Tewodros II

Téwodros II
Emperor of Ethiopia
Emperor of Ethiopia
Reign 11 February 1855 – 13 April 1868
Coronation 11 February 1855
Predecessor Sahle Dengel
Successor Tekle Giyorgis II
Born c. 1818
Qwara, Dembiya
Died 13 April 1868
(aged 49–50)
Burial Magdala Wollo, Ethiopia
Medhane Alem Church, Magdala (originally)
Mahbere Selassie Convent, Qwara (currently)
Spouse Tewabech Ali
Tiruwork Wube
Issue Prince Alemayehu
House House of Solomon
Father Haile Giorgis Wolde Giorgis
Mother Woizero Atitegeb Wondbewossen
Religion Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo

Téwodros II (Ge'ez: ቴዎድሮስ, baptized as Sahle Dingil, and often referred to in English by the equivalent Theodore II) (c. 1818 – April 13, 1868) was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1855 until his death.

He was born Kassa Haile Giorgis, but was more regularly referred to as Kassa Hailu (Ge'ez: ካሳ ኃይሉ — meaning "restitution" and "His [or the] power"). His rule is often placed as the beginning of modern Ethiopia, ending the decentralized Zemene Mesafint (Era of the Princes).

Tewodros II's origins were in the Era of the Princes, but his ambitions were not those of the regional nobility. He sought to reestablish a cohesive Ethiopian state and to reform its administration and church. He did not initially claim Solomonic lineage but did seek to restore Solomonic hegemony, and he considered himself the Elect of God. Later in his reign, suspecting that foreigners considered him an upstart and seeking to legitimize his reign, he added "son of David and Solomon" to his title.

Tewodros II's first task was to bring Shewa under his control. During the Era of the Princes, Shewa was, even more than most provinces, an independent entity, its ruler even styling himself Negus. In the course of subduing the Shewans, Tewodros imprisoned a Shewan prince, Menelik II, who would later become emperor himself. Despite his success against Shewa, Tewodros faced constant rebellions in other provinces.

In the first six years of his reign, the new ruler managed to put down these rebellions, and the empire was relatively peaceful from about 1861 to 1863, but the energy, wealth, and manpower necessary to deal with regional opposition limited the scope of Tewodros's other activities. By 1865 other rebels had emerged, including Menelik II, who had escaped from prison and returned to Shewa, where he declared himself Negus. In addition to his conflicts with rebels and rivals, Tewodros encountered difficulties with the European powers. Seeking aid from the British government (he proposed a joint expedition to conquer Jerusalem), he became unhappy with the behavior of those Britons whom he had counted on to advance his request, and he took them hostage and chained them. In 1868, as a British expeditionary force sent from India to secure release of the hostages stormed his stronghold, Tewodros committed suicide.

Tewodros II never realized his dream of restoring a strong monarchy, although he took some important initial steps. He sought to establish the principle that governors and judges must be salaried appointees. He also established a professional standing army, rather than depending on local lords to provide soldiers for his expeditions. He introduced the collection of books in the form of a library, tax codes, as well as a centralized political system with respective administrative districts.[1] He also intended to reform the church, believing the clergy to be ignorant and immoral, but he was confronted by strong opposition when he tried to impose a tax on church lands to help finance government activities. His confiscation of these lands gained him enemies in the church and little support elsewhere. Essentially, Tewodros was a talented military campaigner.

In his efforts to keep skilled Europeans in Abyssinia, Tewodros arranged a marriage between one of his daughters and a Swiss military engineer. That branch of Tewodros's family ended up in Russia. The late British actor Peter Ustinov claimed to be Tewodros's great-great-grandson.[2][3]

Early years

Kassa was the son of a Christian nobleman of the Qwara district of the province of Dembiya named Haile Giorgis Wolde Giorgis. His paternal grandfather, Dejazmatch Wolde Giorgis, was a widely respected figure of his time. Dembiya was part of the large territory known as Ye Maru Qemas, or "that which has been tasted by Maru". It was the personal fief of Dejazmach Maru, a powerful warlord, and relative of Kassa Hailu (possibly a half-uncle). Kassa's mother, Woizero Atitegeb Wondbewossen, was of the upper nobility, and was originally from Sayint (Wollo).[4] Her mother Woizer Tishal was a member of a noble family of Begemder, while her paternal grandfather, Ras Wodajo, was a powerful and highly influential figure Although generally regarded as a non-royal usurper, Tewodros II, would late in his reign claim that his father was descended from Emperor Fasilides by way of a daughter, although most of his contemporaries did not acknowledge the legitimacy of these claims.

