Stumm: Meine Erlebnisse bei der Englischen Expedition in Abyssinien (1868)

When Magdala fell into the hands of the English expeditionary force on April 13, 1868, there were attached journalists, translators and diplomats who witnessed the incident. The German diplomat Ferdinand von Stumm, together with the explorer and adventurer Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs, were among the first people to enter Madgala and witness the chaotic situation unfolding and the extensive loot of precious manuscripts, archival materials, regalia and other valuable objects. As an eyewitness, Stumm was able to record an extensive list of objects that were looted from the citadel.

commented by Gidena Mesfin Kebede

Original text    Translation     Brief biography     Commentary     Bibliography

[Kapitel] XV

from: Ferdinand von Stumm, Meine Erlebnisse bei der Englischen Expedition in Abyssinien: Januar bis Juni 1868, Frankfurt am Main 1868, pp. 125–127.

[…] Herr Rohlfs und ich gingen mit dieser Abtheilung vor, und erreichten wir sehr bald ein festes Holzthor, das, von Innen mit Steinen verrammelt, die Stürmenden aufhielt, während rechts und links hinter den Hecken und aus kleinen Schießscharten in den Mauern ein heftiges Feuer gegen uns eröffnet wurde.

Es erwies sich sehr bald als unmöglich, das Thor zu erbrechen, zu dessen Sprengung man Pulversäcke bestimmt hatte; letztere waren jedoch im Lager vergessen worden. Glücklicherweise hatten einige Sol- [126] daten eine Leiter mit heraufgebracht, auf welcher einzelne die Hecken erkletterten, während andere sich über niedrige Stellen der Umfassungsmauer Eingang verschafften. Ein Verlust von zehn Verwundeten auf Englischer Seite war die Folge von dem Aufenthalt vor dem Thor, das erst später von Innen geöffnet werden konnte.

Mit den wenigen Vertheidigern wurde man natürlich sehr schnell fertig, und lagen dieselben nach einigen Augenblicken als blutende Leichen an der Stelle, die sie so heldenmüthig vertheidigt hatten. An einer Verengung des Wegs hatten Andere einen zweiten Widerstand versucht, wurden jedoch auch sofort zusammengeschossen, und gräßlich war der Anblick, als die blutenden Gestalten sich bei unserem Herannahen mühsam erhoben, und durch tiefe Verbeugungen um Gnade zu flehen schienen.

Ueber eine schmale Felstreppe erreichten wir vorwärts eilend ein zweites Thor, das wir ohne Widerstand passirten. Etwa 100 Schritt hinter ihm lag der halbnackte Körper des Kaisers selbst, der sich soeben mit einem Pistolenschuß das Leben genommen hatte. Ein eigenthümliches Lächeln lag über dem merkwürdig jung und anziehend aussehenden Gesicht, in dem mir besonders die fein gezeichnete, kühn gebogene Nase auffiel. Ob Theodoros noch im letzten Moment von seinen fliehenden Begleitern geplündert wurde, oder ob er absichtlich sich so unscheinbar als möglich gekleidet hatte, ließ sich natürlich nicht feststellen.

Während vor uns noch Schüsse knallten, die auf einzelne fliehende Abyssinier abgefeuert wurden, wandten wir uns nach dem in der Nähe befindlichen Zelt des Kaisers, das er soeben erst verlassen zu haben schien. Eine Art Divan und wild über einander liegende Teppiche bildeten das ganze Inventar. Ein noch halb mit Araki gefülltes Trinkhorn lag auf dem Boden, und wurde sowohl wegen seines kostbaren Inhaltes, als seiner Merkwürdigkeit als letztes Gebrauchsstück des Kaisers von mir triumphierend mitgenommen.[1]

Weiter eilend erreichten wir drei große Häuser, von denen eines mit Getreide gefüllt war, während in den beiden anderen hunderte [127] von weiblichen Gefangenen, zum größten Theil gefesselt, zusammengepfercht waren. Die Unglücklichen, die natürlich bei unserem Erscheinen ihr letztes Stündlein gekommen glaubten, brachen in ein unbeschreibliches Geschrei aus, und beruhigten sich erst, als wir anfingen, einen Theil von ihnen von ihren Ketten zu befreien, und ein Paar unglückliche Geschöpfe, die durch Granatsplitter verwundet worden waren, vorsichtig zu untersuchen. Es befanden sich auffallend schöne junge Weiber unter der Masse, deren langgeschlitzte Augen und helle Gesichtsfarbe sie als nicht Abyssinischen Ursprungs bezeichneten. Mit Mühe entrissen wir uns den Dankbarkeits- und Liebesbezeugungen der schnatternden Weibergesellschaft, um nichts von dem schnell zu Ende gehende Schauspiel zu verlieren.

