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The loot from Maqdala



AFROMET - The Association for the Return of The Maqdala (or Magdala) Ethiopian Treasures - is an international organisation dedicated to retrieving priceless treasures looted during the British invasion of Ethiopia in 1867-8. More on AFROMET


We are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they may have inherited or acquired anything taken from Maqdala. All returned items are received in a sprit of gratitude and friendship. They will also be given a place of honour in one of Ethiopia's churches or museums, including the widely-respected Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa. More on returning treasure


Extract From ”The Blue Nile” preparations for the campaign:

Page 232

The methods by which ,Napier went about directing the

huge machine that was now placed under his control were

extremely sensible. First, intelligence officers were set to work

examining all the records and maps of European explorers in

Ethiopia from the time of Bruce onwards. In London Samuel

Baker, the ubiquitous Beke, and many other modern travellers

and missionaries were consulted. Then while Merewether went

off on a reconnaissance along the Red Sea coast to find a landing

place, agents were sent inland to contact the dissident tribes.

By mid-August 1867 Napier was able to give the govern-

ment his estimate of what was required: About 12,000 fighting

men with roughly twice as many followers, at least 20,000

mules and other transport animals, artillery of all kinds

including heavy mountain guns, and a fleet of 280 ships, both

sail and steam, to carry the force to its destination. It was

calculated that if the campaign were begun at the start of the

dry season in December it could be completed by the following

June - about six months in all.

Seventy years had now elapsed since Bonaparte's invasion

of Egypt, and it is interesting to see w hat changes the indus-

trial revolution had forced upon the art of war. The railway,

Page 233

the steamship and the telegraph, all of them unknown in

Bonaparte's time, had now immensely extended the speed

and scope of operations, and the range and power of guns

had given the battlefield a new dimension. And yet there

had been a slowing-down process as well: ten times the

amount of equipment was required by a modem army in the

field, and all the business of the commissariat arrangements -

what we would .now call logistics- had grown immensely

complicated. In the French invasion of Egypt nearly every

soldier fought; now at least a dozen non-combatants were

needed to support just one man at the front. At the same time

warfare had grown much less dangerous: mass killings like

those at Borodino and Waterloo had vanished from the world

and were not to reappear until the senseless holocaust of the

trench fighting on the western front in 1914.

It was a fluid moment in military history, and the old

methods were intricately, and sometimes absurdly, tied up

with the new. The infantry square was still used and so were

the brightly-coloured uniforms which made such an admirable

target on the battlefield. But the army's food was better, the

medical services had changed out of recognition, the drill was

more efficient, and the soldier was much less of an adventurer

and more of a trained professional than he had ever been

before. In brief, the army was now planned and managed like

some great industrial organization, and it went to war on the

momentum of its own routine.

Official military histories do not as a rule make very stimu-

lating reading for later generations, and the two huge volumes

(with a case of maps) which were got out in England after the

Ethiopian campaign are no exception. But they do reveal the

thoroughness and imagination with which this operation was

planned, and it is simply staggering. There can hardly have

been more paper work done upon the landing of the Allied

armies on Normandy in the last world war. It is the intelligence

of these arrangements -the intricate dovetailing of things that

were astonishingly modem with others that were hopelessly

antique -that is so impressive. Thus, for example, forty-four

trained elephants were to be sent from India to carry the

heavy guns on the march, while hiring commissions were dis-

patched all over the Mediterranean and the Near East to

Page 234

obtain mules and camels to handle the lighter gear. A railway,

complete with locomotives and some twenty miles of track,

was to be laid across the coastal plain, and at the landing place

large piers, lighthouses and warehouses were to be established.

