November 2, 2002

British man returns amulet taken after the siege of Magdala

Posted at 1:54 pm in British Museum, Elgin Marbles, Similar cases

The British Museum likes people to believe that there is no purpose in returning artefacts that left their original context long ago (for arguments sake, lets say, prior to the begining of the Nazi era (1933), as we know that artefacts since then have been considered as valid for return). If public opinion (& actions) go against this point of view though, they may be forced to reconsider.


02 November 2002 12:59 BDT
Return of amulet puts pressure on British Museum
By Andrew Heavens in Addis Ababa
02 November 2002

A sacred amulet is due to be returned to Ethiopia today, 135 years after a British soldier ripped it from the neck of the country’s Emperor during a battle.

An anonymous British man has agreed to hand over the artefact which was taken at the siege of Magdala in 1868. The return will step up pressure on the British Museum and other institutions which still hold hundreds of illuminated manuscripts, crowns and religious objects seized at the same time. It is also the latest in a line of controversies over the repatriation of foreign treasures from Britain, including Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles.

Academics and historians at Addis Ababa University yesterday hailed the handover as a significant victory for the country’s century-old campaign for the return of the Magdala plunder. Dr Richard Pankhurst, the son of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and a leading expert in Ethiopian history, said: “This is an incredibly significant event. It highlights the fact that all the loot has to be returned and will be returned.

“We see this as a matter of justice. Supposing British or Americans went about looting monasteries, churches or palaces today. The whole world would be outraged.”

British troops invaded Ethiopia in December 1867 to free a number of diplomats and missionaries imprisoned by Emperor Theodore II following a dispute with the UK government. The British forces, led by Sir Robert Napier, marched to the Emperor’s mountain fortress at Magdala, north of the modern-day capital Addis Ababa. The soldiers used their superior firepower to defeat Theodore’s troops in a decisive battle. The Emperor committed suicide by firing a pistol into his mouth as the army stormed the base and freed the captives. Journalists traveling with the force described how soldiers started looting the fort and a nearby church. Many surrounded the emperor’s body, tearing off pieces of his robe and hair.

Professor Pankhurst said nothing was known of the amulet until the anonymous donor contacted him earlier this year. A note attached to the artefact said that Henry Bailey, a sapper with the Royal Engineers from Notting Hill, was one of the first in to Magdala and took amulet from the Emperor’s neck.

“This is what makes it particularly exciting,” he added. “Emperor Theodore’s clothes were lost, his possessions were lost, but at least the amulet which was round his neck has been preserved. He was a great man, a man of vision”

The amulet is thought to be the only remaining personal possession of the Emperor who has become revered for his defiance against the British and for his perceived choice of death over the dishonour of surrender. The artifact takes the form of a simple leather pouch, containing a nine-inch-long slip of parchment covered in Ge’ez – an ancient language still used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The donor, who asked not to be named, is understood to have acquired it from one of Sapper Bailey’s descendants. He was inspired to hand it back by the example of an Edinburgh priest who earlier this year returned an altar slab also taken at Magdala. The slab or “tabot” had been donated to St John’s Episcopal church by another officer on the campaign.

The donor approached Dr Pankhurst, a leading member of AFROMET – the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasure. Dr Pankhurst will today present it on his behalf to Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Ethiopian Studies which will display it at its museum. The amulet and the altar slab are the first significant parts of the Magdala loot to be returned to Ethiopia since Queen Elizabeth visited Addis in the 1960s and handed over Emperor Theodore’s royal seal.

AFROMET is now campaigning for the return of 10 other tabots kept at the British Museum and part of a ceremonial drum, captured by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

It is also busy drawing up a database of all the outstanding loot which is also thought to be in scores of private collections across Britain. To date, they have met substantial opposition. The Dragoon Guards have agreed discuss the issue. But the British Museum and the V&A have always maintained that their constitutions bar them from permanently disposing of any parts of their collection.

Back in Addis, AFROMET is not short of allies. Veterans of Ethiopia’s war with Mussolini’s Fascist troops are the latest to join the battle. They have just written to the Dragoon Guards, making a direct appeal, soldier to soldier.

In the letter Astageke Abate, deputy president to the Association of Ethiopian Patriots, states: “We hope that you will send Theodore’s drum home. It will create a greater link between our two countries than any retention of the drum could ever achieve.”

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