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The Abyssinian Expedition

The Abyssinian Expedition - Early History of Abyssinia - Embassy of Major Harris - Mr. Plowden appointed Consul - Rise of KÔsa, afterwards Theodore: Sketch of his Career - Deaths of Plowden and Bell - Mr. Cameron appointed Consul - Theodore's Letter to the Queen - Mr. Cameron visits Bogos and Kassala: Returns to Abyssinia - Despatches from England - Theodore imprisons Mr. Cameron and his suite: they are sent to Magdala - The British Government resolves to send out a Mission to obtain Cameron's release - Mr. Rassam selected as the head of the Mission - The Mission goes to Korata - Mr. Rassam is arrested at ZagŔ - Mr. Cameron and the other Captives re-arrested - Mr. Flad sent to England - The Captives are all sent to Magdala - Lord Stanley resolves to send out Artisans and Presents to Theodore - Recommendations of Colonel Merewether - The Captives being still detained, an Expedition is decided upon - Sir Robert Napier appointed to the Command - Sir Robert Napier arrives at Annesley Bay - The Abyssinian Chiefs friendly to the Expedition - Sir Robert's inter view with Kassa - Strength of the British Forces - The Army arrives within sight of Magdala - Description of the Fortress- Theodore's March from Debra Tabor to Magdala - Interview with Mr. Rassam - Massacre of the Native Prisoners - Concentration of the British Army on the Beshilo - March of Sir Charles Staveley - Action under the hill of Fala - Slaughter of the Abyssinians in the Dam-Wanz Ravine - Theodore sues for Peace - Theodore's First Letter - He releases the Captives - Last Interview with Mr. Rassam - Theodore's Second Letter - He sends all the Europeans to the English Camp - Attempts to Escape from Magdala - Advance of the Troops - Magdala is cannonaded and stormed - Death of Theodore - Burning of Magdala and Departure of the English Army - Sir Robert Napier is made a Peer.
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The successful expedition to the highlands of Abyssinia in 1867-8 has been more than once incidentally referred to in these pages, and some indication of the chain of events which led up to it was given in Chapter XIV. In the present chapter we propose to give a connected view of the expedition, including an analysis of its causes and a survey of its results.

The sequence of events which terminated in the death of the Emperor Theodore and the storming of the rock fortress of Magdala, commenced with the conclusion of a treaty of amity and commerce, in 1848, between Queen Victoria and Ras Ali, the ruler of central Abyssinia. This treaty was the work of Lord Palmerston; and to understand his motives it is necessary that the reader should have some general knowledge of the previous history of Abyssinia. The natives of this portion of the ancient Ethiopia - which, though within the tropics, enjoys a healthy and delightful climate, on account of its great elevation above the sea - were converted to Christianity by St. Frumentius, sent from Alexandria by the great Athan asius in the fourth century of our era. They have never since then, for any long time together, broken their connection with Egypt; for centuries, down to the present day, the Abuna, or Patriarch, of the Abyssinian Church has been appointed, whenever the dignity falls vacant, by the Coptic Patriarch in Egypt, and submissively obeyed by the Abyssinian Christians. Unfortunately, the Copts in Egypt having ages ago adopted the heresy of the Monophysites, the connection between the two countries has propagated the same heresy in Abyssinia, and has thereby raised in some degree a barrier between the Abyssinians and the rest of Christendom. But the motive which originally induced the Neguses, or Emperors, of Abyssinia to seek the head of their Church from Egypt was wise and laudable; they saw Mohammedanism spreading all around them, cutting them off from all other Christian countries; and they hoped by this ecclesiastical arrangement to guard in some measure against the fatal effects of that isolation.

