A hostage in Abyssinia

Photo:Hormuzd meets King Tewodros

Hormuzd meets King Tewodros

Illustrated London News

Photo:The hostages. Hormuzd is 2nd from the left

The hostages. Hormuzd is 2nd from the left

from H A Stern "The Captive Missionary" (1868)

Photo:The suicide of Tewodros

The suicide of Tewodros

Cassell's Illustrated History of England

By Carolyn Sansbury

In his middle years, Hormuzd took a break from archaeology, and worked for the British diplomatic service, first in Aden, and then in Abyssinia (Ethiopia) where he was sent to try to rescue a group of European hostages. Unfortunately he was himself also taken prisoner, and was held in chains for two years.

Several European missionaries had been captured and held hostage by the charismatic Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia, who believed – rightly – that he had been slighted by Queen Victoria. The prisoners were held at Magdala, Tewodros’s mountain stronghold four hundred miles inland from the Red Sea coast. When the British learned about this, Hormuzd Rassam was chosen as Queen Victoria’s special envoy to Tewodros: he was to go to Magdala and negotiate the release of the hostages.

However, things did not go according to plan, and Rassam was eventually also taken prisoner, and held in chains on and off for two years. Despite this, Rassam dealt with tact and skill with a very tricky situation. Tewodros was very unpredictable, some said he was mad, but Rassam seems to have got on quite well with him, and used the influence this gave him to improve the conditions of his fellow prisoners. However, he didn’t manage to persuade the Emperor to release them. 

The British began to wonder if Rassam was really the right man for the job. Wasn’t he rather too soft, too Levantine? They decided to adopt tougher measures than diplomacy, sending in a colossal military force led by General Napier, with almost 43,000 men, 36,000 horses mules camels and donkeys, 44 Indian elephants, two locomotives, 82,000 tons of coal, 400 miles of telegraph cable, and lots of heavy artillery. The army took three months to reach Magdala, constructing roads as they went along. After all this, it was just as well that they succeeded in doing what they set out to do – bring the Queen’s envoy Rassam and all the other prisoners home alive.

Tewodros and his people fared less well of course – thousands of his men were slaughtered, and after a desperate last stand, Tewodros committed suicide, his mountain-top fortress was dynamited and burned to the ground. The British rolled up their railway lines and went home. 

When Hormuzd returned to London, a big public reception was given to him, and Queen Victoria presented him with £5,000 -- a tidy sum in those days.

To find out more about Tewodros and the story of Rassam and the European captives, see The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden

This page was added on 08/04/2010.
Comments about this page

This is a well-written piece about my great-grandfather. Somewhere in some municipal cupboard in Brighton there remain Hormuzd's ambassador's uniform and also the chains that he wore for a time in his captivity.You can see the chains resting on his knee in the photograph above. I have actually seen these chains, for when I was a child in the 1950s my parents and I plus Hormuzd's great-nephew from Iraq visited the Hove Museum, where there was a whole room devoted to Hormuzd. When the British Museum asked to have the contents of that room, the items from Abysinnia remained in Hove. Many years ago I wrote to an official at the Brighton and Hove Council asking what had happened to them. He said that he had seen them and would look out for them for me. I travelled all the way down from London only to be told that he needed more time. Then heard nothing. I would still like to find them. I do at least have a photograph of those chains as they appeared in the Hove Museum at the time. Meanwhile I am writing the biography of Hormuzd though it will be years before it is finished.

On 14/06/2011

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