||Reading about Téwodros
by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 6264)
|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 Ethiopias 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 Mooreheads The Blue Nile (if you havent 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 Teachers Lounge, or across Smuts Street at a small café where Id go for cappuccino early in the morning, Id read chapter after chapter of Mooreheads 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 Mooreheads 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 Hoovers 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, Téwodross 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 engineers 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 Kings 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
Mooreheads incomparable The Blue Nile
|John Coyne is the editor of the www.PeaceCorpsWriters.org 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.|