Egyptian-Ethiopian War, 1874

As much of sub-Saharan Africa was being colonized by European powers, North African leaders sought to expand and solidify their power on the continent. The Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, aspired to expand his kingdom’s reach over the entire Nile region and Red Sea coast, and began slowly encroaching on Ethiopia’s borders. Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV (King John to the English) had only recently come to power in 1872. As a Christian leader in a predominantly Muslim region, Yohannes sought to Westernize and modernize the Ethiopian military and build alliances with European powers, particularly Britain’s Queen Victoria. After Egyptian troops began occupying Ethiopian territories in the area of modern-day Eritrea, Yohannes appealed to Queen Victoria for aid. Although Yohannes was unable to gain European support for his cause, he managed to repel the Egyptian force and solidify his power in the region.


Emperor Yohannes IV and his royal seal depicting him as “the Lion of Judah”

Letter from Ethiopian General to the British Secretary of State, Earl Granville, 13 May 1873

Letter from King Yohannis of Ethiopia to the British Secretary of State, Earl Granville, 13 May 1873

Letter of King Yohannis to Queen Victoria, 4 June 1873

Yohannis IV to Arakil ubar, 18 November 1875

Letter from Ethiopian General to the British Secretary of State, Earl Granville, 13 May 1873 Top

Source: Sven Rubenson. 2000. Internal Rivalries and Foreign Threats, 1869-1879. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.


His Majesty King John of Ethiopia, has authroised me under his seal, to lay before your Excellency the following statements.

In answer to Ismael Pacha’s assurance to your Excellency that no part of Abyssinian territory has been invaded by the Egyptian troops, His Majesty informs you that besides the province of Bogos which you must already known has been occupied for many months; they have taken possession of the province of Ailet, putting the Naib in chains, and erecting a steam saw mill at a place on the road from Massawa to Asmara called Subargume, where they have cut down many trees on Abyssinian territory for the use of the Egyptian government. Metemma, also, which is known to belong half to Egypt & half to Ethiopia, has recently been occupied entirely by the Egyptian troops. His Majesty’s governor, Shekh Jumar, has been put in chains, the taxes due to the Abyssinian crown have been collected by the Egyptian authorities, and Egyptian troops are quartered on the town.

On this side they have also sent plundering parties as far as Quarra and Wakhni, which latter place is more than half way from Metemma to Gondar.

Between Massawa & Metemma, the whole of the low lands have been invaded, and on the other side of Massawa, Mennsa, Ailet, Zula, Semhari, Dankali, and the province of Amphilea, have been occupied. These facts are I think a sufficient reply to Ismael Pacha’s assurance to your Excellency; and Mr. de Cosson the bearer of this letter can testify to the occupation of the province of Ailet and the town of Metemma, as he has travelled through those places.

Ismael Pacha’s statement that His Majesty did not rely to one of his letters is equally incorrect. All the Viceroy’s letters have been answered but the bearer of His Majesty’s last letter to His Highness has been detained at Cairo, and no answer returned.

All that His Majesty desires, is that the frontier which was recognized at the time of the Magdala campaign should be preserved. Lord Napier of Magdala and General Merewether are both acquainted with the frontier then recognized by Egypt, and if Ismael Pacha will respect that frontier, and withdraw his troops from those places in Abyssinian territory which he has occupied, all dispute is at an end. If not the King of Ethiopia begs her Majesty’s government, or the British government and any of the other European powers to arbitrate on this case, and determine what are the true frontiers.

His Majesty trusts that His Highness the Viceroy will be as willing to abide by their decision as he is, and he hopes that Her Majesty’s government will bring all its influence to bear to bring about an amicable settlement of this dispute; thus avoiding a long and bloody war which would otherwise be inevitably forced upon His Majesty for the protection of his country and subjects, which are daily being taken from him. He appeals to Her Majesty, as he and the Abyssinian people look to the English as their best friends, and are sure that Her Majesty will always wish to maintain the cause of justice, and defend a Christian nation from attack.

Another question of much importance which His Majesty wishes to refer to you, is the injustice of Abyssinia possessing no port by which she may communicate freely with the Christian powers of Europe; and he protests against the occupation of Amphilla bay by the Egyptian troops. At the time of the Magdala campaign it was known that Annesley bay and the province of Amphilla belonged to Abyssinia. By the occupation of the coast, the Egyptians have completely isolated Abyssinia from the rest of the world, preventing trade with Europe by the heavy taxes they impose on both exports and imports. If, however, the European powers will secure to Abyssinia an outlet on the Red Sea, His Majesty is prepared to enter into the most liberal treaties of commerce with them.

