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The Abyssinian Expedition page 4


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Sir Charles Staveley, with the second brigade, arrived at Annesley Bay early in December. The 33rd, an English regiment, was with them, and was before long sent on to Senafé, where it arrived on the 12th January, 1868. Sir Charles set himself energetically to work to bring things into order at the port, causing the dead mules to be collected and burnt in hecatombs, and those still living to be sought after and attended to, while the movements of all the departments were quickened by his presence. The greater part of the troops, as they arrived, were sent up to Senafé. Sir Robert Napier himself landed at Mulkutto on the 7th January, and assumed the command. Leaving orders that a transport train should be organised immediately, and a railway laid down from Mulkutto to the foot of the Senafé Pass, he hastened for ward to the front. He was at first under the impression that no dependence could be placed for the subsistence of the army on the resources of the country itself, and that it would not be safe to move forward from Senafé until six months' supply of food had been accumulated there for a force of 9,500 men. But when he arrived at Senafé, and found how admirably General (he had just been made local Brigadier-General) Merewether, and Colonel Phayre, the Quartermaster-General, had made amicable arrangements with the principal men of the neighbour hood, and attracted the natives from all parts to the markets of the camp by the prospect of the liberal payment which they received for their meat, corn, and other produce, Sir Robert Napier saw reason to change his opinion. In fact, the friendliness and openness of the people towards the English were truly strange to European ideas. Their country was being invaded, and its prestige, if it had any, humiliated; but this singular people felt no throes of indignant patriotism, were well pleased to think that the formidable King, who had come to be a dangerous tyrant and freebooter, was to be put down without any trouble to themselves, and pocketed with the utmost satisfaction, inwardly marvelling no doubt at the simplicity of the stranger, the large new silver dollars which they got for their country produce. " Only one coin is current among the Abyssinians, and nothing will induce them to take anything else. This is the Austrian Maria Theresa dollar of 1780. Even when that coin is offered, an Abyssinian examines it closely before he will take it, and counts the number of points on the crown and shoulder jewel. The dollars are manufactured for this market, and the expedition was supplied with them from Trieste, by permission of the Austrian Government."

With these reassuring prospects before him, the Com mander-in-Chief thought that he might safely commence the march into the interior before any very large quantity of stores had been brought up to Senafé. No opposition was to be feared from the rulers of provinces. Immediately after landing, General Merewether had dispersed as widely as possible copies of a proclamation, declaring that the sole motive of the English invasion was the desire to liberate the captives; that England's quarrel was with Theodore, not with the Abyssinian nation; and that the inhabitants, if they maintained a peaceful attitude, would be treated well and liberally. This proclamation must have come to the knowledge of Kassa, the Prince of Tigré, the Wakshum Gobazye, now ruling in Amhara, and other chiefs, and probably much influenced them in their conduct with regard to the expedition. Kassa wrote a letter to General Merewether, offering friendship and assistance, soon after his arrival at Senafé. To confirm him in these pacific sentiments, Major Grant, the well-known African explorer and companion of Speke, was sent to his capital of Adowa, where he was received with great cordiality; and Sir Robert Napier himself, mounted on an elephant, had a formal interview with Kassa on the 19th February, near Adigerat. In fact, the interests of the English invaders and of the Abyssinian chiefs did not in any way clash. Both were hostile to Theodore, and were operating for his downfall; but the Abyssinian chiefs feared him no less than they hated him, and shrank from coming to close quarters with the hunted lion, broken though his strength was; it was, therefore, most agreeable to their wishes that the task of finally crushing him should rest with the English. With regard to the captives, their rescue, of course, was a matter on which the Abyssinians were totally indifferent. But after Magdala had been taken, it was the interest of the chiefs to get the English out of the country as soon as possible; and here again all was harmony; for after that event the English themselves wished and intended to take their departure with the utmost expedition. The Wakshum Gobazye - who for the last three years, though fearing to meet Theodore in the field, had occupied each province of central Abyssinia as Theodore led his army out of it, and was now sedulously employed in consolidating his power - regarded probably our intrusion in much the same light as Kassa. Yet he declined, when requested to do so, to meet Sir Robert Napier at some point of the line of march, and no European seems to have become personally acquainted with him. This standing off may have been an indication both of greater self-respect and of clearer foresight on the part of the ruler of Amhara, than belonged to the Tigré potentate. In future times, the English, who had driven Theodore to a desperate end, and slaughtered hundreds of their countrymen under the cliffs of Magdala, could not be loved by the Abyssinians; this Gobazye seems to have divined, and to have therefore avoided all direct inter course with the invaders.

