The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Siege of Magdala

Volker Matthies

Reviewer - John Broadbent


This new book is all about conflict, not only the military campaign, which is already well documented, but more interestingly the conflict of opinion, modern and contemporary, about the rights and wrongs of the stages leading up to Napier and his troops disembarking at Zula in the first place, and the consequences of their departure some months later.

The author seeks to give these issues a proper context, drawing on both contemporary written sources and more modern commentaries, with an international dimension. Thus the book includes long extracts from Austrian, British, Ethiopian, German and Swedish sources, many of which are not otherwise easily accessible, and for this material alone the book is very interesting indeed. Naturally, there are differing viewpoints expressed, several of which give 'food for thought'. In addition, the volume includes many illustrations, some of which will not previously have been seen.

Some contributors assert that the clash between the British Government and Emperor Tewodros should never have been allowed to reach the stage of a military conflict. They claim that British Foreign Office officials should have taken more care in dealing with the infamous letter from the Emperor to Queen Victoria. The author does make the point that there may well have been other reasons why the letter was shelved, given the British policy of preserving good relations with countries whose territory bordered our sea routes to India.

Without doubt the author competently wrestles with the task he set out to achieve, namely to marshal a wide range of historical material, to seek out the views of modern historians, and present a more balanced account of the campaign. Some British readers may be disconcerted by the manner in which some elements of the campaign are described; however, the author's research has been thorough. The chapters hang together well within the chronology of events and conclusions are reached following an objective consideration of all the conflicting views. The outcome appears to be that Tewodros emerges at length as the outstanding hero.

The volume is graced by a foreword by Professor Richard Pankhurst who deals with another aspect of the whole Magdala affair, namely the 'loot' taken by the British at the conclusion of the battle. His views on this subject are well known and repeated here. The book devotes a full chapter to this issue and includes a statement from the AFROMET website.

In conclusion, this book brings a fresh view on the Magdala Campaign and is commended to members as a useful addition to the body of work on the subject. Its international dimension is most interesting. There are admittedly some unfortunate small errors in the text but these can be overlooked given the overall contribution which the volume makes to our understanding of this remarkable incident in the history of both Ethiopia and Victorian Britain.

The Siege of Magdala book cover

The Siege of Magdala: The British Empire Against the Emperor of Ethiopia
Volker Matthies
Marcus Wiener, Princeton NJ, 2012
ISBN 9781558765528
Paperback 250 pages; 232 x 154mm
monotone illustrations
Price £25.95

First Published in News File Summer 2012

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
Information is offered in good faith but the Society does not warrant the status or reliability of the information contained.

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