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Tewodros II
Emperor of Ethiopia
Emperor of Ethiopia
Reign 11 February 1855 – 13 April 1868
Coronation 11 February 1855
Predecessor Yohannes III
Successor Tekle Giyorgis II
Spouse Tewabech Ali
Tiruwork Wube
Prince Alemayehu
Full name
Kassa Haile Giorgis
House House of Solomon
Father Haile Giorgis Wolde Giorgis
Mother Woizero Atitegeb Wondbewossen
Born c. 1818
Qwara, Dembiya
Died 13 April 1868
(aged 49-50)
Magdala, Ethiopia
Burial Medhane Alem Church, Magdala (originally)
Mahbere Selassie Convent, Qwara (currently)

Tewodros II (Ge'ez ቴዎድሮስ, also known as Theodore II) (c. 1818–April 13, 1868) was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1855 until his death.

He was born Kassa Haile Giorgis, but was more regularly referred to as Kassa Hailu (Ge'ez ካሳ ኃይሉ — meaning "restitution" and "His [or the] power"). His rule is often placed as the beginning of modern Ethiopia, ending the decentralized Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes).


Early years

Kassa was the son of a nobleman of the Qwara district of the province of Dembiya named Haile Giorgis Wolde Giorgis. His paternal grandfather, Dejazmatch Wolde Giorgis was a widely respected figure of his time. Dembiya was part of the large territory known as Ye Meru Qemas, or "that which has been tasted by Maru". It was the personal fief of Dejazmach Meru, a powerful warlord, and relative of Kassa Hailu (possibly a half-uncle). Kassa's mother, Woizero Atitegeb Wondbewossen, was the upper nobility, and was originally from Gondar. Her mother Woizer Tishal was a member of a noble family of Begemder, while her paternal grandfather, Ras Wodajo, was a powerful and highly influential figure. Although generally regarded as a non-royal usurper, Tewodros II, would late in his reign claim that his father was descended from Emperor Fasilides by way of a daughter, although most of his contemporaries did not acknowledge the legitimacy of these claims.

When Kassa was very young, his parents divorced and Woizero Atitegeb moved back to Gondar taking her son with her. Not long after their departure, news reached them that Kassa's father had died. Popular legend states that Kassa's paternal relatives split up the entire paternal inheritance, leaving young Kassa and his mother with nothing and in very dire circumstances financially. To make ends meet, it is often repeated that Woizero Atitegeb was reduced to selling "Kosso", a native herbal remedy used to purge patients of intestinal worms (a common occurrence because of the Ethiopian love of raw meat dishes). Kassa would be taunted often for being a "Kosso seller's son", an insult that Tewodros II seldom forgave. There is actually no evidence that Woizero Atitegeb was ever a Kosso seller, and several writers such as Paulos Ngo Ngo have stated outright that it was a false rumor spread by her detractors. Evidence indicates that Woizero Atitegeb was fairly well to do, and indeed had inherited considerable land holdings from her own illustrious relatives to lead a comfortable life.[citation needed] Kassa's youth was probably not lived lavishly, but he was far from a pauper.

Rise to power

Emperor Tewodros II supervising crossing of the Blue Nile

Kassa Hailu was born into a country rife with civil war, and he destroyed many provincial warlords before becoming emperor. The times were known as the Zemene Mesafint or "Age of the Princes". During this era, warlords, regional princes, and noble houses vied with each other for power and control. They divided the Empire into personal fiefs and fought each other continuously. A puppet Emperor of the dynasty was enthroned in Gondar by one warlord, only to be dethroned and replaced by another member of the Imperial dynasty when a different warlord was able to seize Gondar and the reins of power. Regions such as Gojjam and Shewa were ruled by their own branches of the Imperial dynasty and, in Shewa, the local prince went as far as assuming the title of King.

Kassa began his career in this era as a shifta (or outlaw), but after amassing a sizable force of followers, was able to not only restore himself to his father's previous fief of Qwara but was able to control all of Dembiya. Moreover, he gained popular support by his benevolent treatment of the inhabitants in the areas he controlled: According to Sven Rubenson, Kassa "shared out captured grain and money to the peasants in Qwara and told them to buy hoes and plant."[1] This garnered the notice of the warlord in control of Gondar, Ras Ali II of Yejju. Ras Ali had enthroned Emperor Yohannes III, forcing the Emperor to marry Ali's mother, the formidable Empress Menen Liben Amede. Empress Menen was the true power behind her son and her helpless husband, and it was she who arranged for Kassa of Qwara to marry her granddaughter, Tewabech Ali and the grant to Kassa of the title of Dejazmach. She awarded him all of Ye Meru Qemas in the hopes of binding him firmly to her son and herself.[2]