Ages rolled by, and the troubles of Abyssinia continually thickened. Once, before Mohammed arose, she had had the command of the Red Sea, and had subdued the southern portion of Arabia, where her dominion for a time promised to be permanent. Gibbon speculates on the strangely different course which human affairs might have taken, if the Christian rulers of Abyssinia had been able to subjugate the whole of Arabia, and stifle Islam in its cradle. But the Crescent rose higher and higher in the heavens; the Turkish power gradually extended itself along the shores of the Red Sea, and about 1570 succeeded in permanently occupying Massowah and other points on the west coast, thus cutting off Abyssinia from the sea. A still worse infliction came on the unfortunate country about the same time, in the invasion of tribes of savage and heathen Gallas from the south. They came again and again; though often defeated and driven out, they still re turned in greater numbers and with greater ferocity than before. Their incursions may be compared to those of the Danes into England in the ninth and tenth centuries; like them, they blasted civilisation and refinement wherever they came; like them, they permanently wrested a large part of the country from the natives, and inhabit to this say a broad strip of territory running across the centre of Abyssinia, and severing the province of Shoa from the rest of the country. These intruding Gallas have become Mussulmans; while the Galla tribes to the south remain, as they have ever been, heathens.

The Portuguese, soon after they had discovered the pas sage round the Cape of Good Hope, conceived a high idea of the importance of Abyssinia as the key of North-eastern Africa, and opened diplomatic and commercial inter course with its rulers. For about a century and a half this heroic little nation, partly by its soldiers, partly by I its Jesuit missionaries, maintained a close and constant! communication with Abyssinia. The Mohammedans I were sometimes pressed back through Portuguese aid;! and a Jesuit father, in the seventeenth century, obtained so great an ascendancy over the reigning Negus that he declared himself a Roman Catholic. His son, however, shared the very decided and bigoted preference for the Coptic rather than the Roman form of Christianity which animated the mass of the population, and he expelled the Jesuits from Abyssinia. This was about the year 1640. About the same time the Portuguese power, succumbing to some mysterious law of national decay, began everywhere to decline. Thenceforward, till official relations were opened between England and Abyssinia, near the beginning of the century, it does not appear that any European nation had any intercourse with the country except through the visits of individual travellers or adventurers. The ancient royal family, which bore the sovereign title of Negus (properly " Nagash "), was deposed about 1770, shortly before the visit of James Bruce, the celebrated traveller; and since then Abyssinia has been nearly always split up into three or more independent states, the chief of which are TigrÚ, Amhara, and Shoa. Official communication was first opened between England and Abyssinia in 1810, when Mr. Salt, the English envoy, paid a formal visit to Ras Walda Selassye, the Prince of TigrÚ, at Antalo, and presented him with two three-pounder field-guns and other presents. But Mr. Salt's visit was an isolated act, and led to nothing. Nor was the visit of Major Harris to the King of Shoa, in 1841, undertaken by the orders of the Bombay Government in order to arrange a treaty of commerce with that potentate, productive of more lasting consequences; although it furnished the materials for one of the most popular and interesting books of travel that the last generation produced. The visit of Walter Plowden, a private Englishman, who first found his way to Abyssinia in 1843, led eventually to more important consequences than either of the official visits just mentioned. After a residence of nearly four years in the country, he returned to England, bearing some presents from Ras Ali then chief of central Abyssinia, to the Queen. While in London he submitted several memoranda on Abyssinian affairs to Lord Palmerston. The intelligent clearness with which these were written, and the prospect which they held out of extending British trade and influence in those parts of Africa, appear to have made a strong impression on Lord Palmerston, and he appointed Mr. Plowden British Consul at Massowah, for the protection of British trade in Abyssinia. He also entrusted him (January, 1848) with presents for Ras Ali, and instructed him to conclude with that ruler a treaty of amity and commerce. Plowden was soon back in Abyssinia and zealously fulfilled his instructions. Ras Ali, an indolent man, had no objection to sign the treaty, but he said he did not expect that it would bring any British traders to Abyssinia. In truth, while the Turks (or rather the Egyptians, for Turkey ceded her possessions on this shore in 1866 to the Pacha of Egypt) are allowed to cutoff Abyssinia from the sea, no European trade with the country can flourish. If the reader desires proof, let him turn to the first chapters of Major Harris's interesting account of his embassy to Shoa, and he will see what difficulties, rogueries, and iniquitous exactions even an embassy, clothed with the dignity and armed with the prestige of a great nation, had to contend with before it could escape from the Mohammedan tribes on the sultry and barren coast, and ascend to the beautiful green highlands of Christian Abyssinia.

