THE LAST DAY OF EMPEROR TEWODROS II’s LIFE AND THE LOOT OF MAGDALA

An Eye Witness Account by an American Author/Journalist. 

By Kidane Alemayehu and Konjit Meshesha

 

“They (two British soldiers) observed a man standing near a haystack with a revolver in his hand. When he saw them prepare to fire, he ran behind a haystack, and both men heard plainly a shot fired. They came to the haystack, they saw the man who had run behind lying prostrate on the ground dying, with the revolver still convulsively clutched in his right hand.” 

The inscription on a silver plate attached to the revolver read:  

PRESENTED

BY

VICTORIA

QUEEN OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND

TO

THEODORUS

EMPEROR OF ABYSSINIA

AS A SLIGHT TOKEN OF HER GRATITUDE

FOR HIS KINDNESS TO HER SERVANT PLOWDEN

1854 

The above graphic record is provided in the fascinating book entitled “Coomassie and Magdala” by Henry M. Stanley (1874) who had traveled to Ethiopia as a war correspondent for the New York Herald accompanying the British force that was led by Lieut. -General Sir Robert Napier in 1868. This article is based on his detailed record of what transpired on the last day of Emperor Tewodros’ life as presented in Stanley’s book, pp 449-464. It also presents the astute observation and detailed record of the Magdala loot by Stanley in pp 454-462. It is to be recalled that the purpose of the British force’s incursion into Ethiopia was to achieve the release of British nationals imprisoned by Emperor Tewodros mainly due to the fact that Queen Victoria failed to respond to his diplomatic initiatives for increased ties between Great Britain and Ethiopia.  

To continue with Stanley’s account:  

Emperor Tewodros’ body was drawn to the center of the spot where the British regiment had halted. By then, the British army had full control of Magdala and loud cheers of “Hurrah!” and “God save the Queen” were being expressed with enthusiasm. 

Although seriously wounded, Emperor Tewodros was still alive. Some Ethiopians saw the body and cried out his name thereby identifying him conclusively. According to Stanley’s definition of the body, it looked like “…. a native seemingly half famished; clad in coarse upper garments, dingy with wear, and ragged with tear, covering under garments of clean linen!”. He had been fighting in disguise to avoid being shot by marksmen. 

His face was “deep brown” with a “well defined (and) thin mouth” and “two rows of whitest teeth”. He had an “aquiline nose and his nostrils expanded widely as he struggled to retain the breath which was rapidly leaving him. ” His “face was broad, highcheek-boned, with a high prominent forehead, and overhanging brows.” “ His hair was divided into three large plaits extending from the forehead to the back of the neck…” The body measured “ 5 feet and 8 inches, and was very muscular and broad-chested”. 

A subsequent post-mortem revealed that he had sustained “only a slight flesh wound on his right leg,” and in addition “his palate was destroyed, the roof of the mouth scorched, and a hole found through the back of the head” leading to the conclusion that “a pistol fired in the mouth had caused the death”. 

On confirmation that the body was that of Emperor Tewodros, “the Irish soldiers took hold of his legs, and roughly dragged him to the hammock, where, after two or three gasps, he breathed his last.” 

The British soldiers present were mocking him but one of them “covered the bare abdomen and folded the arms upon the breast”. Soon, the crowd around the body grew bigger “trying to get a glimpse” of it including the former captives who also confirmed his identity. 

Sir Napier rode up to view the corpse but no words of sympathy were expressed. 

Stanley continues to write: “I strolled to where the dead body of the late Master of Magdala lay, on his canvas stretcher. I found a mob of officers and men rudely jostling each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece of Theodore’s bloodstained shirt. No guard was placed over the body until it was naked….Extended on its hammock, it lay subjected to the taunts and the jests of the brutal-minded. ” On being informed of the situation, Sir Napier gave orders that it should be dressed and prepared for internment the following day. At the request of the Empress, the Emperor’s body was buried at a church in Magdala after a brief ceremony conducted by his priest. 

The last day in the life of Emperor Tewodros started, most probably, around mid-night on April 12, 1868 when he received a final ultimatum from the commander of the British force, Sir Napier, demanding that the Emperor surrender the following day (April 13) by 9:00 a.m. or face an attack.  

The morning of April 13 started with a brilliant sunshine followed, later, by heavy rain and lightening, ending in the evening with a glorious sunset. 