Fast im Centrum des Plateaus lag eine Kirche, wo man jetzt eifrig Sturm läutete, und die zahlreichen Priester aus den umliegenden Hütten ängstlich ihrem Heiligthum zueilten. Weiterhin erblickten wir mehrere große runde Hütten mit schwarzen Decken und Thierhäuten sorgfältig überdacht. Eine Menge Soldaten waren bereits damit beschäftigt, aus diesen Schatzhäusern des Kaisers Kostbarkeiten und Gegenstände aller Art herauszuschaffen, die ihr bisheriger Besitzer theils in seinem eignen Lande zusammengeraubt, theils von Fremden zum Geschenk erhalten hatte. Da lagen Haufen von Waffen aller Länder und jeden Alters, reich besetzte Schilde, uralte Säbel mit verzierten Griffen, englische Gewehre und schlechte Scheibenpistolen. Dort schleppte ein Soldat eigenthümlich geformte Kannen und Gefäße von Silber heran, dort ein anderer Kreuze, reich mit Steinen besetzt, unförmlich große Bischofskronen in zierlicher Filigranarbeit ausgeführt. Kolossale Sonnenschirme aus rothem Sammt, seidene Stoffe, Gewehrkisten, Reisenecessaires, Kirchengeräthe, Pulverflaschen, Photographien, ja die kleine Apotheke eines Homöopathen und eine Kiste Champagner, das lag Alles aus einem wüsten Haufen übereinander, und wurde von den Soldaten theils mitgeschleppt, theils an später Kommende für eine Kleinigkeit verkauft.

Der Obercommandirende war unterdeß ebenfalls heraufgekommen, und Alles gratulirte sich zur glücklichen Beendigung des Unternehmens. […]

[1] Anmerk. Das Trinkhorn befindet sich jetzt im Besitz Sr. Majestät des Königs.

[Chapter] XV

by Susanne Meyer-Abich and Gidena Mesfin Kebede

[…] Mr Rohlfs and I proceeded with this division and very soon we reached a solid wooden gate which, barricaded from the inside with stones, stopped the storming regiment, while heavy gunfire was opened against us on the right and left behind the hedges and from small loopholes in the walls.

It very soon proved impossible to break down the gate, as its demolition would have required the use of gunpowder bags; the latter, however, had been forgotten in the camp. Fortunately, some soldiers had brought up a ladder on which some climbed the hedges, while others gained access via low points of the surrounding wall. A loss of ten wounded on the English side was the result of the halt in front of the gate, which could only be opened later from the inside.

Of course, the few defenders were dealt with very quickly, and after some moments these lay as bleeding corpses in the place they had so heroically defended. Others had attempted to put up a second point of resistance at a narrowing of the path, but they were also shot immediately, and it was a horrible sight when the bleeding figures laboriously rose at our approach and seemed to plead for mercy in bowing deep.

We hurried forward over a narrow rock staircase to a second gate which we passed without resistance. About 100 steps behind the gate lay the half-naked body of the emperor himself, who had just taken his own life with a pistol shot. A peculiar smile lay on the strangely young and attractive-looking face, in which the finely drawn, boldly curved nose struck me especially. Whether Theodoros was plundered by his fleeing escorts at the last moment, or whether he had intentionally dressed as inconspicuously as possible, could of course not be determined.

While shots at individual fleeing Abyssinians were still ringing out in front of us, we turned to the Emperor’s tent nearby, which he seemed to have just left. A kind of Divan and a crazy pile of overlapping carpets formed the whole inventory. A drinking horn still half filled with Araki lay on the floor and was taken away by me in triumph, both because of its precious contents an as it was the last object the emperor used. [The drinking horn is now in the possession of His Majesty the King].

Hurrying on we reached three large houses, one of which was filled with grain, while hundreds of female prisoners were crammed together the others, most of them in fetters. These unfortunates, who of course thought their last hour had come when we appeared, burst into indescribable screams and only calmed down when we began to release some of them from their chains, and to carefully examine some wretched creatures who had been wounded by shell splinters. There were strikingly beautiful young women among the crowd, whose long almond-shaped eyes and light facial skin tones marked them as non-Abyssinian. With difficulty we escaped from the chattering females’ demonstrations of gratitude and love so as not to miss anything of the spectacle that was soon to end.