When Kassa was very young, his parents divorced and Woizero Atitegeb moved back to Gondar taking her son with her. Not long after their departure, news reached them that Kassa's father had died. Popular legend states that Kassa's paternal relatives split up the entire paternal inheritance, leaving young Kassa and his mother with nothing and in very dire circumstances financially. To make ends meet, it is often repeated that Woizero Atitegeb was reduced to selling "Kosso", a native herbal remedy used to purge patients of intestinal worms (a common occurrence because of the Ethiopian love of raw meat dishes). Kassa would be taunted often for being a "Kosso seller's son", an insult that Tewodros II seldom forgave. There is actually no evidence that Woizero Atitegeb was ever a Kosso seller, and several writers such as Paulos Ngo Ngo have stated outright that it was a false rumor spread by her detractors. Evidence indicates that Woizero Atitegeb was fairly well to do, and indeed had inherited considerable land holdings from her own illustrious relatives to lead a comfortable life. Kassa's youth was probably not lived lavishly, but he was far from a pauper.

Kassa was sent to school at the convent of Tekla Haymanot, between Gondar and Lake Tana. When this school got sacked by rebellious princes, he fled to the protection of his kinsman, Dajazmach Kenfu (Ethiopian equivalent of an 'earl'), probably his uncle. He continued his formal education and became familiar with the Bible and Ethiopian literature. or his time, Kassa was a well-educated man; later he went on to acquire a knowledge of both ancient and modern European history, as well as some acquaintance with Shakespeare. He also received instruction on the techniques of Ethiopian warfare from kenfu. When Kenfu died, and his two sons were defeated by another Dajazmach (earl), Dajazmach Goshu of Damot and Gojjam, Kassa was forced to make another start in life, and offered his services to Goshu.[5]

Rise to power

Emperor Tewodros II supervising crossing of the Blue Nile river

Kassa Hailu was born into a country rife with civil war, and he destroyed many provincial warlords before becoming emperor. The times were known as the Zemene Mesafint or "Age of the Princes". During this era, warlords, regional princes, and noble houses vied with each other for power and control. They divided the Empire into personal fiefs and fought each other continuously. A puppet Emperor of the dynasty was enthroned in Gondar by one warlord, only to be dethroned and replaced by another member of the Imperial dynasty when a different warlord was able to seize Gondar and the reins of power. Regions such as Gojjam and Shewa were ruled by their own branches of the Imperial dynasty and, in Shewa, the local prince went as far as assuming the title of King.

Kassa began his career in this era as a shifta (or outlaw), but after amassing a sizable force of followers, was able to not only restore himself to his father's previous fief of Qwara but was able to control all of Dembiya. Moreover, he gained popular support by his benevolent treatment of the inhabitants in the areas he controlled: According to Sven Rubenson, Kassa "shared out captured grain and money to the peasants in Qwara and told them to buy hoes and plant."[6] This garnered the notice of the warlord in control of Gondar, Ras Ali II of Yejju. Empress Menen Liben Amede arranged for Kassa to marry her granddaughter, Tewabech Ali. She awarded him all of Ye Meru Qemas in the hopes of binding him firmly to her son and herself.[7]

Although all sources and authorities believe that Kassa truly loved and respected his wife, his relationship with his new in-laws deteriorated largely because of the disdainful treatment he repeatedly received from the Empress Menen. By 1852 he rebelled against Ras Ali and, in a series of victories — Gur Amaba, Takusa, Ayshal, and Amba Jebelli — over the next three years he handily defeated every army the Ras and the Empress sent against him. At Ayshal he captured the Empress Menen, and Ras Ali fled from the rising star and out of history. Kassa announced that he was deposing Yohannes III, and then marched on his greatest remaining rival, Dejazmach Wube Haile Maryam of Semien. Tewodros refused to acknowledge an attempt to restore the former Emperor Sahle Dengel in the place of the hapless Yohannes III who had acknowledged Tewodros immediately. Yohannes III was treated well by Tewodros who seems to have had some personal sympathy for him. His views on Sahle Dengel are not known but are not likely to have been sympathetic. Following the defeat of Dejazmach Wube, Kassa was crowned Emperor by Abuna Salama III in the church of Derasge Maryam on February 11, 1855. He took the throne name of Tewodros II, attempting to fulfill a prophecy that a man named Tewodros would restore the Ethiopian Empire to greatness and rule for 40 years.

