An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"

Posts Tagged ‘Magdala

Ethiopia seeks prince’s remains

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BBC News – June 2007

Ethiopia’s president has sent Queen Elizabeth II a formal request for the remains of a prince who died in Britain more than a century ago.

The royal household at Windsor Castle, where Prince Alemayehu was buried, is said to be considering the request.

President Woldegiorgis Girma hopes the prince’s bones can be reburied for millennium celebrations in September.

Ethiopia has been waging a lively campaign to get back historic treasures looted during the last two centuries.

Father’s suicide

Its most striking success has been in recovering a massive stone obelisk from Axum, carried off to Rome by Mussolini’s army.

But the campaign now has a new impetus.

Ethiopia’s calendar is more than seven years behind that of the rest of the world – here, it is still 1999 and Ethiopians are planning to mark what they believe is the 2000 anniversary of the birth of Christ with big celebrations in September.

Now the Ethiopian president has put in a formal request for the return of the remains of Prince Alemayehu.

His father, the Emperor Tewodros II, committed suicide after his defeat by the British at the Battle of Magdala in 1868.

The young boy was taken to Britain and sent to boarding school and officers’ training school at Sandhurst, but died at the age of 18.

He was buried at Windsor Castle, with Queen Victoria describing as “too sad” his short life and early death.

The Ethiopian embassy in London says Windsor is now considering their request.

The young prince was not the only thing the British took from Magdala – they reportedly needed 15 elephants and nearly 200 mules to carry away the treasures that Tewodros had accumulated.

Many of them are still in Britain and the Queen has some of them – notably six of the very finest illuminated manuscripts, which are part of the royal collection in Windsor Castle.

Written by Tseday

November 20, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Reading about Téwodros

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by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 62–64)

WHENEVER ONE STARTS TO READ about Ethiopia, very soon he or she discovers Téwodros II, the infamous emperor of the Empire in the mid-nineteenth-century. Téwodros was a great, romantic visionary, and a mad figure of Ethiopian history who rose to power in the 1850s by overthrowing the principal feudal leadership in the north.

His objective, as his British admirer Consul Plowden reported at the time to the Home Office in London, was to integrate the country by placing “the soldiers of the different provinces under the command of his own trusty followers.” In this way Téwodros started “organizing a new nobility, a legion of honor dependent on himself, and chosen specially for their daring and fidelity.” And thus began the “arduous task of breaking the power of the great feudal chiefs – a task achieved in Europe only during the reign of many consecutive Kings.”

Among other achievements, Téwodros was responsible for important improvements in the country. He had built, for example, the first road in Ethiopia, from Debra Tabor to his mountain citadel Magdala. He attempted to establish a fleet of boats on Lake Tana. He started a foundry at Gafat and manufactured Ethiopia’s first cannon. He also attempted to stop the slave trade, reform the land tenure system, and introduce Ethiopian dress. He took steps to replace verbal messages with letters, wipe away concubines and promote marriage.

Yet much of what he achieved was rendered futile by the debacle at Magdala, and thereby hangs the tale, the source of much literary prose, and why Téwodros is so well remembered by the world.
All of them: Ethiopian scholars, African historians, romance novelists, adventure travel writers, tourists and travelers have been caught up in the history of this tortured man. Many have written about him, searching for some understanding of the man as well as wanting to tell his tale.

I first read about Téwodros in Alan Moorehead’s The Blue Nile (if you haven’t read The Blue Nile, put this article down and go read that book immediately – it is available in our library and can be borrowed at no cost) when I was teaching at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa in 1962. Between classes, sitting in the backroom of the Teacher’s Lounge, or across Smuts Street at a small café where I’d go for cappuccino early in the morning, I’d read chapter after chapter of Moorehead’s fascinating account of the Blue Nile and of the Empire under Téwodros.

Téwodros claimed that he was of royal blood and in the direct line of kings descending from Solomon and Alexander the Great, but none of that was true. He was the son of a small local chieftain, born in 1818 close to the source of the Blue Nile.
He reign was from 1855 to 1868, and during it he was constantly involved in war. He fought successfully against Tigre and conquered Shewa, taking the boy Menelik, who represented the Shewa dynasty there, to live at his court. He waged war against the Gallas. And all the while, he attempted to modernize the Empire.
While being portrayed as a model of politeness even towards the meanest peasants, he also was the victim of ungovernable rages. His humanity was such, it was recorded, that he would buy slaves from the Muslim traders in order to emancipate and Christianize them, yet at the same time he burned deserting soldiers alive and threw prisoners from precipices.

