Treasure Thieves: The Day Britain stole Ethiopia’s Treasures
For the non-historian in particular it is necessary to provide the background for Europe’s longstanding romance with Ethiopia–which nineteenth-century writers christened Abyssinia to appreciate why Napier’s liberation expedition became a cause celebre in the mid-nineteenth century. The early history of Ethiopia is filled with legend and romance. To the ancient Greek writers Ethiopians were among the ablest, wisest, richest, oldest, most civilized, and according to Herodotus, via Lady Lugard’s widely read Edwardian history of ancient Africa, A Tropical Dependency (1905) “the tallest, most beautiful, and long-lived of the human races” and to Homer, they were the “blameless Ethiopians,” “the most just of men,” and very much beloved of the gods. The Greek gods, he tells us, especially Poseidon, loved to resort to Ethiopia to relax and make love to beautiful women with whom they begat several children. Such writers as Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily, first century BC) and Stephanus of Byzantium (Middle Ages) were convinced that the human race originated in Ethiopia, and other writers believed that that country was the cradle of Egyptian civilization.
Greek literature, too, celebrates the valor of Ethiopian soldiers in the defense of Troy during the Trojan War. Arctinus of Miletus and Quintus of Smyra tell us that no Trojan general or contingent displayed greater valor than Memnon, the Prince of Aethiopia, and his sons. Memnon’s mother, they say, was Aurora, goddess of the Dawn, and his father was Pithonus, governor of Persia. It was Memnon who slew the mighty Greek warrior Antilochus. He later fell by the hand of the superhuman Achilles. We learn further that Cassiopeia (Cassiope) of Ethiopia, mother of the beautiful Andromeda (who later married the Greek hero Perseus) became one of the five w-shaped stars of the northern constellation. Finally, Zeus, the supreme god of Greece, is said to have had among his numerous wives an African (Ethiopian) lady with the intriguing name of Europa. But from the 19th Century on these infatuations with Ethiopia, start showing its dark side during Emperor Tewodros II, the first Emperor, who started the unification of modern-day Ethiopia.
One hundred and sixty-five years ago, a minor chief from Quara came to the foreground of the Ethiopian political stage after out-braving the major regional rulers in a series of battles that culminated in his coronation as Emperor of Ethiopia. That was Tewodros II, one of the “towering figures” of the nineteenth century, who is best remembered for his heroic efforts to end the divisive politics of the Zemene Mesafint (the Era of the Princes) and unite Ethiopia under a strong central government. His unification policy was interwoven with another equally appealing reform modernization.
Among other things, Emperor Tewodros attempted to abolish slavery and the slave trade, polygamy, as well as robbery. He was also determined to introduce land and religious reforms. Above all, Emperor Tewodros set out to introduce European technology to Ethiopia so as to put the country on an equal footing with European powers. Mainly due to the internal instability and the external threat from Egypt, Tewodros gave precedence to his military reform over other issues. His overriding concern was, therefore, the creation of a well-organized, highly disciplined, and better-armed standing national army.
In fact, Emperor Tewodros’s desire for military technology is said to have been begun in 1848 soon after his unfortunate engagement with the Egyptian invading army at Debarqi. In the first instance, he attempted to produce explosives by hollowing out logs and stuffing them with gunpowder. That he hollowed out a canoe from a log as a first step to establish a small navy in Lake Tana is another self-evident ingenuity of Emperor Tewodros. Tewodros decided to augment his single-handed efforts of military technology by employing foreign artisans as early as 1855. His strong need for foreign technicians coincided with the influx of European missionaries.
Among the missionaries, the Protestants had been given some sort of training in craftsmanship in addition to their theological instruction. That made them fit for the production of arms Tewodros decided to commence. Hoping to capitalize on their essential skills, Emperor Tewodros eagerly awaited the arrival of Protestant missionaries from the Chrischona Institute of Basle, Switzerland, sent by Samuel Gobat, the then Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem. Tewodros is said to have received from the missionaries scriptures as gifts. He was not, however, impressed with the gifts. On one occasion, he told John Bell, his British confidant, that “he would have been more pleased with a box of English gunpowder” than with those religious books.
