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The Abyssinian Expedition page 5


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Meantime the toils were being drawn closer round the doomed King. The 12th Bengal Cavalry and six companies of the 45th Regiment, having been ordered up from the coast by Sir Robert Napier, arrived at the camp on the 8th April. The 45th accomplished the distance from Mulkutto to the Beshilo river in twenty-five days. The force before Magdala, with these accessions, numbered upwards of 3,700 men, including a rocket brigade consisting of eighty sailors of H.M.S. Dry ad. On the 9th April, the whole force being now concentrated on the Dalanta plateau, the approaches to Magdala were carefully reconnoitred. It was suggested to Sir Robert Napier to send a force round to the saddle connecting Magdala with the Tanta plateau, so as to cut off Theodore's retreat while he was attacked in front. But the Commander-in-Chief deemed that the force at his disposal was not large enough to allow of its being divided with safety. It was finally resolved to attack the position of Magdala by way of the great projecting mass of Fâla, from which the lower terrace of Islamgyč could be easily reached.

Early on the morning of the 10th April, Sir Charles Staveley led the 1st Brigade down the steep side of the Dalanta plateau, forded the Beshilo, and, mounting the, bold spur of Gumbaji, proceeded along it in the direction of Fâla. His intention was to choose a suitable site for an encampment, and await the arrival of the 2nd Brigade, led by the Commander-in-Chief, which was to pass the: night in the valley of the Beshilo. Meantime Colonel Phayre, with the pioneer force under his command, was moving up the Wark-Waha ravine, parallel with and to the left of the march of Sir Charles Staveley, in order to examine the position of the enemy. He ascertained that neither in the ravine, nor on any part of the great open slopes and terraces of which he obtained a view, right up to the ascent of Fâla, was there any trace of a hostile force; and he sent back a message to this effect to Sir Robert Napier, which on its way was read by Sir Charles Staveley. The latter officer, fearing nothing after this report for his left flank from the side of the Wark-Waha ravine, continued his march along the basaltic ridge leading, by the lower terraces of Aficho and Arogč, to the base of Fâla hill. Sir Robert, on receiving Colonel Phayre's report, ordered the Naval Brigade, Colonel Penn's battery of mountain guns, and the baggage of the 1st Brigade, which had been left at the Beshilo by Sir Charles waiting orders to advance, to press forward up the Wark-Waha ravine. They did so, the sailors leading the way. It was about four o'clock when the Naval Brigade, followed by the battery, emerged by a steep ascent from the ravine on to the diversified surface of the Arogč plains, just above which, to their right, on the Aficho terrace, the 1st Brigade was posted. Before them lay Theodore's fortress, its top dotted by white huts, rising above the nearer summits of Selassyč and Fâla. Behind the sailors and the guns, the baggage train was slowly winding along the road leading up from the ravine, protected by the Punjab Pioneers. Presently a gun, followed by several others in succession, was fired from the crest of Fâla; the direction being good, and the elevation from which the guns were discharged considerable, the shot came plunging into the ground near the English ranks. Then, from the top of the mountain, rushing down the steep sides of Fâla, came Theodore's warriors in headlong charge. There were about 1,000 musketeers, armed with double- barrel guns, 2,000 men carrying match-locks, and a multitude of spearmen. They reached the bottom of the hill, I and began advancing towards the English, part plunging down a ravine called Dam-Wanz on the British left, to attack the baggage train.

With such an inequality of arms as existed between the combatants - an inequality far greater than that which gave the Prussians so decided an advantage in the war of 1866 - no real fighting was possible. The sailors, on seeing the enemy swarming clown the hill, quickly got their rocket tubes into position, and opened upon them. Sir Charles Staveley ordered all the infantry of his brigade to come down the steep ascent from Aficho to Arogč, and advance firing against the enemy. Against the Sniders of the British infantry, what was the use of smooth-bore muzzle-loaders and undisciplined valour? The brave chief Gabriyč - Theodore's Fitaurari or Quartermaster-General - after doing all that man could do to encourage his followers, was shot down, and many other chiefs with him. Finding it impossible to get near their enemy, the Abyssinians after a time lost heart, and turned to flee. It was like, as Mr. Markham says, " fighting against machinery." Those who had gone down into the Dam-Wanz ravine were hemmed in there between the Punjab Pioneers and baggage guard in their front, and some companies of the 4th, whom Sir Charles Staveley had sent against their left flank, and mown down with terrible slaughter. As the fugitives retreated up the hill-side, the Naval Brigade advanced, and sent rockets among them with destructive effect. Evening closed in; Theodore, who had watched the action from the top of Fâla, knew that his army was destroyed, and his power at an end; the English army, seeing its task well-nigh accomplished, but full of anxiety for the fate of the captives, bivouacked that night (Good Friday, April 10) on the slopes of Aficho and Arogč.