It was during this period that a number of Europeans found their way into Ethiopia: German and English missionaries, German artisans and zoologists, a French painter and a more than a few travel adventures.
But then in 1864, after the British Foreign Office did not – for two years – answer a letter he had written to Queen Victoria, Téwodros threw the Consul, Cameron, and the other British citizens into prison. The British government sent a man named Rassam to protest and he, plus sixty more Europeans, were seized and chained.

At the time, Téwodros was moving towards Magdala, a natural fortress overlooking Wallo Province. Here is where he met Sir Robert Napier, sent from India by the Queen to free her subjects and all the other imprisoned Europeans. Napier landed near Massawa and using an impressive assortment of transport animals including elephants, bullocks, and camels, advanced overland at a mile a day to Magdala. Of the 3,400 British and Indian troops who took part in the assault on Magdala, not one was lost. Téwodros, who had at first boasted to his chiefs — “Oh! That we may meet those white donkeys. We shall show them what the sword and lance of Ethiopia can do.”- killed himself when he saw that defeat was certain. He was buried in the Magdala church, though suicide, as we know, is a rare and grave crime among Ethiopian Christians. (The story is told of Workneh Gebeyehu, one of the leaders of the failed 1960 coup d’ etat, when cornered by soldier shouted to his assailants, “Téwodros has taught me something.” Putting a pistol into his mouth, and he killed himself, and, therefore, ensured that he would be forever linked to the Emperor Téwodros.)

After reading about Téwodros in Moorehead’s book, I, too, thought he would make the subject of a great novel, but never did any research on the Emperor. A few years later, when I was on PC/Ethiopia staff as an Associate Director, and had the Dessie Road as part of my responsibility, I ran into a group of British students in Dessie. At the time they were “crashing” at John Hoover’s small house and setting off the next day to climb up to the old fortress at Magdala in honor of the 1867 Napier Expedition. I wanted to tag along but was due in Waldia the next day and never made it to Magdala.

For years, however, Téwodros’s story has stayed with me. Once, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I had gone for the Shakespeare Festival, I spend an afternoon in the Edinburgh library reading Field Marshal Lord Napier of Magdala, a memoir by his son, published in 1927.

Back in London I wandered into the Maggs Bros. Ltd. Antiquarian Booksellers on Berkeley Square and bought for 48 pounds Reconnoitering in Abyssinia by Colonel H. St. Clair Wilkins that was published in 1870. It was the royal engineer’s account of the reconnoitering party that went to Ethiopia prior to the arrival of the expeditionary field force from India.
The opening goes:”In August 1867, the British Government resolved upon the invasion of Abyssinia. It was decided to dispatch a military expedition to that remote county, for the purpose of releasing from the hands of the Christian King Theodorus, a British Consul and an Envoy and suite confined in irons in the fortress of Magdala without just cause, and contrary to the laws of nations; and to obtain full satisfaction for the dishonour thus cast upon the British nation.”

At the time in his Magdala fortress, Téwodros had thirty European artillery pieces, 3,000 soldiers armed with percussion guns and several thousand spear armed foot soldiers. While he was safe within a impregnable fortress, Téwodros decided to attack and the British soldiers (mostly Indians) of the 4th King’s Own had the very latest breech loading rifle – the Snider – which was being used for the first time in battle. The firepower and discipline of the British units completely overwhelmed the musket and spears of the Ethiopians. Over 500 Ethiopians were killed and thousands more were wounded in a battle that lasted an hour and a half.

A ripe source for novelists

From such historical documents, several novels have been written. Alan Scholefield’s The Hammer of God, published by William Morrow & Company in 1973; Ann Schlee’s The Guns of Darkness, Atheneum, 1974; and When The Emperor Dies by Mason McCann Smith, Random House, 1981.

There are other historical accounts, besides Alan Moorehead, but these are the only novels that I have been able to locate

In The Guns of Darkness, Ann Schlee tells the story of Téwodros from the point-of-view of fourteen year old, Louisa Bell, daughter of John Bell and the Princess Worknesh Asfa Yilma. Schelee is a fine writer, mostly of young adult novels set in exotic countries. This novel focuses on the human side of the history, the small details of everyday life that surround the historical events. Schlee touches, for example, on the torture that the ordinary people, Ethiopians and Europeans, suffered under Téwodros. She had based her novel on the alleged fact that John Bell had four children by an Ethiopian woman. The fourth child was called Louisa and was on a list of the released prisoners as recorded by the Royal Geographical Society’s observer, C.R. Markham.
Californian Mason McCann Smith, too, blends fact and fiction in his novel, When The Emperor Dies, using characters, both real and imaginary. Of the two books, Smith has the more details of the march and attack on Magdala, and the most research. However, the novel is overwritten and is centered mostly on Napier and his men.

