Of all the Europeans caught up in this story, the one who deserves our sympathy the most is a young Irishman called Laurence Kerans.
He arrived in Ethiopia in the early 1860s in a burst of optimism and adventure and secured a promising job as secretary to the British Consul. But his first mission inland to deliver presents to Ethiopia’s King of Kings Tewodros II ended in disaster.
Thanks to bad timing – and a misunderstanding over a carpet – the teenager was thrown into chains almost as soon as he got there. He became one of the emperor’s prisoners and ended up spending more than four years in captivity.
After his rescue and rapturous welcome home, he found new reserves of optimism and daring and decided to go back to Abyssinia a second time to have another go.
As you may have guessed from his dates, it didn’t end well.
Below, Kerans’ great nephew David Treanor tells the story from the beginning. Many thanks to David for letting me reprint extracts from his account from his fascinating book Kerans Family History.
You should be aware that some of the quotes from documents from the time include racist language.
Laurence Clarke Kerans (1845-1871)
by David Treanor
The eighth child of Dr Laurence Clarke and Augusta Kerans was born on 17th March 1845 and baptised at Ahascragh almost 6 months later, on 3rd September, 1845. He was named after his father.
Laurence was only 17 when he left home to go adventuring with his 25-year-old cousin Charles Speedy, and not long afterwards was appointed Secretary to Consul Cameron in the court of Tewodros II of Abyssinia.
King Theodore, or Tewodros in the Amharic language, was a colourful character, probably of royal descent, but who had risen to power from relatively humble origins. He was born Kassa Hailu, and grew up helping his widowed mother as a street seller of kosso, a herbal treatment for tapeworm. He began his career as an outlaw, gaining power and prestige through much fighting and intrigue in his youth, eventually defeating rival warlords to be crowned Emperor in 1855. He took the throne name of Tewodros II, attempting to fulfil a prophecy that a man named Tewodros would restore the Ethiopian Empire to greatness and rule for 40 years.
Initially the British Government saw some advantage in encouraging him to unite the country, and he actively sought their aid in developing the technical skills to equip his army with more modern weapons, such as canons and rifles. His aim was to rid his country of the Turks, and his ultimate ambition was to expel the Muslims from Jerusalem, the spiritual home of their Christian church. He sent a letter via the British Consul, Captain Cameron, to Queen Victoria proposing an alliance between their two Christian countries against the Turks. But the British Government was so uninterested that they completely ignored the request.
The King’s angry response was to take the Consul and a number of European missionaries into captivity, including Laurence who was barely 18 years old at the time. Denzil Kerans and Deborah Powell both
have transcripts of a letter Laurence wrote to his brother Willie from South Park when he returned home from this ordeal, which tells the story in his own words.
South Park, Oct 14th 1868 My dear Willie I need not tell you how delighted I was to hear from your own self once more. I think it is over seven years since you wrote – your farewell letter to me from Colchester – I have seen many curious things since that time & many fearful and trying. Now for my long history - I must give it as briefly as I can - I left England with Charles Speedy as an elephant hunter - the worst of all trades. I had two years hunting in Nubia, a great deal of hardship and trouble, but the excitement of the sport made amend for the labour. To be honest, I never shot an elephant, our party got only seven altogether. We had lots of hippopotamus shooting plenty of sport & no danger. That I have been successful in, my chief business was to fill the pot, and leave the dangerous shooting to more experienced hands. The country abounds in antelope of all kinds, buffalo, rhinoceros, giraffe, wild boar etc in the way of small game, partridge, woodcock, guinea fowl, wild duck, hares, all of which are very good to eat. When I was there I got quite to forget the existence of any of my people, never hearing from them as there was no post beyond Massowa and one gets to think of self so much you don’t care whether you hear or not. I certainly enjoyed the life very much. I got accustomed to that wild way of living – first of all being my own master & next above all I had liberty. Unfortunately one never is satisfied with anything in this life. I thought I might better myself by going to Abyssinia under C. Speedy’s service as private secretary to Captain Cameron, the English consul in Abyssinia & getting under government employ. Abyssinia I certainly have seen to perfection. As to the government employ I have gained nothing as yet, & think I have little hope of anything. In the first place every one runs down Cameron & says he disobeyed his orders by going a second time to Abyssinia, & that he was the cause of the war. But I don’t agree at all with them, as I am sure all the blame lies on Lord John Russell, for never answering a civil letter of Theodore’s. That talk about Theodore’s having proposed for the Queen is untrue, he merely wrote a civil letter asking the Queen to enlighten him as he was a savage & begged that she would give him some machinery, and some other phrases that I forget just now. However poor me the innocent one of all, came in for all the misery – I left a place called Bogos about 5 days march from Massowa with government dispatches from Lord J. Russell to Cameron, thinking that all was right & that there was an answer for Theodore’s letter to the Queen. When I arrived at Gondar the King asked me for his letters & “Is there any answer from the Queen?” I said “I don’t know your Majesty, but Capt. Cameron