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The Battle of Magdala


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The Battle of Magdala marked the climax of the British Expedition to Abyssinia in April 1868. This significant conflict took place around 390 miles from the Red Sea coast, at the fortress of Magdala.

The opposing forces were led by Robert Napier, representing the British, and Emperor Tewodros II of Abyssinia.

In the year 1866, a critical event unfolded when a British envoy was dispatched on a mission to secure the release of a group of missionaries held captive in Abyssinia.

These missionaries had initially been taken hostage after Emperor Tewodros II’s plea to Queen Victoria for military aid and supplies went unanswered.

Captain Cameron, the envoy who had delivered the letter, found himself in the midst of a complicated situation.

Unbelievably, the missionaries were eventually freed from their imprisonment, bringing a glimmer of hope.

However, Emperor Tewodros II abruptly changed his stance and dispatched a force to recapture the missionaries, who were then promptly returned to their prison within the formidable walls of Magdala fortress.

Among them was Captain Cameron, who found himself once again trapped within the clutches of the emperor’s stronghold.

What followed was a gripping and fateful clash known as the Battle of Magdala. The British, led by the determined Robert Napier, confronted the Abyssinian forces in a bid to secure the release of their countrymen and achieve their objectives.

The battle raged on, and amidst the tumult and chaos, the British forces emerged triumphant.

As the fortress of Magdala was finally seized, an unfortunate fate awaited Emperor Tewodros II. Realizing the inevitable, and unwillingness to endure capture and imprisonment, the emperor made the ultimate decision.

Tewodros chose to take his own life rather than face the consequences of defeat. The Battle of Magdala stands as a pivotal moment in history, marking the culmination of the British Expedition to Abyssinia.

It was a clash that encompassed high stakes, political tensions, and the struggle for freedom. The legacy of this battle reverberates through time, forever etching its place in the annals of warfare and diplomacy.

The Battle of Magdala

Before the British force could reach Magdala, they faced a significant obstacle—the Arogye plateau. This plateau stood in their path, and it seemed formidable to overcome.

As they approached, the British saw thousands of armed Abyssinians camping on the hillsides, with about 30 artillery pieces, blocking their way.

Despite the heavy losses inflicted upon them, the Abyssinian soldiers persisted in their assault, coming within a mere 30 yards of the British lines.

In the midst of the chaotic battle, a unit from the 33rd Regiment managed to overpower some of the Abyssinian artillerymen and seize their artillery pieces. Eventually, the surviving Abyssinian soldiers retreated back into the safety of Magdala.

The initial clash involved a group of around 600 to 700 Anglo-Indian soldiers. One of the witnesses, a missionary, noted the decisive impact of the breech-loading Snider rifles, capable of firing six volleys per minute.

In a report sent to London, Lord Napier described the events, stating that the British force descended around 3,900 feet to the Bashilo River and approached Magdala with the First Brigade to gather information.

From an outwork positioned 1,000 feet above them, Emperor Theodore’s forces unleashed fire from seven guns.

Simultaneously, about 3,500 Abyssinian soldiers made a brave sortie, which was ultimately repelled with significant losses, forcing the enemy to retreat into Magdala.

The British suffered twenty wounded soldiers, and unfortunately, two of them later succumbed to their injuries.

This encounter during the Battle of Magdala showcased the fierce resistance faced by the British forces as they fought their way toward the fortress.

The superior firepower of the British rifles played a crucial role in repelling the enemy’s attack and pushing them back into Magdala’s confines.

The following day, the British force advanced towards Magdala, the fortress where Tewodros II was stationed.

On that day, an unusual phenomenon occurred—a dark-brown circle appeared around the sun, resembling a blister, with a radius of about 15 degrees.

It remained visible until a rainstorm arrived later in the afternoon. According to Walda Gabir, the king’s valet, Tewodros noticed it and considered it a sign of impending bloodshed.

Tewodros sent two hostages on parole to negotiate terms with the British. However, Lord Napier, the British leader, insisted on the release of all hostages and an unconditional surrender.

While Tewodros refused to surrender unconditionally, he did release the European hostages. Undeterred, the British continued their advance and launched an assault on the fortress.

The attack began with a barrage of mortars, rockets, and artillery fire. Infantry units then opened fire while the Royal Engineers were sent to blow up the fortress gates.

The path leading to the main gateway was treacherous, with steep slopes, boulders, and sheer drops on one side.

The gateway, known as the Koket-Bir, was heavily fortified with thick timber doors set into a stone archway, protected by thorn-and-stake hedges.

Beyond the gate, there was an uphill path leading to a second fortified gateway and the final plateau.

Upon reaching the gate, a temporary halt occurred when it was discovered that the engineers had forgotten their explosives and scaling ladders.

General Staveley, eager to avoid further delays, ordered the 33rd Regiment to proceed with the attack.

A group of officers and soldiers from the 33rd Regiment, along with a Royal Engineers officer, separated from the main force.

They climbed the cliff face and encountered a thorny hedge blocking their way over a wall. Private James Bergin, a tall man, used his bayonet to create a hole in the hedge.

Drummer Michael Magner climbed onto Bergin’s shoulders, squeezed through the gap, and pulled Bergin up behind him with the assistance of Ensign Conner and Corporal Murphy.

Bergin maintained a rapid rate of fire on the Koket-Bir as Magner helped more men pass through the hedge.

As additional troops poured through and advanced with bayonets fixed, the defenders retreated through the second gate.