Alan Scholefield is a well known South African writer, author of Great Elephant, Wild Dog Running, The Young Masters, etc. In The Hammer of God, he has an arrogant Victorian sportsman in search of the rare ibex, his new, young wife, Catherine, an ex-Army officer guide, and a scheming secretary, all in the highlands together when they are captured by the Emperor. Scholefield creates several new characters and uses Téwodros and the events of Magdala as the historical backdrop. Being an experienced novelist, he moves the story at a faster, more telling pace. Nevertheless, both novels pale when compared to Alan Moorehead’s prose and narrative skill in The Blue Nile,* first published in 1962.

Moorehead’s incomparable The Blue Nile

Moorehead spends roughly 70 pages of his 330-page book on Emperor Téwodros, the British expedition, the battle on the Arogi plateau, and seizure of Magdala, and it is a fascinating tale.
“There has never been in modern times a colonial campaign quite like the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868,” Moorehead writes. “It proceeds from first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches at the end. And yet it was a fearsome undertaking; for hundreds of years the country had never been invaded, and the savage nature of the terrain alone was enough to promise failure.”

Other histories

There are a few other useful histories about Téwodros. Walter Plowden’s Travels in Abyssinia, published in 1868; H.A. Stern’s The Captive Missionary in 1868; H. Rassam’s Narrative of the British Mission to Téwodros King of Abyssinia, 2 vols, published in 1869. In 1870, T.J. Holland and H.M. Hozier, wrote the official Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia, 2 vols, with maps and plans. There is also Correspondence Respecting Abyssinia 1846-68 that was presented to the House of Commons in 1869. This 700-page report gives much information not only about the imprisonment of the captives but about Téwodros and Ethiopia in general. H.M. Stanley published in 1874 Coomassie and Magdale; the Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa.
Some recent publications are S. Rubenson’s King of Kings: Téwodros of Ethiopia, published in Addis Ababa in 1966. The March to Magdala by Myatt, Frederick, published in 1970 by Leo Cooper. And in 1973 R.J. Pankhurst’s essay “The Library of Emperor Téwodros II at Magdala” appeared in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, XXXVI, 15-42. And more recently, Oxford Press published in 1979, The Abyssinian Difficulty: The Emperor Theodorus and the Magdala Campaign, 1867-68 by Sir Darrell Bates.
I am sure I have missed other accounts, but for anyone interested in this historical moment in Ethiopia, the books I’ve mentioned are a good start. And it is a great story.


John Coyne is the editor of the and editor of Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers published by Curbstone Press in 2000. He has written or edited over twenty books.

Written by Tseday

November 7, 2008 at 5:50 am

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Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Friday, 19 September 2008

Probably very few countries have been so systematically and intensively deprived of their cultural objects with tremendous violence by Western European countries as Ethiopia has been. First, the British under Queen Victoria sent an army in 1868 to conquer the African country under Emperor Tewodros. The Ethiopian ruler committed suicide in Magdala, the capital, with a gun given to him previously as a gift by Queen Victoria rather than let himself be captured and humiliated by the invading British Army. The barbarous behaviour of the invading army after conquer and loot has been described many times. 

The list of objects stolen by the British, including processional crosses, imperial gold and silver crowns, historical and religious illustrated manuscripts and other objects from Ethiopia will fill pages. Ethiopia became Christian in the 4th Century, long before many in Europe had heard of Christianity.

The second military invasion and despoliation of Ethiopia was in 1936 by the Italians under the fascist leadership of Benito Mussolini who with his soldiers took, among other things, the obelisk at Axum, now returned. But there are still other objects such as works of art, archives, library of Haile Selassie, objects of religious and cultural significance, and the plane of the daughter of the Emperor held by the Italians from their occupation of the land of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Italy has returned the heavy obelisk and can be expected to return the various stolen crosses and manuscripts it still holds. If the recent impressive historic action of Italy paying compensation to Libya for colonization is any indication of its future policy, we can expect Italy to pay also compensation for the colonial occupation of Ethiopia. Furthermore, the return of the Venus of Cyrene to Tripoli should facilitate the return of stolen Ethiopian artifacts in Italy.

