Robert Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala

Field Marshal Robert Cornelis Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala GCB GCSI FRS (6 December 1810 – 14 January 1890) was a British Indian Army officer. He fought in the First Anglo-Sikh War and the Second Anglo-Sikh War before seeing action as chief engineer during the second relief of Lucknow in March 1858 during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. He also served in the Second Opium War as commander of the 2nd division of the expeditionary force which took part in the Battle of Taku Forts, the surrender of Peking's Anting Gate and the entry to Peking in 1860. He subsequently led the punitive expedition to Abyssinia July 1867, defeating the Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia with minimal loss of life among his own forces and rescuing the hostages of Tewodros.

The Lord Napier of Magdala
Governor of Gibraltar
In office
23 June 1876 – 3 January 1883 (1876-06-23 1883-01-03)
Preceded bySir Fenwick Williams
Succeeded bySir John Adye
Commander-in-Chief, India
In office
9 April 1870 – 10 April 1876 (1870-04-09 1876-04-10)
Preceded bySir William Mansfield
Succeeded bySir Frederick Haines
Personal details
Robert Cornelis Napier

(1810-12-06)6 December 1810
Colombo, British Ceylon
Died14 January 1890(1890-01-14) (aged 79)
London, England, UK
Alma materAddiscombe Military Seminary
Military service
Branch British Indian Army
Service years1828–1890
RankField marshal
CommandsBombay Army

Military career

Early career

Born the son of Major Charles Frederick Napier, who was wounded at the storming of Meester Cornelis (now Jatinegara) in Java on (26 August 1810) and died some months later, and Catherine Napier (née Carrington), Napier was educated at Addiscombe Military Seminary before being commissioned into the Bengal Engineers on 15 December 1826.[1] He attended the Royal Engineer Establishment at Chatham with the rank of ensign from 7 June 1827[2] before being promoted to lieutenant on 28 September 1827 and being sent to India in November 1828.[3] After commanding a company at Delhi, he was employed in the irrigation works of the Public Works Department until 1836 when he returned to England for leave on account of his poor health.[3] Promoted to captain on 25 January 1841, he was appointed garrison engineer at Sirhind in 1842.[3]

First Anglo-Sikh War

Napier served under Sir Hugh Gough during the First Anglo-Sikh War and commanded the Bengal Engineers at the Battle of Mudki in December 1845.[3] He was severely wounded at the Battle of Ferozeshah in December 1845 while storming the Sikh camp and was also present at the Battle of Sobraon in February 1846.[3] Promoted to brevet major on 3 April 1846,[4] he was chief engineer at the siege of the fortress of Kote Kangra in the Punjab by Brigadier-General Wheeler in May 1846.[3]

Second Anglo-Sikh War

Having been appointed as consulting engineer to the Punjab resident and to the Council of Regency of the Punjab, Napier was called to direct the siege of Multan in September 1848 at the outset of the Second Anglo-Sikh War.[3] He was wounded during the siege but managed to recover sufficiently to be present at the successful storming of Multan in January 1849 and at the surrender of the fortress of Chiniot shortly thereafter.[1] He took part in the Battle of Gujrat in February 1849 and accompanied Sir Walter Gilbert as he pursued the Sikhs all the way to Rawalpindi and was present at the surrender ceremony of the Sikh Army.[1] He was promoted to brevet lieutenant-colonel on 7 June 1849[5] and became chief engineer to the Board of Administration of Punjab Province at the end of the War.[3]

North-West Frontier

In December 1852 Napier took command of a column in the first Hazara expedition,[lower-alpha 1] and in November 1853 against the Afridis on the North-West frontier.[1] He crushed the Afridi Pashtun rebellion in the North-West Frontier Province and was promoted to the brevet rank of colonel on 28 November 1854 and the substantive rank of lieutenant colonel on 15 April 1856.[3]

Indian Mutiny

Napier (left) in India

Napier was appointed military secretary and adjutant general to Sir James Outram, whose forces took part in the actions leading to the first relief of Lucknow in September 1857.[6] He remained as chief engineer until the second relief in November 1857, when he was badly wounded while crossing an exposed space with Outram and Sir Henry Havelock to meet with Sir Colin Campbell.[1] He recovered sufficiently to be present at the capture of Lucknow in March 1858.[6]

Napier then joined Sir Hugh Rose as second-in-command for the march on Gwalior and commanded the 2nd Brigade at the Battle of Morar in June 1858.[1] After Gwalior was captured by the British, Napier and his 700 men pursued, caught and defeated Tatya Tope's force of 12,000 men on the plains of Jaora Alipur.[1] After Sir Hugh Rose's departure, Napier assumed command of the Gwalior division and helped capture Paori in August 1858, routed Prince Ferozepore at Ranode in December 1858 and secured the surrender of Man Singh and Tatya Tope, ending the war, in January 1859.[1]