Military skills

His military experience started when he served in his half brother’s army. His half brother died in 1839 and Qwara was lost to the family and claimed by Empress Menen of Gondar. Kassa Hailu resorted to become a shifta, one who refuses to recognize his feudal lord. Kassa Hailu organized his own army in the plains of Qwara. When he became too powerful to ignore, as a way to deal with him with out using force, he was named dajazmach of Qwara and given the hand of Tawabach, the daughter of Ras Ali of Begemder, in 1845

Kassa was very close to Tawabach and devoted to his marriage but his submission to Empress Menen was short-lived. In October 1846, he attacked and plundered Dembea, a city located due south of Gondar, and in January 1847 he went on to occupy Gondar. When Kassa unoccupied Gondar later that year, Empress Menen sent an army after him into north of Lake Tana. Kassa easily defeated the army and took the Empress as prisoner (Marcus 2002, 60). Her son, Ras Ali of Begemder, chose to negotiate with Kassa; he gave Kassa all lands west and north of Lake Tana and Kassa in return released his mother (Prouty and Rosenfeld 1982, 60). The reconciled relationship with Empress Menen led him to join up with Ras Ali and Ras Goshu Zewde of Gojam. However, when conflict re-emerged yet again in 1852, Kassa retreated back to Qwara to re-strengthen his troops.


Tewodros giving audience, surrounded by lions.

Tewodros sought to unify and modernise Ethiopia. However, since he was nearly always away on campaign during his tenure as emperor, disloyal leaders frequently tried to dislodge him while he was away fighting. Within a few years, he had forcibly brought back under direct Imperial rule the Kingdom of Shewa and the province of Gojjam. He crushed the many warlords of Wollo and Tigray and brought recalcitrant regions of Begemder and Simien under his direct rule.

He moved the capital city of the Empire from Gondar, first to Debre Tabor, and later to Magdala. Tewodros ended the division of Ethiopia among the various regional warlords and princes that had vied among each other for power for almost two centuries. He forcibly re-incorporated the regions of Gojjam, Shewa and Wollo under the direct administration of the Imperial throne after they had been ruled by local branches of the Imperial dynasty (in Gojjam and Shewa) or other warlords (Wollo). With all of his rivals apparently subdued, he imprisoned them and their relatives at Magdala. Among the royal and aristocratic prisoners at Magdala was the young Prince of Shewa, Sahle Mariam, the future Emperor Menelik II. Tewodros doted on the young prince, and married him to his own daughter Alitash Tewodros. Menelik would eventually escape from Magdala, and abandon his wife, offending Tewodros deeply.

The Cross of Emperor Tewodros II.

The death of his beloved wife, Empress Tewabech, marked a deterioration in Tewodros II's behavior. Increasingly erratic and vengeful, he gave full rein to some of his more brutal tendencies now that the calming influence of his wife was absent. Tewodros II remarried, this time to the daughter of his imprisoned enemy Dejazmatch Wube. The new Empress, Tiruwork Wube was a proud and haughty woman, very aware of her illustrious Solomonic ancestry. She is said to have intended on the religious life and becoming a nun, especially after the fall of her father and his imprisonment along with her brothers at the hands of Tewodros II. However, Tewodros' request for her hand in marriage was seen by her family as an opportunity to get Dejazmatch Wube and his sons freed from imprisonment, and so they prevailed on her to marry the Emperor. However, while the conditions of their imprisonment were eased, Dejazmatch Wube and his sons were not released, deeply imbittering Empress Tiruwork against Tewodros. Already feeling that she had married far beneath her dignity to a usurper, the failure of the Emperor to free her family did not help their marital relationship. The marriage was very far from a happy one, and was extremely stormy. They did have a son, Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros, whom the Emperor adored and whom he regarded as his heir.

Tewodros, fearful of northerly Muslim powers, wrote a letter[8] to Queen Victoria as a fellow Christian monarch, asking for British assistance in the region. Tewodros asked the British Consul in Ethiopia, Captain Charles Duncan Cameron, to carry a letter to Queen Victoria requesting skilled workers to come to teach his subjects how to produce firearms, and other technical skills. Cameron traveled to the coast with the letter, but when he informed the Foreign Office of the letter and its contents, the Foreign Office instructed him simply to send the letter to London rather than take it himself. He was to proceed to the Sudan to make inquiries about the slave trade there. After doing this, Cameron returned to Ethiopia.

