Frustrated by a lack of communication from Queen Victoria’s government, in 1864 the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II (Theodore) took a number of Europeans captive, including the British consul, Captain Cameron. The British response was a military expedition of huge complexity and expense led by General Sir Robert Napier. The expedition marched to Tewodros’s fortress at Maqdala where a brief battle took place. Britain won the conflict, but not before the captives were released and Tewodros himself had committed suicide.
The expedition, which involved more than 13,000 men and a journey of some 400 miles, received unprecedented publicity in Britain. Crucially, it was one of Britain’s earliest military operations to be captured via the relatively new science of photography. Two sets of photographic stores and equipment were sent from England by the Royal Engineers’ Establishment and used to record the landscapes, camp scenes and leading individuals associated with the expedition.
This panoramic image shows the expedition’s starting point at Annesley Bay on the Red Sea coast. The bay’s shallowness meant a vast landing pier had to be constructed, with use of Indian troop labour. The expedition involved many such feats of engineering, including the building of a railway line plus numerous bridges, roads, wells and pumps. These were faithfully recorded through photography as evidence of the technological prowess of the British.