The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden - review by Justin Marozzi

Justin Marozzi

Tewodros the Tragic

The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy


HarperPress 404pp £17.99

In 1843, Walter Plowden, a young Englishman with a taste for adventure, reached the Ethiopian highlands. He persuaded the initially sceptical Emperor Ras Ali of the immense benefit a trade treaty with Britain would bring his country. Anglo-Ethiopian relations had been born.

It was, Philip Marsden writes,

the tentative start of a relationship that would stumble on through years of inertia, calamity and ignorance, grow stronger through expediency and expressions of mutual love, stumble again through bereavement, suspicion, muddle and imprisonment before entering the arena of its bloody dénouement some twenty years later, amid the dark basalt cliffs of Meqdela.

As Britain’s first consul in Ethiopia, Plowden became a great favourite of Ras Ali’s successor, Tewodros II, a man whose martial brilliance saw him rise from ambitious camel-raider to King of Kings in 1855. Tewodros saw himself as a man of biblical destiny, a latter-day David who, like the Old

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