King Theodore

So much of a confusing nature has been written about King Theodore, against whom the British were compelled to send an expedition, the astonishing success of which must remain one of the luckiest triumphs in military history—though to say this, as will be seen later, is to reflect no discredit on the brilliant commander who undertook the task—that it seems best to me to allow my father, who was an eye-witness of the whole tragedy, to tell the story in his own words. What follows, therefore, is a condensed but in every essential an entirely unaltered account of what occurred, the work of a man who was among the strange King’s greatest friends.

John Bell, of whom mention is made, was my grandfather—an Englishman who, having penetrated Ethiopia at a time when it was practically a closed country, lived on there, rising to high rank. His adventures, of which no really adequate account exists, must have ranked with those of Lawrence of Arabia—to whom he bore a strong resemblance in that his powers of endurance and the sureness of his word won the hearts of a people little given to the welcome of foreigners. He was killed in a skirmish with rebels, for, seeing the king in danger, he rode madly to the rescue and cut the assailant down, only to be killed in turn by a second rebel who was following the first. This man the king himself killed, and then seeing that the friend whom he loved above all other men lay stricken down, leaped from his horse to aid him. But John Bell was dead, and from that moment King Theodore acted like a man accursed.

Here is my father’s story, taken from his letters and his writings:

King Theodore in the commencement of his reign had two good angels. The first was his wife and the second his prime minister, an Englishman named John Bell. He had been appointed Lika Marquas— ‘next to the highest,’ and was trusted implicitly.1 The Queen, according to the Abyssinian custom, took great care of the King’s food. He was not allowed to accept anything to eat or drink from any hand but hers, and she was wise enough to keep him continually sober, saying, “A king has too much to do to drink intoxicating liquors. ” She also read the Bible with him thus seeking to inspire him with the fear of God.

John Bell advised the King not only for the internal welfare of his kingdom but also concerning his relations with foreign powers. But the Queen died, and John Bell was killed in battle defending the King. And there was no one to take the place of either.

Then the King married the daughter of King Ubie of Tigre, but she did not care for him as the former Queen had done. And thus the King grew displeased and gave way to intoxicating drink and began to care for other women, though not to the extent which was reported of him by his enemies.

It was in the year 1862 that the English consul came to Abyssinia—Captain Cameron, accompanied by his secretary, a Frenchman named Bardel. The King received the two diplomatists with honour and sent them back to Europe with letters which he asked them to deliver personally. But Captain Cameron, after accepting a handsome present from the King for his expenses, went to Egypt and posted his letter from there. He then went on a shooting trip, certain that in due course a reply would come. But by an accident which has never been explained the letter was overlooked by the British Foreign Office. Captain Cameron had to return without a reply and to admit that he had not gone to England in person. King Theodore was offended.

Meanwhile, a French consul who had had a dispute with the King left the country and wrote an insulting letter. Just at this time a Dr. Stern, of the Jewish Mission to the Falashas, angered the King by breaches of Court etiquette. While he was detained under guard he summoned the French Consul, M. Bardel (who had now returned to take the place of his colleague who had written the insulting letter), and asked that a book among his belongings should be hidden, since it contained passages which would anger the King.

But M. Bardel took the book, Wanderings among the Falashas, translated the offending passages, and brought them to King Theodore’s notice, with disastrous results.

Here was a typical passage: “King Theodore is not a descendant of the Royal House, but the son of a poor woman who sold herbal medicines. He is a cruel, bloodthirsty man, like a wild animal.”

To the King, who was exasperated by having no letter as yet from England, this was the last straw. He ordered the Europeans to be brought in chains before him. Then in a loud voice he said:

“You Europeans came into this country and I loved, honoured and respected you, because I thought that all Europeans were like my beloved John Bell, who spoke always the truth. But you are liars. You have spoken and written against me, and have given me a bad name before the world. Now God shall judge between you and me.”

Then, in front of thousands of people, the Feta Negast, or Abyssinian Codex, was opened and a law was found by which all men who spoke ill of the king must suffer death. Dr. Stern and his companion, a Mr. Rosenthal, were condemned to execution and the gallows was erected before their eyes.

