The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

Category: The Story

April 13, 1868

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

The battle

The British and Indian soldiers pressed on, past crowds of thousands of Ethiopians fleeing down the mountain sides. The road twisted up between the two hills onto the wide land bridge of Islamgie. And there at the end of it, finally, was Maqdala.

The soldiers could see around a hundred Ethiopian soldiers and a small group of horsemen charging backwards and forwards across the open ground at the far end of the plain, bright robes flowing behind them. One of them turned his white horse, then galloped straight at the British frontline. And there, the soldiers suddenly realised, was Tewodros, King of Kings of Abyssinia, pulling in his reins, firing his rifle into the air and shouting out a challenge. By this stage he was around 50 years old, out there at the front of his troops, urging them on, channelling the rage of Kasa the shifta.

The monarch and his men withdrew up a twisting path onto the top of Maqdala and shut a heavy set of thorn gates behind them. There was a long pause as the British troops got their artillery into position then opened fire. Every shot missed. There were other pauses as the guns were manoeuvred, and more firing, again with no visible effect.

Through all the noise and smoke it was impossible to tell if anyone was shooting back. Occasionally you could see a single figure between the thorn bushes but there was no other indication of the size of the defence. When the firing stopped there was nothing, silence. Yet another long pause as Napier and his commanders reworked their plans and then, at around 4 p.m., the final charge began. A small storming party was supposed to blow up the gates, under the cover of artillery shells and rifle fire. When they got there, they could not find their powder bags. If there had been any decent force inside, the British would have been stuck. Their soldiers were backed up along the path with no way of pushing forward.

As it was, someone behind the thorny gates managed to get in a few shots, wounding nine British officers and men. Then an Irish private and a drummer got a scaling ladder up against a low section of fence leading up to the gate, scrambled over and took on the handful of Ethiopians defending the entrance from the other side. Close behind them came the rest of the force from the 33rd Regiment of Foot, who charged onto the flat summit.

Tewodros was found lying dead, halfway up a path to the second line of thorn defences. One of his servants later said he had kept under cover with a handful of his most loyal followers during the artillery barrage. He knew it was all over when one shell landed inside the gate and killed one of his generals. Tewodros moved the men further into the fortress then took off a gold-brocaded mantle he had been wearing throughout the day and told his troops to flee. He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. This time no one stopped him.

The plunder

Several engravings later printed in the British press show Tewodros stretched out on the ground, dressed in a dark robe and white undergarment, one arm across his stomach, his feet crossed like a carved effigy on a church tomb. Two small groups of British soldiers keep a respectful distance in the background, taking one last look at their fallen foe. That is not how it happened.

Major-General Sir Charles Metcalfe MacGregor, then a young captain on Napier’s staff, was looking at the body ‘when a rush of fiends, vultures, dressed like Englishmen, broke through and tearing the clothes off the corpse, fought for bits of mementoes!’ (He was sickened, he wrote in his diary. ‘I never saw anything more completely disgusting and unmanly in my life.’) Officers and men jostled around him, pushing each other out of the way to get at Tewodros, who was lying on his back inside the gate. Some ripped off strips of stained material from his robe and ran on. Others paused to dip their pieces of cloth in the blood coming out of his head wound, the ultimate primal battle souvenir, a piece of the enemy. The men were riding on the high of an easy victory after weeks upon weeks of building tension and hard marching.

There had been little actual fighting, particularly on the last day. But the thought of plunder and the rush of conquest was all they needed. The men kept on ripping off souvenirs until the body was a mess of rags, then peeled off in groups to search the huts that crowded the summit. Shouts rang out when one party stumbled onto a storehouse filled with 20-gallon jars of tej, and some eggs. ‘Being awfully hungry we ate them raw,’ wrote another member of Napier’s staff, Captain Cornelius ‘Frank’ James. The regimental order of the marching columns had broken down into total chaos and there was no one at that moment to bring it back into order. One group of men dug frantically in the royal compound, searching in vain for buried gold ingots.

