It was a land called Abyssinia when Mussolini invaded in 1935. Yet it
was called Ethiopia at least as far back as the 4th century when the
city of Aksum was the center of power on both sides of the Red Sea.
Recorded in the Book of Aksum; it was named after Itiopp’is, the son
of Cush, the son of Ham who founded Aksum.
Ethiopia early on was touched and shaped by the children of Abraham.
When the Assyrian Frumentius converted the Emperor to Christianity in
the fourth century, the line of kings and Emperors could already be
traced back a thousand years to Menelik, child of King David and Makeda,
the Ethiopian queen of Sheba.
There are connections to Islam, as well. When Mohammed was being pursued
by his enemies, it was an Emperor Sahana of the Axum Kingdom who gave
the grateful prophet sanctuary for his daughter and her husband.
What does all this have to do with the story? What happens in the story
is shaped by Ethiopia’s 3000 year history and the Ethiopians views of
themselves and how they faced cultural and military challenges. At the
core of its culture since the fourth century were the Coptic Church and
the Emperors that served with its blessing. Unlike much of the rest of
Africa, missionaries after Frumentius who came from Europe and the
Middle East had little impact on the Ethiopian culture. They found the
bond between the Ethiopian nobility and the Coptic Church as hard to
crack as the walls of the rock hewn churches of Lalibela. The Portuguese
in the sixteenth century, the British in the nineteenth and the Italians
in the twentieth did little to change the shape of the dynasty than
began with Menelik.
Since Frumentius baptized the Emperor Ezana almost two thousand years
ago, a symbiosis prevailed between Coptic Church and the Emperors and
kings, the Church blessing their divine right to rule and the Emperors
granting it the rights of the true church of the empire. In Ethiopia,
this church and royal nexus lasted until the end of the twentieth
century, far longer than in Europe. Feudalism lived and the descendants
of Solomon and Makeda reigned. Now the reign of Emperors is over. This
is the story of how it ended and the fate of those caught in the
maelstrom and their struggle for survival.
Alemayu worshipped his grandfather, Melakot Gebre Berhanu, who told him
stories of his ancestors who were great warriors, fighting for the
rassen who commanded the armies of Emperors. He would be like them
With two of his sons at his side, Tekle Melakot surveyed the great
valley that lay before them. The sun had risen above the mountains to
the east and began to burn away the heavy mist blanketing the valley
floor. Alemayu and Yohannes had moved off from their father and were
pointing and talking excitedly at the scene below. They could hear the
shouts of the soldiers who filled the valley. Thousands of sun bleached
tents now glistened by the rising sun, before them men forming in ranks
and moving about for some unknown purpose, then dispersing and forming
again hours later.
And the animals. Thousands of mules and camels tethered in great lines,
one behind the other, and men who were not soldiers busily seeing that
they were watered and fed. Some moved quickly among the animals,
checking for injuries and checking the hooves of the horses and mules
and the padded feet of the camels.
The two boys could not take their eyes off of one section of the corral.
Forty great elephants standing solemnly yet majestically in place.
Father Tekle told them they had come across the ocean with the soldiers.
Two days before, the enormous animals had entered the valley as part of
the great army now camped a half day from destination Magdala.
Since the soldiers began their march from the sea three months before,
Tekle gathered with other men of the village to hear news of the British
soldiers. All the messengers spoke of the wonders of what they saw.
Many had witnessed the armies of the Ethiopian Princes and Emperors that
marched through the highlands, awesome in their warrior regalia, many
mounted on horseback. The people of the surrounding villages had been
awed by the great spectacles of so many men and animals on the move,
almost as a single creature yet prayed that these armies would not pass
through their villages, for often they stopped to take their young men,
to slaughter their cattle and sheep, even to take the young women for
But this army of the great Queen Victoria was different. As they passed
through the villages on their path, their leaders bargained with the
elders for food and supplies in return for payment with silver Maria
Theresa Thalers. All along the path from the coast, Ethiopian messengers
were sent ahead to tell the village elders of the British army was
coming and promising no harm to the villagers. On the second day that
the army had camped in the valley, the morning silence was broken by
trumpets and drums and the shouts of men as they formed into ranks,
standing rigidly as their commanders moved among then. Shouts from the
commanders and the soldiers mounted sharp knives on the ends of their
rifles. A second command and the soldiers began to cross the valley
floor; a third command and the soldiers thrust their rifles forward,
gleaming knives repeatedly stabbing the air, the war cries of the
soldiers like a single voice to the three Ethiopians.
