My sixth book in February’s section of the 12 in 12 Challenge is a biography. Philip Marsden’s book The Barefoot Emperor is the story of the country’s Emperor Tewodros who reigned from 1855 to his death in 1868. This is a man and a story I knew nothing about and this book has been sitting on my to-be-read shelves for so long I have no idea how I got it in the first place.
The story is an interesting one and the author frames it by looking at the Emperor’s relationship with the British and the experience of British officials who he kept prisoner and British craftsmen who he used to build an ever increasing collection of huge cannon. It seems very much that the author used British sources to tell the story because I did feel that the point of view of the Ethiopians at the time and subsequently is not well represented.
Tewodros needed to consolidate power by making Western alliances which were not forthcoming. He also needed to defeat other kingdoms in the area where he had variable success. He ruled at a time and in a place where brutality was the norm but he kept his power by terrible acts. I would have liked to have had some idea of context and also of why he committed the acts that he did – the book rather dismisses him as “mad” and doesn’t unpick that in any way although it does describe what happens and what he did.
Despite this weakness the book is interesting in describing the country and terrain at the time and also what happens to the British envoys, missionaries and craftsmen and their families. You get a real feeling for their plight and for the difficulties of their position. The book is well paced and holds the attention to the end.
I enjoy biographies and this was an interesting one which introduced me to a country and to events that I didn’t previously know. It made me want to learn more about the country and events from the local point of view.