The force which Sir Robert Napier considered necessary amounted finally to upwards of 16,000 men. Four English infantry regiments, the 33rd, the 4th, the 45th, and the 26th, and one cavalry regiment, the 3rd Dragoon Guards - in all about 3,400 men - besides a company of English Sappers, formed part of the force; the rest were all native troops. The men of the Transport Train numbered 12,600, and the camp-followers about 3,200; so that a host numbering about 32,000 men, exclusive of those attached to the Commissariat and Quartermaster- General's Departments, was collected at Annesley Bay. But a small proportion of these, as the narrative will show, were required to overcome the feeble resistance of Theodore's army, and to scale the height of Magdala. To oppose to this large and disciplined force, Theodore had only some 3,000 soldiers armed with percussion muzzle- loaders, 1,000 matchlock-men, a number of spearmen, and about thirty pieces of ordnance, including one enormous mortar which his German artisans had cast for him at Debra Tabor, the management of which no one in his army properly understood.

After Sir Robert Napier had come up to Senafé, discussion arose, and much doubt was entertained, as to the best method of applying the force in hand to the attainment of the one paramount object of the expedition, the rescue of the captives. There were many who thought, forming their judgment from the ordinary experience of the conduct of uncivilised rulers, that if Theodore (who was known to be on the march from Debra Tabor to Magdala) should reach the fortress before the English army, he would, after the inevitable defeat and dispersion of his army, be certain, in an access of impotent rage and revenge, to put the English and other prisoners there con fined to death. It was urged, therefore, that what ought before all things to be aimed at was, to intercept the march of Theodore, and prevent him from ever reaching Magdala. But to effect this, it would be necessary to march at once with a lightly-equipped force of about 2,000 men, who, while drawing a portion of their sup plies from the stores that were already at Senafé, should be largely dependent on the resources of the country through which they marched. The other plan was to wait till stores were accumulated at Senafé in sufficient quantity to support a force capable of marching upon and capturing Magdala (to take which, it was thought that siege operations might be required), with only slight dependence on local supplies. If this latter plan were followed, Theodore would' reach Magdala first, and the fate of the prisoners would hang upon his caprice. Never theless, Sir Robert Napier preferred the second plan, arguing with much plausibility that, upon hearing of the approach of our light column, Theodore might at any moment, by abandoning his guns, make his arrival at Magdala before our troops a certainty, the distance which separated him from the fortress being comparatively trifling. To this, however, the advocates of the first plan replied, that those who knew Theodore's character were unanimously of opinion that Theodore never would abandon his guns - partly because he had superintended them in the making, and took the interest of an inventor and originator in their performances; partly because the terror which they inspired was now the only thing which kept his enemies at a distance. It was decided, however, that the march should be on Magdala; and the safety of the prisoners was left to the generosity of the strange monarch, who in all his cruelties and excesses never wholly forgot that he was a Christian King.

It would weary the reader if we were to describe in minute detail a march that was never opposed, and movements of troops involving no triumphs but those of the Control department. The 350 miles of road which separated Senafé from Magdala were indeed full of difficulty; for many steep and lofty ranges had to be crossed; many narrow and uneven tracks to be repaired and widened; many long marches to be made under a tropical sun. On the other hand, the weather was almost always fine, the air on that lofty plateau - in spite of the great heat of the sun - always fresh and invigorating, water everywhere abundant, the hillsides green and fertile, sup plies ample and various, and the inhabitants friendly. The scenery, as the army advanced, exhibited by turns all forms of the beautiful and the sublime. Especially was the Lake Ashangi - a blue sheet of water about four miles long and nearly the same distance across, girdled round by magnificent mountains, on the western shore of which the army encamped - noted as a scene of extraordinary beauty. The advance of the army moved from Senafé on the 18th January; and the Head-quarters were established at Buya camp, near Antalo, rather more than half way from the coast to Magdala, on the 2nd March. A halt of some days was made here, for the Quartermaster-General had run short of money, and a fresh supply of dollars had to be brought up from the coast. When the march was resumed, a new arrangement of the forces was adopted. A large proportion of the native troops was left at the Buya camp; the column destined to march on Magdala was formed into two brigades and a pioneer force. The latter, commanded by the active Quartermaster-General, Colonel Phayre, consisted of about 500 men. Both brigades were under t*he command of Sir Charles Staveley; with the first marched the Commander-in-Chief and the Head-quarters. The total strength of the column was about 3,000 men. From the 12th March, on which day the march was resumed, seventeen days were required to bring the column to the top of the Wadela plateau, a distance of 118 miles. This plateau, rising in precipitous cliffs from the southern bank of the Takkazye river (a large feeder of the Bluo Nile) to the height of nearly 10,000 feet, runs for many miles in a nearly unbroken wall from east to west, and forms one of the most striking natural features in the country. At the time when our troops were scaling Wadela, Theodore, whose march from Debra Tabor will be presently described, arrived in the immediate vicinity of Magdala; that is, he had outstripped our army by a distance of nearly sixty miles. Marching to the right along the flat Wadela plateau, descending by a zigzag road which Theodore had just cut for his guns into the deep valley of the Jidda, crossing it, and ascending the Dalanta plateau, the English army (April 8), on reaching the southern, edge of this last, above the river Beshilo, beheld in front of them the goal of their labours - the table-topped mountain of Magdala.