Emperor Tewodros who had unflinching determination to build an invincible artillery power regarded those skills of Europeans as a light at the end of the tunnel towards the realization of his dreams. In 1861, therefore he ordered those Europeans at Gafat to establish a foundry. Ironically the missionaries who had come to proselytize “ended up being commandeered to manufacture weapons … by a Christian Sovereign [Tewodros] who wanted from the Europeans their science, not their religion.” For those European artisans, Tewodros’s exigent demand was a tough nut to crack. Herny Dufton, who came to Ethiopia in 1862, has left us a graphic description about the difficulty of Europeans to get along with the emperor’s order: … things went on smoothly for some time until one day an order came from his Majesty to the effect that he wished them at once to commence the construction of mortars and bombshells. The order came upon them like the bursting of a bomb itself, for none of them had ever had an idea…to undertake work of that description. They of course demurred, informing the king that …they were totally unprepared to enter into an engagement of that description…
They told the emperor that they had neither the knowledge nor the capability to manufacture cannons and mortars. They had even advised him to import them from Europe. Nonetheless, Tewodros remained unconvinced. He went on insisting Europeans give him a helping hand in the production of modern weapons locally. Realizing that further resistance would bring about the enmity of the Emperor, the missionaries agreed to begin the project through trial and error. It was soon found out that some of them like Moritz Hall, Bourgaud and Joaquin had some technical know-how in iron-casting. The latter had even expressed his readiness to undertake the production of a mortar in collaboration with his companions. The installations of the bellows and the establishment of the blast furnace were accomplished without much difficulty. With respect to those first trials and tribulations, Theophilus Waldmeier, a member of the workforce, recorded:
Tewodros was ready to give everything he had as a reward for his European workmen. But he kept on asking for still bigger mortars and cannons. By 1862, the production of cannons and mortars was showing good headway (Ibid). Meanwhile, Tewodros intended to bring professional craftsmen from Europe. Since Britain was the leading industrial power, he put a strong trust in the British government. He, therefore, sent a series of letters to Queen Victoria and her officials pleading for all kinds of artisans. Although Tewodros told the British in no uncertain terms about Ethiopia’s backwardness and the need for modernization so as to win their hearts and minds, they remained unmoved. When he noticed that his letters were ignored, Tewodros sent in 1864, one of the missionaries, Martin Flad to Europe to recruit skilled workmen. Again in 1866, Tewodros tried to import artisans from Europe with the help of Hormuzd Rassam, an envoy of the British government.
Abandoning all diplomatic courtesy, the queen ignored the letter, something that she would not have done even to a minor European monarch. Enraged, Tewodros seized between 61 and 67 (the exact number is still disputed) British and other Europeans (mostly German) who have been moonlighting in his country for some years and for various reasons–some were even married to Ethiopian women and had children with them–as hostages, placed them in iron anklets and fetters, and threw them into a prison fortress at Magdala. He refused to respond to the queen’s ultimatum (September 9, 1867) demanding their release, an ultimatum given some three years after the hostages were first taken.
It would seem that the Liberal administrations of Viscount Henry John Palmerston (1859-65) and Earl John Russell (1865-66) had no stomach for any Ethiopian adventure. Earlier, when Tewodros defied the queen by seizing the British envoy (Captain Charles Duncan Cameron) sent to negotiate the release of the hostages and his assistants, putting them in chains, and imprisoning them with the rest of the hostages (January 4, 1864), no action had been taken. Thus emboldened, in the same year, Tewodros defied another request by the queen for an amicable resolution of this petty diplomatic incident and instead seized more diplomats, led by Hormuzd Rassam, and imprisoned them with the rest. Thus, a curious incident arising from not responding to a letter of fraternal friendship and bilateral cooperation was allowed to become a casus belli.
In the meantime, the workmen at Gafat were pressed on to manufacture ever larger weapons. By the beginning of 1867, they were ordered to produce a huge mortar with a large capacity of firepower. “We were afraid to re-fuse,” remarked Waldmeier, “we were afraid to obey, but God did not abandon us”. The Lord helped us by getting our work to succeed”. Thanks to the workmen’s relentless efforts, the largest mortar which was named “Sebastopol,” was produced. It was estimated to weigh about 7000 kilograms and allowed a man to “get into it.” According to contemporary reports, the manufacture of the “Sebastopol” was one of the “happiest [days] of his life.” On the whole, about 37 cannons and mortars were produced at the Gafat foundry.