Others ransacked Maqdala’s Church of Medhane Alem – ‘the Saviour of the World’ – pushing past the British Expedition’s own Catholic chaplain, who was doing his best to defend the building. There was a ring of small huts around the main church holding bodies waiting for burial. Two witnesses described how the soldiers ripped off the coffin lids and took what they could find inside, including crosses from the corpses. An observer said one of the bodies belonged to Abuna Salama III, the head of the Orthodox Church, who had come down from Egypt, crowned Tewodros then fallen out with his protégé and died a semi-captive on Maqdala a year earlier. (It might be best to treat this last account with a bit of caution. It would be unusual, to say the least, for a body to lie unburied for so long.)

And close behind the soldiers came Richard Rivington Holmes of the British Museum. He made it into the fortress minutes after the main charge and started casting around for loot. A soldier ran past, weighed down by a gleaming golden crown and a golden cup. Holmes did a quick cash deal on the spot and secured his first major treasures. At one point, and it’s not quite clear when, Holmes came across the body of Tewodros and paused to make a quick sketch. It was an unforgiving portrait – only the head, with the torn and mauled clothes conveniently out of the frame. One half-closed eye suggested the trauma of the brain injury – the bullet had passed through the palate and out the back of the head. The hair in the drawing is cropped and torn; clothes weren’t the only mementos taken by the soldiers. Ever the archivist, Holmes annotated and signed his work to establish its provenance: ‘sketched immediately after the capture of Magdala’. It is one of a very few direct portraits of Tewodros, and looks nothing like the superhero graffiti in Addis or, of course, the racist caricatures in Punch. His true face was captured forever moments after his death, the ultimate defeat.

After they had emptied the treasury, drunk the tej and ransacked thechurch, some of the soldiers, according to the anonymous correspondent writing for Germany’s Allgemeine Zeitung, turned to the Ethiopian women and girls left on the summit. ‘Their silver necklaces, arm and ankle bracelets were torn from them, even their clothes,’ read the report. The soldiers ‘feasted on the sight of the defenceless creatures’ and committed ‘disgraceful acts … that cannot be named’. You could dismiss this as slander printed by a paper from one of Britain’s foreign ivals. But there are hints in other accounts.

Tirunesh and Alamayu – and the ever-present Yatamanyu – had lain low during the bombardment and the final battle and eventually tried to seek refuge in the Europeans’ former prison huts. At one point in the melee, one soldier slapped Tirunesh on the back and bawled out in scrambled Arabic ‘Tédros … mafeesh’ – effectively ‘your husband is gone, you’re on your own’. One reporter on the scene said the soldier was trying to congratulate her, as in ‘at last you are free of that monster’. It is hard to imagine her taking it in that spirit. Once the women and the child got to the huts, someone had the presence of mind to post a sentry at the door to protect them. But some of the soldiers forced their way in and pressed around the young queen. ‘Luckily Mr. Rassam and an English officer came in time to save her from further outrage,’ wrote the expedition’s geographer Clements Markham.

Rassam, the former captive who had twice promised to look after Tewodros’s family, had come back up to the summit for one last look at his old home. He and the officer cleared out the soldiers and set up a stronger guard. Alamayu must have been close by and seen it all.

As the afternoon wore on, the summit ‘presented the appearance of an immense curiosity shop which had suffered severely from an earthquake’, wrote Captain James in his diary. The correspondents on the scene competed to come up with the longest list of the plunder scat-
tered around them.

‘In one of the tents was found the Imperial standard of Ethiopia – a lion rampant, of the tribe of Judah, worked in variegated colours,’ wrote the clear winner in the list-writing contest, Henry Morton Stanley. ‘In another was found the Imperial seal, with the same distinctive figure of a lion engraved on it. A chalice of pure gold was secured by Mr. Holmes … The Abuna’s mitre, 300 years old, of pure gold, probably weighing six or seven pounds troy weight; four royal crowns, two of which were very fine specimens of workmanship, and worth a round sum of money; were worthy things to be placed in the British Museum.’ He was just getting started.

