Is the British Ever Return Ethiopia’s Sacred Treasures, Which were Looted During the Battle of Maqdala 1868?
- There is growing pressure on the British government to return various artifacts and treasures looted from Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century.
- Two hundred mules and 15 elephants were needed to carry all the looted bounty.
As the name “Maqdala 1868” suggests, the stolen treasures are incorporated into the narrative of the British imperial war, to tell a story of how the British sent a large army to free their citizens from Ethiopia. A century and a half years after the battle Ethiopia’s stolen treasures are still used as war trophies, their meaning forever defined with the abandoned name of a short-lived imperial fortress at Maqdala.
But for Ethiopia, there is no connection between the Maqdala war in 1868 and the stolen treasures at Maqdala. The war was imperial aggression against the King of Ethiopia. The stolen treasures amount to pure vandalism, theft of knowledge, and a crime against the current Ethiopian generation who are dispossessed of their intellectual heritage and history.
The Maqdala expedition is popularly known as a campaign for the release of British prisoners. But at the same time, a large army of “scientific” staff was sent to bring knowledge and treasures from the country. Henry Stanley, the architect of Belgian King Leopold’s hellfire colony over the Congo, joined as a reporter. The Army under Captain Napier was “the biggest yet sent from Europe to Black Africa”.
After Tewodros refused to surrender to the British Captain Napier, he committed suicide and the British went on a looting spree. The entire treasury was looted; the cannons and mortars he manufactured were destroyed. Two hundred mules and 15 elephants were needed to carry all the looted bounty. What couldn’t be taken was set on fire. Maqdala burned for weeks with countless destroyed manuscripts left scattered over the abandoned citadel.
On the way back, soldiers held auctions to divide the loot. Richard Holmes, the acting director of the British Museum, alone acquired 350 manuscripts for the British Museum.
The only son of the dead King, Alemayehu, was also taken along with the treasures. His unhappy life ended in exile at the age of 18. His remains are still buried at St George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle, despite multiple requests for their repatriation.
There are hidden religious treasures that have been in the British Museum’s stores for more than 150 years, never on public display – with members of the public strictly forbidden from seeing them.
According to The Guardian, hopes have been raised that Ethiopian tablets, looted by the British, could finally be returned home following a new legal opinion and an appeal backed by Stephen Fry, the author Lemn Sissay and the former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey.
The wood and stone tabots are altar tablets, considered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as the dwelling place of God on Earth and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant. They have, everyone agrees, huge spiritual and religious values for the people of Ethiopia.
A letter has been sent to British Museum trustees signed by supporters including Fry, Sissay, the actor Rupert Everett and the former British ambassador to Ethiopia Sir Harold Walker. It says the museum has acknowledged the sanctity of the tabots and has never put them on display, allowed them to be studied, copied, or photographed. “Instead, they sit in the vaults, where they remain over 150 years later, unknown to the vast majority of people of this country.”
It continues: “We believe that today the British Museum has a unique opportunity to build a lasting and meaningful bridge of friendship between Britain and Ethiopia by handing the tabots back to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.”
A number of attempts have been made by Ethiopia to get the tabots returned but the museum argues it is forbidden by the British Museum Act of 1963 to restitute objects in its collection.
Campaigners sought a new legal opinion that proves, they say, that the tabots can be legally returned.
The opinion, seen by the Guardian, has been drawn up Samantha Knights QC and was commissioned by the Scheherazade Foundation. It points out that the 1963 act has a provision that allows disposal of objects “unfit to be retained” and that can be disposed of “without detriment to the interests of students”.
It argues the tabots fall within this category, that they have “no apparent use or relevance to the museum”.
The website has no image of them and only the briefest of descriptions. “As such, they are currently and apparently always have been in effect treated very differently to the rest of the collection and could be properly said to be ‘unfit to be retained.”
On the question of detriment to students, no student is permitted to study them, the document says.
Eleven tabots are in the museum collection; nine can be directly linked to British looting after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, an event that came about after Emperor Tewodros II had taken British hostages. More than 500 Ethiopian soldiers were killed and the emperor killed himself rather than be taken, prisoner.
Hundreds of objects were subsequently plundered. They are in a number of collections. The V&A, which has Maqdala treasures including a gold crown and a royal wedding dress, has floated the idea of a long-term loan.
The British Museum said in a statement: “These documents need to be reviewed and addressed with full consideration, and more time is required before this can be looked at by trustees.”
Tim Reeve, the Deputy Director of the V&A, told the Cheltenham Literature Festival that the move to return items as part of the V&A’s work to “decolonize” its collections and to have a more honest conversation about history.
“There is no dispute about whether or not they were borrowed; they were looted and that’s a story we have tried to tell very openly and very honestly at the V&A,” he said.
It is a work of exquisite craftsmanship and an important symbol of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church: a gold crown, alloyed with silver and copper with filigree work and glass beads. Constructed of an inner raised and domed cylinder, with green fabric between the embossed tiers, the crown is completed with images of the Apostles. Once believed to be the royal crown of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II himself, recent scholarship now suggests that it was probably commissioned in the 1740s by the Empress Mentewwab and her son King Iyyasu II. It is believed to have been given as a gift to a church in Gondar, along with a solid gold chalice.
Abel Assefa, a researcher of Ethiopian heritage, is hopeful Ethiopia’s artifacts will soon return.“The most important thing is [that] Ethiopia is building a good heritage management system for the eventual returns of these important artifacts. The value they bring to us Ethiopians if they are properly preserved, is not just cultural; but will give us, local researchers, an opportunity to study them locally without necessarily venturing to other nations”, he tells The Africa Report.
But above all, the real battle remains the return of these items as Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-American writer points out.
“It is imperative that looted artifacts be returned to their country of origin. Those artifacts do not belong to the European countries that plundered and stole them, no matter how long ago it was. Those items, representative of Africa’s rich culture and history, were taken to showcase European power and might. They are continuing to do this now. Museums are not neutral spaces, and until all looted items are returned to their country of origin, those spaces are actively engaged in the ongoing work of the colonial endeavor”