Who was John Kirkham?

By G.E. Gorfu
Oct. 09 2009

In most battles victories are won by the cumulative advantages that one army has over another. Sometimes that can be due to military discipline, larger numbers, the strategy an army adopts in combat, or the valor and style of its leadership. However, when two armies are closely matched in everything else, the superiority of weapons might become the only decisive factor.

After the death of Hatsie Tewodros, Wag-Shum Gobezie of Wollo who made himself Emperor of Ethiopia as‘Hatsie Teckle Giorgis’ and ruled for three years demanded the payment of tribute from the ruler of Tigray, Dejach Kassa Mircha. When Kassa refused, Hatsie Teckle Giorgis sent him a sack of teff with a warning: “Look, this is how large my army is!” Dejach Kassa however, roasted the sack of teff and sent it back saying: “That is what I will do to your army!”

What Teckle Giorgis probably did not know was that Dejach Kassa had negotiated and managed to keep not only the superior weapons the British had brought with them to fight Tewodros, but also John Charles Kirkham, a key figure who stayed behind and trained the Tigrian army in the use and maintenance of these weapons as well as in drills, marching, and in the disciplined style and strategy of fighting battles. When Hatsie Teckele Giorgis invaded Tigray in 1871 little did he know that he was blindly marching into hell; his Imperial army which probably was superior in numbers, was quickly cut down with superior fire power? We are told the battle fought in the rains of Hamle (July 11), lasted only about an hour or so, and Wag-Shum Gobeze was captured.

When Dejcach Kassa Mircha was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia as Hatsie Yohannes, he made John Charles Kirkham a general, gave him a large estate in Asmara, and sent him as his envoy to Europe with a letter to Queen Victoria. The training and discipline the Ethiopian army received under John Kirkham helped them greatly when they fought the Egyptians first in a skirmish at Kisad Ekka and later on under the command of Ras Alula Aba-Nega in a decisive victory that demolished the invaders at Gundet in 1875 with their commander, a Danish mercenary, Colonel Arrendrup, who died in that battle and over 2000 Egyptian soldiers that were taken captives.

John Charles Kirkham was sent again on a second mission to Europe but the Egyptians who had known of his role in their defeat, captured him when he crossed into their borders and sent him back to a military garrison they still maintained at Kufti, near Massawa. He was kept prisoner in the heat of the sun in a large metal cage used for wild animals. The Egyptians gave him little or no food, but a good supply of alcohol so that he can lose his mind and drink himself to death. They swore that they would starve him and make him eat the fleas and ticks off his own body.

When a British gunboat docked at Massawa the sailors found John Kirkham ragged, starved and half naked in the cage under the hot sun. They wanted to free him from his Egyptian captors and contacted London. But authorities at the Foreign Office told them: ‘…Kirkham had forfeited his British protection when he entered to give his services to Yohannes. So, do not to interfere with Egypt and its prisoner…’ They abandoned their own kinsman to his fate and left him to die there.

Within six months of his imprisonment John Kirkham developed a serious disease know as delirium tremens* and dysentery. For treatment he was taken to the Lutheran Mission clinic in Massawa where he died of alcohol poisoning in 1876. Had Hatsie Yohannes and/or Ras Alula known of the fate of their friend, John Kirkham, they surely would have mounted a campaign to free him, and would never have left him to die in the hands of the Egyptian invaders.
*Shaking and trembling as well as hallucination that insects are crawling on one’s skin.