In “The Barefoot Emperor. An Ethiopian Tragedy”, Philip Marsden recreates a tale of power and tragedy on a classical scale, centring on one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in African history.
Emperor Tewodros II, King of Kings, rose to the Ethiopian throne in the 1850s. Claiming direct descent from Solomon, he combined military genius with personal charisma. He dreamed of an alliance with Europe but when Queen Victory failed to respond to his letter of friendship, his reaction was brutal and reckless. He provoked a dramatic hostage crisis, prompting ome of the most bizarre and costly expeditions of the imperial age. From Marsden’s thrilling account of these events emerges the figure of an extraordinary and troubled ruler, grappling with his own people, with his own demons, and with the unstoppled approach of the modern world.
When Mersden was in Ethiopia in tne 1980s there as little said about Twwodros – little said about anything in fact,such was the fear of paratchiks. But going back in 2003. he found Tewodros had emerged as a national hero. The reverence shown for him, and the importance of his place in Etfiopian history, sent Marsden back to the sources to see what he had missed. It was at once clear how, wtth selective reading and a little oral inflation, he could decribe such a towering figure. As he read more, the shape of Tewodros’ extraordinary life became apparent, describing a perfect, rather steep-sided parabola.
Research for The Barefore Emperor took Marsden to a great number of institutions, to private houses, into correspondence with a colourful group of indibiduals, up the slopes of Meqdela. But of all the locations, the most evocative was the Intitute of Ethiopian Studies library in Addia Ababa. The building was in Haile Selassie’s palace. There, Marsden read for the fisrt time many of the accounts, the letters and chronicles of the nineteenth century. Ftom the pages emerged thefirst hazy image of Emperor Tewodros, without whom, it can be aargued, the vast and glorious empire that is modern Ethiopia would not have existed.
The result? Marsden’s underdtsnding of the country is manifest in any page of his work. His narrative is beautifully paced, and his story is incredibli, but truth. Are few, if any, historians who can match in the wit, pace and flair of Philip Marsden. He has combined his outstanding skills as a travel writer with the tesearch talents of a first-rate sleuth.
•Philip Marsden, The Barefoot Emperor. An Ethiopisn Tragedy. London Harper-Collins, 2007-08.