As I was in favour with the King I knelt and begged him with tears in my eyes to spare them.... He answered at length: “Don’t be afraid, my friend, my son. For your sake and for the memory of Mr. Bell I will not kill them. Not only will I grant you Stern’s life, but even if you ask a finger off my hand I will give it you, for you have dealt truly with me and I love you.”

But though their lives were spared, Captain Cameron, Dr. Stern, Mr. Rosenthal, together with other Europeans, were put in chains.

The English Government, thoroughly alarmed at the news, sent a Mr. Rassam to negotiate the release of the captives. He came and presented an official letter from Queen Victoria to King Theodore, which said that full confidence might be placed in him. The king treated the envoy with great magnificence, but a wrong translation of the letter gave him the idea that Mr. Rassam was to remain as hostage and adviser.

The prisoners were handed over to him and he prepared to leave the country. I pointed out that the King expected him to remain, but he thought it of no consequence. The King let them start, but suddenly changed his mind and sent after them. They were all imprisoned, and so were my wife and myself.

This was all due to misunderstanding, for King Theodore had a great personal liking for Mr. Rassam, who had treated him with great tact and dignity. But he should not have left with the prisoners.

Everything had been taken from us; we were as beggars. Then one day the King said to me: “You Europeans are clever, but you conceal your talents. Now I want you to make me a gun which will discharge a ball one thousand pounds in weight. If you say you do not know how, I shall know that you are liars and that you seek to deceive me.”

I was sadly perplexed for I knew nothing of such things and the thought that if I failed the King might take vengeance on all the prisoners was terrible to me. However, there was nothing for it but at least to try so I asked that the other prisoners should be liberated to help me.

This was granted. Luckily though I knew nothing of the procedure, I had with me my Polytechnic Lexicon, and in this I found valuable information, so that at last the furnaces were built.

The King came several times daily to watch us but all the while I spoke to him I was inwardly fearful that his blood lust would break out. He had been massacring his subjects right and left and it seemed that no day could pass without the shedding of blood. When all was ready for the casting the people assembled in their thousands to watch. When I saw that the metal was at the right heat I asked King Theodore to give the word for the furnace to be opened. This was done and the shining metal flowed out into the mould which we had prepared. In twenty minutes it was full, and the King was glad, saying that the gun should be called ‘Sebastopol.’ Three days later the mould was opened and the metal was found well cast. Since there was no shot big enough, the gun was never used, but the making of it undoubtedly saved the lives of the prisoners, since they were spared, in the face of much opposition from some of the chiefs, in order to build a road to take the great monster to the hills.

Meanwhile the relief expedition had reached Zullu near Massawa. We were made to work hard on the building of a great wagon to carry the cannon. We had to work very hard, and when the first part of our work was done the chiefs advised the King to kill us since our usefulness was ended. But we were still needed for road work. It took eight hundred men to drag the huge gun up to Magdala.

At length General Napier’s force arrived and a messenger brought to the king a letter, but he refused to receive it, saying that he would die fighting and that nothing could change his mind. He gave absolution to his chiefs, since the Abuna was dead, and ordered the attack. This was a failure. Firing six volleys to the minute the English soldiers mowed down the seven hundred natives who rushed upon them. The native artillery proved useless. One of the guns burst.

That night the King called me and said that he would send a message urging conciliation. This was done and a reply was received on the following afternoon.

“To His Majesty King Theodore,
“Your Majesty fought yesterday like a brave man but you were conquered by our arts and power. We trust that no more blood will be shed between us. If, therefore, your Majesty will submit to the Queen of England and bring all the Europeans who are in your Majesty’s hands and deliver them safely this day into the British camp, I will guarantee honourable treatment for yourself and all the members of your Majesty’s family.
“Signed by the Commander-in-Chief,


“What is the meaning of honourable treatment?” cried the King. “I know—it means to treat me as a prisoner. I, Theodore, a prisoner. That shall never be.” He attempted then and there to kill himself but was restrained by the chiefs who begged him to slaughter the Europeans. One said—“Let us put them in a great hut with wood and straw and burn them alive.” Another: “Let us cut off their hands and feet and let the English carry them away.” A third: “Let us hang them all on that tree.” All these counsels, and worse, I heard.