The loss of the Abyssinians in this action was estimated at between 700 and 800 killed, and 1,500 wounded. On the English side twenty men were wounded, two mortally.

Theodore, clearly perceiving all further resistance to be vain, now desired to come to terms with the British General. Early on the morning of April 11th, he sent down from Selassyč, where he had passed the night, two of the captives, Lieutenant Prideaux and Mr. Flad, to bear his proposals to the English camp. They were instructed to say that the King now desired to be reconciled with the English. The delight and enthusiasm caused by the presence of Lieutenant Prideaux in the camp may be easily imagined. But the " reconciliation " sought by the King, which would have left him seated on his throne, could not, it was thought, be granted. As far as England was concerned, if the captives were all given up, her honour was satisfied, her aims fulfilled, and her troops might have been at once withdrawn. But it was considered by the Commander- in-Chief that the English had been welcomed in their country by the Abyssinians, and that the various chiefs had abstained from impeding or molesting the march, on the tacit but clearly implied understanding that Theodore's power was to be destroyed, and that he was to be a king in Abyssinia no longer. No terms, therefore, could be granted which did not involve his absolute submission and deposition from the throne. Sir Robert sent back Lieutenant Prideaux with a letter to Theodore, thus expressed: -

"Your Majesty has fought like a brave man, and has been overcome by the superior power of the British army. It is my desire that no more blood may be shed. If, therefore, your Majesty will submit to the Queen of England, and bring all the Europeans now in your Majesty's hands, and deliver them safely this day in the British camp, I guarantee honourable treatment for yourself and all the members of your Majesty's family."

With this answer Lieutenant Prideaux returned to Theodore, and found him seated on the peak of Selassyč, dictating to his secretary a letter to the English commander.

Sir Robert Napier's brief missive was read to him. He then completed the dictation of his letter, enclosed it and that from Sir Robert Napier in the same cover, and sent Prideaux again with them to the English camp. The meaning of his re-enclosing to Sir Robert his letter seems to have been, that the terms proposed by the General were terms to which he could not submit. If he were not to meet Sir Robert Napier except in virtue of an abject submission, and by coming as a beaten, humbled man to his camp, he would never meet him at all. Heiice, in the letter which he wrote on the following day, he said, " The reason of my returning to you your letter yester day was that I believed at that time that we should meet one another in heaven, but never on earth." Since he was resolved not to fall alive into the hands of the English, there remained to him only the alternatives of death in battle or self-destruction. But on this Saturday, the day after the battle, his army being destroyed or dispersed, fighting seemed no longer possible; and when he wrote to Sir Robert Napier, he had made up his mind to destroy himself. The letter, therefore, may be looked upon as his farewell to life, as the last genuine out pouching of what remained, in spite of aberrations, a noble heart. After the usual invocation of the Trinity, the letter opens thus: " Kâsa, whose trust is in Christ, thus speaks." He first of all recommends to the protection of the English the Christian people whom he had established in " this heathen spot." (For Magdala is in the country of the Wolo Gallas, who are either Mohammedans or heathens.) " See that you forsake not these people," he says. " It is a heathen land." Theodore's wish was so far complied with, that when the English General resolved to burn all the habitations on Magdala and to ruin its defences, he assigned a guard of English soldiers for the protection of the helpless multitude, numbering up wards of 30,000 souls, who, being thus rendered houseless, were compelled to return to their various districts; and who, but for such protection, would have been waylaid and murdered by the Gallas. The last sentences of the letter relate to the ruling passion of his life - hatred to Islam, and to his determination rather to die than become a prisoner. " I had hoped, after subduing all my enemies in Abyssinia, to lead my army against Jerusalem, and expel from it the Turks. A warrior who has dandled strong men in his arms like infants will never suffer himself to be dandled in the arms of others."

