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The Barefoot Emperor

19th February 2018


Peter Heywood travelled to Ethiopia with Wild Frontiers on the “Christmas Explorer” trip.

For somebody variously described by the British newspapers of the 1860s as a ‘barbarian despot’, a ‘tyrant’ and a ‘mad, wild king’, Emperor Tewodros II continues to be held in high esteem by his fellow Ethiopians. During my visit to the country I decided to investigate.

On my first day in Addis I hired a taxi to take me to Tewodros Square.

“Sebastopol is there!” beamed my driver who then spent the rest of the journey attempting to negotiate a mutually agreeable exchange rate for my dollars. Sebastopol was the name of the enormous mortar built by Tewodros’s European hostages to defend him against the British task force coming to free them. An over-sized replica of the mortar now occupied the chaotic roundabout at the centre of Tewodros Square. The original, I was told, could still be found half-buried at Magdala in the north of the country where the final battle to free Tewodros’s prisoners took place.

The following day, I encountered a statue of Tewodros himself, barefoot, outside the National Museum in Addis. Inside, the Emperor’s shield and some of his weapons, retrieved by a British officer from the battlefield at Magdala, were also on display.

Until his military defeat by the British, Tewodros had used his rule to unify Ethiopia, something for which he is still remembered and celebrated. But his attempts repeatedly ran into local interference from European missionaries and adventurers as well as from rivals for his throne. To add insult to injury, his letters to Queen Victoria asking her to send him artillery were ignored.

Flying into Gondar I noticed another statue of Tewodros outside the terminal building. A painting of the Emperor, with his characteristic ‘corn row’ hairstyle, gazed down on the hotel lobby.

During the rest of my visit to Ethiopia, I encountered variations of the same likeness in hotels, restaurants, shops, churches and on the stage of an ‘ethnic’ night club in Axum. Every Ethiopian I talked to knew who the subject was and regarded him as a great national figure along with Haile Selassie, Menelik II and Colonel Mengistu. High praise indeed which, I would suggest, goes to show that you shouldn’t always believe what you read in the newspapers.


Peter Heywood

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