At last the King sent for us. It seemed that the end had come. But looking at us fixedly he was silent for several minutes and then pronounced that we should go free. “My death is near at hand,” he said, “and I would not have you precede me to God’s presence with your accusations. Go, get your friends together and make your way, all of you, to the English camp.”

Lord Napier received us cordially. We were still anxious, however, since there were nine other Europeans in Theodore’s hands. April the twelfth was Easter Day, and according to Abyssinian custom cows and sheep were slaughtered for a feast. A letter arrived for the Commander-in-Chief asking that he would accept 1000 cows and 500 sheep as a token of peace and friendship. The King was told by Mr. Rassam’s dragoman that when all the Europeans were safe the gift would be received with thankfulness. They were released at once. When I went to claim my dear wife and family I took leave of the King who said, with tears in his eyes: “Farewell, dear friend —I loved thee as I loved John Bell.”

The next day the fortress of Magdala was stormed. When he saw his men running away King Theodore replied to his armour-bearer who had urged surrender: “Let us not fall into men’s hands—they have no pity. Let us fall into God’s hand.” He then took his pistol and shot himself through the head, falling dead to the ground. Within fifteen minutes the English soldiers had won the fortress and Sir Robert Napier, Mr. Rassam and I stood by the dead body, which I was called on to identify. The English flag was then hoisted on Magdala, which fort was later blown up by powder and utterly destroyed.

The stirring events of these days filled the world with wonderful news. Victory of British Expedition . . . Impregnable Fortress Taken . . . Magdala Destroyed . . . All Prisoners Saved. . . . Let me say the truth about these things. There was very little skill shown by the British and little to admire in their warlike proceedings. Had King Theodore not concentrated his forces at Magdala, where he was surrounded by enemies in his own kingdom, and had his men not forsaken him at the critical hour, the British soldiers, for all their bravery, must have been massacred to a man. Just as the Egyptian army under European officers was annihilated in 1877 by King John of Abyssinia, and Hicks Pasha’s army utterly destroyed in Kordofan by the Mahdi’s power, so must the British have perished at Magdala but that the whole country had revolted against their savage king and so allowed the troops free passage both in and out of the land.

Besides, King Theodore was unfairly treated. By the custom of his country the acceptance of the gift was a token of peace. However, when the prisoners had been released the gift was sent back and the battle joined. Theodore considered this the treachery of an implacable enemy. Whether it was the result of misunderstanding or whether some degree of deceit was thought allowable in the exceptional circumstances and to save the captives, I do not know.

I do not judge the conduct of those concerned. It is merely my duty to tell the truth as I see it. Surely this tragic story of England’s dealings with Abyssinia will be helpful to civilised Christian nations the world over; also to politicians and missions in being more careful in their dealings with the less civilised countries. I am convinced that this Anglo-Abyssinian war might have been spared, with all its bloodshed and enormous expense, by a nobler way of dealing with King Theodore, and that the prisoners might have been set at liberty without such an agony of danger, fear and perplexity.

The British army consisted of 12,000 English and Indian soldiers, 20,000 servants and porters, 8,000 camels, 12,400 mules, 8,000 oxen, 200 donkeys and 45 elephants. The organisation was excellent, the tactics would have proved less so had opposition been encountered in either direction. The time occupied was eight months, and the total expenditure £10,000,000 sterling. In the actual fighting no officer or man lost his life, but of the twenty-two soldiers wounded only twenty recovered. Sickness carried off eleven officers and 37 other ranks—a tribute to General Napier’s magnificent staff work. But in considering the campaign it is important to remember that no attempt was made to conquer and occupy the land; also that resistance, which might have been terribly effective, was almost nil.

1 The rank of Lika Marquas was indeed a high honour. The officer who held it wore royal dress so as to deceive the enemy in battle.

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