1868 British Expedition to Abyssinia

So, I just read Flashman on the March, which was about the 1868 British expedition into Abyssinia, and let me tell you, people, this is an amazing story. I’m not normally one for military history, but it’s kind of unbelievable. I’m not a huge scholar for imperialism, so if I get something wrong, please correct me.

If you remember, we had discussed before about how Abyssinia was Satan’s litter box and none of the imperial forces from Europe wanted it. This is especially true because Abyssinia had a mad king who no one wanted to deal with, called Téwodros II (he rechristened himself Theodore II, so that is what we’ll call him). Of all the warlords in constant strife in the area, Theodore gained the upper hand and became king of it all, mostly because he scared the ever-loving shitfire out of his enemies. To say this guy was “off his rocker” does not do him justice. To say he “smashed up his rocker with a hatchet and then talked to dolls he cobbled together out of its pieces” is probably closer to the mark.

Theodore was famous for horrifically violent mood-swings, bouncing between three general settings: 1.) Total and complete sanity and reason, 2.) weeping that he was the descendant of Solomon and Bathsheba and praising the glory of God and the friendship of those at court, and 3.) which is a setting I like to call “Joe Pesci”, where he just killed everyone. Oh, I forgot the forth setting, which kind of happened over all the others: drunk. Basically, you could not ask for a worse person to be in absolute control.

To give a brief example, Theodore was once laughing and joking with his court, in perfect good humor, until he saw (or imagined he saw) a man making flirty eyes at a woman in the harem. So he imprisoned the man . . . and the man’s two innocent sons. Eventually, he killed the sons . . . but let the man go . . . because . . . reasons. He also ravaged the countryside and completed horrific acts of violence, killing entire cities and setting them on fire. I’m trying to underline how terrifyingly unpredictable he was, because that will eventually provide one of the main reasons to be amazed when the story properly starts.

Theodore was OBSESSED with Great Britain. He wrote a letter to Queen Victoria offering his friendship and asking for help in quashing some rebellions in his country. In maybe one of the greatest administrative bungles of all time, the letter got lost in the diplomatic office and didn’t get delivered for a long time. So Theodore was just sitting there, stewing, hating, feeling inferior. Finally the letter got to the queen and she responded by sending him a beautiful pistol as a present (I’m not sure what she said about the military help, but I’m guessing it was “No”). Despite the present, it was too late.

Theodore, furious that he had to wait so long, immediately decided to imprison every British person he could find in his country. He took diplomats and missionaries and merchants and chained them up. Great Britain would send envoys to discuss it, and he’d imprison them too. He would alternate between torturing them, and treating them like honored guests with lavish feasts. Which I guess was just a typical day for everyone in his holdings.

Finally, after TWO YEARS, British politicians were like, “Okay, guys, I think it’s time to address this. If we can’t even control what happens to our own people abroad, the colonies will think we’ve turned weak. We’ve got to go get our people back.” Sir Robert Napier, who was a great commander, was put in charge of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers.

They had to get into Abyssinia, which was difficult, since no railways and few ports were available, trek across the barren, scorching, almost completely unknown wasteland, manage to fight off any of the hundreds of local tribes and armies that came across their path, find Theodore, win battle against him, hope to god he didn’t kill the prisoners beforehand, hope to god the army didn’t run out of food and water, and then make their way back.

People at home were not optimistic. In fact, the common consensus was that every single soldier was being sent to his death. Of all the campaigns Britain had seen, this had the bleakest prospects BY FAR.

As they got into Abyssinia, things took an even bleaker turn. Napier learned that Theodore was taking his army and the prisoners to the mountain stronghold of Magdala. This was incredibly bad news, because Magdala had the reputation for being impenetrable. In theory, they could bottle Theodore up there, but you never want to be laying siege in an unfamiliar country where you are the one who’s already out of food and water.

Napier decided to race Theodore there. Napier was 400 miles away, and Theodore was much, much closer but he was moving far more slowly because he was dragging big guns with him. It took Napier three months to get there. Imagine marching in equatorial heat for THREE MONTHS. It was close, but Theodore got there first.

Theodore could have easily just waited it out, and let the British soldiers die of exposure and thirst, but he wanted to prove himself against the army he admired so much. So he sent all his troops with spears and swords against Napier’s more modern weapons. Napier absolutely crushed Theodore’s army, and several of the high commanders actually found it very anti-climactic. They had traveled all this way through intense hardship and victory had been so easy that many found themselves a bit disappointed. However, Theodore was still locked up in Magdala with the hostages, bouncing between crazy and crazier. He almost killed them several times, but each time someone or something managed to change his mood at the last second. The accounts of the men imprisoned are terrifying to read. They were an instant from death . . . for two years. How they didn’t buckle under the strain is unknown to me.

So again, instead of outlasting the army, Theodore attempted to sue for peace. He sent out a letter to Napier with a gift of livestock to help provision the British army. If Napier took the livestock, it would signify a white peace; Theodore would release the hostages and Napier would go home. Now, after all this crap, there was NO WAY Napier was going to leave Theodore alive and on the throne. He sent back a lovely message of friendship to Theodore, but was like, “Dude, seriously? You dragged my ass through this godforsaken backwater–WHICH HAS NO WATER, BTW–and think I’m going to settle for some cows? You can take your friendship cows and shove ’em”. Due to a translation issue, Theodore didn’t realize the gift had been rejected. He released the hostages. It was only after they were gone to safety that Theodore figured out that a truce had not been reached and the Brits were coming for him.

They breached the defenses of Magdala. Theodore killed himself with the pistol sent to him by Queen Victoria. They appointed a new monarch and went home.

Here’s where the really amazing part comes in: through all of this, there were almost no casualties. Of the 13,000 men who marched down–all who thought they were going to their deaths in the harsh climate–only one died, and that was because he shot himself accidentally. During the great battle itself, not a single British soldier was killed in action, although five eventually died from their wounds. Of the hostages, who spent two years being continually tortured and nearly executed during Theodore’s many rampaging moods, every single one got out alive because of a translation issue.

This was possibly the greatest success of all of Britain’s imperial campaigns, snatched from the jaws of its greatest defeats. I was absolutely floored when I read it.

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One Response to 1868 British Expedition to Abyssinia

  1. Anonymous says:


    My great great great grandfather, Henry Bailey was first over the wall at Magdella and took Theodores amulet and pistol after he killed himself. The amulet is still in my family.


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