Two condensers to convert salt seawater into fresh were needed,

and a telegraph line several hundred miles in length was to

maintain communication between the front and the base on the

coast. Three hospital ships were to be equipped with Keith's

ice-making machines, and among their stock of medicines were

250 dozen of port wine for each vessel. Then there was the

question of the Maria Theresa dollars, the only general

currency in Ethiopia. Not any dollar would do; only the 1780

minting that Baker described as showing la profusion of bust'

in the empress's image was acceptable, and a search of the

banks and money-lenders in Marseilles, Cairo and Vienna

revealed that not nearly enough were available. A contract

therefore had to be signed with the imperial mint in Vienna for

a new issue of 500,000.

Each white soldier was to have two pairs of boots, an Indian

helmet, a flannel cholera belt and a pair of gloves, and the

force was to be followed into the field by a horde of native

servants, at least two for every officer, one for himself and

another for his horse. The rates of pay descended from Napier's

5,833 rupees a month (about £580) to the native soldier's 8½

rupees (about 17/-). Chaplains got £50 a month and elephant

mahouts £1.

The food situation was greatly complicated by the fact that

so many of the men came from different races and sects, each

with its own series of taboos, but a basic store was laid down

of compressed vegetables, desiccated milk, 50,000 tons each

of salt beef and pork and 30,000 gallons of rum.

The force was to be divided into two divisions, each under

the command of an experienced Indian Army campaigner, and

Merewether's Intelligence Corps contained some interesting

people. They included Major James Grant, who with the late

John Speke had recently discovered the source of the White

Nile in Uganda, missionaries like Johann Krapf, who was the

first European to see the snows of Mount Kenya and who

had worked in East Africa for many years, and military adven-

turers like Captain C. Speedy and the Swiss Werner Mun-

Page 235

zinger, who knew Theodore and who could speak Arabic and

Amharic. The British Museum sent a representative, Richard

Holmes, who was to carry out archaeological excavations and

to bid for the more worthwhile loot which, it was hoped,

would be captured in Ethiopia -manuscripts, carvings and the

like. A geographer and a zoologist were also added to the

strength, and observers were sent by the French, Prussian,

Italian, Dutch, Austrian and Spanish armies. Among the war

correspondents were Henry Morton Stanley of the New York

Herald, who was now on the threshold of his tremendous

African career, and G. A. Henty, the author of the adventure

stories, who represented the London Standard.

In the end, as always happens in every expedition, Napier

found that he had underestimated the number of men he

required, or rather, by a sort of military Parkinson's Law they

spontaneously multiplied themselves. He finished up with

32,000 men (which included only 13,000 soldiers, of whom

4,000 were Europeans and 9,000 natives), and 55,000 animals.

But then this was a most unusual sort of campaign, a struggle

against the physical nature of the country rather than against

an enemy, a long march rather than a battle, and no naval

man could fail to approve of the professionalism with which

the whole vast, complicated organization was put into motion.

From Calcutta and Bombay, from Liverpool and London, sail-

ing ships and paddle-steamers, vessels that were a combination

of steam and sail, converged upon the Red Sea at their appointed

times. Half a million pounds was spent in hiring these ships

from private firms, and they carried on board every possible

contrivance to set up a new temporary civilization in the

wilderness, for Napier expected, rightly, that he would find

nothing in Ethiopia. The elephant squad alone, a minor piece

in the immense jigsaw, required two transports to be specially

fitted up. The animals were slung on board without mishap

at Bombay and placed in holds with a temporary flooring of

stones and shingle. They stood back to back with their heads

towards the sides, and a corridor between them to allow the

attendants to pass to and fro. A seasick elephant was a formid-

able thing, and in the Calcutta moorings they had to face a


Early in October 1867 Merewether returned from his

(From. The Blue Nile by Alan Moorehead, this issue from Hamish Hamilton, London, 1962.

Read further yourself, it’s a most interesting description of the campaign – looked at with an Englishman’s eyes)


Field-Marshal Lord Napir


The Ethiopian Emperor Theodore


The column in the Mountains

Loading the Elephants

The released Prisoners

The Storming og Maqdala