Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II spent his last hours holed up in a fort near the Red Sea town of Maqdala. He was under siege by British troops who had just routed his numerically superior force and tore through his lines. With the British storming his fortress, the Emperor shot himself in the head, ironically using a gun gifted to him from Queen Victoria.
British forces had a field day with the fort. They would eventually destroy it before heading back to England, but first, they had to plunder everything of value from the captured prize. Their victory train required 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry all the gold, gems, and artifacts back to where they came from. But the British took more than that, they presented the Emperor’s seven-year-old son to Queen Victoria and kept locks of Emperor Tewodros II’s hair as a prize.
Not my first prize choice, but whatever.
Tewodros’ legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of Ethiopians to this day. More than 150 years later, the defiant Emperor’s spirit of independence inspires some of Ethiopia’s finest writers and artists. He is now a symbol for the potential of the country, a forward-thinking leader that would not bow to outside pressure or simply allow his people to be colonized. His star was on the rise as he worked to keep his country away from the brink of destruction, only to be brought down in a less-than-glorious way.
The Christian emperor was busy reuniting Ethiopia from various breakaway factions as the power and force of Islam and of Islamic nations put pressure on him to push back. Tewodros expected help from the Christian nations of the world but found none was forthcoming. He tried imprisoning British officials to force an expedition to come to Ethiopia’s aid. He got an expedition, but the 12,000 troop-strong force was coming for him, not his enemies.
The fort at Maqdala overlooks a deep valley. The British did not have an easy time of it here.
The Emperor imprisoned those officials at Maqdala, where he himself was holed up, along with 13,000 of his own men. The British force coming to the fort was comprised of only 9,000 men, but they were carrying superior firepower with them. When the redcoats completely tore up the Abyssinian army, Tewodros decided to take his own life, rather than submit to the humiliations that the British would surely subject him to.
That small act of defiance earned him immortality in Ethiopia, who remembers Tewodros today as one of the country’s most prominent cultural and historical figures.
And for decades, the Ethiopians have demanded the return of Tewodors’ hair. Only now, after decades and a French push to restore captured colonial artifacts to their home countries, has England ever considered giving in.