British Expedition to Ethiopia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After three years of inconclusive negotiations to secure the release of British citizens and other Europeans held captive in Ethiopia, the British government sent a military expedition to rescue the prisoners and to restore British honor and image. The best-organized and most modern expeditionary force that Great Britain had ever assembled, the expedition braved the rugged Ethiopian terrain and secured the release of the captives.

Summary of Event

When Tewodros II ascended the Ethiopian throne in 1855, he had grand plans for reforms to modernize his backward northeast African country and restore the central authority that had been shattered by the resurgence of feudal anarchy that characterized the Ethiopian political scene since the late eighteenth century. Tewodros sought to achieve his objective with European support. Accordingly, he tried to contact several European governments soliciting alliances against Ethiopia’s hostile Muslim neighbors and seeking technical support. His approach, however, was rebuffed. The French, whom Tewodros assiduously courted, instead supported rebel chiefs in the north who were sympathetic to Roman Catholic Missionaries;in Northeast Africa[Northeast Africa] missionaries. Ethiopia;British occupation of British Empire;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] Tewodros II Tewodros II Napier, Robert [kw]British Expedition to Ethiopia (Apr., 1868) [kw]Expedition to Ethiopia, British (Apr., 1868) [kw]Ethiopia, British Expedition to (Apr., 1868) Ethiopia;British occupation of British Empire;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] Tewodros II Tewodros II Napier, Robert [g]Ethiopia;Apr., 1868: British Expedition to Ethiopia[4170] [g]Africa;Apr., 1868: British Expedition to Ethiopia[4170] [g]British Empire;Apr., 1868: British Expedition to Ethiopia[4170] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr., 1868: British Expedition to Ethiopia[4170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr., 1868: British Expedition to Ethiopia[4170] Yohannes IV Cameron, Charles Rassam, Hormuzd

Tewodros was particularly incensed by the failure of the British government to answer a letter that he sent to Queen Victoria in 1862 through the British consul, Captain Charles Cameron Cameron, Charles . In an apparent attempt to retaliate against European indifference and to extract concessions from the British, he arrested the British consul and his staff as well as several other Europeans. On receiving news of the detention of its consul in 1864, the British Foreign Office made an effort to mollify the emperor by sending a letter from Queen Victoria with a request to release the prisoners and a promise that preparations were being made to send craftsmen to Ethiopia. Hormuzd Rassam Rassam, Hormuzd , a member of the British consular staff in nearby Aden, was selected to lead the mission to Tewodros. Rassam reached Ethiopia in January, 1866.

Although the initial meeting between Rassam and Tewodros went well, the emperor changed his mind about releasing the prisoners and instead added Rassam and his party to his collection of detainees. This threw the British government into a quandary. The detention of British officials in the hands of an African leader was considered a major affront to British prestige and detrimental to British image, especially in the eyes of the Middle East and Asia. Many colonial officials, especially in India, argued that European prestige would remain under grave threat everywhere as long as the Ethiopian emperor continued to defy Britain. On the other hand, the forbidding mountainous terrain of Ethiopia and the exorbitant cost of mounting a rescue expedition made many in Parliament and the British government less sanguine to try to liberate the prisoners by force.

Romantic contemporary depiction of Tewodros’s suicide.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The military option came to the forefront with the coming to power of the Tory government under Prime Minister Derby and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli Disraeli, Benjamin [p]Disraeli, Benjamin;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] . The latter in particular was determined to use the issue of the captives in Ethiopia to achieve several other objectives, including sending a message to France, which was busy building the Suez Canal in Egypt, that Great Britain was capable of sending major military expeditions into the African hinterland. In addition, Disraeli calculated that a popular foreign war could be used to divert his fellow countrymen’s attention from the domestic crisis surrounding the Reform Act of 1867. In August, 1867, the British cabinet decided on war.

Since the construction of the Suez Canal Suez Canal;and Ethiopia[Ethiopia] was not yet complete, sending a large force directly from England was ruled out. Instead, the British governor of Bombay was instructed to mount an expeditionary force consisting of British and Indian units. The task of organizing the force was given to Lieutenant General Robert Napier, a noted engineer and commander-in-chief of the Bombay army. Napier worked out elaborate plans for moving his army, which included 13,000 British and Indian soldiers and several thousand camp followers and working parties. In all, 62,220 men and 36,094 animals, including 44 elephants, were transported to the African coast at Zula in 205 sailing vessels and 75 steamers. The British soldiers were equipped with the recently issued Snider rifles—which would be used for the first time in battle—modern artillery, and rockets.