Consul Plowden had been residing six years at Massowah when he heard that the Prince to whom he had been accredited, Ras Ali, had been defeated and dethroned by an adventurer, whose name, a few years before, had been unknown outside the boundaries of his native province. This was Lij KÔsa, better known by his adopted name of Theodore. He was born of an old family, in the mountainous region of Kwara, where the land begins to slope downwards towards the Blue Nile, and educated in a convent, where he learnt to read, and acquired a considerable knowledge of the Scriptures. KÔsa's convent life was suddenly put an end to, when one of those marauding Galla bands, whose ravages are the curse of Abyssinia, attacked and plundered the monastery. From that time he himself took to the life of a freebooter, and, through his superior intelligence and undaunted courage, soon attained the reputation of being successful in all his enterprises. Adventurers flocked to his standard; his power continually increased; and, in 1854, he defeated Ras Ali in a pitched battle, and made himself master of central Abyssinia. His ambition widened in proportion to its gratification; he now- sent to OobyÚ, the ruler of TigrÚ, requiring that he should pay him tribute, and insisted that the Abuna, then resident at the court of OobyÚ, should be sent to Gondar, which, since the fall of Ras Ali, had been KÔsa's capital. His demands were scornfully rejected, and the Abuna (who is the sole bishop in Abyssinia) ex communicated him. But KÔsa was equal to the occasion. A Monsignor de Jacobis, a Roman Catholic missionary of great ability and saintly life, was at that time in Abyssinia, with the authority of Vicar-Apostolic; him KÔsa threatened to recognise as bishop, unless the Abuna came to Gondar. The Abuna then yielded, revoked the ex communication, and came to live at Gondar, thus giving a kind of religious sanction to the adventurer's power, which was of the greatest value to him in the eyes of a people so superstitious as the Abyssinians. Fortune still attended the arms of KÔsa. In 1855, he defeated OobyÚ at a place called Derezgye, in the province of Semyen, and all TigrÚ submitted to the conqueror. He now re solved to assume a title commensurate with the wide extent of his dominion. In the church of Derezgye he had himself crowned by the Abuna as King of the Kings of Ethiopia, taking the name of Theodore, because an ancient tradition declared that a great monarch so called would one day arise in Abyssinia. Courtly genealogists were not wanting who deduced his pedigree from the line of the ancient kings.

These startling events reached the ears of Mr. Plowden at Massowah, and he resolved to visit the new monarch. He arrived at the camp of Theodore in March or April, 1855, and found that a former fellow-traveller, an Englishman named Bell, who had married an Abyssinian lady, was already in Theodore's service, with the title and functions of Grand Chamberlain. At this time Theodore's character and aims were such as to command the admiration and respect of Plowden and Bell, both of whom were able and excellent men. "Plowden said of him that he was generous to excess, and free from all cupidity, merciful to his vanquished enemies, and strictly continent; but subject to violent bursts of anger, and possessed of unyielding pride and fanatical religious zeal." His views of government were far more en lightened than those of the majority of his countrymen. He abolished the slave trade, put an end to many vexatious imposts on commerce, and aimed at curtailing or suppressing the feudal privileges of a number of petty chiefs, who were the tyrants of the districts over which they ruled. Consul Plowden thus concluded his report on Theodore's character and policy: - " Some of his ideas may be imperfect, others impracticable; but a man who, rising from the clouds of Abyssinian ignorance and childishness, without assistance, and without advice, has done so much, and contemplates such large designs, cannot be regarded as of an ordinary stamp."