The stabbing ritual was repeated several times, until the men suddenly
broke on the run to form squares each of hundreds of men, four deep, the
weapons held by the soldiers on the perimeter pointing outward. Another
command and the men broke from the ranks, form into columns and march
briskly about the camp. On command, they would reform into squares
With the sun directly overhead, the soldiers are dismissed and drift
away and retire to their tents, then forming again to be fed.
Tekle looks at the boys. “Tomorrow they will attack Magdala. Come, my
sons, there is work to do.”
I am a rich man, he thought, richer than anyone in my village. Lord
Yemesgin has granted me the use of the grazing land in the valley for my
many cattle and goats, the use of 50 hectares to grow tef and maize, and
I am allowed to keep half of the harvest. God had given me two strong
oxen, a mule and three strong sons to share the work. My three daughters
and wife see to it that the grain is ground, chickens and goats cared
for, and water carried to the fields to water the crops and slake the
thirst of the cattle. They also till the small garden, store the grain
and sun dry the meat and prepare the food for our table.
But all of his good fortune was in jeopardy, he knew. It would be a
great relief for Tekle Melakot to see the foreigners go. Yes, he had
been paid for the cattle and sheep they slaughtered. Yet the silver
coins did not replace the cattle or the sheep. Nor did they pay for the
fields they had trampled. He had been able to hide some of his cattle
and sheep but he feared they would be discovered. He thanked Jesus for
the empty fields where grain and sorghum stood just a week before. He
prayed the soldiers would not demand what was in his storage sheds or
find the animals he had hidden in the valley beyond when they returned
from Magdala. It had happened before when the armies of the Emperor,
then of Gobeze and Kassai had swept into the valley and taken his stores
and most of his cattle and sheep.
As his father and Tesfaye left the hill to tend to cattle and sheep,
Alemayu Tekle Melakot remained behind, drawn by the awesome power of the
army below. Someday he would be part of a great Ethiopian army, like the
British one. It will defeat their enemies and rule over all the lands to
the Red Sea, to the north and south, east and west. Alemayu worshipped
his grandfather, Melakot Gebre Berhanu, who told him stories of his
ancestors who were great warriors, fighting for the rassen who commanded
the armies of Emperors. He would be like them. Yanked from his revelry
by his father’s voice, Alemayu ran quickly to catch up with him.
Tekle watched his son running toward him. Taller than other boys his
age, Alemayu had the look of a warrior which he told his father he would
be. Tekle worried that his son would leave the valley someday, yet
pleased and proud that he was so much like his own father.
Sergeant Ronald Harman had been with the Royal Engineers for 10 years,
with duty in Egypt and for the last six years in India. Sailing from
Bombay, the royal engineers were the first to land at Zula on the Red
Sea in September. The job of the engineers: to prepare for a massive
landing of British and Indian troops, supplies, and animals including
forty elephants and to prepare a road to a fortress called Magdala. The
engineers had four months to do the job.
Corporal Robert Sanders looked at his longtime friend. He always thought
he was the smart one, even had books in his locker. He shouted over the
sounds of hammers, winches, and shouting men. “What’s it all about,
Sergeant? I ain’t never seen anything quite like it. Landing in the
middle of nowhere and building a port.”
Harman smiled at his friend who had little schooling, could barely read
and write, but smart and curious. The sergeant liked being looked upon
by his mates as the one who knew everything.-
“Well, corporal, as near as I can find out, Queen Victoria ordered the
British Army to rescue a half dozen white people from an Emperor called
Theodor, who is holding them hostage and making demands on the
“Where is this Emperor?”
Harman turned and pointed west toward the hills that rose beyond the
“All this to rescue some hostages?” Sanders looked at Harman.
“Sounds a little farfetched, all this to rescue some hostages from
some African poobah.”