will be able to inform you of all”. He immediately had Lord Russell’s letters to Cameron translated into Amharic and they were anything but an answer to Theodore’s letter. They were merely a reprimand to Cameron for going to Abyssinia from his post [at] Massowa. Then Theodore drew himself up and said “Who is that Queen of England – that woman, does she not condescend to answer my letter?” & threw the letters on the ground. I in a mortal fright thought I might gain a little bit of his friendship by giving him my rifle, & a pretty carpet – He recd both at the moment - & thanked me very much for my kind presentation. After about an hour, he sent back the carpet, & some of his officers, and wished to know what I meant by insulting him. I need not say how fearfully taken aback I was. His message was “The carpet means war, there is a lion on it, which means Theodore, a Frenchman shooting the lion – the French government; and a Turk, which means the Turkish government. There are two nations attacking the lion Theodore and where are the English coming to protect him?” I said, the carpet meant nothing of the kind of course - & tried to persuade him, but it was all no use. The carpet in reality was one made at Lyon representing the French lion killer Gerard, shooting at a lion, an Arab chief of Algiers crouching behind him as he fired. A very pretty picture, but a very sad one for me. However, he left me quiet with the disgraced Cameron for about three weeks, when all at once he gave way to his fearful devilish temper, & chained both of us. Thus we remained in chains four long years. After about three months he ordered us to march chained to Magdala – the journey was a fearful one - dragged along the road like so many wild beasts, sometimes made to ride on mules – worse again they gave one prisoner a good mule - & the other a fearfully bad one – then you were told to ride ahead, a big black n****r driving you and your mule with a great stick or whip, of course both of the prisoners being tied together, the good mule dragged the other after him, pulling you out of the saddle, tearing your wrist to pieces. The black n****r not having the slightest sympathy gave you a lick of the whip and made you mount again. So we were dragged in his fearful torture 200 miles from near Gondar to near Magdala. After we arrived at the Fortress they took off the hand chains & supplied us with 10 lb feet irons & afterwards chained hand & foot, that being extra punishment: your hand was attached to your foot with a chain about 3 or 4 inches long so there you remained not able to stand up or lie down for 7 months. You may imagine how I felt. There we were shoved into a prison house a small, miserable hut with 67 native prisoners, having all sorts of diseases, small-pox, typhus fever etc etc. We were left in that condition for two years & then the Queen’s envoy Mr Rassam arrived with an answer to Theodore’s letter, & some very costly presents from the Queen. Mr Rassam met Theodore at a place called Zuggi in the Yejaw country. The King said he was very glad he came to make peace between him and his former friends, & received him very well – immediately granted the Queen’s request on our behalf & sent off an order to release us who were then captives in Magdala. We were gladly surprised one morning to find Theodore’s soldiers running into the prison with ropes and other implements to open our heavy irons. We were released that morning & started next day to meet Rassam, Prideaux, & Blanc who were staying with Theodore at the camp a distance of about 250 miles. We marched along free, a vast difference from our first march in chains, singing “Home Sweet Home” as we jogged along. After about three weeks we arrived & were recd warmly by Rassam Prideaux & Blanc, but they seemed rather nervous about their new acquaintances, the great enemies of Theodore. Shortly afterwards Rassam thought it best to tackle Theodore when he was in a good humour, & ask permission for us to leave the country, the great object of his mission. The King granted the request without ever seeing us. Rassam, thinking all was right sent us off – The new mission, intending, when they said goodbye to his Majesty to follow. But when Rassam went to pay his best respects Theodore flew into a rage and walked into the court & told a lot of his strongest soldiers to seize Rassam Prideaux & Blanc. They were caught hold of as they describe it everywhere the n*****s could get a grip of them, & their swords torn off & their uniform caps chucked about - A great change for the great envoy – then he asked Rassam why he sent us away without seeing him & some other foolish questions, & then ordered him and his company to be put under arrest. I need not tell you how we, the old enemies, were taken & dragged about in chains & brought back to Theodore, & sent after about 2½ months to the Fortress with our new & innocent friends to join the same fate. There we remained till our brave boys showed what England can do when she is put to it – it was a most exciting & fearful time from the time our troops landed at Zoula till they came within reach of us – in Magdala. Our troops marched up to within about 2 miles from where we were shut up, when Theodorus not liking the sight of the new comers gave orders for his soldiers to attack those “white monkeys”. The soldiers fully expecting success took some small bags to carry away the gold buttons and other loot they might find. But the 4th Kings Own & 23rd Punjab Infantry showed them the gun with the hole in the end of it as they termed it. That ... about 700 Abyssinian were shot. We were shut up expecting every moment our hands and feet were to be cut off & thrown down the precipice - when word came from Theodore to Rassam saying – “I have lost all my brave men. What shall I do? I see now I am not able to stand against England”. Rassam sent him word to make friends with Lord Napier. The King took his advice & sent Lieut Prideaux