Magdala – What’s in a name?

On the 10th April 1868 Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier led a British expeditionary force on a successful raid on Magdala, Ethiopia.

The Emperor, Tewodros II of Ethiopia angered at Britain’s lack of response to his request for military aid, had imprisoned some British protestant missionaries, keeping them in chains and subjecting them to vicious beatings. Two British diplomats had been sent to negotiate the safe release of the hostages, but Tewodros subjected them to the same fate as the missionaries, which infuriated the British Government.

On 2nd January 1864 Tewodros, known to the British as Theodore, had seized the British envoy Charles Cameron along with his staff and all efforts to secure their release had failed. Indeed it seems that any further attempts to send negotiators ended with the same result. Eventually the British government decided that stronger action was needed so with the usual British expediency a punitive expedition was decided upon by August 1867.

The main form of defence in the region was the naturally mountainous and prohibitive, roadless terrain. No invading force had attempted to take Ethiopia in centuries. The logistics of the British expedition gives some indication as to the size of the task that lay before them.

Napier had been in command of the British Indian Army in Bombay and had set sail from there. His force consisted of thirteen thousand British and Indian soldiers, along with twenty thousand camp followers, over forty thousand animals, horses, mules and those for food, included were forty six elephants to pull the heavy guns. Railway equipment with rolling stock, locomotives and enough material to lay twenty miles of track, plus hundreds of tons of equipment, artillery, ammunition and supplies.

Napier’s force had landed by October 1867 and after building themselves a port to land the equipment began the long and arduous trek to Magdala. Local opposition was smoothed both by diplomacy and the large amount of local currency that the British had bought direct from the mint in Vienna.

By the 9th April, Napier was camped on the outskirts of Magdala and lay siege the next day. 10th April. The battle ended with the defeat of nine thousand Ethiopian troops for the loss of two British.

Sir Robert Napier was elevated to the peerage as Baron Napier of Magdala by the following July.  A commemorative bronze equestrian statue of Robert Cornelis Napier, first Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-90), that once stood in Waterloo Place, now stands at the north end of Queens Gate near Kensington Gardens.

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By astonishing coincidence on the 87th anniversary of the battle, outside a pub in north-west London called The Magdala after the battle, a tragic event occurred. This event was a significant contributor to one of the most important changes to the judicial system of this country, the abolition of capital punishment. Unfortunately the main protagonists were both to lose their lives, Ruth Ellis shot her lover David Blakely, Blakely died at the scene and Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in this country.

magdala bullet

In reality the story of Ruth Ellis and the murder of Blakely is so much more complex than that which we have always been led to believe. A simple story of a jealous and revengeful lover, in an act of retribution, resulting in swift justice through judicial process? Not according to author Monica Weller. During the process of ghost writing the story of Ruth by her sister Muriel Jakubait, Monica Weller uncovered a story of intrigue, espionage and the now it seems commonplace cover-ups. Files hidden from the public, files gone missing, long term secrecy orders, these seem to indicate all was not as it seems.

Ruth Ellis had unwittingly found herself embroiled in the company of those involved in the secret services that operate in the name of Britain’s state machinery.

Whilst reading the story the first name that stunned me was that of Stephen Ward, Ward was one of the central figures of the scandal known as the “Profumo Affair” that rocked Britain in 1963. It was a scandal that eventually brought Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government to its knees. It was this involvement of Ward and his associates that got me thinking, this is far bigger than the story I had heard in the past.

The actual scene of the murder is even more intriguing than you can imagine. Only a few months beforehand a murder was committed by another female within metres of the pub, so close that you can see the crime scene from the entrance to the pub. When he spoke of the Ruth Ellis hanging executioner Albert Pierrepoint said, no one ever mentions the second last woman to be hanged because she wasn’t glamorous like Ruth.

If you want to know the full story I can heartily recommend “Ruth Ellis: My Sister’s Secret Life” by Muriel Jakubait with Monica Weller.

Want to see the sites involved and hear the story on the spot? We tell it on our Murder Mystery and Espionage tour.