On this date in 1868, on the eve of his rout at the hands of a British expeditionary force, the frustrated Emperor Tewodros II had hundreds of prisoners executed en masse.
Our setting is the 1868 British Expedition to Abyssinia, “one of the most expensive affairs of honour in history.” And it all got started from a bad experience with technical support.
Tewodros — generally known to the Europeans as Theodore — had risen from a humble station to the throne of Abyssinia, but by the 1860s held it but tenuously against various rival warlords. Tewodros lodged appeals for aid with a number of European powers, including the British, who evidently took the emperor’s letter for Queen Victoria and stuck it indefinitely in a file called “Pending”.
After two years without an answer, Tewodros took hostage the British consul Charles Duncan Cameron, a missionary named Henry Stern (whose unflattering report of Tewodros’s mean origins particularly enraged the monarch), and other Europeans.
Illustration of the hostages from Henry Stern’s The Captive Missionary.
And then he took hostage the Ethiopian sent to negotiate their release.
He wasn’t “Pending” any longer.
Gaze not into Abyssinia
Tewodros, perhaps, had depended on the notoriously treacherous Ethiopian highlands to protect him from any effective reprisal. But when the Brits decided in 1867 to let men with guns resolve the dispute, they spared no expense at all.
Months of planning and millions of pounds were poured into the operation, which landed 13,000 soldiers and 40,000 animals organized by the Bombay Army.
“For a total cost of about £9,000,000,” writes Harold Marcus in a biography of another former Tewodros hostage, the future Emperor Menelik II, “Napier set out to defeat a man who could muster only a few thousand troops and had long ago ceased to be Ethiopia’s leader in anything but title.”
The forces converged on Tewodros’s last stronghold, Magdala, with the mercurial king refusing repeated demands of the invader to release his European captives.
Angrily refusing, at least according to the accounts of the hostages who were the subject of all this … and whose accounts have just enough consciousness of the privilege their own skin has given them as they witness these bloodlettings.
On April 8, the king put to death seven of the native prisoners in his train. These prisoners comprised generally people on the political outs with Tewodros, adherents of once-rebellious chiefs and the families of those adherents. It was no mean thing to slaughter a few of them arbitrarily.
But much worse was to come the following day, when the hunted emperor espied the British advance guard reconnoitering his position.
According to a report by European hostage W.F. Prideaux in the May 21, 1868 London Times, the Emperor
had seen the British troops descending the Bashilo, and had remarked among them four elephants and some white animals, which we surmised to be Berbera sheep. A short time afterwards a friend of ours (for we had a few friends at Magdala) … implored us to keep within our tents, for the King was in a fearful passion, and was then issuing an order to kill all his native prisoners, who were confined in a few houses a couple of hundred yards off. The repeated discharge of firearms, which we heard soon afterwards, confirmed the sad story, and it was with many misgivings that we asked ourselves, “What next?” At dusk, however, the King returned, and we returned to our tents comparatively at our ease. From what I have heard it appears that the King rushed down mad with rage and arackee, and calling out one of the prisoners hacked him to pieces with his own sword. Another speedily met the same fate. The third was a boy about ten years of age. His youth and innocence (for it was his father who had been the offender) were no protection. He was mangled in the same way as the two others. The cutting and slashing went on in this manner for some time, when the King, finding this mode of execution too slow for his impatient spirit, ordered out the musketeers. The remainder were then quickly shot down, and thrown over the low cliff, the force of the shock in several cases opening the chains of the wretched victims. Those whose quivering limbs showed any signs of life were fired on from above till the murderous work was completed.
The account of the Rev. Stern:
[W]e were suddenly startled by the sound of an intermittent musketry. … The rattle of musketry blended with the yells of despair, and the shouts of rage fell, however, with an ominous and appalling horror on our ears. “What is the matter?” I inquired of my neighbour. “Hist,” was the response, “the king is killing all the prisoners.” These terrible words diffused an aguish chill through my very heart. … The sun had already disappeared from the horizon, and twilight spread a dismal, dusky hue over the scene around, and still the firing continued unabated. With night it gradually diminished, and then only isolated shots reverberated across the panic-stricken camp.
The slaughter lasted about three hours, and during that interval three hundred and seven human beings* were, unwarned, and perhaps unprepared, hurled into eternity. Some of the prisoners did not unresistingly yield to their woeful doom. One, Immer Ali, a native of Ferga, near the Tzana Lake, formerly a chief of consideration in his province, in spite of hand and foot chains, with a convulsive grasp dragged his executioner towards the precipice over which he was to be hurled. The hangman, who dreaded the doom which he intended to inflict on his fellow man, shouted for help. On hearing the cry the tyrant, tiger-like, sprang forward and with his gory sword literally hacked the man to pieces.
And to hear Stern tell it, it was by dint of nothing but great fortune — or in his view, divine providence — that saved the British hostages from joining them.
One victim after another lay writhing and quivering in the last pangs at the foot of the dizzy precipice, and still the tyrant’s rage was un-appeased. “Bring the white men, and let their blood flow, mingled with that of my own subjects,” was the order that fell from his lips. Already, we were informed, whole bands of ruffians stood prepared to seize the intended prey, when several chiefs, no friends of the foreign captives, stepped forward, and requested that our execution might be deferred till next day. “Your Majesty,” they respectfully remarked, “the white men do not deserve the easy death of the sword and bullet; no, keep them till to-morrow, and then let the slow torture of a flaming hut put an end to their existence.” “You are right,” was the response.
Since the next day was Good Friday, the Christian Tewodros, “though a perfect fiend and coarse blasphemer, repaired, from a superstitious impulse, at a very early hour to church,” Stern says. The decisive British attack began later that day, and would end with the un-executed hostages liberated, and Tewodros taking his own life rather than fall captive.
* The provenance of the very precise figure of 307 is not apparent in Stern’s account; presumably, he knew through his friendly contacts (of from relieving the boredom of captivity in recreational head-counting) the overall number of prisoners beforehand.