‘A small escritoire, richly ornamented with mother-of-pearl, was found also, full of complimentary letters from European sovereigns, and state papers; besides various shields of exquisite beauty.’

The presents and messages that European powers had sent in the days when they were courting Tewodros were piled up on Maqdala and taken back. Stanley continues his list:

“There was also an infinite variety of gold, and silver, and brass crosses, and censers, some of extremely elegant design; golden and silver pots, kettles, dishes, pans; cups of miscellaneous descriptions; richly chased goblets of the precious metal; Bohemian glasses, Sèvres china, and Staffordshire pottery; wine of Champagne, Burgundy, Greece, Spain, and Jerusalem; bottles of Jordan water; jars of arrachi and tej; chests full of ornamental frippery; tents of rose, purple, lilac, and white silk; carpets of Persia, of Uschak, Broussa, Kidderminster, and Lyons.”

The wine, arrachi (the distilled drink araki) and tej did not last long. The troops were parched after their days of scrambling and battling. There is no record of any fragile Sèvres china or Staffordshire pottery surviving the melee, though the King’s Own Royal Regimental Museum in Lancaster does still have one ‘18th Century European glass tumbler’ in its Maqdala display case.

Stanley continued:

Robes of fur; war capes of lion, leopard, and wolf skins. Saddles, magnificently decorated with filigree gold and silver; numerous shields covered with silver plates; state umbrellas of gorgeous hues, adorned with all the barbaric magnificence that the genius of Bejemder and Gondar could fashion; swords and claymores; rapiers, scimitars, yataghans, tulwars, and bilboes; daggers of Persia, of Damascus, and of Ind, in scabbards of crimson morocco and purple velvet, studded with golden buttons; heaps of parchment royally illuminated; stacks of Amharic Bibles; missals, and numberless albums; ambrotypes and photographs of English, American, French and Italian scenery; bureaus, and desks of cunning make. Over a space growing more and more extended, the thousand articles were scattered until they dotted the surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill, and the entire road to camp two miles off!

Stanley, writing for an American newspaper, and the anonymous correspondent of the Allgemeine Zeitung were free to describe the excesses.

Other frank accounts came from the men’s private diaries and letters, never meant for publication. But the plundering posed a problem for all the British journalists and chroniclers gathered on the summit to bear witness to the victorious conclusion of a noble rescue mission. How to squeeze the loot into their narratives? Some chose not to mention it at all. The ones that did typically fell back on three techniques, all used concurrently in the work of the anonymous staff officer reporting for Edinburgh’s Blackwood’s Magazine.

One, they could shrug and dismiss the plunder as trash, barely worth mentioning so barely worth mourning. ‘Hardly anything of value was found in the place,’ the staff officer wrote. ‘A trumpery crown [was] the most costly object,’ wrote Sir Charles Metcalfe MacGregor. ‘No booty found at Magdala’ was how Napier put it in a telegram sent back from the final battlefield.

Two, they could say the plunder was already stolen – and stealing a stolen thing cancels out the crime. ‘The collection was, at all events, a most discreditable one to its late owner, since it consisted partly of crosses, paintings and sacred vessels plundered from Christian churches, and partly of the weapons used by himself and his soldiers in mauling the priests,’ wrote the staff officer.

Three, they could affect their own air of disdain and write the whole thing off as a base aberration: ‘The way that some men will scramble for a piece of silk or an old sword, such as few gentlemen would think worth carrying home if found anywhere else, merely because it happens to be booty, is a remnant probably of the old predatory instincts of the species.’

Towards the end of the day, Napier took in the scene at the summit and, for all his talk of ‘no booty’, posted guards at the gates to restore some sense of discipline and stop anyone taking plunder down to the British camp at the foot of Maqdala. Orders were issued to halt the unlicensed, drink-fuelled pillaging. The senior officers had something more licensed, more respectable in mind.