down to our camp with letters stating the terms on which he wd give up the prisoners. In the meantime the King got very impatient for Lord Napier’s answer & sent for us. We all thought we were going to our last home as we marched slowly to meet him. When he saw us he saluted us, & told us to come near. “Well! he said it is the will of God that you should leave my country. Go and join your brethren”. We jumped on mules & walked slowly from his presence. When we got the order to march quicker, off we went full gallop, over rocks, bushes etc not feeling stone or thorn till we reached our camp where we were received with shouts of joy by our countrymen. The next day being Sunday they left old Theodore quiet, on the following Monday Sir R Napier sent him word to surrender which he took no notice of. So off our troops marched for Magdala, every one in great joy about the storming[?] – When our fellows got close to the entrance, old Theodore (it was told me by one of his personal attendants) said, curse Mr Rassam that hypocrite. It is better to die than be the prisoner of a woman, the Queen of England, & instantly shot himself – a death too good for such a tyrant. If I got hold of him I think I would have given him a slower one. I must now say goodbye etc --- (Signed) Laurence Kerans
We get another insight into his experiences in a letter Laurence sent home to his parents after eighteen months in captivity:
Amba Magdala, July 14th 1865. My dearest Father and Mother, I have with much delight this morning, for the first time these last two years, received news from home. I am glad to hear you are all well. Now, dear father and mother, you must be very anxious to know how we are getting on. To begin with, I am now a year and six months in prison, with chains of 20lbs weight on the legs; and lately the right hand has been attached to the feet. You cannot imagine what fearful sufferings I have to go through every day; it has been much worse with us before than it is now, but still it is a sad torment. Our only hope is in God, who has delivered us many times when we were at the point of death, and I trust still (no matter how gloomy it now appears) He will ere long deliver us. I can’t write all I wish about our imprisonment, as it might cause great danger to me and my fellow captives. Hoping I may yet live to see all who are near and dear to me, remain, dearest father and mother, ever your affectionate son, Laurence Kerans, Secretary to Consul Cameron. There are here in chains, besides myself, Consul Cameron, the Rev. H. A. Stern, Mr. Rosenthal, McKilvie, Makerer, and Pietro; and Mrs. Rosenthal and child not in chains.”
In his own book Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore, the missionary and fellow captive Rev Henry Stern described how Kerans made himself useful wherever he could during his captivity, particularly when it came to the medical skills he had picked up from his father:
“If I devoted myself to the healing of internal complaints, Kerans applied himself to alleviate external pains. The Abyssinians, although favoured with good grinders, are not entirely exempt from tooth-ache. Many constantly applied to us for relief. At first we were nervous of our practice, as we had no royal diploma, and without such a high sanction it was not advisable to incur the risk of a misrepresentation, which a disappointed patient might perchance fabricate against us. This diffidence speedily wore away, and encouraged by a few incipient successes we unflaggingly pursued our healing art. Kerans and his forceps, Makerer and his sulphate of zinc, and myself with the eternal colocynth, were inseparables…… Others with faces swollen, swathed, and dreadfully woe-begone, needed only a touch of Kerans forceps, then there was a loud crack, a gory tooth, a stream of blood, a polite prostration, and, what was most welcome, a farewell to pain. They had all implicit faith in the skill of the dentist, and no one, that I recollect, would ever push away his arm, or hoist him down from the heaving chest until the operation was accomplished. These acts of kindness procured us friends.”
Stern also describes how Kerans stitched together pieces of cloth to make a respectable suit of clothes.
After all diplomatic attempts had failed to rescue them, and more than four years after Laurence and the other captives were first imprisoned, a British military expedition led by Sir Robert Napier landed at the Gulf of Zula on 4th December 1867 and set up a base camp there before advancing on Magdala, which they reached in April, 1868.
They had to build a temporary port on the Red Sea at Zula to unload the equipment for an army of 13,000 with all their equipment and as many people again in support of them to manage the transport of troops and their supplies. They then marched them 300 miles across the highest mountains, building temporary roads through seemingly impenetrable passes. This required 26,000 animals mostly mules but also including 6,000 camels, 6,000 working bullocks, and 45 Indian elephants, all of which had to be fed. It would have been almost impossible without the active support of the local people whose territory they had to cross. So a key part of the effort, in which Captain Speedy played an important role, was to persuade the tribal leaders and local princes that they had no interest in conquest and would leave the country as soon as they had released the captives, and that they would rid them of the tyrannical rule of Tewodros, and not leave them exposed to his wrath once the British forces had achieved their objective and departed. They paid handsomely for the vast supplies of fodder for the animals and food for the troops that they consumed. By contrast, Tewodros took all that his army required by force, often laying waste to the country as they passed through it. It is very doubtful whether the British expedition could have achieved a successful conclusion had Tewodros been a popular leader.
