The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Echoes of a Distant Drum (in the footsteps of the British Expeditionary Force to Magdala)

Stephen Bell

Thursday 20th May 2010

7:00pm, Room B102 (Brunei Building), SOAS - Public lecture (all welcome)

The expedition of 1867-68, comprising British and Indian regiments under the command of General Sir Robert Napier, was a march inland from the Red Sea coast of almost 400 miles. It was a massive undertaking that, by today's standards, might be viewed as disproportionate to its limited objective: the release of some sixty hostages held at Emperor Tewodros's mountaintop citadel of Magdala. And it seems that almost no expense was spared, the expedition eventually costing £9½ million (in 1868 values). The financial and logistics support for the force’s 12,000 serving soldiers, for example, included vast numbers of camp followers. Mules and other beasts of burden were acquired from all over the Middle East and the shores of the Mediterranean and a vast fleet of chartered vessels supplemented those of the Royal Navy. There was a special re-minting in huge quantities of the silver 1780 Maria Theresa dollar, the only acceptable coinage in the Ethiopian highlands; and the expedition deployed much of the most up-to-date military/industrial technology of the time (a railway, a telegraph system, water condensers, water drilling equipment, the first breech-loading rifle). The ultimate consequence of the expedition upon the British public was a rise of one (old) penny in the pound on the standard rate of income tax. Even so, the success of the expedition was only assured through agreements with rival claimants to the Ethiopian throne – Ras Kassa of Tigre and Wagshum Gobazie of Lasta – who viewed Tewodros as a usurper, and who took shrewd advantage of the British intervention.
In 1997 Stephen Bell joined a small group of trekkers and their camels who set off from Napier’s coastal embarkation point near the site of the ancient Aksumite port of Adulis to walk across the desert of the coastal plain, and then climb up through an isolated pass to reach the site of the expedition’s first highland staging post at Senafe 7,000 feet above sea level. From there motor transport took the party southwards from Eritrea and into Ethiopia, over the main north-south road built in the 1930s and following (more or less) the route taken by Napier’s forces as far as Lake Ashangi. From the lake, the party and its caravan of locally-hired mules walked the remaining, and often gruelling, 130 miles of Napier’s route: with altitudes that ranged from 3,000 to 11,000 feet above sea level.
The speaker’s own slides of the 1997 journey will be supplemented by others. These will include some of the sketches and paintings of artistic members of the expedition of 130 years before, many of whom were fascinated by Ethiopia’s ancient and (then) little-known Christian culture and civilization. He will also briefly allude to other episodes of Ethiopian history associated with sites encountered along the route.

First Published in News File Winter 2009

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