The Barefoot Emperor

Philip Marsden

On one of Addis Ababa’s main roundabouts today sits a huge recently installed mortar. This is a replica of ‘Sevastopol’, a 70-ton lump of ordnance commissioned by one of the most extraordinary leaders Africa has ever produced – King of Kings of Ethiopia, the Emperor Theodore. In 1867, as his kingdom collapsed around him, Theodore retreated to his mountain-top stronghold in Magdala. It took his army six months to haul ‘Sevastopol’ through the gauges and passes of the highlands. Sixty miles to the north, a British expeditionary force under Sir Robert Napier – consisting of more than 10,000 fighting men, at least as many followers and 20,000 pack-animals, including a number of Indian elephants – had been ferried to the Red Sea Coast and built a railway line through the desert. Their object: to rescue the British consul and sixty Europeans, held prisoner by the increasingly erratic Theodore, who had taken to massacring his prisoners-of-war and pitching captives over the cliffs of Magdala. The resulting fate of Theodore and his mortar forms the climax to this strange extravaganza, in which an isolated medieval kingdom came dramatically face-to-face with an ascendant Europe. Philip Marsden tells the tale with all his proven narrative skill, deep love and first hand knowledge of Ethiopia.

Reviews of The Barefoot Emperor

  • ‘A masterly account…Marsden’s compelling narrative is full of gems… “The Barefoot Emperor” ‘warms the insides’ in specifically Ethiopian ways. It’s a triumph; a work of entirely unpredicted necessity.’ Independent

    ‘Compelling…a balanced, full-bodied account…of these extraordinary events…Marsden, an expert on Ethiopia, is also a gifted storyteller and his narrative has pace and, above all, suspense.’ Sunday Times

    ‘Marsden has done an amazing job of reconstruction… wonderfully strange.’ Daily Express

    ‘An amazing story…a page-turning narrative of a sort I haven’t read in years.’ Spectator

    ‘Marsden has combined his outstanding skills as a travel writer – his intimate knowledge of a foreign clime, his instinctive sympathy for a lost culture, his wonderfully evocative, almost poetic prose style – with the research talents of a first-rate sleuth to produce a quite spellbinding work of historical biography ’ Sunday Telegraph

    ‘Marsden first visited Ethiopia in the 1980s; his understanding of the country is manifest on every page. His narrative … is beautifully paced, and his story is incredible.’ Daily Telegraph

    ‘It is Philip Marsden’s achievement that he has made Theodore central to his theme…as always, Marsden manages to handle his research material with a light touch and lets the story develop its own momentum. This is imperial history told without an imperial perspective.’ TLS

    ‘There are few, if any, historians who can match the wit, pace and flair of Philip Marsden. It reads less like history than a rip-roaring novel with a cast of chatracters as extraordinary as any fiction-writer could devise.’ Mail on Sunday

    ‘Philip Marsden is a wonderful writer who tells the tragic story of Tewodros with sympathy, elegance and a knowledge of Ethiopia that few Western writers can match. His book makes a fine present for Christmas.’ Literary Review