That night, the men were told to start handing over anything they had grabbed. When that order was ignored, they were lined up and searched. The only treasures they were allowed to keep were things they had taken ‘at the point of the bayonet’, as in things they had grabbed off an enemy during active combat – a kind exemption for acts of ultra-violence. The fact that there was actually very little hand-to-hand combat at Maqdala did not stop the British soldiers walking away with a good number of Ethiopian muskets and shields and other pieces of memorabilia. Stories later spread of one member of a regimental band who had got a handful of jewels back to Britain by covering them in mud then sewing them into a cricket ball.

Colonel (then Ensign) W.A. Wynter told his son years later he had had to hand over a silver processional cross that he had found. He made up for the loss by buying a large rhinoceros-hide shield from a passing British sergeant who assured him a bayonet had been involved in its acquisition. (The cross, according to Wynter, later turned up as a centrepiece at the Royal Artillery Mess at Woolwich.) Even Holmes handed over his crown and chalice, on the understanding that they could be kept to one side, taken back to Britain and saved for the nation. The British nation, that is.

Queen Tirunesh’s embroidered dresses at the V&A

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By John Mellors

In Northern Ethiopia most weddings take place in January and February, after the Christmas fast has ended and before the long Easter fast begins, as this is the low season for agricultural work. An embroidered dress is traditionally given to the bride by the groom as part of her wedding dowry. After use during the wedding festivities the dress is then normally only worn on special occasions such as important religious festivals. In the nineteenth century, visits by European travellers were probably often treated as special occasions, and a chance for the embroidered dress to be worn. This has led to some confusion, and the Ethiopian embroidered dress has often been described as the wear of a ‘fine lady’ or a ‘lady of fashion,’ rather than as a ‘wedding dress.’

Embroidered dresses of the above type can be easily dated if the original owner, and the date of their wedding, is known. Unfortunately, this information was rarely recorded when the dresses were collected. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, has in its collection two embroidered dresses (museum no. 399-1869 and no. 400-1869) that are ‘said to have belonged to Queen Woyzaro Terunesh, the second wife of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros (Theodore), and mother of the prince Alamayehu’ (Figs. 1-2). The dresses are also said to have been taken by British troops at the siege of Magdala in 1868. So where and when were these dresses made and why should Terunesh possess two ‘wedding dresses’?

Fig. 3 – From Wanderings Among The Falashas In Abyssinia by Henry A. Stern

Terunesh (later also known as Teruwerk) was the daughter of Ras Wube, who was defeated by Tewodros in 1855 at Derasge in the Simien Mountains in a battle to decide which of them would become emperor. The coronation of Tewodros took place at Wube’s church, Derasge Maryam, a few days later. The wedding of Terunesh to Tewodros, five years later, is surprisingly well documented as several Europeans were present in the area at the time. The best account is given by Henry Stern, in his book Wanderings among the Falashas in Abyssinia (1862). Stern was a British Protestant missionary who went to Ethiopia to try to convert the Falashas, or Beta Israel, to Christianity. He travelled to Ethiopia via Egypt and the Sudan, reaching Lake Tana, where he first met Tewodros, in early April 1860. His first trip was quite short and he left Ethiopia in November 1860.

According to Stern, the Englishman John Bell was instrumental in persuading Tewodros that he should remarry following the death of his first wife, and in bringing Terunesh to Debre Tabor to be married. Stern wrote that John Bell:

was despatched to the Church where the destined Queen and her mother had for several years found a safe asylum against the allurements of vice, and the violence of lawless rebels. Mr. B. himself had to devise the most elaborate plan to protect the bride from the sight of any but female eyes. To do this in a manner so that no malignant and envious tongue should be able to impugn his fidelity to a kind master, he ordered, immediately on arriving near the sanctuary, a wide enclosure to be constructed from the tents, of which he had an ample stock. This being done, the bride, swathed and muffled like a mummy, was led by her mother and a bevy of waiting-women within the fence, where, gorgeously caparisoned mules held by slaves stood ready for her and her nearest relatives to mount. All being again in their saddles, a dozen horsemen rode on in advance to keep the road clear, whilst their leader and the rest waited at a respectful distance till the female cavalcade had filed off, when they also set their steeds in motion and followed in the rear. The etiquette observed on the first day was rigorously maintained throughout the whole journey. At Debra Tabor, the happy lady, who was won without being wooed, and got a husband without ever seeing a lover, met from the King and his numerously assembled subjects the most gratifying and enthusiastic reception.

