The British Empire

Robert Napier

Robert Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala was a British soldier  born in Colombo, Ceylon, and then served for many years in India, distinguishing himself in the relief of the Siege of Lucknow. Napier was educated at the East India Company military training school at Addiscombe and was commissioned into the Bengal Engineers in 1826 and sent to India in 1828.

Napier served in the 1st Anglo-Sikh War commanding the Bengal Engineers at the Battle of Mukdi and was subsequently wounded at the Battle of Ferozeeshah. He was chief engineer at the siege of the fortress of Kote Kangra and later directed the siege of Multan at the beginning of the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War, being wounded during the siege.

In 1852 Napier was sent  to the North West frontier and commanded forces in campaigns against the Hazaras and Afridis. He was chief engineer during the second relief of Lucknow in 1858 and in 1860 served in the campaign to force the Emperor to sign a previously agreed treaty. The expedition led by General Hope-Grant was responsible for the destruction of the Summer Palace in Peking.

In 1867 Napier commanded a force that was sent to Abyssinia to punish the Emperor for taking European hostages and sacked the emperor’s capital. At the Battle of Magdala Lieutenant General’s Napier’s leadership was regarded as a model of command as he accomplished his task with little loss of life. The Emperor’s fortress capital was looted and numerous items of treasure and items of religious significance were taken and brought back to London. As was the custom then, much of the lot was auctioned and the proceeds distributed amongst the British soldiers who fought in the battle. This year the V&A has had an exhibition of some of the items, generating discussion about the repatriation of such stolen items. The Director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, has indicated a willingness to look at how such items can be returned from whence they were taken, but it is most likely that any return of looted items will be on a temporary basis only.

In 1870 Napier became Commander-in-Chef in India and was subsequently Governor of Gibraltar and Field Marshall.

British troops from the Bombay Presidency army captured the Emperor of Abyssinia’s stronghold of Magdala.