The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 20th May 2010

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

Given by - Stephen Bell

Reviewed by - Elizabeth Blunt


General Napier's Magdala campaign of 1868 has been much in members' minds recently, as a series of study visits to museums and galleries has revealed just how many of the Ethiopian objects in British collections were brought back by the victorious British army. On May 20th, after the society's annual general meeting, Stephen Bell reminded a packed lecture room of the route and circumstances of the campaign, as he described the expedition he made with a group of friends, following the route taken by Napier and his army from Zula on the Red Sea Coast to the Emperor Tewodros' mountain stronghold of Magdala.

Their trip, in 1997, caught the brief window of opportunity when the wars of the Derg period were over, and Ethiopia and Eritrea were still on sufficiently good terms to make such a cross-border trip possible.

Stephen Bell himself had long been fascinated by the Magdala story and had made a brief attempt in the 1960s to find what memories or physical traces of Napier's campaign might have remained along his route. Thirty years later, with more time and more money, he and his companions were able to follow the whole route, much of it on foot, with mules and camels, just as Napier's British and Indian troops would have done.

He told his listeners that while the expedition to free the hostages taken by Tewodros might be seen as "just one more obscure episode of British military history", in the context of Ethiopian history it was far from obscure; it brought about the downfall of Tewodros, Ethiopia's first great modernising monarch, and the treasure still held by the British Museum and other institutions was, he said, an issue which still burned in Ethiopia to this day.

With the help of an excellent series of slides, many allowing comparison between modern photographs, and the watercolours and engravings made in the 1860s, Stephen Bell vividly described the first section of the trip, in what he called the 'blow torch heat' of the coastal plain. All trace of the railway line built to transport the army from the landing point to the foothills of the highlands had vanished, as had the scattering of discarded rail fastenings which had still been there thirty years before, but he did find the well sunk to provide water for the locomotives, still in use by the village which had sprung up around it.

Then it was up into the highlands, through steep gorges and narrow passes to Senafe. The engravings made by members of the 1868 expedition, and the photographs taken in 1997, are equally dramatic, but Bell and his companions had one surprise when they found a landslip in one of the passes had created a vast, unexpected, pool of water blocking the route.

From Senafe to Lake Ashangi the group took advantage of the modern motor road, before resuming their trek on foot. Among the group was the grand-daughter of one of the original expedition members, General Sir Charles Staveley, and her daily readings from Stavely's letters and diaries made them very aware of following in the footsteps of the expeditionary force - quite literally so in the area of Lake Ashangi, since they, like their predecessors, got bogged down in the swampy areas around the shore.

In all, they took three and a half weeks to reach Magdala - approached through a dramatic landscape of high, flat-topped plateaux, cut through with steep gorges. Sir Robert Napier and his troops had taken nine months. Interestingly the bare treeless landscape of their modern photos is very similar to that in the old engravings. Deforestation of the highlands was clearly already far advanced by the mid-nineteenth century.

The physical traces left by Napier's army were meagre, but they were there. Many of the tracks they followed through the highlands were much wider than most paths in the area - carved out by British engineers to be suitable for elephants and an army of 5,000 men. And the village of Torku Safar - not an obvious reference to the British campaign - was called the 'Turkish Camp' at a time when all foreigners were referred to as Turks, and it had been a halting place for the British army.

And memories do still linger. Even though the same area had also seen the Italian invasion, local people never confused the two armies. And Stephen Bell still cherishes the memory of meeting an old man whose grandfather used to sit him astride his knee, and say, "Now you are riding an elephant", while telling stories of his youth when he saw the extraordinary sight of the elephants brought by the British army from India, with men sitting on top and steering them.

First Published in News File Summer 2010

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