The British soldiers rushed the Koket-Bir before it could be fully closed and proceeded to capture the second gate, gaining access to the plateau.

Ensign Wynter climbed to the top of the second gate and hoisted the 33rd Regimental Colours, signaling that the plateau had been taken.

Private Bergin and Drummer Magner were later awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration, for their actions during the battle.

Tewodros II was discovered dead inside the second gate, having shot himself with a pistol given to him by Queen Victoria. Following his death, all resistance ceased.

His body was cremated and buried inside the church by the priests. The church, guarded by soldiers from the 33rd Regiment, was reportedly looted of numerous valuable items, including gold, silver, and brass crosses, filigree works, and rare religious artifacts.

The aftermath of the Battle of Magdala

After achieving their main objective, the British forces left Ethiopia without trying to control or take over the country.

However, as they were withdrawing, they faced challenges and attacks from Ethiopian warriors. Despite their defeat in the Battle of Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros II’s forces continued to resist the British presence and used guerrilla tactics to fight back as the British began their journey back to the coast.

The difficult terrain, with mountains and narrow passages, allowed Ethiopian warriors to ambush and harass the British troops during their retreat.

They used hit-and-run tactics, sniping, and occasional small fights to slow down the British and cause them harm.

The ongoing resistance from the Ethiopian fighters played a major role in the British decision not to occupy or take over Ethiopia for an extended period.

The British forces also faced logistical challenges such as shortages of supplies and difficulties in transporting wounded soldiers.

The Ethiopian fighters made these challenges even more difficult by attacking and harassing the British during their return journey.

These difficulties and the ongoing resistance explain why the British chose not to fully occupy Ethiopia after their victory in the Battle of Maqdala.

The exact number of British personnel involved in the expedition to Ethiopia in 1868 is not certain, but it is estimated to have been around 13,000.

However, the number of personnel who returned from Ethiopia decreased compared to the initial size of the force.

This decrease can be attributed to factors like casualties, illnesses, and the release of prisoners. Although specific figures are not available, it is estimated that several thousand personnel returned to British-controlled territories, including soldiers, support staff, and freed hostages.

In rough terms, it can be said that the British forces lost approximately half of their initial strength, assuming their initial force was around 13,000 personnel.

Magdala, which was previously inhabited by Muslim Gallas (Oromo) tribes, had been taken from the Amhara people but was reclaimed by Emperor Tewodros II.

After the British forces defeated Tewodros, two rival Galla queens, Werkait and Mostiat, both claimed control of the fortress.

The British preferred to hand over Magdala to a Christian ruler named Wagshum Gobeze, as he could protect Christian refugees and stop the Muslim Gallas’ advance.

However, Gobeze was unresponsive, and the Galla queens couldn’t agree, so the decision was made to destroy the fortress.

For his success in the campaign, Lieutenant-General Napier was given a noble title by Queen Victoria and became Baron Napier of Magdala. The soldiers who participated in the campaign were awarded the Abyssinian War Medal.

After the British left, fighting for the succession to Tewodros’ throne continued in Ethiopia from 1868 to 1872.

Eventually, Dajamach Kassai of Tigray, aided by the British weapons obtained from the Magdala expedition, gained power and defeated his rivals. Kassai was crowned Emperor Yohannes IV.

Two individuals affected by these events were Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu and British soldier John Kirkham.

Alemayehu, at his father’s request, was taken to London for protection after Tewodros’ death. He was later sent to schools in England but struggled with loneliness and depression.

He died at the age of 19 and was buried near Windsor Castle. Kirkham remained in Ethiopia and served as an advisor to Emperor Yohannes IV.

He played a significant role in training Ethiopian troops and fought in battles, but he was eventually imprisoned by Egyptian forces and died in captivity.

After the destruction of Magdala, the loot was transported across the Bashilo River and sold at an auction.

Many cultural artifacts ended up in British collections, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some items have been returned to Ethiopia over the years, and campaigns continue to advocate for further repatriation of looted objects.

Examples of returned items include religious texts, manuscripts, and a lock of Emperor Tewodros’ hair.

Efforts have also been made to return the remains of Prince Alemayehu from Windsor Castle to Ethiopia.


In conclusion, the British expedition to Magdala and the subsequent events that unfolded in Ethiopia had significant historical and cultural implications.

The campaign marked a turning point in the power dynamics of Ethiopia, with Emperor Tewodros II being overthrown and Emperor Yohannes IV ascending to the throne.

The resistance faced by the British during their withdrawal highlighted the resilience of the Ethiopian people and their determination to protect their land.

The looting of Magdala and the subsequent dispersion of cultural artifacts sparked discussions about the repatriation of these objects to Ethiopia.

While some items have been returned over the years, there is an ongoing effort to further restore the country’s heritage.

These discussions have also helped raise awareness of Ethiopian history and culture within Europe, paving the way for the establishment of Ethiopian Studies and research on ancient civilizations like the Kingdom of Aksum.

The fate of individuals such as Prince Alemayehu and John Kirkham serves as a reminder of the personal toll and complex consequences of such military expeditions.

Their stories shed light on the human experiences and challenges faced by those caught in the midst of political conflicts.

Overall, the British expedition to Magdala and its aftermath left a lasting impact on Ethiopia and its relations with the Western world.

Also read: The Battle of Adwa – Where Ethiopians Fought Against and defeated Italian Invaders

The events that transpired continue to be studied and debated, offering valuable insights into the complexities of colonialism, cultural heritage, and the pursuit of power.




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