In January 1860, during the Second Opium War, Napier assumed command of the 2nd Division of the expeditionary force under Sir James Hope Grant. In the Battle of Taku Forts he led the assault on the main northern fort on 21 August 1860[1] where he counted six bullet holes in his clothing and equipment.[6] The Anting Gate in Peking was surrendered to Napier on 13 October 1860[7] and he was responsible for protecting Lord Elgin's line of march into Peking on 24 October 1860.[8] He was promoted to brevet major-general on 15 February 1861[9] and to the substantive rank of colonel on 18 February 1861.[10]

Napier became the military member of the Council of the Governor-General of India in 1861, acting for a short while as Governor-General after the sudden death of Lord Elgin.[1] He assumed command of the Bombay Army with the local rank of lieutenant general on 7 February 1865[11] and received promotion to the substantive rank of lieutenant-general on 1 March 1867[12] before taking command of the punitive expedition to Abyssinia July 1867.[6]


"The British Expedition". Caricature by Spy published in Vanity Fair in 1878.

Napier achieved his greatest fame as an army officer when he led the expedition of 1868 against Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.[13] The Ethiopian ruler was holding a number of Protestant missionaries hostage, in his mountain capital of Magdala, as well as two British diplomats who had attempted to negotiate their freedom (Tewodros had unwisely taken them hostage as well). After months of planning and other preparations, the advance guard of engineers landed at Zula on the Red Sea to construct a port on 30 October 1867; Napier himself arrived in Zula on 2 January 1868, and on 25 January 1868 led his troops south into the Ethiopian Highlands.[1]

The expedition involved crossing 400 miles (644 km)[14] of mountainous terrain lacking roads or bridges occupied by local people with a known history of hostility towards outsiders. The expedition overcame the first obstacle, the terrain, by thorough logistical planning and engineering ability. Shrewd diplomacy dealt with the second obstacle, local opposition.[15] On the one hand, Napier made it clear to the Ethiopians that the sole intent of the British force was to rescue the imprisoned Europeans—not conquest; on the other, Napier met with local potentates such as Ras Kassa (the future Emperor Yohannes IV) and arranged to purchase needed supplies with the 4.35 million Maria Theresa thalers (the preferred currency of the area) the British had purchased from the mint in Vienna. What helped Napier was the general disaffection with, if not hostility to, Tewodros, and a desire to replace him, held by several native leaders, as well as a general sense that his hostage-taking was bound to lead to trouble.[16][17]

Napier's troops reached the foot of Magdala on 9 April 1868.[18] The next day, Good Friday, he defeated the 9,000 troops still loyal to Tewodros at the Battle of Magdala for the loss of only 2 British lives. Although Emperor Tewodros surrendered his hostages and made repeated efforts for a negotiated surrender, the distrustful Napier pressed on and ordered an assault on the mountain redoubt on 13 April 1868. The British captured Magdala, and Emperor Tewodros killed himself, leaving a grandiose statement that he preferred to "fall into the hands of God, rather than man."[19] Napier then ordered the destruction of Tewodros' artillery and the burning of Magdala as revenge for Tewodros's hostage taking; his palace was sacked by members of the expedition.[20][21]

After the Ethiopian campaign, Napier was made a Fellow of the Royal Society[22] and a Freeman of the City of London.[1] He was also elevated to the peerage as Baron Napier of Magdala on 11 July 1868[23] and granted an annuity for life.[24]

Later career

Napier became Commander-in-Chief, India, with the local rank of full general in April 1870,[25] and having been promoted to the substantive rank of full general on 1 April 1874,[26] he became Governor of Gibraltar in June 1876.[27] In February 1878, however, he was recalled to London and appointed to command an expeditionary force which was being prepared in anticipation of a war with Russia.[1] When war did not break out he returned to his duties in Gibraltar. In November 1879 he represented Queen Victoria at Madrid as ambassador extraordinary upon the occasion of Alfonso XII of Spain's second marriage and in December 1879 he became a member of the Royal Commission on the organization of the army.[1] Standing down as Governor of Gibraltar,[28] he was promoted to field marshal on 1 January 1883.[29]

Napier was also honorary colonel of the 3rd London Rifle Volunteer Corps[30] and colonel-commandant of the Royal Engineers.[31] In January 1887 he was appointed Constable of the Tower of London.[32]

Napier died of influenza at his residence in London on 14 January 1890. He was given a state funeral and buried in St Paul's Cathedral on 21 January 1890.[1][33]