Some years passed, and the power of Theodore was ever on the rise. After his coronation, the first object which he set before him was the subjugation of the Galla tribes in Abyssinia; after which he said that any Galla who would not abjure Islam, and receive baptism, should be expelled from the country. This object he partly accomplished, by the subjection of the Wolo Gallas to his rule. To keep these wild tribes in check, and also to serve as his own principal stronghold, he about this time made choice of Magdala, an amba, or natural fortress, beyond the river Beshilo, east of the Lake of Dembea, and in the midst of the territory of the "Wolo Gallas. He then in vaded and reduced Shoa, taking Ankober, the capital, and bringing away with him Menilek, the young heir of Shoa, to bring up with his own son. The whole of Abyssinia was now subject to his power. But a series of misfortunes presently fell upon him, and changed the whole aspect of his career. In 1860, his true and judicious friend and counsellor, Consul Plowden, while journeying to his camp, was intercepted by an ally of the chief Negussye, who had set up the standard of revolt in TigrÚ; and, in the fight which ensued, Plowden was mortally wounded and taken prisoner. Theodore immediately raised from the merchants of Gondar the sum demanded for his ransom, and procured his release; but Plowden died a few days afterwards. About the same time Bell, the King's Grand Chamberlain, fell in battle; and within a few months Theodore lost his first wife, the beautiful and virtuous Tawabeteh. His naturally violent temper was soured and embittered by these losses. He took a terrible revenge on the chiefs who had been instrumental in the deaths of Bell and Plowden; and he bade fare well for the rest of his life to that marital fidelity for which, while Tawabeteh lived, he had been conspicuous. He married for his second wife the daughter of OobyÚ, the TigrÚ chief whom he had dethroned; but it was a union of policy, not of affection, and Theodore's illicit amours were numerous and scandalous. In 1861, he got the rebel Negussye into his power, together with his brother, and put them to death with horrible cruelty.

Theodore was now at the height of his power, and European Governments evinced a considerable desire to court his friendship. The French Government nominated a M. Lejean as French Consul at Gondar, but on account of some real or imagined affront paid to an emissary whom Theodore had sent to Paris, with a letter to the Emperor, M. Lejean was sent at a day's notice out of the country. The British Government, on hearing of the death of Plowden, immediately replaced him at Massowah by the appointment of Captain Cameron. This gentle man arrived at Massowah in February, 1862, and visited Theodore at his camp in the following October, bearing a few presents, and a letter in the Queen's name, thanking him for his exertions in ransoming poor Plowden. Captain Cameron was very well received. Theodore told him that he had executed 1,500 of the followers of the chief who had killed Plowden, to revenge his death, and that he might thereby win the friendship of the Queen of England. He also spoke with great bitterness of the encroachments of the Turks and Egyptians, both on the sea-coast and also about Matamma on his north-western boundary, on what he called his ancestral dominions. In the following month, when Cameron left his camp, he entrusted him with the famous letter to the Queen of England, the postage of which, as Colonel Sykes said, cost us five millions. In this letter the two ideas then prominent in his mind - to deserve and win the friendship of the Queen of England, by executing wholesale vengeance on those who had killed Englishmen; and to gain the Queen's help in his darling project of humbling the Mussulman - received distinct expression. "All men," wrote the King, " are subject to death; and my enemies, thinking to injure me, killed these my friends [Plowden and Bell]. But, by the power of God, I have exterminated those enemies, not leaving one alive, though they were of my own family, that I may get, by the power of God, your friendship." Again, " I fear that if I send ambassadors with presents of amity by Consul Cameron, they may be arrested by the Turks. And now I wish that you may arrange for the safe passage of my ambassadors everywhere on the road. I wish to have an answer to this letter by Consul Cameron, and that he may go with my embassy to England. See how the Islam oppress the Christian!" He meant to say - therefore let Christian Powers unite and help one another!

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