“What to believe? Hard to say, Bob. Times like this, the lines of the
Alfred Lord Tennyson poem The Charge of the Light Brigade come to mind
Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die,”
“I don’t getcha.” Sometimes the Sergeant seems a little daft, he
Harman stood erect, very pleased with himself. He noticed several of the
others had moved in to hear what he had to say. “Well, Bob, the
“Theirs” is you and me and the rest of the poem is that we best get
As the men moved away he thought of what the Leftenant told him. Two 700
foot piers! Twenty miles of railroad track! Four hundred miles of road
Harman stood for a moment looking up and down the beach. He was among
the first to step ashore, empty but for a cluster of huts built at the
edge of the sandy shore. Now where the trees and bushes began, there
were rows of tents, hundreds of them to house the engineers and the
laborers that arrived from India with them.
Steam powered pile drivers were at work sinking the piles into the coral
reefs that were just below the sea’s surface. Draft animals were at
work moving lumber and other building materials to build warehouses,
corrals, and the road bed for the train that would travel twenty miles
inland toward a town called Senafe. Tracks, railroad ties, locomotives
and cars had accompanied the engineers and Indian laborers from Bombay
and work had begun on the preparing a railroad bed. The remaining 380
miles would be traversed by a road, much to be built by Indian workers
supervised by the engineers.
Brevet Major Horace Skivington also wondered why. From a military
family, he was able to follow the orders from higher command with
equanimity if not always enthusiasm. When he thought about what he was
being ordered to do on the shore of the Red Sea, he sensed that
something did not meet the eye. An army of 13,000 was being formed to
attack a remote kingdom in Ethiopia.
He thought of the moment when the convoy of ships turned north and
entered the Red Sea through Bab el Mandeb strait from the Gulf of Aden.
He thought of the Suez Canal nearing completion to the north and
remembered the discussions with naval officers about what it could mean
to the British Empire. All the colonial empires bordering the Indian
Ocean had an interest in this new sea lane, but none greater than
Perhaps we were building this port with its piers, railroad, and
lighthouses on the shore of the Red Sea to save a handful of hostages
but he wondered. He would do his duty for the Empire and perhaps would
erase the brevet from his rank and be Major Skivington instead.
He looked out over the sea and imagined the far Arabian shore. He
thought of the challenges faced by the Royal Engineers in anchoring the
700 foot piers in the coral reef near shore and those in the deeper
water beyond them. Although the engineers tried not to flaunt their
special place in the military, there was always the self-assurance that
they were just a cut above the rest. Once again, they would show the
rest just why that was true.
The rains had started two weeks before. Was it two weeks? Henry Stern
found it difficult to keep track of time. It had been five years since
the Emperor had placed him under arrest. He recalled vividly when it
happened, when his Ethiopian companions had been brutally beaten, then
thrown from a parapet to their deaths hundreds of feet below. For five
years, seemingly at the whims of Tewodros, he and his companions were
chained and beaten then for no apparent reason released and allowed to
move about under house arrest, then put in chains and beaten again. At
first, the missionary wondered what he had done to receive such
treatment. Then he discovered it was the book he had written that
praised the Emperor and marveled at how he had risen from humble
beginnings. He was shocked to find that his mention of humble beginnings
made Tewodros furious, for he claimed a royal lineage tracing back to
Menelik and the beginning of the Solomon dynasty.
Now free to move about the fortress, Stern watched the sky grow black
and lightning seem to rise behind the mountains and move into the valley
below. The distant rumble of thunder grew louder until it was overhead.
Sheets of rain and ice began to advance from the valley and then the
crackling sound of ice and torrential rain pounding the roof above him,
the ice collecting on the ground until its crystals formed a silver
carpet. Great thunder claps like giant trees snapping and midday as
black as night, great bolts of lightning lighting the sky and everything
around him, then in an instant return to blackness, repeating itself
again and again.
Like all the rains, it appeared suddenly and just a suddenly was gone,
the sun bursting through the drained white clouds that hung low over the
valley before him. Now only the roaring torrents flowing in the streams
below could be heard. He watched and said a prayer that no living thing
be drawn into the roaring, awesome flood.
In the quiet aftermath, missionary Stern thought of his family in
England, praying that he and the others would be rescued. In the first
day as a prisoner, he had been hopeful that Tewodros would allow them to
leave, that his native land would not desert him. But each day, release
seemed less likely and his refuge became his faith.
Excerpted from "The Black Lion and the Crocodile" by H Edward Schmidt. Copyright © 2017 by H Edward Schmidt. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.