On Cameron's return, the Emperor became enraged when he found out that Cameron had not taken the letter to London personally, had not brought a response from the Queen, and most of all, had spent time traveling through enemy Egyptian and Turkish territories. Cameron tried to appease the Emperor saying that a reply to the letter would arrive shortly. The Foreign Office in London did not pass the letter to Queen Victoria, but simply filed it under Pending. There the letter stayed for a year. Then the Foreign Office sent the letter to India, because Abyssinia came under the Raj's remit. It is alleged that when the letter arrived in India, officials filed it under Not Even Pending.

After two years had passed and Tewodros had not received a reply, he imprisoned Cameron, together with all the British subjects in Ethiopia and various other Europeans, in an attempt to get the queen's attention. His prisoners included a missionary named Mr. Stern, who had previously published a book in Europe describing Tewodros as a barbaric, cruel, unstable usurper. When Tewodros saw this book, he became violently angry, pulled a gun on Stern, and had to be restrained from killing the missionary. Tewodros also received reports from abroad that foreign papers had quoted these European residents of Ethiopia as having said many negative things about him and his reign.

Conflict with the British Empire

Departure of the British expeditionary force from Magdala (The Illustrated London News, 1868)

The British sent a mission under an Assyrian-born British subject, Hormuzd Rassam, who bore a letter from the Queen (in response to Tewodros' now three-year-old letter requesting aid). He did not bring the skilled workers as Tewodros had requested. Deeply insulted by the British failure to do exactly as they were told, Tewodros had the members of the Rassam mission added to his other European prisoners. This last breach of diplomatic immunity was the catalyst to Britain launching the 1868 Expedition to Abyssinia under Robert Napier. He traveled from India, then a British colony, with more than 30,000 personnel, who consisted of not only soldiers but also specialists such as engineers. Tewodros had become increasingly unpopular over the years due to his harsh methods, and many regional figures had rebelled against him. Several readily assisted the British by providing guides and food as the expeditionary force marched towards Magdala, where the Emperor had fortified the mountaintop.

When the two sides met at Arogye, in the plain facing Magdala, on April 10, 1868, the British defeated the Abyssinian army. With Tewodros' army so decisively defeated, many of his men began to desert and the emperor was left with only 4,000 soldiers. Sunday, April 12, that year. Napier sent a message thanking him for this peace offering and stating that he would treat the Emperor and his family with every dignity. Tewodros II furiously responded that he would never be taken prisoner. The British shelled Magdala, killing most of Tewodros II's remaining loyal men. The emperor committed suicide on Easter Monday, April 13, 1868, as the British troops stormed the citadel of Magdala. He used a pistol which he had used during fighting for unification during the era. Tewodros II was buried by the British troops at Magdala's Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) Orthodox Church under the name of Theodore II.[9]

After his death, the British burned the fortress of Magdala, and departed from Ethiopia. They looted a vast amount of treasure from the citadel, including Tewodros II's crowns, a huge number of both royal and ecclesiastic robes, vestments, crosses, chalices, swords and shields, many embroidered or decorated with gold or silver, hundreds of tabots, the great Imperial silver negarit war drum, and a huge number of valuable manuscripts. Many of these continue to be held in various museums and libraries in Europe, as well as in private collections. In burning the mountaintop fortress, they also torched the two churches and town. With the Church of Medhane Alem burned, Tewodros II's family later moved the Emperor's remains to the Mahedere Selassie Monastery in his native Qwara, where they remain.[10]


The widowed Empress Tiruwork and the young heir of Tewodros, Alemayehu, were also to be taken to England. However, Empress Tiruwork died on the journey to the coast, and little Alemayehu made the journey alone. The Empress was buried at Sheleqot monastery in Tigrai among her ancestors. Although Queen Victoria subsidised the education (at Rugby) of Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros, Captain Tristam Speedy was appointed as his guardian. He developed a very strong attachment to Captain Speedy and his wife. However, Prince Alemayehu grew increasingly lonely as the years went by, and his compromised health made things even harder. He died in October 1879 at the age of 19 without seeing his homeland again. Prince Alemayehu left an impression on Queen Victoria, who wrote of his death in her journal: "It is too sad! All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him... His was no happy life".

