The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

A Helmet Returned

Author - Richard Snailham


"Come and see us before you go," said Harry from the top of the steps leading up to his front door. I returned to my quarters in what had once been his family's silver room. I had been a tenant of Harry, 3rd Earl of Iddesleigh, for three or four years while teaching history at Exeter School and had enjoyed coming back home from the bustle of classroom and common room and manoeuvring my Triumph Herald through the herd of cows on the long drive up to Pynes, Harry's William and Mary house high above the banks of the Exe.

"We've enjoyed having you here," he said. The Countess, a daughter of Hilaire Belloc, twinkled her agreement. "Would you like to have something to remember us by?" He led me through the entrance hall, past the library and into a cavernous corridor lined with shelves and hung with dusty trophies.

I hadn't been too bad a tenant. Not many noisy parties (the silver room was below Harry's library), and when he had asked me to attend to my bit of garden, which was underneath his library window, I had gone out with the shears and, on my knees, begun to cut my way into a wilderness of tough Devon grass.

"What about one of these?" he asked, taking down a rusty helmet, "and a spear. You know a bit about Africa." The helmet, of steel and brass, looked nineteenth century and Turkish [rather than sixteenth century and Portuguese as recently reported on several internet websites]. It had a wicked adjustable 'nasal' in the form of a vertical feathered arrow, neck-protecting chain mail hanging behind and a dangerously pointed metal crescent protruding from its crown. There was a ragged leather lining inside it, suggesting considerable use.

Harry had inherited it from his grandfather, Sir Stafford Northcote, the 1st Earl. He had been Secretary of State for India in 1868 and was thus responsible for mounting an invasion force of British and Indian troops who were to sail in that year from Bombay to Abyssinia to rescue some sixty hostages imprisoned by the Emperor Theodore.

The hostages - European missionaries, artisans, their wives and servants, a British Consul, an emissary sent by the British government to negotiate their release - were with Theodore on the almost impregnable natural fortress in the mountainous centre of the country. Their detention had caused a crisis to develop over the preceding three or four years and Theodore, a Christian and an anglophile but a touch unstable, had finally ignored an ultimatum from Prime Minister Lord Derby. So an army, to be led by Sir Robert Napier, was swiftly marshalled in India, a fleet of 208 ships prepared, men, weapons and supplies loaded - including 44 elephants to carry heavy artillery pieces - and the whole lot sailed to the Red Sea where a landing was made, a base camp established and a long march south into the interior begun.

Napier reached Theodore's refuge on the flat-topped basalt mountain called Maqdala, defeated the emperor and freed the hostages. The victorious soldiers ransacked the town but as they came off the plateau top and through one of the stone gates most of their loot was confiscated. Napier announced his intention of auctioning it all off. Officers bid for their regimental messes, Richard Holmes bid for the British Museum and, presumably Napier bid on his own behalf. There were many people at home he had to thank for their support. Queen Victoria did well out of it and many Maqdala trophies are in the royal collection at Windsor Castle. Sir Stafford Northcote, the Secretary of State for India and Harry's grandfather, was another.

In Pynes in 1965 I can recall seeing rows of helmets and spears and Harry gave me one of each. For several years I put the helmet on display in the Explorer's Room at the Sheraton Park Tower hotel in Knightsbridge but last October I took it back to Ethiopia and gave it to Richard Pankhurst at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. The spear will follow with my next tour in 2006.

First Published in News File Spring 2006

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