His Majesty also knowing that it is the wish of Her Majesty and the English nation that slavery should be abolished in all parts of the world, and as it is equally distasteful to himself as a Christian sovereign; he promises to put an end to all traffic in slaves in his Kingdom, and to declare all slaves now existing in Abyssinian territory free men. The purchase and sale of slaves is only carried on by his Mohammedan subjects, but he will put in force such laws as shall effectually stop it. These statements will I think satisfy your Excellency that His Majesty is influenced by the strongest desire to increase the prosperity of his nation, and cement the friendly relations already existing between Abyssinian and the great powers of Europe.

His Majesty is now in possession of the whole of Abyssinia, and therefore able to put in execution the plans which he has formed for the advancement and civilization of his country.

As Mr. de Cosson has travelled through his country, His Majesty takes the opportunity of forwarding this letter to you by him, as he will be able to give your Excellency any further information you may require upon the present position of Abyssinian affairs.

I have the honor to be,

your obedient humble servant,

J.C. Kirkham
General Abyssinian army.

Seal: King of Kings Yohannis, king of Zion of Ethiopia, Yuhanna, king of kings of Abyssinia.

To his Excellency
The Rt Hon Earl Granville K.G.
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

Letter from King Yohannis of Ethiopia to the British Secretary of State, Earl Granville, 13 May 1873 Top

Source: Sven Rubenson. 2000. Internal Rivalries and Foreign Threats, 1869-1879. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.

Written in the city of Gonder, on the 8th day of Ginbot, in the year of grace 1865.

May the message of the Elect of God, Yohannis, king of kings of Ethiopia and all its territories, rach Earl Granville (Erl Grand Bil).

How are you, really? I, with all my army, am well, thank God. Two letters have been sent to me by the hand of General Kirkham (Kerkam). I have received one from the queen [and] one from you. [After] I had [them] translated into the language of my country, I read and understood them. I was very pleased. All the notables and all the people of my country were very pleased, saying, “We have found a helper for our king and for us, for the Christians.”

The reply which Ismail Pasha gave you saying, “I have not written that the land [this] side of the Mereb is mine, my frontier; I do not rule [any] Ethiopian territory, nor do I intend to occupy [any],” is all untrue. There is not one word of truth in it.

The lands he has occupied on the other side of the Mereb [are]: Qeyih Barya, Sellim Barya, Bogos, The’ander, Habab, Mensa, Aylet, Asgede Beqla, Zula, Tora, Somhali [and] the country which is below [the hills] of Anfila. All these are the territories of Hamasen. But he has completely occupied it all. These are the lands which he has occupied beyond the Mereb. Now, what is left of Hamasen is one district on the plateau where the noblemen reside [and] where they enjoy [cool] air.

As to the matter of Shanquilla, the whole world knows that it is my domain. When the Shanquilla killed the brother of Mr. Powell I sent troops, saying to myself, “His blood is my blood” [and] avenged his blood. Mr. Powell and Mr. Jackson know that is my country, [which] I administer with justice and firmness.

Moreover, below Gonder there is a land called Wehni, where the sons of kings used to stay. He sent an army there from below [and] seized it, saying, “It is mine.” My vassal (who was) at Metemma named Shaykh Jima, he imprisoned, flogged and took to Egypt. He also pillaged his country.

[Ever] since Tweodros died until my [time] he has not stopped trying to take away my country, all these districts which I have enumerated. Let alone other [matters], you know about the boundaries of Ethiopia and Egypt. Besides, let your world histories testify (for me) as to whether I or he is the aggressor.

In addition, he has called the Ethiopians murderers [and] plunderers. Ought not people who do not pay tribute to [their] king and [and] who rebel be imprisoned and have their property confiscated. All such people have been condemend by the Apostles, by St. Paul, and by the Fitha Negest.

The matter over which I fought with the Shanquilla [is] the [case of the] great monastery of Waldibba, where the friends of God live, the saints, who preach the gospel, teach the faith and intercede with their prayers for all the poele. When they dragged them out, slaughtered, [and] finished them, when they refused to pay [me] my tribute and rebelled, I sent an army and attacked them. I plundered them.