To recover from the incompetent and disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade (October 25, 1854) commanded by James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan(1797-1868) that resulted in the humiliating defeat at Balaclava still haunted the government. So did those of the earlier Sepoy Mutiny (May 1847) in India that had led to great slaughter, and the fate of Archduke Maximilian of Austria and his troops in Mexico, who were humiliated and shot on June 19, 1867, the consequence of Napoleon III’s ill-advised intervention in Mexican affairs. There was a genuine fear “that English troops might suffer a similarly humiliating defeat in Ethiopia” (p. 27). And third, there was the prohibitive financial cost of an enterprise whose success was not assured and the utility not clear. Finally, although it was publicly conceded that the British government’s failure to respond to Tewodros’s letter was responsible for this minor diplomatic problem, the Tory British prime minister Edward Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby (1866-68), was persuaded to authorize the expedition ostensibly for the following reasons: humanitarian venture, restoration of Britain’s military and national prestige that had been tarnished for at least two decades.
On April 10, 1868, Emperor Tewodros, estimated to have an army of more than 10,000 warriors, seized the initiative by attacking Napier’s mule train. But his antiquated weapons were no match for Napier’s modern weapons, nor were his warriors any match for the Indian units in the hand-to-hand fighting that followed. Although the Ethiopians fought with reckless abandon, the result was a massacre–an estimated 800 Ethiopian fighters killed, between 1,200 to 1,500 wounded. when the army approached the emperor’s fortress in Maqdala, Tewodros took his own life, for fear of being held prisoner by the British. The looting of Ethiopia’s treasures that following the war is still in the mind of many Ethiopians.
These treasures are the 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.
Some of these objects have been on display at the V&A for the past 146 years. They are stunning pieces with a complex history. Taken by the British Army during the 1868 Abyssinian Expedition, a number of objects from Maqdala are now held across several British cultural collections. The crown and chalice have been on permanent display at the V&A since their arrival in 1872, most recently in the Sacred Silver galleries which highlight the role of precious vessels of gold and silver in religious rites and ceremonies.
Perhaps the most moving part of the Maqdala story is the fate of Tewodros’s son, Prince Alemayehu. Terunesh’s death left the prince an orphan at just seven years old. He was placed under the guardianship of a British army officer, Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy. Alemayehu was brought to England, where the government assumed responsibility for his care and education. Maqdala 1868 includes a photograph of Speedy and Alemayehu taken by the famous photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, on a visit to Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight residence, Osborne House. Queen Victoria was particularly fond of Alemayehu, and was deeply saddened to learn that he had died in 1879 at the age of just nineteen. The inclusion of this photograph in the display juxtaposes Alemayehu with some of the other great treasures taken from Ethiopia, reminding us that not only material possessions were lost to the British forces.
Still, a large collection of Ethiopian treasures sits hidden in a museum storeroom, while Britain still refuses to return the sacred items to their rightful owners. When the British army looted thousands of Ethiopian treasures in the aftermath of the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, it took 15 elephants and 200 mules to move all the valuables away from the northern citadel capital. Among the stolen treasures were a gold crown, a gold chalice, royal and ecclesiastic vestments, shields and arms, a royal wedding dress, processional crosses, gold, and silver jewelry, illustrated manuscripts, and priceless Christian plaques, known as tabots, representing the sacred Ark of the Covenant.
But Britain still owns all Ethiopia’s treasures and is refusing to return them; only agreeing to return a lock of hair belonging to Emperor Tewodros II, who committed suicide to prevent the British from taking him prisoner following their invasion of Ethiopia. Calls are now increasing for the treasures to be returned to their rightful place. Other European countries have agreed to return treasures stolen during the colonial era, including France which recently agreed to return 26 African thrones and statues.
But, more than 150 years after the invasion and battle of Maqdala, Britain continues to ignore Ethiopia’s wishes. The reasons are complex, frustrating, and also very puzzling. But, one thing is for sure, the Ethiopian government is not giving up until its long-lost treasures are back where they belong.
