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New Book, The Siege of Magdala, by Volker Matthies

Review By Professor Richard Pankhurst
Feb. 15, 2012

Siege of Magdala book cover - Tigrai Online In 1867-68, a petty diplomatic dispute between Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II and Queen Victoria led to one of the strangest and most dramatic military campaigns in history. The British Indian Army, with 60,000 men, 30,000 elephants, mules and horses, and a bevy of “embedded” journalists, observers and translators -- as well as artists and photographers whose images of the campaign are reproduced in this book -- marched into the Ethiopian highlands, advancing on the mountain fortress of Magdala to rescue a small group of European hostages.

The campaign, described by the British as the world’s first major humanitarian intervention, saw the emperor’s army annihilated, the hostages freed, and Ethiopian treasures shipped to British museums. But Ethiopian independence was retained. And yet despite its tremendous significance in the history of Afro-European relations, military strategy, and journalism, the small war has received little attention outside England and Ethiopia. Here, for the first time, Volker Matthies lays out the full story of the Magdala campaign in thorough detail, reprinting and discussing Ethiopian primary sources for a balanced account.

There are events in Ethiopian – and world – history which are constantly told and retold. One such story relates to the rise and fall of Emperor Tewodros. It is a tale which features the Ethiopian monarch’s attempted reforms, his dispute with the British Government, the British Expedition to his mountain fortress of Maqdala (Magdala), his defeat and subsequent suicide, the sad story of Prince Alemayehu - and much else….The book seeks objectivity. It examines the reasons for Tewodros’s dispute with the British Government before turning to the fate of the British “hostages”, British preparations for war, and the despatch of the Napier expedition. Professor Matthias concedes that this military operation was carried out magnificently – but remarks that it was in other respects seriously mis-conceived.

Mattheis quotes numerous important, but in many cases little-studied documents. These include Tewodros’s original letter of 1862 to Queen Victoria out of which the Anglo-Ethiopian dispute historically developed; Napier’s victorious proclamation of 1868 to his troops; an interesting list of the Emperor’s Ethiopian detainees at Maqdala; and a letter of 1870 which Alemayehu’s grandmother Laqiyaye despatched to Queen Victoria…One may note that The Siege of Magdala is exceedingly well illustrated – and not only, as so many earlier works, with fine engravings exclusively from the Illustrated London News, but from a wide range of other images. 
Matthies has also used a wide selection of sources, Ethiopian, German and Austrian as well as British. The work also contains an extensive bibliography covering a full seven densely printed pages.

Where to Find this Book:

This book can be ordered online through Amazon:Or, in the U.S. directly from the Markus Wiener Publishers site
European and African orders are fulfilled by Eurospan in London:

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