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Reviews of The Siege of Magdala: The British Empire Against the Emperor of Ethiopia

“In early 1868, Great Britain launched an expedition from India, which consisted of 62,000 men and 36,094 animals, including 44 elephants, to rescue some three dozen Europeans held prisoners by the Ethiopian Emperor, Tewodros. The campaign, at a final cost of more than £8 million, had to traverse some four hundred miles of difficult terrain to reach Magdala, where the European prisoners were kept.

“The British decision to carry out the expedition and, even more importantly, its success in penetrating Ethiopia and plucking out the prisoners says a lot about how much the world had changed by the nineteenth century. Ethiopian rulers had previously rebuffed Europeans and nothing much was done. The Portuguese envoy, Pedro da Covilha, who arrived in Ethiopia at the end of the fifteenth century, had been prevented from returning to his country. A second mission sent in 1520 was kept cooling its heels for six years. When a religious controversy partly instigated by the Jesuit missionaries threatened the stability of the empire in the seventeenth century, the Emperor Fasiledes (1632-67) issued a proclamation expelling all Europeans from the country and executed a few who refused to leave. Ethiopia remained mostly closed to Europeans for the next two hundred years.

That kind of affront to European honor and image could not, of course, be allowed to stand in the nineteenth century. Tewodros’s action was largely an expression of his frustration against European powers. When he ascended the throne in 1855, he had grand plans to modernize the country and restore the centralization of the Ethiopian state that had been shattered by the resurgence of feudal anarchy since the late eighteenth century. He saw Christian European powers as natural allies in the battle against the Ottomans and the Egyptians. Accordingly, he solicited several European governments for alliance and technical support. Tewodros did not at first appreciate the divergence of Ethiopian and European strategic interests. The French, whom he assiduously courted, instead supported rebel chiefs in the north who were sympathetic to Roman Catholic missionaries. England stood to gain more by cooperating with the Ottoman Empire  and  Egypt than with Ethiopia.

“Tewodros was particularly incensed by the failure of the British government to answer a letter that he sent to Queen Victoria in 1862. A very proud man, Tewodros felt slighted. Subsequent overtures from the British government simply compli­cated the issue. As the emperor’s own hold over his empire deteriorated, he grew more intransigent. This ‘Abyssinian difficulty’, as Disraeli called it, threw the British government into a quandary. The detention of British officials at the hands of an African leader was considered to be a major affront to British prestige and to be detrimental to the image that Britain wished to project globally. Many colonial officials, especially in India, argued that that European prestige would remain under grave threat everywhere as long as the Ethiopian emperor continued to defy Britain. The British cabinet decided on war in August 1867.

“Volker Matthies provides a superb description of the organization and deployment of the campaign to Magdala. The task of organizing the force was given to Lieutenant General Robert Napier, a noted engineer and commander-in-chief of the Bombay army. Napier worked out elaborate plans for moving his army across the ocean to the Red Sea coast at Zula and on to the interior of Ethiopia. In the words of the Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, the Magdala Campaign was ‘an early example of the industrialization of war’. Napier made full use of all the fruits of industrialization including rapid firing Snider-Enfield rifles, modern artillery, rockets, telegraphs, photographic equipments, and even a railway line that extended from the harbor at Zula to the foot of the escarpment.

“As Matthies argues, while the eventual success of the expedition owed a great deal to Napier’s brilliant organizational skills and to British technological superiority, the advance of the British force faced few challenges because the emperor’s power had nearly evaporated long before the arrival of the British troops. By the time that the British troops landed on the coast, Tewodros controlled little more than the fortress at Magdala where he kept his European prisoners. Having witnessed the hopelessness of the situation, the emperor released his foreign prisoners and committed suicide minutes before the British forces broke the fortress.