When I sent my own servant, telling him to punish the wrongdoers, [Ismail] wrote to me saying, “Send me your servant, that man who attacked the Shanqilla [and] I will punish him.” While I was living peacefully in my own country, in the kingdom that Christ gave me, he sent me an order as if I were his vassal, saying, “I will punish your servant.” He sent me such abuse; [please] judge for yourselves. Moreover, [please] listen to me so that I may tell you one thing. Listen to me, o my friend! Ismail Pasha is doing all these things because he is determined to reign with force, to eradicate the Christian religion, to plant the religion of Muhammad, [and] to create slaves for the devil. As for the religion of Jesus Christ, are not you, our beloved brothers, striving [and] exerting yourselves more for it [than I]?

And now, make them give me an outlet on the seacoast, though I can exchange letters and messengers [and where] trading can take place. Anfila and Zula have been my districts since early times. Know, then, that if I do not get a port, I shall remain shut in, without a road [and] the friendship of my brothers, you the kings.

Letter of King Yohannis to Queen Victoria, 4 June 1873 Top

Source: Sven Rubenson. 2000. Internal Rivalries and Foreign Threats, 1869-1879. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.

Written in the city of Gonder, on the 28th of Ginbot, in the year of grace 1865.

May the message from the Elect of God, Yohannis, king of kings of Ethiopia and all its territories reach the honoured, the respected English queen, Victoria. Please accept my truly heartfelt greetings of friendship.

I received the letter you sent me from the hands of General Kirkham. I was very pleased when I read and understood it. May God reward you on my behalf. In your letter I found the statement that you worked hard and tired yourself on my behalf by writing to Isamil Pasha. However, the reply that Ismail Pasha sent to your letter is not true. He is still in occupation of the surroundings of Ethiopia, of my country. He has not withdrawn. Day after day he has not refrained from occupying what belongs to me. His army is where it has been, it has not withdrawn.

I have not strong and truthful friend whom I trust other than you. And I am saying all this because I know you are the protector of Christians. And now, look at all the deeds of the Muslims. It is to convert Ethiopia, the land of Christians, to the Muslim religion and to introduce slavery. All this is not my wish. By the power of God, all Ethiopia is in my hands ever since I became king until now, Ismail Pasha wants me to fight with him, to shed my blood in vain.

Until now I strictly follow the advice you gave me. You told me, “Be friends, agree, be reconciled with your neighbour,” saying, “Reconciliation and friendship are good before God and man.” He would not let me live, heeding your advice, living peacefully in the kingdom of my fathers, which God gave me and protecting my poor. And now, observe the injustice I am suffering. The intrigues of Ismail Pasha are many. In order that I not be on friendly terms with you, he has prevented me from getting an outlet on the shores of the Red Sea. But, trusting under Christ in you, I maintain peace while I, by the power of my Lord, consolidate my kingdom.

I have written an important letter to your official, to Earl Granville about all my affairs. I have sent the Cross of Solomon to your son, to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as a token of friendship for you and the prince, your son. Accept this letter from the hands of Baron de Cosson, your countryman and my friend, who came to my country and was travelling around.

Yohannis IV to Arakil ubar, 18 November 1875 Top

Source: Sven Rubenson. 2000. Internal Rivalries and Foreign Threats, 1869-1879. Addis Ababa: Addis Ababa University Press.

The Elect of God, Yohannis, king of kings of Abyssinia and its territories.

To the respected commanders, the beloved officers, Arakil Bey and the conscripted Egyptian troups, the officers and the sergeants. After presenting greetings to you and royal wishes for you, we inform you that it is among the basic rules which are accepted by all kingdoms in the entire world that no one attacks his neighbour across an established boundary, on any excuse whatsoever. Now a full-scale aggression has been committed against our boundaries and districts and all the dependencies of our kingdom.

But since patience is prescribed by God, we have remained patient until now. Not only this; entirely unexpected, the attacks struck us. All this is because of the advice of evil people who do not fear God and who have no experience in running different kingdoms under the authority of the Might and Wise. Now as for you, your attack on our boundaries and intrusion into the interior of our lofty kingdom is not in your own interest; nay, as we have said, it will not lead to peace. God has covenanted my soul and body for your soul and property, so that no single hair will disappear from your heads. But because of your recklessness, and your intrusion into our kingdom and your lawless war against us, your arms must be handed over. Then, if you like to stay with us you will find complete peace, but if you like to turn back to your country you can do so with an escort of soldiers without harm or trouble. These are my words. What remains is in God’s hands, He who upholds everything by His reliable covenant. A reply to this message is called for. Concluding greetings.


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