The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - A Princess in the Family

Annie and Tony Betts

Reviewer - John Broadbent

This family history book is of special interest because of its vivid account concerning the lives of European missionaries during the events leading up to the Napier Expedition in 1867-68 and its aftermath.

In her Foreword to the volume Annie Betts explains how it came about, only some 3 years previously, that she discovered her links to events in 19th century Ethiopia. Previously they had meant nothing to her. Given the very short time which has elapsed since this discovery, it is indeed remarkable that she and her husband Tony have been able to put together and to record so much detail. The book will certainly be received by her family members with great interest and enthusiasm and Annie's feeling that the contents might be of interest to a wider audience is entirely justified.

The main thrust of this book concerns the personal lives of her maternal great-grandfather, the naturalist Georg Wilhelm Schimper, and through another line, her grandfather Christian Friedrich Bender, a devout Protestant missionary. Maria-José Friedlander has given an extensive account of the Betts' lecture to the Society (24th March 2010) and the story details need not be repeated in this review.

Anyone who has any interest in, or connection with, the events of these times will surely enjoy reading this fascinating book. The extensive research carried out by the authors has brought to life many of the long lost feelings of the participants in the stories of Gaffat and Magdala in a most exciting manner. This has been achieved by extensive quotations (always indicated by italics in the script) from the principal characters or those round about them at the time - be they missionaries, artisans, consular officials, figures from the various churches or others. The quotations really do bring life to the story and give character to people familiar to us only by name.

For readers who may be confused about the dramatis personae of the Magdala story, this book provides most of the answers in an exciting and informative way. The tyrannical behaviour of Emperor Tewodros is alarmingly described and demonstrates just how close the hostages came to a cruel end. The spacing of the paragraphs and chapters in the text provide an impressive indication of the periods of time the hostages had to endure cruelly restrictive bondage, whilst large scale massacres were being perpetrated in close proximity.

The book perhaps lacks detail of the military campaign and might have given fuller particulars of the discomfort encountered by the troops who marched towards Magdala, but of course this information is available elsewhere. It is unfortunate, however, that the name of one of the Irishmen who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his conduct in the engagement is wrongly given. For the rest of the book it was a compelling read. Considerable detail has been discovered by the authors and is well recorded for the reader. The quotations are excellent and the family history both fascinating and impressive. Illustrations are extensive throughout and the maps are accurate and well positioned in the text. The entire story is well put together and offers an enthralling and instructive read.

A Princess in the Family by Annie and Tony Betts, Domtom Publishing Ltd, Burgess Hill, UK, 2010.
Paperback 344 pages; 270 x 200mm; numerous photos in colour and black & white
Price £20:00 from

First Published in News File Winter 2010

Opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the Society.
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