OREALD.COM - An Old Electronic Library
eng: a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The Abyssinian Expedition page 3


Pages: 1 2 <3> 4 5 6

Such treatment of a mission, which even in Abyssinia ought to have been safe under the protection of the law of nations, was, of course, outrageous and unprecedented. However, there was nothing to be done at the time but to humour Theodore as far as was practicable, and to use every effort to make their situation known to the British Government. In effecting the latter object - thanks, as Lieutenant Prideaux observes, " to the cupidity of our gaolers, and the fidelity of our servants " - they found very little difficulty. Only one of their messengers appears to have been stopped; all the rest carried safely to the coast, not their letters only, but frequently large sums of money, with praiseworthy honesty and regularity. With regard to artisans from England, Theodore wrote to Mr. Rassam (April 17), that he wished the envoy to obtain for him, from the Queen, " a man who can make cannons and muskets, and one who can smelt iron, and an instructor of artillery." It was thought expedient to comply with the request, and Mr. Rassam wrote accordingly to the Secretary of State on the following day. Mr. Mad - one of those lay missionaries combining evangelical zeal with skill at a trade whom Bishop Gobat had introduced into the country, and whom Theodore admired as artisans, but repudiated as preachers - was selected as the bearer of Mr. Rassam's letter. As his wife and children were left in Abyssinia in Theodore's power, Mr. Flad's speedy return was counted upon with confidence.

For several weeks the captives were detained at Zagè. During this period Theodore's behaviour was almost that of a madman; at one time he would storm and threaten, throw the captives into irons, and make them tremble for their lives; at another time he would publicly express his sorrow for having ill-treated them, and humbly ask their pardon. In June, cholera having broken out in the King's camp, he transferred his head-quarters to Debra Tabor, a large village about twenty miles to the east of Gondar, which at that time served him for a capital. Here he arrived - the captives, of course, accompanying him - on the 16th June. In regard to Mr. Rassam and the other members of the mission, his frantic behaviour reached a climax on the 3rd July, 1866, when, having summoned them to his presence, he made a wild rambling speech, rehearsing a string of trumpery charges, old and new, against them and the other captives, and including the British Government also in his indictment, because they kept from him India, a country which, as well as Jerusalem, Egypt, and other lands, belonged of right to him, Theodore, as the lawful descendant of Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, and the heir to the empires of Alexander and Constantine! He then caused them to be confined in a small dark house; where, however, he visited them the same evening, bringing mead and arrack, and insisting on their pledging him in the friendly bowl. The rhodomontade in which he indulged on this occasion was extravagant in the extreme. This was the last time that Mr. Rassam saw him, till they met on the 29th March, 1868, a few days before Theodore's death. A few days after this interview, it being at the time the King's purpose to march northward against the rebels, the captives were sent, under the guard of an escort of 200 men, to be confined in the fortress of Magdala, where they arrived on the 12th July. On the broad level top of the amba, so long as they kept within the boundary fence or palisade, they were free to wander as they pleased; Theodore caused them to be liberally provided with food; and, with the exception that they were detained there against their will, they had no cause to complain of their treatment.

On his way home to convey to the English Government Theodore's request for skilled workmen and machinery, Mr. Flad saw Colonel Merewether, and communicated to him the state of affairs. That zealous officer, who seems to have thoroughly understood Theodore's character, and had little hope that he would ever release the captives, except under compulsion, resolved to return to England with Mr. Flad. They arrived in England in the summer of 1866, and reported themselves to Lord Stanley, who had just taken over the administration of the Foreign Office. Lord Stanley decided that Theodore's request to be supplied with mechanics should be complied with, in the hope that this would lead to the liberation of the captives. But, while Colonel Merewether was engaged in selecting and making agreements with artisans, news reached London that Rassam and his companions were no longer simply detained, but that they had been seized and imprisoned. Colonel Merewether now recommended that Mr. Flad (whose wife and children were in the King's camp) should at once be sent back to Abyssinia, with a letter demanding the release of all the prisoners; and that, should this step be vain, prompt measures should be taken to enforce compliance. But the Government, unwilling to renounce the hope of attain ing the desired end by peaceable means, determined to send out the artisans, together with a costly cargo of presents, to Massowah, with instructions to proceed no farther until the captives should have all arrived safely at that port. Six skilled artisans, headed by a civil engineer, together with machinery and other presents to the value of about £3,500, were sent out in November, 1866, and arrived in due course at Massowah. But after waiting there nearly six months - it being apparent that the prospect of the release of their countrymen was in definitely remote - they were sent back to England. In April, 1867, Lord Stanley addressed a final letter to Theodore, informing him that the presents would be sent home again, unless the prisoners were released within three months.