The wedding took place in May 1860, several months after the usual wedding season and just before the rains started. Hormuzd Rassam, sent by the British Government to Abyssinia in 1864, wrote in his Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia (1869) that Terunesh was 12 years old at the time of her wedding. In contrast, William Simpson, an artist with the British expedition to Magdala in 1868, reported that she was born in January 1850 and so would have only been 10 (The Illustrated London News, 27 June, 1868) at the time of the wedding. Tewodros was born around 1818, so he would have been about 42 years old. The wedding was a full Church wedding, which meant that Tewodros was committed to a lifelong marriage with Terunesh. Stern wrote that:

The King's civil marriage being attested by a jubilant nation, nothing else was requisite to make it lasting and secure than the holy communion, and this the happy pair received in grand state the week following from the hands of the Aboona, who had been specially summoned from Magdala to perform the solemn act. Henry Stern is believed to be the first photographer to go to Abyssinia, and his photograph of 'Aboona Salama, Metropolitan of Ethiopia' is reproduced as a full page engraving in his book. Stern must have photographed the Aboona during the wedding celebrations at Debre Tabor. 

Tewodros was said to make sure that his Queen was well guarded at all times. Henry Blanc, who arrived in Abyssinia with Hormuzd Rassam and who was subsequently held captive at Magdala, wrote in his book A Narrative of Captivity in Abyssinia (1868) that:

No one, not even the smallest page, could, under the penalty of death, enter his harem. He had a large number of eunuchs, most of them Gallas, or soldiers and chiefs who had recovered from the mutilation the Gallas inflict on their wounded foe. The queen or the favourite of the day had a tent or house to herself, and several eunuchs to attend upon her; at night these attendants slept at the door of her tent, and were made responsible for the virtue of the lady entrusted to their care. 

Blanc added:

He was a very jealous husband. Not only did he take the precautions I have already mentioned, but [...] he never allowed the queen or any other lady in his establishment to travel with the camp. They always marched at night, well concealed, with a strong guard of eunuchs; and woe to him who met them on the road, and did not turn his back on them until they had passed! 

Even when she was travelling it was difficult to see what Terunesh looked like. Henry Dufton in Narrative of a Journey through Abyssinia in 1862-3 (1867) wrote how he once saw Terunesh:

Once on this march, I was gratified by a sight of the fair Toronetch, Iteghe or Sultana to the Abyssinian monarch; but as she was muffled up to the eyes with a superabundance of rich garments, my view was confined to the two brilliant orbs, which, if report be correct, have often returned the withering fire of her royal husband's. Theodore gives little love to the beautiful daughter of Oubie, but he is proud of being the possessor of the fairest and most accomplished of Abyssinian princesses.

J. Theodore Bent, who travelled to Aksum in 1893, wrote in his book, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians (1896), about weddings:

Whilst we were at Asmara numerous weddings took place, prior to the austerity of the Lenten fast […] The bride sat in state in an adjoining hut, with a curtain before her, which was raised for our benefit that we might inspect her richly embroidered dress, and give her our best wishes.

Henry Stern included a full page engraving ‘Abyssinian Ladies and Female Attendants’ (see below) in his book which appears to be the sort of wedding scene that Bent described, showing two ladies wearing embroidered dresses. Close examination of the two dresses in the engraving makes it clear that these dresses are the ones now held by the V&A. This means that the lady in the centre of the engraving must be the normally reclusive Queen Terunesh, wearing dress no. 399-1869 (Fig. 3). Her mother, Woizero Lekiyaye, must be the lady on her right wearing dress no. 400-1869 (Fig. 7). The lady on her left in a plain dress is probably her nurse and the two ‘ladies’ at the back look as though they may be eunuchs keeping guard.

