“Never Give Way to Barbarians” The British Abyssinian Expedition of 1868: A Matter of Honor


It began with the taking of 8 British civilian hostages in a faraway country about which most people in Britain knew nothing and cared less.

By the time it was over, a king lay dead by his own hand. A multi-national force had marched an 800-mile round trip through the interior of Eastern Africa, dropped off from their home base in Bombay by an armada of ships numbering in the hundreds. The power of the British Empire to protect its people, and its interests, had been displayed loud and clear.

The Abyssinian Expedition of 1868 was unlike any military campaign before or since.

Today, the idea that an entire expeditionary force could be raised to invade a country on another continent and just to rescue eight people might seem unthinkable; however, that is what happened as a matter of course at the height of the Victorian age.

The scale of the British Empire in the 1800s is truly astounding. In 1851, the population of Great Britain and Ireland was numbered at 20,959,477 (a little less than a third of what it is today), or roughly 1.6% of the world’s population.

British naval and support ships in the Gulf of Zula, December 1867.
British naval and support ships in the Gulf of Zula, December 1867.

However, the British Empire at its peak included 11.5 million square miles of territory (home to fully 25% of the world’s population), not to mention the very real hegemony that it held over the world’s oceans. This control of the seas was made possible by the fact that the Royal Navy was maintained to be larger than the combined naval strength of any two other nations.

British banks had more assets and currency on deposit than all of the rest of the world’s banks put together, and two-thirds of the world’s shipping and one-third of all of its trade passed through the British economy.

In an age before oil became the main source of global energy, coal provided the fuel for industry and trade, and half of the world’s coal came from Britain, along with half of its iron also. It was a time of confidence and almost unlimited horizons, bred by economic dominance and cultural assuredness.

Though the Crimean War of the early 1850’s has been held to be a disaster for the British Army, the war ultimately ended with an Allied victory. The Empire of the middle 19th century still had the potential to project its power effectively on a global scale, to a degree that remains unprecedented, even with all of the technological achievements that have been made up to the present day.

British troops posing at a captured sentry post above Koket-Bir gate at Magdala fortress.
British troops posing at a captured sentry post above Koket-Bir gate at Magdala fortress.

Britain had recently defeated China in the Second Opium War, and the British Army occupied Beijing in 1860. In 1876, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was confident enough of British rule over the Indian sub-continent that he arranged to have Queen Victoria crowned the “Empress of India”.

From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the Empire dealt with military threats all along its vast and expansive borders, from the mountains of Nepal and Tibet across to the Afghan border and all along the African coast and into the continent’s interior.

One of these actions, the 1896 conflict with Zanzibar, remains the shortest “official” war on record, as the Zanzibarian surrender came after just 38 minutes of fighting.

The initial steps of the conflict that would lead to the Abyssinian Expedition took place in 1867, when the King of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Tewodros II, imprisoned a British missionary named Henry Stern and his assistant, who went by the name of Rosenthal.

Both men were chained and beaten, and when the British Consul to the area and another party of missionaries attempted to have the men released, they were arrested in turn.

Two British diplomats were then dispatched to have these hostages released, but they were also imprisoned on the king’s orders.

The British Captives in Abyssinia
The British Captives in Abyssinia.

Tewodros had formerly been an ally of the British, and he had fostered friendly relations with all the major European nations during the early stages of his reign. He was proud of his status as the only Christian monarch in Africa, as well as the fact that Ethiopia alone among the African nations remained free from western colonization.

His early reign had been marked by consolidation, liberalism, and the rule of law; however, as time went by, Tewodros succumbed to megalomania and paranoia, and his subjects rebelled against him.

At the time he took the British subjects hostage, he had already declared himself the direct descendant of the biblical King Solomon and was prone to giving audiences on his throne while surrounded by lions.

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