Almost in the centre of the plateau there was a church where the bell was now ringing in alarm and numerous priests from the surrounding huts hurried anxiously to their sanctuary. Furthermore, we saw several large round huts whose roofs were carefully made of black cloth and animal skins. A lot of soldiers were already busy to remove the valuables and objects of all kinds from these Imperial treasure houses, (objects) which the Emperor had partly robbed from within his own country and partly received from strangers as a gift. There were piles of weapons from all countries and of all ages, richly decorated shields, ancient sabres with ornamental handles, English rifles and poor target pistols. There, a soldier dragged strangely shaped jugs and vessels made of silver, and there another (carried) a cross, richly decorated with stones, (with) hulking large bishop’s crowns executed in delicate filigree work. Colossal parasols made of red velvet, silk fabrics, gun cases, toiletry kits, church ornaments, powder bottles, photographs, even the small pharmacy of a homoeopath and a case of champagne, all that was massed together to form a chaotic pile and was partly carried away by the soldiers, partly sold to later arrivals for a pittance.

In the meantime, the commander-in-chief had also come up and everyone congratulated each other on the happy completion of the operation. […]

Brief biography

Freiherr Ferdinand Eduard von Stumm (1843–1925) was a Prussian and German diplomat who participated in the English expedition against Emperor Tewodros in 1868. After his return from the expedition in 1869, he served in the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin. He is one of the German-speaking authors including Friedrich Gerhard Rohlfs (1831–96), Götz Graf von Seckendorff (1842–1910) and Theodor von Kodolitsch (1817–99) who, having travelled with the English expeditionary force, wrote first-hand accounts of the fall of Magdala. Their writings present a variety of perspectives on the event, depending on their personal background. Stumm, who was a military Major, presents his accounts from the point of view of the army. 

Kommentar – [Kommentartitel]

Ferdinand von Stumm’s somewhat neutral presentation of the fall of Magdala during the English expedition against Emperor Tewodros in 1868 contains a list of treasures and objects looted from the imperial citadel and provides a vivid description of the death of the Emperor.  The excerpt commented here starts by mentioning his companion, the explorer and adventurer Gerhard Rohlfs. Both were among the first people who arrived at the imperial citadel on April 13, 1868. Stumm’s written record of his experience will be juxtaposed in this commentary with Rohlfs’s and others’ eyewitness accounts, which diverge significantly on many points.

The much-recounted circumstances of the death of the Emperor Tewodoros, for instance, remain unclear, though most accounts agree on the fact that that he took his own life. Stumm’s opinion that the king might have been »robbed« by his escorts is hard to believe as the situation in all other accounts tells otherwise. Henry Morton Stanley, a British explorer (Stanley 1874, 449) vividly describes the moment as follows: »they observed a man standing near a haystack with a revolver in his hand. When he saw them prepare to fire he ran behind a haystack, and both men heard plainly a shot fired. Marching on with their Sniders [editor’s note: Snider rifles] on the present, they came to the haystack, and saw the man who had run behind lying prostrate on the ground, dying, with the revolver still convulsively clutched in his right hand. To their minds the revolver was but their proper loot, and without any ceremony they took up what they considered their own; but on a silver plate on the stock, during an examination of it, they perceived an inscription which read thus:  PRESENTED / BY / VICTORIA / QUEEN OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND / TO / THEODORUS / EMPEROR OF ABYSSINIA / AS A SLIGHT TOKEN OF HER GRATITUDE / FOR HIS KINDNESS TO HER SERVANT PLOWDEN / 1854.«

The list of treasures and objects looted given in Stumm’s account and the way they were taken provide another example of how multiple accounts of the fall of Magdala connect to form a multifaceted picture of the events. Having found the emperor’s »drinking horn« (»Trinkhorn«), Stumm described that it was »triumphantly taken away by me« (»von mir triumphierend mitgenommen«). In a footnote, he added that the horn was now in the possession of »His Majesty the King«, that is the Prussian king and later German Emperor William I (r. 1861–88).

Gerhard Rohlfs who was with Stumm when the loot was taken corroborates this account, saying that Stumm took the horn as »gute Beute« (good booty: Rohlfs 1869, 171). It is not clear whether the expression is intended to refer to a »spolia opima« or simply a prime piece of booty, which is one taken directly from the leader of the opposition.

Rohlfs also reports that Götz Graf von Seckendorff actually brought the drinking horn as a gift to the then Prussian king (1869, 171). This shows that the analysis of the contemporary sources by authors from different nations can present different opinions on a subject and should be considered with caution.

