The Abssynian War: a war largely over an admin error

by Instant Noodle

Tewodros II was emporer of Eithiopia from 1855 until his death in 1868. He would ultimately lose his life, it’s not to far to say, over lax admin in London.

Here he is here; a rather striking chap.

Theodore, as he was known to the British, wanted to modernize and unify Eithiopia and was fearful of the rapid spread of Islam in Egypt. He therefore requested help from a fellow Christian monarch, Victoria, as an ally for this cause.

He had been friendly with Victoria, who had sent him ceremonial rifle and matching pistols as a gift. He gave a letter to the consul, Charles Cameron, to deliver in person to the queen.

Here begins the madness, then. Cameron included the letter as part of his report about Absynnia. He traveled via the port of Massawa in Turkey. However, the Foreign office there informed him that such an inquiry should instead be sent to the foreign office, rather than in person, and that Cameron should go and investigate slavery in the Sudan.

His letter reached the foreign office. But there, instead of being sent to the Queen, it was marked Pending. The letter stayed there for a year, before the Foreign Office sent the letter to India, because Abyssinia came under the Raj’s remit. Apparently when the letter arrived in India, officials filed it under Not Even Pending, though that may be an urban legend.

King Theodore was not pleased, to say the least. It was realized by 1864 that he had imprisoned all the British subjects as well as some other Europeans in a desperate bid for attention.

He got his reply after this – three years late – brought by a team headed by the British Archaeologist and discoverer of the Epic of Gilgamesh tablets Hormuzd Rassam. They came without the firepower he wanted, and so an irate Theodore imprisoned them too.

This lead inevitably to War, which the British won rather easily. Despite pleas from the British to come down with dignity, Theodore vowed never to bow to their demands. After this clemency failed. Britain then resorted to it’s typical disproportionate imperialist strategry at this point.

Ancient city destroyed? Tick. (Magdala, fortress shelled and city burned)

File:Magdala burning.jpg

Final loyal subjects eliminated? Tick.

Cultural heritage ransacked? Tick. (Including his crowns, a huge number of both royal and ecclesiastic robes, vestments, crosses, chalices, swords and shields, many embroidered or decorated with gold or silver, numerous tabots, the great Imperial silver negarit war drum, and a huge number of valuable manuscripts. Many of these are in the British museum. though the crown was eventually given back).

As Alan Moorehead puts it,

“There has never been in modern times a colonial campaign quite like the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868. It proceeds from first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches at the end. And yet it was a fearsome undertaking; for hundreds of years the country had never been invaded, and the savage nature of the terrain alone was enough to promote failure.”

Theodore committed suicide during this ransacking. Ironically, he used one of the pistols given as a gift from Queen Victoria.

Who knows, however, what the situation would have been if he had received a prompt reply? Perhaps if the Foreign Office were a little more organized… we wouldn’t have so many Eithiopian artefacts in the British museum.

I can imagine the scene now. And it’s not too dissimilar from this scene from Yes Minister.

Jim Hacker: “What am I going to do with all this correspondence?”
Bernard Woolley: “You do realize you don’t actually have to, Minister.”
Jim Hacker: “Don’t I?”
Bernard Woolley: “Not if you don’t want to, we can draft an official reply.”
Jim Hacker: “What’s an official reply?”
Bernard Woolley: “It just says The Minister has asked me to thank you for your letter and we say something like The matter is under consideration, or even if we feel so inclined under active consideration.”
Jim Hacker: “What’s the difference?”
Bernard Woolley: “Well, under consideration means we’ve lost the file, under active consideration means we’re trying to find it.”