During all these historic gestures of compensation and reconciliation, including apologies for wrongful historical acts, we have not heard from the British that they have also understood the necessity for such gestures and restitution. There is no indication that Great Britain, which started the looting of African cultural objects with military force, has any intention of following the path opened by Italy. The British Museum has thousands of very precious Ethiopian manuscripts and objects. The Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and others all have their share of these stolen precious manuscripts and objects. The British Museum pretends to respect the religious objects such as the holy tabots. With all due respect to Neil MacGregor, respect for objects does not replace respect for the rights of ownership and the freedom of religion and religious practice. How long are the British going to refuse to do the right thing? How can Christians steal the crosses, Bibles and other religious objects that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church needs for its religious practice and refuse to return them? Where then is the belief in democracy and the freedom of religion and religious practice which the British are always preaching to the rest of the world?

The hope of many who are holding onto stolen cultural objects may be that time will obliterate the painful memories of such wrongful acts. Experience however has shown that no people ever forget such historical injustices and the Ethiopians have shown enough that they intend to recover their cultural treasures however long this may take. The article below shows the determination of the Ethiopians to keep on fighting for their rights. How long are the Western Europeans going to pretend not to hear the painful but courageous cries of the Ethiopians? Is the present generation of Europeans as rapacious, aggressive, insensitive and brutal as their forefathers? Are they going to condone the crimes and wrongdoings of the past generations? Only time will tell but they should make no mistake: the issue of restitution of stolen or looted objects will not disappear from our world.

Out of Africa: The stolen prince

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By Cahal Milmo and Emily Duggan
18 June 2007

Amid the gothic splendour of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle there is a little-noticed brass plaque. Erected in memory of Prince Alemayehu Tewodros, it reads: “I was a stranger and ye took me in.”

The memorial plate and the skeletal remains that lie behind it are the only concrete traces of the tragic and extraordinary tale of a seven-year-old boy who became embroiled in what many believe was the greatest orgy of looting conducted in the name of the British Empire.

The child prince, the son of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II, who has a claimed bloodline stretching back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was captured in April 1868 by the British Army, which conquered the ancient citadel of Magdala.

Alemayehu, a royal orphan, was transported to England to be educated as a gentleman. Along with him came so many looted treasures, including religious artefacts and 350 manuscripts, that it reportedly took 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them from Magdala to the nearest sea port. The prince died barely a decade later of pleurisy and a broken heart, some 4,000 miles from his homeland, in Leeds. Among his mourners was Queen Victoria herself.

While the life of Alemayehu ranks as little more than a colonial-era curiosity in Britain, the events of 139 years ago are still keenly felt as an injustice in Ethiopia. The country, where European visitors are proudly reminded that it was never occupied for more than two years by a colonial power, has conducted a decades-long campaign for the return of the treasures. It recently celebrated the return of a 70ft obelisk from Italy.

These sentiments were resurrected two weeks ago when the country’s President, Wolde-Giorgis Girma, formally wrote to the Queen asking for the remains of Prince Alemayehu to be exhumed and returned to Ethiopia for burial in time for the country celebrating its millennium in September. Ethiopia operates according to the Ethiopic calendar, which runs seven years behind the Western Julian calendar and marks the new year in September. The year 2000 will therefore arrive on 12 September 2007.

The campaign was further underlined yesterday when a nine-year-old schoolboy of Ethiopian origin delivered a petition to Downing Street calling for the restitution of the Magdala artefacts, which are spread throughout institutions such as the British Library and British Museum and include six illuminated manuscripts held in the royal library at Windsor.

Gabriel Kassayie, who collected more than 100 signatures among his classmates at a primary school in Hampstead, north London, said: “I wanted to do something. I learned how the artefacts were stolen from my country and how attempts to get them back were prevented. I wanted to do this for my ancestors.”

Campaigners in Ethiopia argue that the epitaph to the prince in St George’s Chapel is laden with irony: Alemayehu was not so much taken in as spirited away. Although Queen Victoria took a personal interest in Alemayehu’s upbringing (reputedly paying his fees for Rugby School), they argue he was just as much of a “war trophy” as the gold crowns and altar pieces seized by the army of Sir Robert Napier, sent by the monarch to crush Emperor Tewodros in 1868.