Having failed to achieve the Emperor’s surrender, and on being falsely informed that he had fled to Gojam, the British commander offered a ransom of “50,000 dollars” to whoever captured the Emperor: dead or alive. The commander also took the precautionary step of placing the 3rd Dragon Guards at the rear of Magdala as “pickets to prevent the retreat of Theodore”. On April 13, the onslaught by the British Army was in full swing. It comprised 1600 Europeans, 800 Beloochees, 800 Punjabees, 42 elephants, and numerous other beasts of burden. 

The British army progressed rapidly with the use of its superior armaments and soon captured Selassie and Fahla and by 2:00 p.m. reached the gates of Magdala which was being bombarded ferociously by British artillery. Stanley writes that Emperor Tewodros was noticed mounted on his white horse observing the progress of the British army and encouraging his much dwindled loyal followers to put up a final struggle. Stanley states that the Emperor shouted: “come on, are ye women, that ye hesitate to attack a few warriors?” However, he had to make a hasty retreat in view of the effective cannon balls wreaking havoc to his army. Nevertheless, Stanley states that the Emperor and his few followers kept on fighting up to the last minute firing their muskets until the British army broke through the fortified Magdala gate. 

As if to confirm Emperor Tewodros’ harsh measures against his Ethiopian opponents, Stanley relates that he witnessed 308 dead people “murdered by Theodore” on April 9.  

After the tragic event of Tewodros’s death, the disciplined British army progressively deteriorated into what Stanley called “ different kinds of military mobs”. Soon, the military mobs spread all over Magdala in search of loot. They ransacked the king’s storehouse, and moved to the imperial quarters where “the men picked up; then, examining the article, pocketed it or threw it down; to be picked up, examined, and pocketed or thrown away by others coming after them”.

From Stanley’s description the plateau of Magdala was dotted with different kinds of dwellings, silken and canvas tents, and what Stanley refers to as koord- like domiciles, cotes, etc. Continuing his observation Stanley states: “ Each of these had mobs around it commenting, gossiping, pocketing, analyzing, breaking into pieces, or tearing into shreds whatever thing their vision or fancy lie upon”. The largest mob was concentrated around the koord- like domiciles. The scene around these treasure tents is described as “a pandemonium breaking out”. He concludes by making a stinging remark not only of the marauding soldiers but also the avarices of three missionaries, a Prussian, German and Russian mechanics that had secured the treasure tents long before the soldiers arrived. The following is an excerpt describing some of the articles that comprised the loot of Magdala.

Stanley opens his account of the loot by stating: “To enumerate even the one-tenth of the articles scattered about would be a task as tiresome as it would be fruitless.” He then continues to give a glimpse of the overwhelming amount of articles spread in front of him.

“In one of the tents was found the imperial standard of Ethiopia-a lion rampant, of the tribe of Judah, worked in variegated colours. In another was found the Imperial seal, with the same distinctive figure of a lion engraved on it. A chalice, of pure gold, was secured by Mr. Holmes, on which was engraved in ancient Ethiopic;- 

THE CHALICE OF

KING ADAM LEGUD CALLED GAZOO

THE SON OF

QUEEN BEHUN MOGUSSA

PRESENTED TO KOSKWAN SANCTUARY GAONDAR

MAY MY BODY AND SOUL BE PURIFIED

15th century. 

The Abuna’s mitre, 300 years old, of pure gold, probably weighing six or seven pounds troy weight; four royal crowns two of which were very fine workmanship and worth a round sum of money; were worthy things to be placed in a niche of the British museum. A small escritoire richly ornamented with mother of pearl, was found also, full of complimentary letters from European sovereigns, and state papers; besides various shields of exquisite beauty. There were also an infinite variety of gold and silver, and brass crosses, and censers, some of extremely elegant design; golden and silver pots, kettles, dishes, pans; cups of miscellaneous descriptions; richly chased goblets, of the precious metal; Bohemian glasses, Sevres china, and Staffordshire pottery; wine of champagne, burgundy, Greece, Spain and Jerusalem; bottles of Jordan water; jars of arrachi and tej; chests full of ornamental frippery; tents of rose, purple, lilac and white silk; carpets of Persia, of Uschak, Broussa, Kidderminster, and Lyons; robes of fur; war capes of lion, leopard, and wolf skins; saddles magnificently decorated with filigree gold and silver ;numerous shields covered with silver plates; state umbrellas of gorgeous hues, adorned with all the barbaric magnificence that the genius of Begemder and Gondar could fashion; swords and claymores; rapiers, scimitars, yataghans, tulwars, and bilboes;

daggers of Persia, of Damascus, of India, in scabbards of crimson morocco and purple velvet, studded with golden buttons; heaps of parchment royally illuminated; stacks of Amharic Bibles, missals, and numberless albums; ambrotypes and photographs of English, American, French, and Italian scenery; bureaus, desks of cunning make.” 

