The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Walter Chichele Plowden

Author - Jean and John Broadbent

No history of Ethiopia would be complete without reference to the reign of Emperor Tewodros and no discussion of him would be worthwhile without heavy reliance on the writings of Walter Plowden (1820 - 1860).

The records of Plowden’s travels around Abyssinia, both before and after his appointment as British Consul, are a rich source of information about Abyssinian culture at all levels of society. Added to this, his close contact with the young Tewodros gave Plowden a unique opportunity to paint the Emperor’s character in vivid detail. Thus we know of the extremes of behaviour but also his genuine desire to improve social structures and agricultural practices in Abyssinia in the mid 19th century.

It is well documented that Plowden died in 1860, murdered by tribesmen near Gondar, and that Tewodros reacted by slaughtering up to 2,000 local people by way of punishment. An excessive reprisal one might think but perhaps also a measure of the Emperor’s very high regard for the British Consul. The great unanswerable question is whether things might have developed differently had Plowden not died. Would Tewodros have continued to accept counsel from Plowden? Would the Emperor still have become quite so unstable?

Instead of course we know that Plowden was replaced by Charles Duncan Cameron as Consul and diplomacy deteriorated dramatically with the famous unanswered letter to Queen Victoria resulting in Napier’s Abyssinian Campaign in 1867 to release European hostages from Tewodros’s grasp at Magdala.

On a tour of Ethiopia in December 2005 we took our group of ten first-time visitors to see the revered Plowden’s final resting place. Given that Plowden died with a very good reputation in Abyssinia and that his legacy of reliable contemporary writing is of value to both British and Ethiopian historians, it was rather a shock to find that his grave at Gondar has fallen into a sorry state.

Photo: John Broadbent, December 2005

The tomb, in its fenced enclosure, can be seen in the accompanying photograph. On close inspection the stonework is in very poor condition, with much of the mortar lost, to such an extent that the grave is in danger of collapsing. The same can be said of the surrounding iron railings. Plowden’s name can just about be deciphered if you know what you are looking for. It is engraved around the top of the tomb walls and not on the top slab as one might expect. An air of neglect hangs over the grave site.

We were equally saddened to discover that the priest in attendance did not seem to understand why we were interested in the grave, nor who Plowden was. This was remedied by our guide Solomon Tekle.

The situation regarding the physical upkeep of the grave needs to receive attention. We are prompted to enquire if this is something which the Anglo-Ethiopian Society may wish to become involved with?

First, does anyone know anything about Plowden’s descendants? They of course should be made aware of the situation and consulted on any steps to be taken.

Secondly, would members wish the Society to make enquiries in Ethiopia or otherwise with a view to organising a repair fund? Members’ suggestions would be a good starting point, especially if someone would volunteer to oversee a project to restore the grave as a fitting memorial for Walter Plowden, but for whose death history may have been quite different.

First Published in News File Summer 2006

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