The Magdala Hostages
For two centuries before the advent of American hegemony, the British Empire was the greatest power in the world. At its height it encompassed more than a quarter of the world’s land surface and governed approximately the same proportion of the world’s inhabitants. The British ruled their colonial peoples with a light hand, and, though they were often cynical and brutal in maintaining their rule, their dominion was incomparably more liberal and enlightened than any alternative form of governance during the same period.
It was through the British diaspora that the concepts of the rule of law, individual rights, and democracy were spread to the extent that they are known today. The atrocities and excesses of British rule were always exposed and decried not by other nations, but by dissenting groups in Britain itself. This process of self-doubt and moral debate culminated in the dissolution of the Empire in the 20th century.
It is natural for United States to have continued this process. After all, the American revolution sought to reclaim the “ancient liberties” which the colonists knew to be their natural rights as British subjects. The common culture of the English-speaking nations includes shared concepts of political economy and governance. This collection of nations is referred to here as the Anglic Reach, and includes non-white heirs of the British Empire, such as India and Singapore; after centuries of British rule, the latter countries have evolved and developed their own versions of the same political ideas.
Because it is the pre-eminent power of the Anglic Reach, it falls to the United States to perform the functions that the imperial center in Britain performed in earlier times. The American imperium is different from the British, since it declines to govern, seeking only to create the conditions in which commerce and ideas may flow freely among nations. Nevertheless, some of the parallels between the British Empire and the current struggle against the Great Islamic Jihad are striking.
The Magdala hostage incident has a resonance for modern America:
In 1866, the “mild Hindoo” (and his Sikh and Muslim brethren) were sent overseas to deal with a crisis. The Emperor Theodore (Tewodros) of Abyssinia had written the British government to request diplomatic recognition. The British Colonial Office didn’t even bother to reply, and Theodore, though justly angry at the snub, went off the deep end by arresting all the Europeans in his country and locking them up in his remote mountain fortress at Magdala. A diplomatic mission was sent to try to resolve the crisis peacefully, but ended up prisoners as well… In April 1867, Queen Victoria sent a request to the Emperor Theodore for the release of the prisoners. It wasn’t answered, and so the orders went out over the telegraph cables to create a plan for a rescue mission.
The commander entrusted with the rescue mission, Sir Robert Napier, went about his task in a way reminiscent of the 21st century American military. A huge expeditionary force in India was created, and in November 1867 the immense logistical task of equipping, provisioning, and moving it to Africa was begun.
It took a few more months of getting the details together before the expedition could set out. By modern standards, such delays would be intolerable, but things moved more slowly in such times and in fact the expedition was a monster undertaking. There were 13,000 British and Native troops, backed by 26,000 support personnel, mostly coolies, with tens of thousands of animals, including 44 elephants. Napier’s kit even included a prefabricated harbor with a lighthouse, and all the parts for setting up a rail line to keep his force supplied.
It took the British three tough months to march to Magdala. In another element of the story that has a modern feel to it, the fight for the fortress turned out to be appallingly one-sided: the British force inflicted 1,900 casualties on the Abyssinians, with only 20 Britishers wounded in return. The hostages were rescued; the Emperor Theodore committed suicide rather than be hauled off in chains. The troops sang “God Save The Queen” as the fortress went up in flames, to be wracked by a enormous explosion when the fires reached its magazines. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli received the Emperor’s necklace.
This story strongly resembles the first Persian Gulf War or the recent war in Iraq: a technologically advanced nation projects massive power halfway across the world, engineering an enormously complex logistical feat to do so, and conducts an asymmetrical war against a militarily inferior foe, taking almost no casualties in the process. Abyssinia was a Christian empire, however, so the parallel is not exact.
In the 20th century Britain stood resolute under the onslaught of a succession of empires far more brutal and barbaric than its own. In the process its strength was exhausted, and it relinquished its empire peacefully after the Second World War. Its heirs in the Anglic Reach have much to learn from it.