“Although the book is largely based on published sources, its exhaustive use of the German materials makes it unique. One would have wished to see fewer and shorter quotations (some as long as four pages), especially when the quoted materials have already appeared in other publications. Overall, it is a well organized work that will be easily accessible to the general reader.”
— Journal of African History, vol. 53

“Using an impressive variety of sources — primary and secondary — in both English and German, Volker Matthies — professor in the Institute of Political Science at the University of Hamburg in Germany who specializes on issues relating to peace and conflict in the Horn of Africa — reenacts in this splendid book The Siege of Magdala: The British Empire Against the Emperor of Ethiopia an expedition undertaken by Britain ostensibly for the sole purpose of liberating a small group of European hostages held in the fortress of Magdala in north-central Ethiopia by Tewodros in defiance of international law and civilized practice. Meticulously researched and copiously illustrated, Matthies’s treatment of his subject is dispassionate, balanced, and professional, a work by a non-historian but with which many a historian may be delighted to be associated. …Professor Richard Pankhurst, the distinguished doyen of Ethiopian studies, provides a succinct foreword to the book.

“Matthies’s Siege of Magdala, in addition to being the first detailed account of this siege, provides a balanced account of a proud, colorful, and controversial African emperor on the eve of the Scramble for Africa. The lessons learned from the expedition were to prove invaluable during the European conquest of Africa that began about a generation later.”
— H-Net

“The present work, the English edition of Unternehmen Magdala: Strafexpedition in Äthiopien, is a stimulating and richly illustrated study of the Napier Expedition of 1867–68. The author presents a compelling narrative of the principal events of the British campaign in Ethiopia, with periodic asides devoted to comparative analysis and the presentation of primary sources. His chief accomplishment is to highlight a number of provocative but little-noticed dimensions of the conflict.

“Following a brief foreword by Richard Pankhurst, the Introduction considers various interpretations of this ‘Curious Campaign,’ from a humanitarian intervention to a Victorian small war, an industrial conflict, and an instance of embedded journalism. The chapters that follow address the following, seriatim: the course of Ethiopian history over the long term; the ascendancy of Tewodros II, his diplomatic overtures to Britain, and the origins of the hostage crisis; the identities of the hostages themselves and the nature of their treatment; the British debates about the crisis and the planning and staffing of the military campaign; the construction of a British base of operations at Zula/Annesley Bay, near Massawa; the significance and dynamics of war reporting during the military campaign; the route and march to Mäqdäla; the course of the main battle, ‘The Aroge Massacre’; the final failed negotiations between Tewodros and Robert Napier that lead to the taking of the citadel, the suicide of Tewodros, and widespread looting; the significance of the looted artifacts and their subsequent fate; the departure of the British forces from Ethiopia; and finally the aftermath of the Mäqdäla campaign in Britain. A conclusion, ‘Balance Sheet: Military Intervention without Colonial Occupation,’ considers the significance and analytic implications of these dramatic events.

“One of the author’s chief contributions is to consider the Mäqdäla campaign both as an episode of British imperial history and a pivotal chapter in northeast African diplomacy and foreign relations. In this respect, his approach differs from Sven Rubenson’s definitive study of these events. His discussion of the role of the Indian Army is particularly fascinating. Equally notable is the author’s final chapter, in which he presents a number of highly perceptive and occasionally provocative conclusions. He considers the possibility that Tewodros made a strategic blunder: rather than waging a guerrilla or šəfta campaign, to which he was accustomed, he instead fought a more conventional battle in which he faced a tremendous disadvantage. The author also fruitfully compares the Napier Expedition with the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt  in 1798 (published as Napoleon in Egypt by Markus Wiener Publishers): he observes that the Ethiopian episode reveals not only the increasingly industrialized nature of warfare (e.g., logistical dependence upon steamships, railways, naval hospitals, and telegraphs), but also the persistence of older elements (e.g., continued use of sailing ships, muzzle loaders, and pack animals). He also notes the rather surprising place of the campaign in contemporary strategic thinking.

“… A thought-provoking work. It will be of interest to northeast Africa specialists, military historians, and historians of imperialism.”
— African Studies Review

“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.

“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.
 Matthies 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.