THE EMPEROR’S HAIR
There was much joy in Ethiopia in March of 2108 when Britain returned a lock of the Emperor’s hair. Even though the hair was said to be only the size of a coin, it was a symbolic gesture, leading to hopes that it would pave the way for the return of the looted treasures. After the looting in 1868, most of the stolen items ended up with private collectors, but they were eventually handed over to museums and libraries throughout the UK.
Across 150 years, Ethiopia has repeatedly requested the return of the national treasures. Even if they receive nothing else, the government is still desperately seeking the return of the sacred tabots, 11 stone and wood tablets, which are kept in a storeroom at the British Museum. These tabots are absolutely useless in Britain because nobody is able to look at them. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church insists that it owns the tablets which are so sacred only its priests are allowed to see them.
So why not return them to the rightful owners?
HUGE CULTURAL IMPORTANCE
When the country’s culture minister Dr Hirut Kassaw visited England earlier this year she used a speech to reiterate that the treasures stolen at Maqdala were of enormous cultural importance.
“The Maqdala Expedition of 1868 represents an unsavory chapter in the, otherwise, a glorious history shared by our great nations … Therefore, I would be remiss in my duty, not to take this opportunity to call on all museums and collectors, including the National Army Museum, who retain Maqdala heritage in their collections, to finally right this injustice of history by returning all Maqdala artifacts to their rightful home.” Dr Kassaw said.
“Even your Prime Minister, William Gladstone, speaking in 1871, rightly deplored what had taken place there and argued that the treasures should never have been brought to Britain in the first place.”
In June 2018, the British Museum said it would consider the possibility of a long-term loan. But, so far, that is as far as the matter has gone.
It’s a far cry from the reaction of Italy which, in 2005, returned a huge 1700-year-old granite obelisk which was seen as one of Ethiopia’s national religious treasures.
The obelisk had been stolen by Italian troops in 1937, even though the United Nations set out an agreement back in 1947 asking for it to be returned. When the obelisk was returned to the northern Ethiopian town of Axum, thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate.
There are several thousands of items displayed in European museums that were acquired during the age of empire and colonisation. Germany has returned a 15th-century stone cross to Namibia and, along with the Netherlands, has created national guidelines to public museums on the restitution of other colonial-era objects.
French President Emmanuel Macron recently agreed that many of the African treasures in French museums should be returned to their countries of origin.
A report recently commissioned by Macron states that many of the 46,000 items in the Africa collection in the Quai Branly museum in Paris were acquired with a “degree of duress”.
This report means France will return at least 26 artworks taken from the west African state of Benin in 1892. But the authors of the report recommended much more than that: they advised that all objects removed without consent from Africa and sent to France should be permanently returned if the countries of origin ask for them.
It’s important to note that many of these valuables were purchased simply because the seller had no other choice. But, in the case of the Ethiopian treasures, there are no doubts whatsoever that they were all taken by force.
THE BRITISH REASONING
British museums claim they can’t return the treasures because the law prevents them from sending the valuable objects out of the country. The museums have resisted calls to request a broader interpretation of the laws that would allow the stolen goods to be returned.
Only the Victoria and Albert Museum has taken some positive steps, offering to return its Ethiopian items as a loan, but ownership would remain with the British Museum. It’s hoped that move will put pressure on other museums to do the same.
But the V&A is not without controversy of its own. It marked the 150th anniversary of the Maqdala battle by displaying 20 items, including a gold crown, a gold chalice, several processional crosses and imperial jewellery.
According to The Atlantic, the temporary exhibition was tucked away in a “lesser-visited gallery, squeezed into a gap behind an antique English silver dish.”
What makes this story so fascinating is that, for the British, the treasures are part of their history, reflected in the very name of the V&A exhibition, “Maqdala 1868”. In other words, the museum is naming its exhibit after the actual invasion.
Yet, for the Ethiopians, the treasures represent much more than an invasion; they signify a world of Ethiopian history that was stolen from their Emperor.
Curtin university human rights lecturer, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, shared his thoughts about the V&A exhibition, saying the legacy of Magdala 1868 is deeper than the theft of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage.
Woldeyes finds it hard to believe that 150 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”.
Woldeyes writes, “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, a theft of knowledge and a crime against the current Ethiopian generation who are dispossessed of their intellectual heritage and history.”
It’s this meaning of “Maqdala 1868” that the British continue to disregard.