I approached this book with some trepidation, fearing it would be a load of old bollocks. For my one previous experience of Ethiopian history had been the following sentence in my daughter’s GCSE textbook, when, describing their defeat of a modern Italian army in 1896, the author, Tony McAleavy, wrote, ‘The Ethiopians castrated the Italian prisoners of war taken at Adowa.’
Not a history book you will note, but a textbook, so a whole generation of schoolchildren would read something that could affect forever their attitudes to Ethiopia and Africa. So why had I not heard of this atrocity? There were over 1,000 Italian POWs after Adowa — can you imagine what the effect on European public opinion would have been had 1,000 repatriated eunuchs turned up in Italy ? It was clearly tosh, but how was I to prove it was tosh?
I rang the Ethiopian embassy, and spoke to a shaken press attaché (‘Are they telling schoolgirls this?’). I rang the military attaché at the Italian embassy, a general, and he consulted his archives. I rang Mr McAleavy, who got a bit shirty, and referred me to the author of a book he had read, a professor. The professor blamed it on his co-author, with whom he was no longer in touch, then referred me to a second professor. And out of all this came the fact that no Italian POWs were castrated after Adowa; in fact, the opposite may be said to be true, for their captors had provided them with women. But this was my introduction to Ethiopian history, a day on the telephone, and that over a single sentence. I feared The Barefoot Emperor, a whole book on the subject, would have me on the phone until Christmas.
And things did start ominously. Apparently your average Ethiopian soldier, c.1860, was indeed fascinated by bollocks, and had those of his (dead) enemies hanging from his flintlock rifle. Oh dear. But then something extraordinary happened. I found myself in a page-turning narrative of a sort I hadn’t read in years, and quite forgot the dangling dried trophies of war.
For this is an amazing story, it could not be otherwise. Ethiopia, an ancient Christian state, the emperors of which claimed descent from Solomon and Sheba, had passed into mediaeval myth as the kingdom of Prester John. But by the middle of the 19th century it had been stuck in the Wars of the Roses for hundreds of years, as dynastic clans fought for supremacy, and was thus too embattled, too remote, too poor, for any of the Great Powers to grab. Then, in the 1860s, one warlord clambered out of the scrum, proclaimed himself the Emperor Theodore of prophecy, a sort of King Arthur figure, and took over the whole country. Only his nemesis intervened: the Emperor Theodore, as such a man might, took it into his head to write a friendly letter to Queen Victoria.
The tragedy that followed echoes the Elvis Presley song, ‘Return to Sender’ (‘She wrote upon it, “Return to sender, Address unknown, No such number, No such zone”’). For the Queen did not reply, her Civil Service having filed it somewhere, as civil servants do (and will probably file, and lose, details of the Last Judgment if entrusted with these by the Almighty).
Things happened quickly after that. The Emperor got the hump, went barmy and locked up the handful of white diplomats and missionaries who were in his country. Actually it was even odder than that, for he first commanded the missionaries to make him a cannon. And these remarkable men, who had never cast so much as a thimble, cast cannon after cannon, each one bigger than the last, culminating in the monster he called Sebastapol. For somehow news of the Crimea was getting through, confusing even further the Emperor, who could not understand how Britain could be in alliance with the infidel Turks.
Yet this was a man well versed in European history and in biblical lore, capable of telling the smelting missionaries, ‘If God allows it to succeed, it will be well; if not, it also will be well,’ while at the same time the background was full of the thudding sound of hands and feet being lopped from his subjects by executioners. But of course the Great Powers didn’t mind that. It was when he loaded white missionaries with chains and retreated with them, and the cannon, to his impregnable mountain fortress in the interior that intervention came.
It came from British India. The troops built two piers, eight bridges, laid a railway, dug out two reservoirs, climbed over 7,000 feet, and blew the impregnable mountain fortress to bits. The missionaries were released, and Theodore shot himself. This military intervention is probably the single most dramatic illustration of British power, and expertise, in the 19th century, for, having landed on 2 January 1868, the troops, under Lord Napier, were all gone by 18 June.
This is a remarkable narrative. It is also an infuriating one, for the author sacrifices everything to what is basically a splendid strip cartoon. I wanted to know its context, the history of this extraordinary country, its economy, its geography and its population. What happened to the people when the mediaeval armies were rampaging up and down?
All I got were tantalising little glimpses, like that of the Emperor among the parchments of his library but with no glass in the windows, or asking gravely whether there was such a place as Dahomey, or whether it might be possible to get a steam plough. Again the moment of humour in the ill-fated letter to Victoria, when, after describing himself as ‘the son of David, of Solomon, King of Kings’, he writes, ‘I am not worthy of corresponding with you who are great. However, a great person and the ocean are the same, they can bear anything.’ It is a lovely little joke.