The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 19th November 2002

Return to Magdala

Given by - John & Jean Broadbent

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan


Born in Clonmel, Tipperary, John McGrath's route to Magdala was long and convoluted: first, to Halifax in 1857 where he enlisted in the Duke of Wellington's regiment, the 33rd of foot; next, to India where he spent 11 years; and then in 1867, by now a Colour Sergeant in his 30's, to Ethiopia under the command of Lt. Gen. Robert Napier.

Napier's mission? To rescue hostages. Sixty Europeans imprisoned by Ethiopia's Emperor Theodore in his inaccessible mountain fortress at Magdala, amongst them Her Britannic Majesty's Consul, Capt. Cameron.

Eagerly (and accurately) anticipating a real treat, well over a hundred members of the Society braved a cold November night to listen to John McGrath's great grandson, John Broadbent, and his wife Jean, recount in graphic detail the saga of the great expedition, and great grandad's role in it. It was matchless teamwork: dramatic photography from John; captivating entrancing commentary from Jean.

But, how had they got so involved? It's all down to Richard Snailham, the Society's Chairman. In 1997, he gave a lecture on Magdala to the Bath branch of The Royal Geographical Society. By chance, Jean and John were in the audience. Richard related how the final assault on Magdala was led by the 33rd. of foot, "a load of drunken Irishmen".

Diplomatically, Jean never revealed precisely what it was that spurred her husband to renewed interest in great grandad. Be it as it may, detailed research began - almost all of it immediately fruitful. Jean and John consulted the Holland and Hosier report on the Napier expedition, 3 large red tomes, housed in regimental HQ in Halifax. They were soon able to hold and photograph John McGrath's campaign medal with his name inscribed on it.

Jean and John learnt all about the Napier expedition. First of all, amazing logistics: 38,000 men; 55,000 pack animals; 70,000 lbs of salt beef; 2 million lbs of firewood! Oh, and of course, to carry the mortars, 44 (Indian) elephants, 38 of which lived to trudge back onto Indian soil. Napier sailed from India and landed in January 1868 on the Red Sea coast at Zula, a 400 mile march - each way - to Magdala. A 20 mile length of railway was immediately constructed; to get men and animals to higher ground as quickly as possible saving water consumption. Napier planned every eventuality. He even had Maria Teresa dollars specially minted and went to some trouble, as Jean said, to provide the most popular variety, which was:...'biggest chest, best'.

The Napier expedition pioneered military photography: 15,200 photographs were taken. Each photograph took two hours to develop. Two mules made up one 'unit' of camera: one mule carrying 100 lbs, the camera itself; another, carrying 140 lbs of developing equipment. All contemporary photographs, many we were privileged to see, made it home. So did numerous war correspondents travelling with the expedition. The expedition was scheduled to last five months but overran by one. It was budgeted to cost two million pounds. It cost nine. This, Jean said, was funded by 2 pence on income tax for many years to follow.

Statistics are one thing; the human side another. Good Friday of 1868 saw the first engagement. The British were using their new 'Schneider' rifle for the first time. Results were devastating: 500 Ethiopian dead (including Theodore's trusted military advisor, Chief Gebre) and 1500 wounded; all within a space of three hours. British casualties were hardly any. By the Easter Monday it was all over. Theodore had committed suicide, ironically with a pistol gifted by Queen Victoria. All prisoners had been released, a contemporary photograph showing them in surprisingly good shape. Magdala was destroyed, its treasures plundered - war booty, much of which is still and controversially cherished in The British Museum.

Napier returned in triumph, as did Colour Sergeant John McGrath. Napier became Field Marshal Lord Napier of Magdala; pubs were named after him and statues (at least one of which London's Mayor wishes to demolish) were raised to his name. John McGrath survived to the ripe old age of 80 and was given a military funeral in Halifax.

'Magdala! Greatest film never made, I said to Jean and John.

'Yes, said John. 'That's exactly what we've always thought.

'Not only that, said Jean, 'we've started to cast: the chap who plays Hagrid in Harry Potter, that's it, Robbie Coltrane, he's perfect for Capt. Speedy.

And so he is! But Jean and John Broadbent were themselves perfect to bring this incredible piece of history back to life for us. And so vividly. We echo our President's, Jim Randell, words of praise and thank them both very much.

First Published in News File Spring 2003

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