“Unlike some earlier accounts of these events which attempt to sanitize them by writing of them merely as part of an ‘expedition’, Matthies 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, including 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, Matthies 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 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’, for ‘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.”
— Professor Richard Pankhurst, Capital

“The years 1867/68 witnessed an unprecedented pre-colonial British military intervention in Ethiopia. The so-called Mäqdäla campaign, also known as the Napier Expedition (after General Sir Robert Napier, who led the campaign) was an enormous endeavour in terms of logistical and military exertion: it involved 6000 mostly British-Indian troops, the building of a rail- way and the use of elephants from India for transport, as well as the expansion of a port at Zula as a base station. It was a carefully planned operation, making use of the most recent cartographic, anthropological and linguistic knowledge about Ethiopia. The campaign was one of ‘Queen Victoria’s little wars’, one that ‘Kipling referred to as the “savage wars of peace”‘. For Captain Henry Hozier, a member of the Napier expedition, the intervention was done neither in search for ‘power’, or ‘fame’ nor ‘expansion’ but driven by ‘humanitarian interest’ since Britain had not aimed at ‘territorial expansion’ but ‘prestige among European nations’. The military expedition resembles a ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the modern sense: it was an incursion into the internal affairs of a state which is — at least officially — only done to prevent crimes against humanity, as in this case, to free the victims of a tyrant, while — much less officially — it had also to fulfill a political agenda (which is certainly also quite characteristic of humanitarian interventions), such as ‘restoring prestige,’ which is a typical colonial concept. Volker Matthies portrays the campaign as an ‘expedition of punishment’ against a rebellious African ruler, which not only showed the imbalance in military power between the opposing parties but also marked, together with other pre-colonial endeavours, the beginning of the ‘industrialisation of war’. The book thus sets out to focus on the military implementation of the campaign. The Emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros II, after having ended the zämänä mäsafənt, provided for unity of the various Abyssinian highland kingdoms and was known as a modernizer of the state apparatus. The Napier Expedition has also found its way into popular culture; an interesting side remark to the campaign is the elephant Kala Nag in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (Toomai of the Elephants), who was awarded a medal of honour for participation in the Maqdala campaign. Vast parts of Abyssinia were far from being terra incognita to Europeans; they in fact saw the active presence of travellers, missionaries and diplomats. Tewodros, driven by the idea of modernization, was using their help in many ways. With the British crown in particular, the Emperor was hoping to establish diplomatic and economic relations. Among the British through whom Tewodros hoped to forge bonds of friendship with the crown were the British Consul Walter Plowden and his secretary John Bell. Both died in the service of Tewodros. After the death of Plowden, the British dispatched another consul to Massawa: Consul Cameron, who brought presents and a letter from the Queen to the Emperor. In the letter the Queen showed her gratitude for how he had treated Plowden and Bell. This induced him to return a letter, which later became the origin of the diplomatic crisis, and the background for the Napier expedition. The letter aimed at establishing military relations between Ethiopia and Britain. Tewodros hoped to create a Christian alliance against the Muslim i.e. Ottoman threat along his coastline. The letter is reprinted in the present volume from Hozier. Cameron was asked to deliver the request to the Queen personally, but disobeyed the order and instead went to the Sudanese border. The letter was sent to England without priority and in the foreign office it did not receive much attention. Indeed, as Matthies explains, the two sides had incompatible hopes and expectations. While Tewodros hoped for a military alliance against [Egypt and the Ottoman Empire], the British were interested in establishing peaceful political, strategic relations with them. As no answer arrived at the Emperor’s court and Tewodros learned about Cameron’s departure for Bogos (which he regarded as forging an alliance with the enemy), he arrested the British missionary Henry Stern. When a letter arrived that ordered Cameron back to Massawa with no mention about the previous letter of request at all, Tewodros also arrested Cameron. These news arrived in London through the Aden-based Consul Merewhether. For the British, the taking of hostages was a breach with international law, while it was an acceptable practice for the Ethiopian ruler to achieve his aims. The taking of hostages induced the British crown to dispatch troops under the command of Sir Robert Napier, who on 30 October 1867 landed in Zula Bay and made their way into the northern mountains to Mäqdäla, where Tewodros had brought his European and other hostages. Thus began the Napier Expedition, which in a short time reached the mountain fortress of Mäqdäla, defeating Tewodros’ army and freeing the hostages. This eventually led to the suicide of the Emperor.