In 1883 the British government installed one Armstrong 100 ton gun in a battery in Gibraltar that they named the Napier of Magdala Battery[34] and in 1891 a statue of Napier on horseback by Sir Joseph Boehm was unveiled in front of Carlton House Gardens in London: it was moved to Queen's Gate, Kensington in 1920.[35]

The descendants of the Third City of London Rifle Volunteer Corps are located within Napier House Army Reserve Centre, Grove Park, London; the building is named in his honour.[36]


Napier's honours included:

Coat of arms of Robert Napier, 1st Baron Napier of Magdala
On a mount Vert a lion passant Or gorged with a collar Gules and a broken chain reflexed over the back Gold supporting with the dexter forepaw a flagstaff in bend sinister Proper therefrom flowing a banner Argent charged with a cross couped Gules.
Gules on a saltire between two mural crowns in pale and as many lions passant in fess Or a rose of the field.
Dexter a soldier of the royal engineers; sinister a Sikh sirdar; both habited and each holding in his exterior hand a musket; all Proper.
Tu Vincula Frange[40]


In June 1840 Napier married Anne Pearse; they had three sons and three daughters before his wife died in childbirth in 1849.[3] In April 1861 he married Maria Cecilia Smythe Scott: they had six sons and three daughters.[6]


  1. Also see Muhammad Habib Khan Tarin


  1. "Napier, Robert Cornelis, first Baron Napier of Magdala". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19770. Retrieved 24 November 2013. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. "No. 18373". The London Gazette. 26 June 1827. p. 1371.
  3. Heathcote, p. 233
  4. "No. 20591". The London Gazette. 3 April 1846. p. 1236.
  5. "No. 20986". The London Gazette. 7 June 1849. p. 1865.
  6. Heathcote 1999, p. 224.
  7. Wolseley 1862, p. 273.
  8. Wolseley 1862, p. 292.
  9. "No. 22480". The London Gazette. 15 February 1861. p. 655.
  10. "No. 22621". The London Gazette. 29 April 1862. p. 2238.
  11. "No. 22937". The London Gazette. 7 February 1865. p. 591.
  12. "No. 23250". The London Gazette. 14 May 1867. p. 2759.
  13. "Robert Napier, 1st Baron Napier". Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 January 2016. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  14. Stanley 1874, p. 285.
  15. Vibart 1894, p. 410.
  16. Rubenson 2003, pp. 256–263.
  17. Pankhurst 1968, p. 469.
  18. Stanley 1874, p. 402.
  19. Rubenson 2003, p. 268.
  20. Eshete, Andreas; Pankhurst, Richard. "Memorandum on the Loot from Magdala (Ethiopia) addressed to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the United Kingdom Parliament, by the Association for the Return of the Ethiopian Magdala Treasures". Archived from the original on 9 February 2012. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  21. Maasho, Aaron (4 March 2019). "British museum to return royal hair seized in Ethiopia 150 years ago". Reuters.
  22. "Fellowship of Royal Society". The Royal Society. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  23. "No. 23400". The London Gazette. 14 July 1868. p. 3937.
  24. "No. 23409". The London Gazette. 4 August 1868. p. 4325.
  25. "No. 23585". The London Gazette. 8 February 1870. p. 755.
  26. "No. 24082". The London Gazette. 31 March 1874. p. 1924.
  27. "No. 24342". The London Gazette. 4 July 1876. p. 3820.
  28. "No. 25175". The London Gazette. 8 December 1882. p. 6250.
  29. "No. 25183". The London Gazette. 29 December 1882. p. 6650.
  30. "No. 23403". The London Gazette. 24 July 1868. p. 4118.
  31. "No. 24082". The London Gazette. 31 March 1874. p. 1923.
  32. "No. 25662". The London Gazette. 7 January 1887. p. 100.
  33. "Memorials of St Paul's Cathedral" Sinclair, W. p. 461: London; Chapman & Hall, Ltd; 1909
  34. Fa & Finlayson 2006, p. 64.
  35. "Statue of Robert Cornelis Napier, Baron Napier of Magdala". Pastscape. Retrieved 24 November 2013.
  36. Digby, Planck (1946). The Shiny Seventh: History of the 7th (City of London) Battalion London Regiment. ISBN 1-84342-366-9.
  37. "No. 23374". The London Gazette. 28 April 1868. p. 2431.
  38. "No. 22166". The London Gazette. 27 July 1858. p. 3475.
  39. "No. 23302". The London Gazette. 17 September 1867. p. 5109.
  40. Debrett's Peerage. 1891.


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