- General Sir Robert Cornelis Napier (December 6, 1810 – January 14, 1890) also known as Lord Napier of Magdala was a British Army officer who saw action in India, China and, most famously, Abyssinia. Born in India, he was brought to England as a boy to study at the Military College in Addiscombe. After completing his studies he returned to his birthplace where he served as a military engineer creating many military and commercial roads across India. His talent as an administrator saw him promoted to chief engineer of Bengal but when the Indian Mutiny broke out he acted as Chief of Staff to Sir James Outram, playing a significant part in the suppression of the rebelling troops. Winning the praise of his superior he was promoted to Brigadier-General and when there were uprisings in China he served as number two to Sir Hope Grant. But his biggest role was yet to come, described by The Times as “the most remarkable military undertaking in the career of Lord Napier of Magdala was the war in Abyssinia. His successful conduct of that brief but dramatic campaign has rendered his name memorable in history.” In October 1862, the Abyssinian Emperor Tewodros II, who styled himself King of Kings, made a rash decision as he sought help from Queen Victoria. Throughout the 1850s, Tewodros had conquered tribes and fought his way to the throne of Ethiopia, at first his rule was benevolent liberating slaves and bringing peace to the region but his decisions became increasing erratic. A Christian and Shakespeare lover, Tewodros wanted British expertise to modernise his vast, warlord-ridden domain. He asked the British consul, Charles Duncan Cameron, to take his request to London. The letter was passed around the Civil Service for many months, when the response came it provoked outrage – instead of the engineers and armaments, he had requested, he was sent a carpet. To make matters worse the design chosen featured a lion being attacked by a turbaned zouave. He responded by kidnapping Cameron and several other Europeans. Hormuzd Rassam, the Assistant British Resident in Aden, was dispatched with a judiciously phrased letter. But Tewodros concluded that his abduction techniques were finally getting him noticed. So he kidnapped Rassam as well. When appeasement failed to secure the release of the captives, the British sent an expeditionary force of 5,000 men under Sir Robert Napier. It defeated Tewodros’s army in April 1868. When Napier appealed to the Emperor to surrender, he suggested a duel with Napier. Instead, the British bombarded the hilltop citadel of Magdala. Rather than be taken alive, Tewodros shot himself. At his mother’s request, Tewodros’s seven-year-old son, Alamayehu, also left with the conquering general. Queen Victoria paid his fees at Rugby School. However, his health collapsed and he died in Leeds and he was buried in the royal vault at Windsor. For Napier the freeing of the Europeans – many of whom had been held for years – secured him a hero’s return, a peerage and further promotion before he eventually retired. He died at his home in London after catching the flu. His military successes had made him a popular choice for inspiring road names among patriotic developers.
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