“The book is an unpretentious account of the Napier Expedition. Its main focus is on the military campaign itself, compared to, e.g., Arnold’s Prelude to Magdalla. The book is organized into 13 chapters. Chapters one to five give an introduction to the Napier Expedition and Ethiopia as such (‘Mysterious Ethiopia’) and also look at British involvement and the diplomatic crisis between Ethiopia and Britain, together with the domestic British debates preceding the campaign. A subchapter of chapter two (‘The European Hostages’) takes a closer look at the hostages. Being a German account, this part of the book focuses on the German hostages such as Eduard Zander and Wilhelm Schimper, with biographical details. Beginning with chapter six, the book discusses the military course of the campaign. The narrative is outlined chronologically from the landing at the port of Zula, the military and logistical preparations, and eventually the trek into the highlands. It reconstructs negotiations with Tewodros’s opponents, such as Kaśa, Mäseeät, for cooperation and peaceful passage through their respective territories, to reach Mäqdäla. The book closely examines the contributions of Werner Munzinger and Gerhard Rohlfs as translators and their role in negotiations. Munzinger and Rohlfs are also presented with extensive biographical details. The main achievement of the author is the use of previously little known sources from Prussian and Austrian military observers and staff members of the campaign. This has not been done extensively before, and to my knowledge the contribution of these to the study of the campaign has until now only briefly been attempted by Wolbert Smidt. The main body of narrative is based on the accounts of the Austrian military observer Theodore von Kodolitsch, as well as the German observers Graf G. von Seckendorff and Ferdinand Freiherr von Stumm, and the medical doctor and member of staff Josef Bechtinger. It is not surprising that Volker Matthies, a leading scholar of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Hamburg, has focused mostly on the military history of the campaign as well as on its military and logistical execution. It is another achievement of the book that by following the (military) observations of the aforementioned staff members the author takes a very detailed look at the beginnings of colonial warfare, which can be read as a field-study to Matthies’ earlier work Kriege am Horn von Afrika (‘Wars in the Horn of Africa’). The book is thus a case study of (pre-) colonial wars and brings to light the different military tactics and focuses on the imbalance in military power. The book is rooted in modern peace and conflict studies using a descriptive appraisal of the primary sources to analyse intentions, perceptions and the actual execution of military conflict, settled by military means and the defeat of one of the opponents. Chapter 9 (‘The Massacre of Aroge’) describes in depth British armament and war tactics. Rooted in the genre of historical war studies, one chapter is dedicated to the ’embedded journalists’ (chapter 7), such as Henry Morton Stanley, who reported about the campaign for British and other European and American newspapers. This contributes to the recent discourse and adds to the relevance of the book for contemporary wars or ‘humanitarian interventions’ and adds the Napier-expedition, to some extent, to a contemporary discussion on ‘war-journalism’. The book is well annotated and thoroughly researched. The use of primary and secondary sources seems excellent and the use of previously unused sources adds to its scholarly impact. Despite this, the book is not necessarily written for a scholarly audience. It rather aims at people interested in the field of colonial history, Ethio-British relations and war studies. The focus on Germans or German-speaking personnel, with rich bibliographical narratives, gives insights into the international staff, despite the main body being Indian troops, thus recalling an international humanitarian intervention under British command. The book is well illustrated with maps (made for the publication), facsimiles of maps and portraits and a variety of original photographs and drawings taken during the expedition. The book is the first ever full account of the Mäqdäla campaign in German and thus, seen from a German point of view, one wishes the book a wide readership, hoping for a better understanding of the savage wars of peace.”
— Aethiopica 14, International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies