victorious proclamation of 1868 to his troops; an interesting list of the Emperor’s Ethiopian detainees at Maqdala; and a letter of 1870 which Alemayehu’s grandmother Laqiyaye despatched to Queen Victoria, sadly observing to the latter that her grandson “calls you his mother, but does not call me his mother, since I did not raise him. Please bring him up for the sake of God”.
Unlike some earlier accounts of these events which attempt to sanitize them by writing of them merely as part of an “expedition”, Mattheis is not afraid to describe it as a British “invasion”, and indeed goes so far as to entitle one of his chapters the “massacre” of Aroge. This involved even or eight hundred Ethiopians, inlcuding the cream of the Emperor’s army, killed in exchange for a British loss of little more than a dozen.
Deeply conscious of the overwhelming importance of fire-power in the outcome of the struggle the Mattheis includes among the book’s illustrations one of the quick-firing Snider-Enfield rifle, i.e. a gun which was loaded from the rear of the weapon instead of the muzzle as formerly – a novel arrangement, which allowed of faster re-loading, and hence more devilish killing. A further illustration depicts another new weapon developed at this time: a rocket of the British naval brigade which reportedly had “a disastrous effect” on Tewodros’s troops.
Talking of illustrations one may note that The Siege of Magdala is exceedingly well illustrated – and not only, as so many earlier works, with fine engravings exclusively from the Illustrated London News, but from a wide range of other images.
Matthies has also used a wide selection of sources, Ethiopian, German and Austrian as well as British. The work also contains an extensive bibliography covering a full seven densely printed pages.
And what, we may ask, was of the author’s judgement of Tewodros: the “mad Emperor” as so many British authors chose to describe him?
The German historian writes: “… from the British point of view the Magdala expedition was surely seen at first as a complete success. Tewodros and the Ethiopians – as representatives for other African and Asian peoples – had been ‘taught a lesson’”, namely that “the European powers had to be respected, and British claims to be a world power had been strengthened”.
And yet the British, Matthies declares, “unintentionally made Tewodros a national martyr”. The German observer Count Seckendorff, who accompanied the British troops in 1867-8, recognised this at the time when he commented that Tewodros was “the true ‘hero of Magdala’ who was ‘worthy of standing beside Abd-el-Kader, and be counted among the most outstanding figures in the history of Africa’’.
And Matthies’s compatriot Joseph Bechtinger likewise wrote similar vein, saying: “Tewodros is a towering figure for his country. He will unquestionably long mark the memories and history of the Abyssinians, and indeed be unforgettable”.
And what of the good Hamburg historian, Professor Volker Mattheis himself?
He concludes: “Bechtinger was right: in Ethiopia Tewodros is still considered a national hero, and his battle against the British is still considered a heroic act of anti-colonial resistance”.
And more than that no man or woman can say.