Parliament had approved £3 million, but the final cost of the rescue was £9 million: or almost £1 Billion at current values. Only two of the rescued were British citizens: Cameron, and Kerans (who was Irish).
Abandoned by the nobility and his followers, and after his remaining troops unsuccessfully engaged the British forces at the Battle of Magdala, Tewodros withdrew into the fortress on Amba Mariam and killed himself with a pistol a few days later before any final assault. This is fictionalized in the novel Flashman on the March.
Before departing from Abyssinia, Sir Robert allowed his troops to loot and burn Magdala, including its churches. The expedition removed a large number of treasures and religious items such as tabots (replica of the Tablets of Law, onto which the Biblical Ten Commandments were inscribed, used in the practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), which today one can still see in various museums and libraries in Europe, as well as in private collections.
On 13th July 1868 the Dublin Evening Mail reported the celebrations in Ahascragh when Laurence returned home:
"… Near the town of Ahascragh the carriage containing Dr Kerans and his son was met by a crowd, who, without leave given or asked, at once unharnessed the horses and drew it as quickly as the dense crowds permitted through the town, which was decorated everywhere with triumphal arches. The houses covered with evergreens and decked with flowers, presented the most gay and picturesque appearance. Banners and flags floated from every available point, and appropriate mottoes adorned each arch… The people enjoyed themselves till a late hour, refreshments being abundantly supplied … They then separated in a quiet and orderly manner having fully expressed their sympathy with Mr Kerans for his long and painful captivity, and their joy on his safe return, as also their love and respect for his father, who during a long life spent among them, has ever been alike the friend of rich and poor."
After a short time back in Ireland, following his release, Laurence returned to Massowah in what is now Eritrea in 1871.
Laurence Clarke Kerans lived a short life, during which he seems to have made many friends, and had some quite extraordinary experiences. He died without leaving any children. I found several items relating to him amongst Brian’s mothers treasures, including a couple of newspaper cuttings of obituary notices that tell us of his tragic early death:
Obituary Notice (1871) By recent letters from Massowah, the death is announced of Mr Laurence Kerans, who as secretary to Consul Cameron was one of the British captives in Abyssinia (of the tyrant King Theodore) for more than four years, and for whom, as countryman of our own, much sympathy was felt. He shared the captivity of the Consul from his arrest at Gondar in December 1863 till the final release by Lord Napier, and during these years of imprisonment rendered himself most useful as Amharic interpreter to the Consul, and afterwards to Mr Rassam's Mission. His services were not however recognised by Her Majesty's Government, and failing to obtain employment in this country, he returned in June last to Egypt, hoping that his knowledge of Arabic and Amharic, together with his experience of Abyssinia and its frontiers would throw open to him a field for exertion. Arriving in Massowah he was well received by Munzinger Bey, C.B., with whom he had been personally acquainted during his former residence at Massowah, who is now Governor of that place and the adjoining African Coast of the Red Sea. Mr.Munzinger, with a view to employment of him in the service of the Khedive took Mr Kerans with him on a tour of inspection of his province. They proceeded by steamer from Massowah to Akir, arriving the 31st August, and marched inland to Aydeb, en route to Tokar. The simoon was blowing fiercely, the heat being intense, and on reaching the former place, where they halted for the night, Mr Kerans was seized with the symptoms of illness from exposure to the sun. Mr Munzinger did all in his power for him, watched over him with the utmost kindness, but though he rallied for a few hours, he was again attacked with similar symptoms on the morning of the 1st September, and died at noon on that day.
His friends all contributed to finance a memorial to him, which we found on the wall of the church at Ahascragh. It reads:
In memory of Laurence Kerans, fifth son of Laurence C. Kerans of South Park in this parish, died at Aydeb near Massowah on the Red Sea Sept. 1st 1871 aged 26 years. He was private secretary to Consul Cameron and interpreter to Her Majesty's Envoy in Abyssinia. Wirth them he was held in captivity in chains by the Emperor Theodore from December 1863 until April 1868 when all were released by the British Expeditionary Force under Lord Napier of Magdala. This tablet was erected by his brothers A.D. 1872.
There was an envelope amongst Gussie’s things, containing a letter written to Dr Laurence Clarke Kerans about his son. Pam managed to decipher it:
My dear Dr Kerans My father begs me write and say with what pleasure he encloses this little matter after he spoke to you. The blue cord is worn as a distinctive mark by the Christians in Abyssinia - & this was worn during his captivity by your lamented son. The Bishop has taken 2 inches off to relieve your mind of any thought that you might be robbing him altogether of a gift given him in kindness by your son. Yours anxiously, J B Bernans, The Palace