Emperor Tewodros had an elder son born outside of wedlock, named Meshesha Tewodros. Meshesha was frequently at odds with his father, especially after it was learned that he had assisted Menelik of Shewa in his escape from Magdala. When Menelik became Emperor of Ethiopia, Meshesha Tewodros was raised to the title of Ras and given Dembia as his fief. Ras Meshesha would remain a loyal friend of Emperor Menelik II until his death, and his descendants were regarded as among the highest nobility and the leading representatives of Tewodros' line.

Tewodros II's much loved daughter, Woizero Alitash Tewodros, was the first wife of Menelik of Shewa who eventually became Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. Woizero Alitash was abandoned by her husband when Menelik escaped from Magdala to return and reclaim his Shewan throne. She was subsequently remarried to Dejazmatch Bariaw Paulos of Adwa. When Menelik II was proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia at Were Illu in Wollo shortly after the death of Yohannes IV, Woizero Alitash was among the first of the nobility to travel to Were Illu to pay homage to her former husband as the new Emperor. Rumors persist that Woizero Alitash and Emperor Menelik may have rekindled their relationship and that Woizero Alitash found that she was pregnant by the Emperor in the following months. The rumors continue that upon hearing about this pregnancy of the Emperor's first wife, the childless and barren Empress Taytu Bitul had Woizero Alitash poisoned.Yet a different version of these rumors state that she gave birth to a boy and handed him over to a friend to be raised as a common farmer in Shewa...the eldest descendant of this line now resides in Kenya married to the daughter of a Gojjam Jegna, some Ethiopians believe them to be the only legitimate heirs to the line of Tewedros II and Menelik II. Regardless of the veracity of these rumors, Woizero Alitash Tewodros, daughter of Tewodros II, died within the first few months of the reign of her ex-husband Menelik II.

Tewodros II has numerous descendants by his many children, but none by the two women to whom he was legally married unless the refugee in Kenya was truly descended from Tewedros's daughter and Menelik II.


  1. Ghelawdewos Araia. (2006). The Great Unifier: Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia. Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), Inc. 1-8. PDF.
  2. Previous rumours about an Ethiopian royal ancestry could not be confirmed by family documents. A recent publication based on genealogical documents preserved from his grandmother's family has clarified this open question. Peter's grandmother was Magdalena Hall, daughter of Katharina Hall, also known as Welette-Iyesus (wife of Tewodros II' cannon-caster Moritz Hall, a Jewish convert and employee of the Protestant mission in Ethiopia, later Jaffa), a confidante of Empress Taytu in the early 20th century. She was of mixed Ethiopian-German origin, the daughter of the German painter and immigrant to Ethiopia Eduard Zander and the court lady Isette-Werq in Gondar, daughter of an Ethiopian general called Meqado (active before the mid-19th century). See: Wolbert G.C. Smidt: Verbindungen der Familie Ustinov nach Äthiopien, in: Aethiopica, International Journal of Ethiopian and Eritrean Studies 8, 2005, pp. 29–47; for older speculations on Ustinov's Ethiopian ancestry, which have been disproved, see Frontline: Ustinov, which wrongly claimed that Peter Ustinov's alleged ancestor, Susan Bell, was the daughter of Tewodros II. The supposed connection with Susan Bell is based on Ustinov's memory of some family relation with the Swiss missionary Theophilus Waldmeier (husband of Susan Sara Yewubdar Bell). But, he was a colleague and friend of Ustinov's great-grandfather, not his great-grandfather himself.
  3. Frontline: Ustinov
  4. Hormuzd Rassam, Narrative of the British Mission to Theodore of Abyssinia (London, 1869), vol. 1 p. 279
  5. Marcus, Harold (1975). The Life and Times of Menelik II: Ethiopia 1844-1913. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. 13.
  6. Rubenson, Sven (1966). King of Kings: Tewodros of Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University. p. 36.
  7. Rubenson, King of Kings, pp. 36–39
  8. Juterczenka, Sünne (2009). The Fuzzy Logic of Encounter: New Perspectives on Cultural Contact (Cultural Encounters and the Discourses of Scholarship). Waxmann Verlag Gmbh Mrz. ISBN 9783830921240.
  9. "Tewodros II". Retrieved 22 April 2009.
  10. "AFRICAN KINGS AND QUEENS | Legends of African History | Askia | Sunni Ali Ber| Malcolm X | Nzinga | Garvey". www.africanholocaust.net. Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  11. "'Mad king Tewodros' of Abyssinia". Retrieved 2016-10-04.
  12. http://www.nla.gov.au/what-we-collect/music

Further reading

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Preceded by
Sahle Dengel
Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by
Tekle Georgis II
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