To understand what follows, the reader must take with him some more or less distinct notion of the topography of the region. Magdala is an isolated fiat-topped mountain, more than 9,000 feet above the sea, with precipitous sides of black columnar basalt, rudely oblong in shape, about one mile in length by half a mile in breadth. At its south-eastern end it communicates by the low terrace called Sangallat with the great Tanta plateau farther south. " But Magdala itself - the actual fortress or amba - is only a part of the system of plateau, saddle, and peak, forming the summit of a curious mountain mass which rises up between the gorges of the Menchura and Kulkula valleys. This system of peak and plateau is in the shape of a curve, Magdala being at the east end, a peak called Selassyè... on the turn of the curve, and the smaller plateau called Fâla on the south-west end. Selassyè and Magdala are connected by a saddle about a mile long, called Islamgyè, bounded on either flank by scarped precipices, with sides below sloping: rapidly down to the ravines, and covered with trees and bushes."

We must now return to Theodore, who, since he put I Mr. Rassam and his companions in irons, had been I chiefly stationed at Debra Tabor, in the province of Beguemder. Here he kept his German artisans fully employed in casting guns and mortars, and constructing carriages for their conveyance. His revenues being gone, he obtained subsistence for his army simply by plunder, until the people of Beguemder rose against him, and commenced a desultory warfare against his half-starved soldiers, numbers of whom were continually deserting. The once noble nature of the man was now marred by licentiousness, drunkenness, and cruelty. But when - the resources of the country round Debra Tabor being destroyed by cruel and long continued rapine - it became necessary to take and act upon a decision, Theodore, it would seem, woke up from his sensual dream, and for a while became himself again. He resolved to return to Magdala, and to transport thither the heavy ordnance which had just been constructed. First setting fire to Debra Tabor, his own capital, lie began his march on the 10th October, 1867, with his European workmen, about 6,000 soldiers, and a host of camp followers. Although the distance to Magdala did not exceed a hundred miles, I the difficulties in the way of transporting guns, owing to I the want of roads and the mountainous nature of the country, were enormous. Theodore was now in his element, as a guide and ruler of men; with unconquerable perseverance and patience he selected the best lines for the roads, descending into and ascending from the deep valleys, which it was necessary to make; he frequently laboured himself with the axe and the crow-bar; he was again kind and cordial with his soldiers as in earlier days; and the blood-thirsty tyrant of Debra Tabor seemed transformed back again into the young and radiant conqueror of Derezgyè. It was the last gleam of his star before it set in darkness for ever. Thus labouring on for weeks and months, and conveying his guns and stores without loss on twenty heavy wagons dragged by his soldiers along the roads which he had previously built, Theodore arrived at last (March 25) on the plateau of Islamgyè below Magdala. On the 29th, he came up to Magdala and sent for Mr. Rassam. The interview was very friendly, and the King, who seems to have really liked the envoy, was gracious and affable. " He told Rassam that his sole reason for ill-treating him was that he might compel England to send troops to Abyssinia, and that his object was gained. He also said, ' Some day you may see me dead, and while you stand by my corpse, you will curse me for haying ill-treated you. You may say at the same time, " This wicked man ought not to be buried; let his remains rot above ground." But I trust to your generosity.' " He had heard of the landing of the English in Annesley Bay while on his march from Debra Tabor; and their subsequent progress through Abyssinia was doubtless reported to him more or less accurately. On the 2nd, he had his great mortar, five hundred men dragging at the ropes of the wagon which carried it, hauled up to Islamgyè. He invited Mr. Rassam, Dr. Blanc, and Lieutenant Prideaux, to come down from Magdala to witness the operation, and sat talking with them for some time. He said that if his power had been as strong as it was a few years before, he would have met the British on landing; but that now he had lost all Abyssinia, and had only that rock, so he could not do otherwise than wait for them. His army, through continual desertions, had by this time dwindled down to about 3,000 men. He afterwards told Mr. Rassam that when he was excited he was not responsible for his actions. It is to be hoped that it was so, and that in the fact some palliation may be found for the horrible massacre which he ordered a few days later. On the 9th April, having on the previous day caused all his native prisoners, 570 in number, to be brought down to Islamgyè from Magdala, he set a considerable number free, including all, or almost all, the women and children. After that he drank deeply, and went to lie down in his tent. Those who were retained in captivity, no order having been given to take them back to Magdala, were kept on the barren top of Islamgyè; and having nothing to eat, they began to clamour for food. This enraged him to such a degree that, starting up in a drunken fury, he commanded them all to be put to death, and commenced the butchery by cutting down one with his sword, and shooting two others with his pistols. "The rest were hurled alive over the precipice of Islamgyè, and those who showed any signs of life were fired upon by the soldiers stationed below. The massacre lasted from about 4 till 6.30 p.m., and there were no less than 197 victims, only thirty-five of whom were criminals.... Theodore's valet asserts that he spent most of the night after this horrible massacre in prayer, and that lie was heard confessing to God that he was drunk when he committed it, and pleading that it should not be laid to his charge."

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Pictures for The Abyssinian Expedition page 4

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 >>>>

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