British Expedition Against Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia

2 Jan, 1868 - 13 May, 1868

Azentawievent

British Expedition Against Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia who provoked Queen Victoria by detaining her emissary; Kassa Mercha eventually became Emperor Yohannes IV upon Tewodros' demise

The Battle of Magdala, the British against Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia The Battle of Magdala, the British against Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia

Kassa Hailu of Dambiya (Lake Tana area) rose to power during the “Age of Princes” (ዘመነ መሳፍንት). He became the Emperor of Abyssinia in February 1855. During his reign, he built his fortress at Magdala in southern Showa.

Kassa Hailu, later Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia Kassa Hailu, later Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia

During this time, Muslim Turks and Egyptians were constantly invading Abyssinia from the Red Sea and Sudan while Muslim Oromo tribes were expanding in the southern part of the empire. Believing as a Christian monarch their interests would align, he approached the British emissary in Abyssinia at the time, Captain Charles Duncan, to deliver a letter personally to Queen Victoria of the British Empire. His letter asked for assistance from the queen; he asked for weapons and skilled experts that could train his subjects in building weapons and other technical needs of the empire.

Cameron set out for Britain but only sent the letter from the Red Sea coast and returned to Abyssinia after a short visit to Sudan, which was in constant conflict with Tewodros. Tewodros was enraged. After waiting for a response for two years, he imprisoned Cameron along with other Europeans he believed had described him as barbaric in Europe. This was mainly to get the attention of Queen Victoria. His letter was ignored by the British because their plan was to cooperate with the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Sudan irrespective of their religion; they needed safe passage for their fleet through the Red Sea as well as the resources from these territories that they had come to depend on for resources such as cotton from Egypt and Sudan. It is to be remembered here they had lost their colonies in the Americas that provided these imports.

The British responded to this by sending a letter from the queen with another emissary, Hormuzd Rassam, who was also imprisoned by the emperor because he did not come with what he had asked for.

European prisoners of Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia; Hormuzd Rassam is first from left, Captain Charles Cameron last European prisoners of Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia; Hormuzd Rassam is first from left, Captain Charles Cameron last

This breach of diplomatic immunity was the last straw for the British. The queen ordered to send a British Expeditionary Force to Abyssinia commanded by Lieutenant General Robert Napier, who commanded the British Bombay Army which was a British colony at the time.

Lieutenant General Robert Napier, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Bombay Army Lieutenant General Robert Napier, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Bombay Army

The army consisted of 30,000 personnel arriving in 241 ships. They landed at Annesley Bay or the Gulf of Zula (a.k.a. Bay of Arafali) on 21st of October 1867.

British expeditionary force landing at Annesley Bay or Gulf of Zula British expeditionary force landing at Annesley Bay or Gulf of Zula

British expeditionary force camp at Zula, campaign against Tewodros II of Abyssinia British expeditionary force camp at Zula, campaign against Tewodros II of Abyssinia

The remoteness of Abyssinia dictated that the British army seek help from local chiefs, many of whom had gotten disillusioned with the emperor. Many had rebelled against him. One powerful figure of these was Kassa Mercha of Tigray who controlled Tigray, parts of Semien and central highlands of current-day Eritrea.

Kassa Mercha a.k.a Aba Bezbiz, future Emperor Yohannes IV of Abyssinia Kassa Mercha a.k.a Aba Bezbiz, future Emperor Yohannes IV of Abyssinia

Degiat Kassa Mercha of Tigray (Aba Bezbiz), who had rebelled against Emperor Tewodros and successfully waged several battles against the emperor’s allies, had secured all of Tigray and the central highlands of current-day Eritrea. He agreed with the British to provided them with a safe passage through the region under his control. He allowed them to acquire supplies from the local markets on their way to Magdala, Showa. In return, after a successful completion of their campaign, they would leave him with significant amount of ammunition which would help him with his ambition of becoming emperor; he would eventually, becoming Yohannes IV of Abyssinia.

Degiat Kassa Mercha of Tigray, future Emperor Yohannes IV, rendezvous with General Napier Degiat Kassa Mercha of Tigray, future Emperor Yohannes IV, rendezvous with General Napier

As the British army advanced, Tewodros moved his army from Debre Tabor to the fortress of Magdala. His army consisted of 30,000 men.

On the 10th of April, the armies clashed at the plateau of Aroge where Tewodros sent 6,000 men to attack the British positions. Many of his soldiers were killed. The Abyssinians fell back.

British Punjab Pioneers attacking at the Battle of Magdala British Punjab Pioneers attacking at the Battle of Magdala

At this point, Tewodros was desperate and enraged. He could not escape to the south as the Oromo tribes in the south were already blocking him, practically making the situation a siege. In rage, he killed many of his prisoners from the south. He asked one of the European prisoners to reconcile him with Napier. Many of his soldiers surrendered but he could not accept Napier’s demand for unconditional surrender.

Tewodros shot himself.

The death of Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia The death of Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia

The British captured Magdala. They took many of Tewodros’s royal belongings and took it to Britain. They also took his young son Prince Alemayehu with them; his mother was travelling with him although she died on the way before leaving Abyssinia. Although he died young, he would grow up in Britain and was presented to Queen Victoria who took close interest in him and his upbringing and education.

Prince Alemayehu, son of Tewodros II of Abyssinia Prince Alemayehu, son of Tewodros II of Abyssinia

Prince Alemayehu, son of Tewodros II of Abyssinia in Britain Prince Alemayehu, son of Tewodros II of Abyssinia in Britain

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