" It had long been evident to Colonel Merewether that Theodore would not release the captives except under compulsion, and that a warlike demonstration was inevitable; and in two despatches, dated February 15, and March 4, 1867, he reported that the last chance of effecting the liberation of the prisoners by conciliatory means had failed. He had made himself fully acquainted with the nature of the country to be invaded, and with the actual state of affairs in Abyssinia; and he had ascertained that, when once on the table-land, a healthy climate would be found, with abundance of good water, forage, fuel, meat and grain. He knew also that the whole country had at last risen against Theodore, and would receive the English as friends. At the same time he had the opinions of Father Massajali and others well acquainted with the character of the King, that he would never kill the prisoners. Under these circum stances, Merewether's recommendation was, that the invading force should consist of one European and six native regiments of infantry," f together with other troops, so as to compose an army of about 6,000 men. However, the Government resolved to let the period of three months expire which had been named in Lord. Stanley's note. When that was over, and still Theodore showed no sign of yielding, the Government decided upon sending out an expedition. Bombay was fixed upon as the most convenient base of operations, and the Government of that Presidency was directed to take the necessary measures. Mr. Seymour Fitzgerald, the new Governor of Bombay, desired the Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay army, Sir Robert Napier, to state what number of troops was, in his opinion, required for the service. That officer reported that, in his judgment, 12,000 was the smallest number that it would be safe to employ. The opinion of an officer who had long been resident in the immediate neighbourhood of Abyssinia, and was cognisant of the exact state of things in the country, was set aside, and the opinion of an officer who possessed no special knowledge of Abyssinia preferred, apparently for no better reason than that the latter was of superior rank.

Acquiescing in the opinion that so large a force was required, the Bombay Government considered that Colonel Merewether, who now for some years had taken the lead in all matters connected with Abyssinia, was too young a man to be placed in supreme command. Or rather such was their opinion of the India Council and the War Office at home. Sir Stafford Northeote, on whom, as Secretary for India, a large share of the responsibility for the right management of the expedition rested, wrote (August 16,1867) that, while the Government trusted that Colonel Merewether's valuable services would be made available in aid of the expedition, " his rank was not high enough to enable him to take the supreme command of such a force as it was probable would have to be employed." In August, 1867, Sir Robert Napier was appointed to the command of the expedition, and Major- General Sir Charles Staveley, an officer who had served in the Crimea, was nominated second in command. The force employed was to consist of 4,000 British and 8,000 native troops. An advanced brigade, consisting of about 1,200 native troops, under the command of Colonel Merewether, was dispatched from Bombay in September, preceded by a reconnoitring party under the immediate orders of the Colonel himself. The vessel conveying the reconnoitring party arrived in Annesley Bay early in October.

It was a matter of considerable importance to choose the best point on the coast where the force should disembark, and whence it should begin its march on Magdala. Distance from Magdala was one, but not the most important, element in the selection. The high table-land of Abyssinia is bastioned on the north and east by ranges of magnificent mountains, descending frequently in sheer cliffs, many thousand feet high, into the strip of sandy plain that borders the coast. This coast, through all historical memory, has been slowly rising out of the sea. The ruins of the port of Adulis, in Annesley Bay, by which, before the Christian era, communication was carried on between Abyssinia and the outer world, are now at a distance of four miles from the sea. But this strip of sandy plain varies in width at different places. At Tagurrah, the port to the south nearest to Shoa, where Major Harris and his suite landed in 1841, two hundred miles of burning, waterless desert lie between the coast and the mountains, and great sufferings were endured by the mission in crossing it. At Hanfila Bay, farther north, the desert strip, though much reduced, is still of considerable width. At Annesley Bay, which penetrates far into the land, the mountains approach nearer to the sea than at any other point where the landing of a large force is possible. In this respect, however, Massowah was little inferior, while in facilities for landing it was superior, to Annesley Bay, from which it is about thirty miles distant; but besides that it was somewhat farther from Magdala, political considerations rendered it in expedient that the British Government should incur so great an obligation to the Pacha of Egypt as would have been involved in the landing of so large an army, with all its baggage and stores, at a much-frequented Egyptian port. Annesley Bay, then, was to be the point of disembarkation. The best pass for the march of an army into the interior was the next subject of inquiry. The first person to point out to Colonel Merewether the superiority of the Senafé Pass was Father Zechariah, a native Abyssinian priest educated at Rome. But the Colonel was not satisfied till lie had carefully examined several other defiles leading up to the table-land, and had convinced himself that the Senafé Pass, difficult as it was, could be made practicable for the expedition with less trouble than any other. Following the windings of a stream which runs at the bottom of a deep rift or cleft in the mountains, for a distance of full forty miles from the point where it emerges on the plain on the western side of the bay, the path, rising gradually all the while, conducts the traveller to the summit of the table-land at Senafé, at an altitude of 8,000 feet above the sea. In certain places the narrow defile was obstructed by huge masses of rock which had fallen from the cliffs above; and to make a cart-road round and over these required the labour of two companies of sappers and two companies of native troops for three months.