After enumerating the above articles, the author brings to our attention the size of the loot and the chaos and disorder that reigned all over the plateau. “ Over a space growing more and more extended, the thousand articles were scattered in infinite bewilderment and confusion until they dotted the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill, and the entire road to camp two miles off!”  

Before the auction each commanding officer selected appropriate mementos for their troops.  

Early in the morning of the third day, the looted treasure was ready to be auctioned off. The pile of trophies was spread over half an acre. Present were Mr. Holmes, a representative of the British museum; a Colonel Fraser, a buyer for a wealthy regiment mess, and private gentlemen who have come ready with funds. As if to give the reader a mental picture of the fierce bidding, Stanley writes, ”Armed with ample funds, he (Mr. Holmes) outbid all in most things. When Theodore’s shield, used by him in his younger days were offered for sale the bidding became energetic and from 10 dollars it speedly went to 200 dollars, for which sum it was purchased by Colonel Fraser”. The auction lasted two days and the money from the sale was distributed among the non-commissioned officers. . 

The auction concluded, the loot of Magdala was loaded on the backs of fifteen elephants and nearly 200 mules ready for the journey out of Ethiopia. 

On the fourth morning of the fall of Magdala, 30,000 Ethiopians descended Magdala to the Dalanta plateau. That same afternoon as spectators took position on the southern edge of Selassie ridge about 1000 yards away, the Royal Engineers torched and destroyed Magdala. Fanned by the wind, three thousand houses with their content perished in the flame. Stanley states, “The intense heat created from the loaded guns, pistols, projectiles and shells thrown in by British batteries exploded with a deafening reports, and projectiles whistled ominously near us. Not one house could have escaped destruction in the mighty ebb and flow of that deluge of fire.” 

After committing Magdala to the scorching flames the British army loaded with the loot of Magdala started its march to the coast. As the rear of the regiment started decent, “cheer after cheer broke from six thousand voices”.  

The return of the loot of Magdala has been an on going battle for Ethiopians and others with a sense of history and justice. Considering the enormous volume of historical manuscripts, books, priceless articles and personal items of Emperor Tewodros that was taken out of Ethiopia, the current struggle through the leadership of Dr. Richard Pankhurst to return and reinstate the loot deserves support. AFROMET, The Association for the Return of Magdala Ethiopian Treasures, with branches in Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, demanding restitution of the loot, has already achieved the repatriation of Tewodros’s amulet, which was given late last year to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies. In addition they are actively campaigning to have a statue erected to Tewodros. Through the good will and effort of the Reverend McLukie, a Scottish priest, and officials of St. John Episcopal Church of Edinburgh, the “Tabot” of St. Michael, was returned to Ethiopia in February 2002. Another area that demands a more organized and increased attention and support is Ethiopian properties in the holy land, i.e. Jerusalem, Jericho, and other urban centers in Israel in order to ensure that Ethiopia's interests which date back thousands of years are duly protected. 

Thus ended the life of one of the most controversial and dynamic emperors in Ethiopian history. Stanley provides an interesting glimpse of the most critical day in Emperor Tewodros’ life. His book is an account of the British triumph in fulfilling its mission of defeating Emperor Tewodros and in releasing the 61 captives with 187 servants and 323 animals. Stanley, however, fails to mention the fact that the success of the British army was mainly because, by then, Emperor Tewodros had lost the support of most Ethiopians due to his increasingly harsh measures and also because some of the Ethiopian leaders of the time were more interested in their own political objectives. It is interesting to note that Stanley had a very dim view of Ethiopians with perhaps the sole exception of “Prince Kassa” (later Emperor Yohannes) who greatly facilitated the British Army’s mission in many ways including opening the way for its travel all the way to Magdala without any resistance as well as by making provisions available for procurement as needed by its force. Stanley also provides an account of the meetings between the local chiefs and General Napier who was able to negotiate his army’s travel unchallenged from the coast to Magdala. 

Emperor Tewodros’ vision of a united and strong Ethiopia as well as the protection of its rights to its properties in Israel including the Der Sultan monastery remain the dream of all Ethiopians for generations.    


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