The list of other looted treasures and objects mentioned in the text includes » of weapons from all countries and of all ages, richly decorated shields, ancient sabres with ornamental handles, English rifles and poor target pistols«, »jugs and vessels made of silver«, bishop’s crowns, parasols, »silk fabrics, gun cases, toiletry cases, church ornaments, powder bottles and photographs« to which Rohlfs adds the following items (Rohlfs 1869, 71): books, keys, chairs, crowns of gold and copper, silver and copper crosses and incense vessels. Indeed, nothing or only very little must have been left of what had been kept in the citadel of Magdala. It is unclear why Stumm’s list does not include books, as these seem to have been particularly numerous. The German artist Götz von Seckendorff (dates) reports that »A large number of books found little bidders, because nobody knew their right value, but interesting manuscripts are supposed to be among them, some of which give particularly valuable conclusions for the history of the country« (1869, 177). Senckendorff himself brought two valuable manuscripts to Berlin as a gift to the then Prussian king (Dillmann 1878, II, p. XX).

Though Stumm’s list of looted objects corroborates facts recorded by Stanley (1874, 457-59) and Flad (1887, 72), his account lacks a description of what happened after the looting had taken place. After setting Madgala on fire, a prize committee was formed to collect and auction the booty (Holland and Hozier 1870,78). Still, not everyone submitted their loot and in fact, valuables looted by individuals still make their way into European collections from private hands to this day. This includes, for example, three manuscripts from the Magdala collection catalogued only in 2005. (Delamarter 2009, 1306).

Words and phrases Stumm uses in describing the fall of Magdala are particularly revealing  regarding contemporary debates about the return and repatriation of objects. An especially obvious example is the term »loot«: in fact, »Plünderung« (looting) and derivatives of the expression do not appear at all in Stumm’s text. Adopting the expressions »herausschaffen« (to carry them out), »schleppen« and »mitschleppen« (to haul), Stumm lays emphasis on the physical effort of the looting soldiers without naming their actions for what they are, considered from today’s perspective.

Interestingly, the only mention in the text of a »robbery« in relation to the Imperial treasury appears in the context of how the valuables were originally assembled: according to Stumm’s account, Tewodoros had partly stolen the objects in his own country, partly received them as gifts (»theils in seinem eignen Lande zusammengeraubt, theils von Fremden zum Geschenk erhalten«). This generalisation is somewhat problematic to accept at face value. We know the Emperor collected manuscripts and other valuables from churches and monasteries under his dominion. As Rita Pankhurst has shown »According to the chronicle of the Emperor written by Alqa Walda Maryam, Tewodros […] had removed 981 manuscripts from Gondar […] before setting fire to its churches. Later the chronicle records that these manuscripts and other treasures were taken from Dabra Tabor to Maqdala which had been proclaimed the seat of the royal treasury« (Pankhurst 1973, 16). However, whether this should be termed a »robbery« or not is open to debate, given the customs of feudal Ethiopia.

Gidena Mesfin Kebede is a PostDoc fellow in the translocations research cluster at Technische Universität Berlin.

Bibliography

Joseph Bechtinger, Ost-Afrika. Erinnerungen und Miscellen aus dem abessinischen Feldzuge; Land und Leute, Sitten und Gebräuche der Abessinier, die englische Armee und Erlebnisse des Verfassers daselbst, Theodoro’s Biographie, Sanitätsberichte, Wien 1870.

Steve Delamarter, »Catalogues and Digitization for Previously Uncatalogued Ethiopian Manuscripts in England and North America«, in Proceedings of the 16th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, 4, Trondheim 2009, 1305–16.

J. M. Flad, Zwölf Jahre in Abessinien, oder Geschichte des Königs Theodorus II. und der Mission unter seiner Regierung, Leipzig 1887.

Richard Pankhurst, »The Napier Expedition and The Loot from Maqdala«, in Présence Africaine, 133/134 (1985), 233–40.

Rita Pankhurst, »The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla (Magdala)«, in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 36.1 (1973), 15–42.

Hormuzd Rassam, Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore, King of Abyssinia: With Notices of the Countries Traversed from Massowah, Through the Soodân, the Amhâra, and Back to Annesley Bay, from Mágdala, vol. II, London 1869.

Gerhard Rohlfs, Im Auftrage Sr. Majestät des Königs von Preussen mit dem Englischen Expeditionscorps in Abessinien, Bremen 1869.

Henry Morton Stanley, Coomassie and Magdala: The Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa, London 1874.

Cite this article as:
Stumm: Meine Erlebnisse bei der englischen Expedition in Abyssinien (1868), commented by Gidena Mesfin Kebede, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike, https://translanth.hypotheses.org/ueber/stumm, published 19.08.2019.

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