June 11, 2005

Ethiopia, repatriation & cultural memory

Posted at 2:43 pm in Similar cases

Following the request by Ethiopia for the return of many of their cultural treasures, now held in European museums and Institutions, Richard Pankhurst has written an article refuting some of the anti-restitution arguments put forward by the west.
Whils I have always argued that every restitution case is different, many of the concepts he describes are universal & apply just as much to the Elgin Marbles as they do to Ethiopian Manuscripts.

Addis Tribune (Addis Ababa, Ethipoia)

Some Thoughts on Repatriation and Cultural Memory
By Richard Pankhurst

People who live differently, as we know, think differently.

Thieves and robbers think differently from the people from whom they have stolen and robbed.

And more relevant to today’s Reflections:

Those whose countries have inherited loot from other countries tend to be complacent, and to think differently from those whose ancestors were plundered.

“The Obelisk in Rome is too heavy to transport!”, declare the former.

“If we return one item of loot from country X, may we not be pressurised into returning something to country Y? Where will it end?”, like frightened rabbits they ask.

“We can look after the manuscripts better in Europe than in Africa!”, they proclaim – without knowing anything about the matter.

“The natives”, they pontificate, “are too backward to be interested in their cultural heritage!”

The culturally disinherited – and impoverished – see things very differently!

“Why should Italy retain the obelisk in violation of its Peace Treaty of 1947?”, they ask -“Whose culture is it anyway?” an indignant Ethiopian scrawled in Amharic on the ancient stone.

“Why should the finest Ethiopian manuscripts ever produced be held in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle?”, they ask.

“Why should Nigerian children have to go to London to see the Benin bronzes their ancestors produced?

The above is, in a way, a continuation of the old debate between Colonized and Colonizers.

When the peoples of Africa and Asia were struggling for their political emancipation:

They were told by their European masters: “We know better how to rule than you do. We are experts in colonial government. We even have professors of colonial administration – and Congresses of Colonial Studies!. You, on the other hand, are too stupid, or inexperienced, to rule yourselves”.

“Why do you not let us rule you ourselves? It would rally be in your own interest”.

The ruled, the disinherited, the colonial subjects, replied:

“We want our birth-right!!”

“We want to enter into our inheritance!”

“We want the right to make our own mistakes!”

The present debate on the Loot from Africa and the Third World has its roots in that debate about the rights of historically oppressed peoples.

This is because people who in the past had to struggle against foreign rule are now beginning to struggle to regain their cultural heritage from which they were deprived as a direct consequence of that foreign, or colonial, rule.

How did the obelisk, the aeroplane Tsehai and the Ministry of the Pen letters end up in Rome; why are the Maqdala treasures and the Benin bronzes in Britain rather than in Ethiopia and Nigeria?

There is but one answer: They were taken by force: Might not Right!

AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures, is the voice of the culturally robbed, fighting to regain, and reconquer, their cultural heritage.

AFROMET represents the voice of justice, which declares that the plundering of Maqdala in 1868 was an act of loot, without any justification whatsoever in international law – an act of plunder which involved the looting of the Church of Medane Alem, and was thus an act of sacrilege.

AFROMET is committed to the restitution to Ethiopia of such loot – and hence to the cause of cultural justice.

In the course of its struggle AFROMET is helping to foster a deeper – and wider – understanding and appreciation of Ethiopian culture.

To see this point one has only look at the history of other countries:

Look at Egypt, Greece, Rome – great centres of ancient civilization: their inhabitants by the early nineteenth century had little knowledge or interest in their antiquities – about which, however, they are today justly proud.

Ethiopia for the last half century or so has been in a similar state of transition. Travellers of the past tell us that Ethiopians of the past (like Egyptians, Greeks and Romans of the past) had little interest in their historic artifacts. But this is changing. The country is now increasingly committed to the protection of its antiquities… and this awareness will doubtless increase in the years ahead.

AFROMET is playing its part in this cultural awakening: in the great transformation of ideas now in progress.

AFROMET has won the support of a growing number of lovers of justice: An anonymous donor who returned the Amulet, which Emperor Tewodros was wearing on the day he committed suicide; Professor Fiona Wilson in Denmark, who repatriated the remarkable shield which had belonged to Tewodros; Mr Robert Moxon-Brown, the distinguished British QC, who only a few weeks ago returned an illumination sadly torn from an historic manuscript

These artifacts are now on display in an important Exhibition now on show in the Intitute of Ethiopian Studies Museum, in Addis Ababa.

Private British individuals have thus fully endorsed AFROMET’s appeal for restitution. Their repatriation of Ethiopian loot represents a challenge to the British Library, the British Museum and other British institutions, which are still today largely run by complacent individuals who belong to the category to which I earlier referred – and lack a sense of justice.

But even the most complacent opponents of restitution are changing. The British Museum possessed eleven Ethiopian tabots, or altar slabs. Faced by AFROMET’s demands for their repatriation to Ethiopia – and wishing to subvert it – the Museum has decided to place these tabots in the hands of an Ethiopian Church in London. They have not repatriated them, but they recognise by their action that they have no right to retain them. This is no less true of the manuscripts they still unjustly hang on to, and whose repatriation AFROMET demands.

It is no less interesting to note that Edinburgh University Library, which held a number of Ethiopian manuscripts, has expressed a desire to be in dialogue with AFROMET.

The walls of cultural injustice, you see, are shaking…

Several years ago the Italian Foreign Minister, Signor Franco Franchini, wrote to a friend of AFROMET that Italy, by returning the obelisk, was setting an example to other powers.

We welcome that initiative, and likewise see it as an example for others to copy. You cannot return an antiquity weighing over 120 tons without setting an example for others to follow!

Italy must, however, go further: It must honour the Peace Treaty of 1947 by repatriating the Ethiopian aeroplane Tsehai, as well as the Ethiopian archival letters in Rome on which our friend Professor Sven Rubenson has written.

We cannot expect less than that the country which only a few weeks ago so expertly returned the obelisk – and thus proved wrong all the critics, and “experts” who had argued that the obelisk’s repatriation was impossible!

By Jamie McKendrick

(Written in the shape of an Obelisk)
Reprinted from the London Review of Books, 17 February 2005, i.e. shortly before the obelisk’s repatriation

There are certain houses built
not to be lived in – long
houses pyramids and this
the Axum Obelisk
that stood nearly 70 years
an exiled axle
near the Circus Maximus
whilst at its home in the Horn
a site’s been dug a pit a pause
a prolonged hiatus
that mortal span’s an eye blink
in its career made
to measure and memorialise
deep time a dial
for solar or for astral time –
solo un attimo
but children now grown old
remember its removal
when thinking like a Roman
Dux Mussolini spoke
have it shipped to Rome
to celebrate the victory
won by poison gas
re-erecting its five
fallen pieces each almost
unbugeable whole
some hundred and forty tons
– cut with helicoidal wire
those same dismantled blocks
still wait for their return
in a Fiumicino warehouse
an airport longhouse
on the first available US
Galaxy plane
certain houses have no space
inside for living
though some like this are fitted
with doors front and back
and windows which won’t open
rock-solid granite
that waits on us and fathoms space
but now it’s time high time
this long house went home
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