The British expedition had to traverse some four hundred miles of an extremely precipitous terrain to reach Magdela Magdela, Battle of (1868) , where the European prisoners were kept. While the eventual success of the expedition owed a great deal to Napier’s brilliant organizational skills and the vast British superiority in logistics, firepower, and discipline, the advance of the British force was unhindered because the emperor’s power had nearly evaporated long before the arrival of the British troops. By 1868, much of Ethiopia had fallen into the hands of rebel chiefs. By the time that the British expedition landed on the coast, Emperor Tewodros was left with only a few thousand soldiers on his side, and he controlled little more than the fortress at Magdela, where he kept his European prisoners. The collapse of Tewodros’s authority allowed General Napier to gather intelligence easily and to secure the cooperation of dissident chiefs, including Kassa Mercha Yohannes IV , a powerful rebel lord who controlled the area through which the expedition traveled.

After the expedition reached the foothills of the Magdela plateau, it engaged Tewodros’s army on April 10, 1868. British rockets and breech-loading Snider-Enfield rifles were more than a match for the poorly equipped Ethiopian force. Tewodros’s small army was nearly annihilated, with minimal British losses. Tewodros released his European prisoners and committed suicide shortly before the British stormed his fortress. Napier returned in triumph with the freed hostages and the spoils of war, including the emperor’s gold crown and more than a thousand ancient Ethiopian Coptic Christian manuscripts. A grateful British government bestowed numerous honors on Napier, including a peerage that made him Baron Napier of Magdela. Although Parliament had authorized the expediture of only £2 million for the expedition, the operation actually cost £8.6 million.


The Battle of Magdela Magdela, Battle of (1868) was a contest between a technologically backward traditional polity and one of the most modern imperial powers of the nineteenth century. The British expedition’s performance in Ethiopia was a convincing display of the power of modern technology and of Britain’s capability to penetrate foreboding hinterlands in any part of the world. The success of this expedition removed the inhibitions against venturing into the interior of Africa. The confidence and experience gained through this expedition encouraged Britain and other European powers to embark on extensive military intervention in all corners of Africa. Ironically, however, the worst military defeat that European imperial powers would suffer in Africa later occurred in Ethiopia in 1896, when Emperor Menelik II’s army nearly annihilated a large Italian invasion force.

The British expedition to Ethiopia was also a strong proof that Britain had at last succeeded in subjugating India to its interest. Only a decade before the expedition, British rule over India had been engulfed in a crisis during the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny. The fact that Indian troops and resources played such a vital role in the Ethiopian expedition is testimony to how well the British had succeeded in pacifying India and making it into an effective instrument of British power.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Percy. Prelude to Magdala: Emperor Theodore of Ethiopia and British Diplomacy. Edited by Richard Pankhurst. London: Bellew, 1992. An extensive account of the background to the detention of Europeans by Emperor Tewodros, the reaction of the British press and public, and the British military intervention to secure the release of the European captives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bates, Darrell. The Abyssinian Difficulty: The Emperor Theodorus and the Magdala Campaign, 1867-68. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979. An informative book with a useful survey of the rise to power of Emperor Tewodros and the challenges he faced, followed by a detailed description of the British campaign against the Ethiopian emperor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blanc, Henry. A Narrative of Captivity in Abyssinia: With Some Account of the Late Emperor Tewodros, His Country, and People. 1868. Reprint: London: Frank Cass, 1970. Firsthand account of the captivity of Europeans in Ethiopia by an English surgeon who accompanied the official British envoy to Tewodros and found himself detained with the rest of the group.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harcourt, Freda. “Disraeli’s Imperialism, 1866-1868: A Question of Timing.” Historical Journal 23, no. 1 (1980). Engaging article that links the 1868 British expedition to Ethiopia with the policy of the Tory Party to divert attention from domestic social and political troubles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holland, Trevenen J., and Henry Hozier, comps. Records of the Expedition to Abyssinia. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1870. 2 vols. Official government record of the British expedition against Tewodros. Contains official reports, detailed campaign plans, and excellent maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markham, Clements R. A History of the Abyssinian Expedition. 1869. Reprint. Farnborough, Hants., England: Gregg International Publishers, 1970. Contemporary account of the expedition written by a British geographer who accompanied it in an official capacity. The book contains an excellent description of the Ethiopian countryside through which the expedition traveled.

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Categories: History