After lie had dispatched his letter, Theodore sat for a long time in the open air without speaking. He was waiting, probably, till the messenger should have had time to reach the English camp, and place the letter, containing the recommendation of his people to the General's protection, in Sir Robert Napier's hands; for he knew that as soon as his death were announced, every thing would be in confusion. " He told his people to walk away to a distance. He then said a prayer, and bowed three times with his face to the ground, and afterwards drank some water. Suddenly he pulled a pistol out of his belt, and put it in his mouth. The soldiers ran up, clasped him round the waist, pulled back his arm, and the pistol went off, grazing his ear. It was all done in a second. Theodore struggled, and for a minute or two the King of Kings was rolling on the ground with his soldiers in a confused heap. He freed himself, composed his mind, and abandoned the idea of self-destruction for the time. 'It was not God's will,' lie said." In the letter which he wrote to Sir Robert Napier the next day, Theodore described this attempt at suicide, and declared that after putting the pistol in his mouth, though he pulled and pulled at the trigger, it would not go off; but that when his soldiers rushed upon him, it was discharged just as they had drawn it from his mouth. He regarded the incident as providential, and his thoughts now turned in another direction. Perhaps, he thought, if I surrender the captives, I shall obtain peace from the English, even though I do not give them up in person. He held a council of war, and asked the opinions of the bravest and most influential of the surviving chiefs. Most of "them gave counsel, like the soldiers on board St. Paul's vessel, " to kill the prisoners, lest they should escape," and then to fight to the last. It is to the credit of Theodore that he resisted this counsel. Doubtless he thought that their release might be the means of relieving him from further demands, but friendly feeling towards Mr. Rassam, and even towards his poor artisans, had probably much fn do with his decision. About four o'clock in the afternoon (Saturday, April 11), the King sent the Governor of Magdala to Mr. Rassam and the other Europeans with the following message: " Go at once to your people; you can send for your property to morrow." The prisoners made haste to depart, and descended the steep path from Magdala to the saddle of Islamgyč, and thence to Selassyč, where the King still was. Here Mr. Rassam had a final interview with him. Theodore acknowledged that he had behaved ill to the envoy, but said that it was through the conduct of bad men. " I want you to bear this in mind," he continued, " that unless you befriend me, I shall either kill myself or become a monk." By "befriending him" he evi dently meant obtaining for him an honourable peace. Failing that, it seems that another alternative, besides that of self-destruction, had now presented itself to his mind - namely, to escape from Magdala, resign his crown, and enter a monastery. His manner to Mr. Rassam was extremely kind; and, in bidding him farewell, he entreated him to come and see him the next day.

After the interview Mr. Rassam joined the other prisoners, and they all proceeded to the English camp. They were ten in number - Mr. Rassam and his two companions; Consul Cameron, with his secretary Kerans, and his Italian servant Pietro; Mr. Stern Mr. Flad, and Mr. and Mrs. Rosenthal, missionaries. All the captives were greeted with hearty applause and congratulations; and Mr. Rassam, Dr. Blanc, and Lieutenant Prideaux were invited to share the hospitality of General Merewether's tent.

Early on the following morning (Easter Sunday, April 12), Theodore sent down a letter to Sir Robert Napier, the object of which was (since he had now made up his mind to live) to do away with the effect of the defiant letter of the previous day, and to request the acceptance of a present. According to Abyssinian ideas, the acceptance of a present would mean that the receiver was satisfied, and granted peace to the giver. After describing his attempt at suicide, he proceeded: " God having thus signified to me that I should not die, but live, I sent to you Mr. Rassam that same evening, that your heart might be made easy. To-day is Easter, be pleased to let me send a few cows to you.... You require from me all the Europeans, even to my best friend Waldmeier. Well, be it so. They shall go. But now that we are friends, you must not leave me without artisans, as I am a lover of the mechanical arts."

This letter on reaching the camp was translated by the bearer from the Amharic into Arabic, and from Arabic by Mr. Rassam into English. Sir Robert Napier after wards declared that he authorised no answer to be given that could have led Theodore to believe that he accepted one jot less than the terms of his first demand; and he ordered a letter to be prepared (which, however, was never sent), accepting the cows provisionally, upon the under standing that Theodore would surrender himself as well as all the Europeans. At the time, he verbally authorised Mr. Rassam - or the latter so understood him - to accept the present of cows. Theodore, upon hearing that his gift had not been spurned, was overjoyed. He believed that life and honour were now safe, and that the victorious General would not require of him the intolerable humiliation of a personal surrender. He sent down the present, consisting of 1,000 cows and 500 sheep, being all the live stock that he had in his possession; and in the course of the afternoon he sent down all the remaining Europeans and half-castes, fifty-seven in number, with their baggage to the English camp. With a truly royal magnanimity and open-handedness, he both made the sacrifice which was required of him complete, keeping back nothing, and he stripped himself of what he could ill spare in order to make up a princely gift.

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Pictures for The Abyssinian Expedition page 5

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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