Although all sources and authorities believe that Kassa truly loved and respected his wife, his relationship with his new in-laws deteriorated largely because of the disdainful treatment he repeatedly received from the Empress Menen. By 1852 he rebelled against Ras Ali and, in a series of victories — Gur Amaba, Takusa, Ayshal, and Amba Jebelli — over the next three years he handily defeated every army the Ras and the Empress sent against him. At Ayshal he captured the Empress Menen, and Ras Ali fled from the rising star and out of history. Kassa announced that he was deposing Yohannes III, and then marched on his greatest remaining rival, Dejazmach Wube Haile Maryam of Semien. Following the defeat of Dejazmach Wube, Kassa was crowned Emperor by Abuna Salama III in the church of Derasge Maryam on February 11, 1855. He took the throne name of Tewodros II, to fulfill a prophesy that a man named Tewodros would restore the Ethiopian Empire to greatness.

Tewodros refused to acknowledge an attempt to restore the former Emperor Sahle Dengel in the place of the hapless Yohannes III who had acknowledged Tewodros immediately.[citation needed] Yohannes III was treated well by Tewodros who seems to have had some personal sympathy for him. His views on Sahle Dengel are not known but are not likely to have been sympathetic.

His reign

Tewodros giving audience, surrounded by lions.

Tewodros sought to unify and modernise Ethiopia. However, since he was nearly always away on campaign during his tenure as emperor, disloyal leaders frequently tried to dislodge him whilst he was away fighting. Within a few short years, he had forcibly brought back under direct Imperial rule the Kingdom of Shewa and the province of Gojjam. He crushed the many warlords of Wollo and Tigray and brought recalcitrant regions of Begemder and Simien under his direct rule.

He moved the capital city of the Empire from Gondar, first to Debre Tabor, and later to Magdala. Tewodros ended the division of Ethiopia among the various regional warlords and princes that had vied among each other for power for almost two centuries. He forcibly re-incorporated the regions of Gojjam, Shewa and Wollo under the direct administration of the Imperial throne after having been ruled by local branches of the Imperial dynasty (in Gojjam and Shewa) or other warlords (Wollo). With all of his rivals apparently subdued, he imprisoned them and their relatives comfortably at Magdala. Among the royal and aristocratic prisoners at Magdala was the young Prince of Shewa, Sahle Mariam, the future Emperor Menelik II. Tewodros doted on the young prince, and in fact married him to his own daughter Alitash Tewodros. Menelik would eventually escape from Magdala, and abandon his wife, offending Tewodros deeply.

The death of his beloved wife, Empress Tewabech, marked a deterioration in Tewodros II's behavior. Increasingly erratic and vengeful, he gave full rein to some of his more brutal tendencies now that the calming influence of his wife was absent. Tewodros II remarried, this time to the daughter of his imprisoned enemy Dejazmatch Wube. The new Empress, Tiruwork Wube was a haughty and proud woman, who disdained her husband for having been of a socially inferior origin than that of her own aristocratic family which traced its lineage to the Imperial dynasty itself. The marriage was not a happy one, and was extremely stormy. They did manage to produce a son, Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros whom the Emperor adored and whom he regarded as his heir.

The Cross of Emperor Tewodros II.

Tewodros, fearful of these northerly Muslim powers, wrote a letter to a fellow Christian monarch, Queen Victoria asking for British assistance in the region. Tewodros asked the British Consul in Ethiopia, Captain Charles Duncan Cameron, to carry a letter to Queen Victoria requesting skilled workers to come to teach his subjects how to produce firearms, and other technical skills. Cameron traveled to the coast with the letter, but when he informed the Foreign Office of the letter and its contents, the Foreign Office instructed him simply to send the letter to London rather than bring it himself, and to proceed to the Sudan where he was to make inquiries about the slave trade there. After doing this, Cameron returned to Ethiopia. On Cameron's return, the Emperor became enraged when he found out that Cameron had not taken the letter to London personally, had not brought a response from the Queen, and most of all, had spent time traveling through enemy Egyptian and Turkish territories. Cameron tried to appease the Emperor saying that a reply to the letter would arrive shortly.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Office in London did not pass the letter to Queen Victoria, but simply filed it under Pending. There the letter stayed for a year. Then the Foreign Office sent the letter to India, because Abyssinia came under the Raj's remit. It is alleged that when the letter arrived in India, officials filed it under Not Even Pending.

After two years had passed and Tewodros had not received a reply, he imprisoned Cameron, together with all the British subjects in Ethiopia at the time and various other Europeans, in an attempt to get Victoria's attention. Among the Europeans he imprisoned was a missionary by the name of Mr. Stern, who had previously published a book in Europe describing Tewodros as a barbaric, cruel, unstable usurper, who was born a mere son of a poor kosso seller. When Tewodros saw this book he became violently angry, pulling a gun on Stern, and had to be restrained from killing the missionary. Tewodros also received reports from abroad that foreign papers had quoted these European residents of Ethiopia as having said many negative things about him and his reign.