Mulugeta Aserate, a second cousin of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, and a senior figure on the organising committee of the millennium celebrations, said the return of the remains for burial in a monastery in the northern city of Gondar would remove a blight on relations with Britain. He told The Independent: “The prince was a prisoner of war. Our relations with Britain are good and warm but the episode of Prince Alemayehu represents a dark side of that relationship.

“His return would be a cause for celebration here and what better time for it than this very African millennium of ours? He died in a foreign land but Alemayehu’s name has not been forgotten in Ethiopia.” It is a further irony that the capture of the prince has its roots in an ill-fated attempt by his father to foster strong relations with Britain. In the late 1860s, the Christian emperor had sought the help of Britain in trying to protect Ethiopia from the Ottoman Empire and Egypt.

When his entreaties went ignored and he imprisoned the British diplomatic mission, Napier inflicted a crushing defeat against his army on 10 April 1868 at Magdala, a fortified mountaintop in central Ethiopia.

Tewodros freed the prisoners and sent the British general a gift of cattle to be slaughtered for Easter Sunday two days’ later. When Napier replied with thanks, offering a safe conduct for Tewodros and his family, the emperor angrily rejected the overture and vowed never to be taken alive. After heavy bombardment, Tewodros committed suicide on Easter Monday, leaving the British to loot the palaces and churches and capture his young heir.

The American journalist Henry Morton Stanley who witnessed the aftermath of the battle, describe how the plunder covered “the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill and the entire road to the [British] camp two miles off”.

The British insisted it had been the dying wish of Emperor Tewodros that his son and his mother, Queen Terunesh, be looked after by the victorious power.

Whatever the truth of this, the leaders of the expedition recognised the usefulness of the prince as a potential pawn in its efforts to expand British dominion in east Africa to Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then known.

When Queen Terunesh died a month later on the journey from Magdala to the Red Sea, a British officer, Captain Tristram Speedy, was appointed as the guardian of the young boy.

Speedy, who was 6ft 6in and sported a bushy red beard, was a veteran of British campaigns from India to New Zealand. Speedy, a speaker of Amharic, the Ethiopian language, dismissed the prince’s tutor, Alaqa Zenneb, before beginning the sea voyage to Britain and it seems he rapidly formed a close bond with his new charge. In his journal, he described how a terrified Alemayehu refused to leave his side, day or night.

Speedy wrote: “The distressing alarm that then seized him rendered him so timid that for the following three months no persuasion could induce him to sleep out of my arms, so great was his terror that if he happened to wake and find me asleep, he would wake me and earnestly beg me to remain awake until he should fall asleep, and it was only by continued care and tenderness that he is gradually losing his timidity.”

There is no evidence that such comforting by the “gentle giant” officer was anything other than paternal. But it is fitting proof of how the Victorian empire builders saw their obligations towards a young boy considered a near divinity in Ethiopia.

Once in England, the heir of the King Solomon, shown in early photographs with the braided hair and elaborate costume of Abyssinian royalty, began his conversion into an English gentleman. He left the care of Speedy and his wife in 1871 and was sent to live with Dr Thomas Jex-Blake, the headmaster of Cheltenham College, who later was appointed to the same post at Rugby School.

Later pictures of the teenage prince, who was patronisingly recorded on his voyage to Britain as not having “the faintest notion” what to do with a knife and fork and had to be shown how to put marmalade on his toast, show him dressed in a tweed suit reading a heavy tome. Evidence suggests the photos were showing Alemayehu as something which he was not. Speedy recorded “he had no interest in his books and had an utter dislike for anything in that line” while his tutors at Rugby stated baldly: “Progress in study he will never make.” Instead, the prince was dispatched to Sandhurst Military Academy. He was no happier there. Despite frequently expressing a desire to return to Ethiopia, the government refused all his requests.

Dr Mandefro Belayneh, an Ethiopian academic researching the life of Alemayehu, said: “He didn’t have any friends or family to call on. There were letters coming from Abyssinia from his grandmother … and all the letters said, ‘When are you coming back? Your people are expecting you’. But I suspect these letters were never shown to him.”

The prince died in October 1879. His funeral was held in St George’s Chapel.

Buckingham Palace yesterday declined to comment on the request from President Girma. Ethiopian sources suggested that although the request was being considered favourably, there were potential problems with identifying the remains.

But arguably, the official verdict on Britain’s role in the life of Prince Alemayehu was delivered long ago. After his death, Queen Victoria wrote in her diary: “It is too sad. All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him. His was no happy life.”

Written by Tseday

October 11, 2008 at 4:55 am