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Prelude to Magdala: Emperor Theodore of Ethiopia and British Diplomacy.

Dame Freya Stark, C.B.E., died on the 9th of May 1993. She was 100 years old: in her 80s she had travelled intrepidly. And yet, the |facts and the fame', Molly Izzard pronounced, |do not correspond'. And too much of the book is wasted in searching for the self-delusion and socio-pathic elements in Freya's nature from an uninteresting family background, to prove that Freya was an oddball. So what? So was Mary Kingsley. As for her male fellow travellers, most of them were eccentric to the point of lunacy. So Freya was jilted at an early age; she had a disastrous marriage: her looks were spoilt by an accident. She suffered from ill-health, that wonderful refuge for women like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Isabella Bird, till the moment came to leap out of bed and face their destiny.

Freya was 34 in 1927 when she answered the call to go East, without the money or family support enjoyed by many travellers. In time she was the last of the old type of traveller, just giving way to a new mechanised world. Her life can be divided into three sections: original travel, discovery and writing. She gave her own flavour to it and was one of the first to consider the world of women in the Muslim countries of the Near and Middle East. The second part covers wartime work in intelligence, based on Cairo. This cannot be assessed here, and Freya's pro-British outlook contrasts strongly with the fifties iconoclastic outlook of Izzard. Part three, covers Freya's life as an admired and prolific travel writer: ten travel books, four of autobiography, eight of letters and other miscellania including photography, at which she was an expert. Her letters, whether or not for posterity, are still a delight to read for, as Patrick Leigh Fermor said in the preface, she escaped the |decay of literacy' of modern writers. Freya also had, in common with her sister travellers, a delightful sense of humour, lacking in the more self important male travellers. The reader inevitably feels for Freya, as she faced the last untravelled marge, indomitable as Ulysses.

Nothing could be more unlike Freya's forays than the stark brutality experienced fifty years earlier by British Consul Duncan Cameron and a

missionary group led by Stern Rosenthal, in the huge unknown country of Abbysinia only partly controlled by that Christian monarch, Theodore. He took umbrage over a delay in Queen Victoria's response to his desire to send a mission to England and, after a mishmash of misunderstanding and lack of communication startling even for the Foreign Office, this despot of uncertain temper gathered all the Europeans in chains at the fortress of Magdala. Their situation was not helped by the egregious Dr. Beke, one of those freelance Englishmen who danced his own measure through the whole pantomime. Theodore on the one hand claimed a divine right to India and Jerusalem through his linear descent from Solomon and on the other accused the British of plotting against him with his traditional Muslim enemies, Turkey and Egypt. There is a horrid feeling of deja vu as the British were slowly sucked into military intervention to rescue their nationals. Fortunately Sir William Napier's expedition of 1867 was swift and efficient. Magdala, which might have become a name like Ladysmith or Sharpeville, slipped out of history before it was in. The British, not being in imperial mood, failed to annex Ethiopia and, after Theodore's suicide, the country slid back into civil war, without the British man in the street, and thankfully the media, being aware of it. The whole affair could be summed up in Palmerston's plaintive minute to the Foreign Office: |Where is Massawa? Who and what is Dr. Beke?' Percy Arnold, a distinguished Ethiopian scholar, answered these questions clearly and added another small strand to the history of the British Empire.
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Author:Mortimer, Molly
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Freya Stark: A Biography.
Next Article:Mary Renault: A Biography.

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