The route having been decided upon, all that remained was to land the troops as quickly as possible, organise an efficient transport- service, and then advance upon Magdala. The distance of the fortress from Annesley Bay was about 400 miles; but the climate on the table-land is magnificent, the difficulties of the road were easily within the power of the strong pioneer force that was at the General's disposal to surmount, and it became more and more certain that no serious opposition would be met with. A hitch, however, occurred; and it was, as usual, in the transport service. Supplies of food, stores, and ammunition could most easily be transported along the rough and narrow Abyssinian roads on the backs of mules. The world was accordingly ransacked for mules; from Egypt, India, Syria, and Spain they were poured into Annesley Bay in thousands - the noble and dignified animal from Spain, his smaller and hardier brother from Syria, and a very miscellaneous gathering from Bombay. But now the difficulties began. Any one can buy a mule, but it takes an experienced person to manage him when bought. The Transport department engaged as muleteers thousands of men who are described as " the vilest sweepings of Eastern cities" - men whose languages no one could understand, and who were utterly ignorant of their business. Again, being landed in such vast numbers on a sterile plain like that which divides the sea from the mountains at Annesley Bay, they could pick up scarcely anything for themselves; and, with such un manageable ruffians for muleteers, it was impossible to distribute properly among them the forage which had been brought by sea to the anchorage. In consequence of all this, the mules soon began to die by scores. " The stench became intolerable; and the sight of half-starved survivors, occasionally met with on the plain, was most pitiable." # To supply the animals with water, since the arid shore had next to no resources in this respect, the steamers at the anchorage condensed water at the rate of 32,000 gallons a day (at a cost of nearly £3,000 a month), which was then conveyed along a shoot 480 feet long, raised on trestles above the sea, to tanks on shore. But, whether from the unwholesomeness of this water or some other cause, an epidemic broke out among the animals on shore, and carried off great numbers of them, especially the horses. The 3rd Dragoons lost 318 horses out of 499 landed. Under these circumstances, Colonel Merewether resolved to push on, with his advanced brigade, to the healthier position of Senafé, as soon as ever the road through the pass was declared practicable. The main body of the brigade, which had landed on the 30th October, was accordingly moved forward from Mulkutto (so the landing-place was called) about the end of November, and, threading the pass with little difficulty, arrived at Senafé on the 6th and 7th December. The Shohos - Mohammedan tribes which infest the mountain valleys and ravines that run to the Red Sea - were converted by the power of British gold from being rapacious depredators and thieves into the character of useful traders and carriers. Colonel Merewether entered into arrangements with the chiefs «of seven of their tribes, " by which, for the consideration of fifteen dollars each per month, they bound themselves to restrain their people from molesting convoys, and to cause the restoration of all stolen property.... They also agreed to furnish guides, and to contract to bring supplies from Mulkutto up the pass, on their own cattle, at the rate of 21 dollars for each bag safely delivered."

<<< Previous page <<< >>> Next page >>>
Pages: 1 2 <3> 4 5 6

Pictures for The Abyssinian Expedition page 3

The Emperor Theodore
The Emperor Theodore >>>>
The Emperor Theodore treating a captive
The Emperor Theodore treating a captive >>>>
Map of Abyssinia
Map of Abyssinia >>>>
Putting the captives into irons
Putting the captives into irons >>>>
Sir Robert Napier
Sir Robert Napier >>>>
The Abyssinians at the river Beshilo
The Abyssinians at the river Beshilo >>>>
King Theodores house
King Theodores house >>>>
Interior of Magdala
Interior of Magdala >>>>
Church at Magdala
Church at Magdala >>>>

Home | Privacy Policy | Copyright | About