Dress no. 399-1869 would have been made in 1860 for Terunesh, probably in Debre Tabor. In later years the dress has had an extension piece added as Terunesh would have grown significantly during her teenage years. The second dress, no. 400-1869, would have been her mother’s wedding dress, and so would have been made some time in the 1840s, probably near Derasge in the Simien Mountains.

After Magdala, Terunesh, Alemayehu, and Lekiyaye travelled with the British troops on their march back to the coast. Sadly, Terunesh died en route and was buried at Chelekot in Tigrai. The seven-year-old Prince Alemayehu, born one year after the wedding, was brought back to England. Woizero Lekiyaye returned back to Derasge, from where she wrote at least two letters to Queen Victoria enquiring about her grandson, Alemayehu.


Originally published in the Winter 2013 edition of The Anglo-Ethiopian Society’s News File magazine.

The Anglo-Ethiopian Society was formed in 1948, with the aim of advancing public education and knowledge about Ethiopia, including its history, culture, art and architecture, natural history and economy.

Go to the Society’s website to sign up as a member and see its programme of events.

Queen Tirunesh’s clothes and jewellery

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Many people who have lost a parent will know that strange, intimate moment when you go back to the empty house after the funeral and start sorting through their possessions – the old books, the faded clothes and the odd pieces of broken jewellery. Tirunesh brought her last few things with her on the road out of Maqdala. Along the route, she succumbed to a chest infection, possibly TB, and died, leaving her son Prince Alamayu alone, an orphan. Her attendants held up some of her possessions as they mourned her before her burial. The bulk of her jewellery, including a broken silver-bead bracelet, was then boxed up with her dresses and brought to Britain. They are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Click on the images below to go through to their individual pages, which have links to even more information and images on the V&A’s online database.

All images ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The story: Laurence Kerans, teenage captive

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Laurence Kerans aged 17 in 1862 immediately before he set out for Abyssinia with his cousin

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

Ethiopian plunder – the musical

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

Britain was so thrilled by its 1868 military escapade in Ethiopia/Abyssinia that it set it to music – repeatedly. See links to the scores for two of the pieces inspired by the invasion below. A free copy of my book to the first person who can reclaim the music, record a substantial part of it and post it online. Please post links in the comments section.

Abyssinia fever burned bright across Britain – from its music halls to its parliament – after the news of the victory came pulsing over the telegraph wires in 1868.

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli stood up in the House of Commons in early July to praise ‘one of the most remarkable military enterprises of this century’. He gave a colourful account of the campaign, right up to its climax where ‘the standard of St. George was hoisted on the mountains of Rasselas’ – a slightly confusing mashup of references as St George is as venerated in Ethiopia as he is in England, if not more so. The expedition, Disraeli said, would ‘add lustre to the name of this nation, and … beneficially influence the future history of the world’.

At the Theatre Royal, Holborn, The Abyssinian Duet sung by Miss Fanny Josephs and Mr G. Honey was ‘rapturously encored’ night after night. A whole musical extravaganza, The Fall of Magdala, performed
at London’s Agricultural Hall, promised a grand descriptive quadrille, with military effects, imposing martial marches and four military bands backed by a great orchestra performing pieces evoking scenes from the ‘warriors of Britain and the martial sons of India encamped on the plains of Hindostan’ through to ‘the revels of the African savages in the wild fastness of their native land’, climaxing with the victorious assault on the mountain fortress.

Another piece The Abyssinian Expedition, had musical passages representing mortars, Snider rifle fire and the “Abyssinian war cry” (Yah ha yah ha yah ha). You can still pick up the sheet music, arranged both for piano and for violin and cello, for about a tenner on eBay and put on a performance of your own.

Alternatively you can download the music in PDF form by clicking on the images above or the links below.

As I said at the top, a free copy of my book to the first person who can reclaim the music, record a substantial part of it and post it online. Please post links in the comments section.

Click here to download The Abyssinian Expedition arranged for piano

Click here to download The Abyssinian Expedition arranged for violin and cello