1868 Expedition to Abyssinia

The British sent a mission under an Assyrian born British subject named Hormuzd Rassam, who bore a letter from the Queen, but brought with him no skilled workers as Tewodros had requested. Deeply insulted by the British failure to do exactly as they were told, Tewodros imprisoned the members of the Rassam mission as well. This last breach of diplomatic immunity led to the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia under Robert Napier. Tewodros had become increasingly unpopular over the years due to his harsh methods, and many regional figures had rebelled against him. Several readily came to the assistance of the British by providing guides and food as the expeditionary force marched towards Magdala, where the Emperor had fortified the mountaintop.

Departure of the British expeditionary force from Magdala (The Illustrated London News, 1868)

When the two sides met at Arogye, in the plain facing Magdala, on April 10, 1868, the British defeated the Ethiopian army. With his army so decisively defeated, many of his men began to desert. Tewodros freed the prisoners and sent them to Napier along with a gift of cattle to be slaughtered for the Easter holiday that was to take place on Sunday, April 12, that year. However, when Napier sent a message thanking him for this peace offering and stating that he would treat the Emperor and his family with every dignity, Tewodros II furiously stated that he would never be taken prisoner. The British then proceeded to shell Magdala itself, killing most of Tewodros II's remaining loyal men. Emperor Tewodros II committed suicide on Easter Monday, April 13, 1868, as the British troops stormed the citadel of Magdala. Ironically he used a pistol that Queen Victoria had sent him as a gift.[3]

After his suicide, the British burned the fortress of Magdala, and departed from Ethiopia. They took with them a number of items that today one may see in various museums and libraries in Europe, as well as in private collections.

In his efforts to keep skilled Europeans in Ethiopia, Tewodros arranged a marriage between one of his daughters and a Swiss military engineer. That branch of Tewodros's family ended up in Russia; as a consequence, the late British actor Peter Ustinov could claim to be Tewodros's great-great-grandson[4].

His son

The widowed Empress Tiruwork and the young heir of Tewodros, Alemayehu, were also to be taken to England. However, Empress Tiruwork died on the journey to the coast, and little Alemayehu made the journey alone. The Empress was buried at Sheleqot monastery in Tigrai among her ancestors. Although Queen Victoria subsidised the education (at Rugby) of Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros, Captain Tristam Speedy was appointed as his guardian. He developed a very strong attachment to Captain Speedy and his wife; however, Prince Alemayehu grew increasingly lonely as the years went by, and his compromised health made things even harder, and died in October 1879 at the age of 19 without seeing his homeland again. He left an impression on Queen Victoria of England, who said of his death: "It is too sad! All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him... His was no happy life."[5]

Popular culture

  • Emperor Tewodros has come to occupy a high regard amongst many Ethiopians. Examples of his influence are seen in plays, literature, folk lore, songs and art works (such as a 1974 book by Sahle Sellassie). Emperor Tewodros has come to symbolise Ethiopian unity and identity.
  • Tewodros, under the name 'Theodore', appears in George MacDonald Fraser's fictionalised account of the 1868 conflict, Flashman on the March, where he is portrayed as a volatile, bloodthirsty madman.
  • Karen Mercury's historical fiction The Four Quarters of the World (Medallion Press, 2006) depicts the rise and fall of Tewodros as seen through the eyes of his European captives, using primary sources from eyewitnesses to create an unbiased portrait of the Emperor.
  • Philip Marsden's The Barefoot Emperor chronicles the life and times of Emperor Tewodros's quest to power and his reign
  • When the Emperor Dies by Mason McCann Smith is another work of Historical Fiction based around the rise, reign and fall of Emperor Tewodros


  • Paul B. Henze. "The Empire from Atrophy to Revival: The Era of the Princes and Tewodros II" in Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000. ISBN 0-312-22719-1
  1. ^ Rubenson, Sven (1966). King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University. 
  2. ^ Rubenson, King of Kings, pp. 36-39
  3. ^ "Tewodros II". Retrieved 22 April 2009. 
  4. ^ Frontline: Ustinov
  5. ^ Pflanz, Mike (2007-06-11). "Ethiopia demands Queen returns prince". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-08-24. 

Further reading

  • Henry Blanc, A Narrative of Captivity in Abyssinia; With Some Account of the Late Emperor Theodore, His Country and People (1868), available at Project Gutenberg

External links

Preceded by
Yohannes III
Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by
Tekle Georgis II


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