December 23, 2006

Questions on Ethiopian cultural restitution

Posted at 3:52 pm in Similar cases

Many Ethiopian artefacts have been removed from the country at different points in history & now sit amongst the collections of individuals & private institutions around the world.
Professor Richard Pankhurst looks at what the future might hold for some of these cases.

From: (Ethiopia)

Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Millennium By Professor Richard Pankhurst
The Ethiopian Millennium – and the Question of Ethiopia’s Cultural Restitution
By Professor Richard Pankhurst
Addis Ababa Ethiopia

As the Ethiopian Millennium – which is nothing if not a cultural manifestation – approaches, today would seem an appropriate time to discuss the long-drawn-out question of Ethiopia’s cultural restitution.

This question has come to the fore on a number of occasions – and does so once more in the run-up to the New Ethiopian Millennium!

The issue of restitution is one that will just not go away – and, since it involves a principle of justice, should not be allowed to go away!

The background story, which is of major importance today, can be briefly told – let us examine it before considering its present-day implications.

The Looting of Maqdala

The detention, by Emperor Tewodros (or Theodore), of a handful of British and other Europeans led in 1867, it will be recalled, to the dispatch of a British expedition against his mountain fortress of Maqdala (better known in Britain as Magdala).

Tewodros was defeated in battle, and proudly chose to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of his enemies. The invading force, as the British historian Clements Markham observed, then “dispersed over the amba”, or mountain top, “in search of plunder”. The treasury was soon rifled”, According to Markham the loot contained “tons” of “manuscript books”.

The troops also broke into Tewodros’s principal church, that of Medhane Alem, which was dedicated to the Saviour of the World. Virtually everything in it was taken as booty. The American journalist H.M. Stanley recalled that the looted articles soon covered “the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill, and the entire road to the [British] camp two miles off”.

One of those present at this large-scale looting was Richard (later Sir Richard) Holmes, an Assistant Curator in the British Museum’s Department of Manuscripts, who had been appointed “Archaeologist” to the expedition. He later noted in an official report that the British flag had “not been waved… much more than ten minutes” over the fort of Maqdala before he had himself entered it. Shortly afterwards, while night was falling, he met a British soldier who was carrying the golden crown of the Abun, or head of the Ethiopian church, and a “solid gold chalice” weighing “at least 6 lb”, i.e. pounds. Holmes purchased them both for four pounds Sterling. He was also offered several large manuscripts, but declined to buy them as they were too heavy for him to carry.

The Two-day Auction

The British military authorities, in accordance with the custom of the day, duly collected the loot from the soldier-looters. The loot was then transported – on fifteen elephants and 200 mules – to the nearby Dalanta Plain. There a two-day auction was held, on 20 and 21 April – to raise “prize money” for the troops. “Bidders”, Stanley recalls, were “not scarce”, for “every officer and civilian desired some souvenir”, including “richly illuminated bibles” and other manuscripts. Holmes, acting on behalf of the British Museum, was one of the principal purchasers. Stanley describes him as “in his full glory”, for, “armed with ample funds” from the Museum, he “outbid all in most things”.

The sale raised a total of five thousand pounds, which gave each soldier “a trifle over four pounds”.


The bulk of the loot – 350 manuscripts – ended up at the British Museum (now the British Library), which thus, according to critics, became a receiver of stolen property. Other manuscripts were acquired by Cambridge University, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the John Rylands Library in Manchester. Six of the finest manuscripts were presented to Queen Victoria – and are now in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle. Two other manuscripts were presented by Robert Napier, the British commander, to the German Kaiser, and a third to the Austrian Emperor – it is now in the Royal Library in Vienna. A few other volumes reached India.

Other important articles of loot ended up elsewhere, Two Ethiopian crowns, the afore-mentioned gold chalice, and many fine processional crosses, were thus acquired by the then South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert Museum). Ten tabots, or altar slabs, and two huge marquee-type tents were likewise deposited there.

The looting of all these objects had of course no justification whatsoever in International Law.

The good Mr Gladstone

Opposition to the looting of Maqdala was shortly afterwards voiced by the great British Liberal leader William Gladstone. Speaking in the House of Commons on 30 June 1871 he is quoted in Hansard’s Official Parliamentary Reports as declaring that “he deeply regretted that these articles were ever brought from Abyssinia, and could not conceive why they were so brought. They [the British people] were never at war with Abyssinia… he deeply lamented, for the sake of the country [i.e. Britain], and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by the British army”.

The Initiative of Emperor Yohannes IV

Tewodros’s successor, Emperor Yohannes IV, did not feel in a position to demand the restitution of the entire loot from Maqdala. He limited himself to requesting the repatriation of two of the most important items: a manuscript of the Kebra Nagast, or Glory of Kings, and an icon of the Kwerata Re’esu, or representation of Christ with the Crown of Thorns. This latter painting was of particular significance: it was highly prized in Ethiopia, and had for centuries had been taken by the monarch whenever he went on campaign. It is frequently referred to in the Ethiopian Royal Chronicles.

To obtain these two major items, the manuscript and the icon, Yohannes wrote to Queen Victoria and to the British Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville, on 10 August 1872.

Lost – and Found

The British Foreign Office, anxious to preserve its good relations with Emperor Yohannes, duly inquired about the whereabouts of the looted items he had requested. It learnt that the British Museum (later Library) had obtained two looted copies of the Kebra Nagast manuscript – and accordingly decided to return one, the inferior copy, to Ethiopia.

The Kwerata Re’esu icon, however, could not be found – presumably because the authorities did not search for it very enthusiastically. At all events Queen Victoria wrote back to Yohannes, on 14 December declaring: “Of the picture we can discover no trace whatever, and we do not think it can have been brought to England”.

In this Her Majesty was grievously mistaken. Richard Holmes, who had by this time become Royal Librarian at Windsor Castle, as we now know, had in fact acquired the icon. While earlier in the service of the Museum he had appropriated the painting as his private property – but did not reveal this fact until 1890, the year after Emperor Yohannes’s death. He then published a photograph of the painting in the Burlington Magazine, a British journal with which he was closely associated. The photograph bore the tell-tale caption: “Head of Christ, formerly in the possession of King Theodore of Abyssinia, now in the possession of Sir Richard Holmes, KCVO”.

Not Repatriated

On Sir Richard’s death in 1913 the icon was auctioned in London – and came to the fore again in 1950 when it was once more auctioned there. The then Keeper of Paints and Drawings at Windsor Castle, realizing the icon’s immense importance for Ethiopia, wrote to the then Ethiopian Minister in London, Ato Abebe Retta, to inform him of the impending sale. She also tried to purchase the painting on Ethiopia’s behalf – but was outbid. The result was that the icon was purchased by a Portuguese art historian – and Ethiopia failed to obtain the icon’s hoped for repatriation.

The story was virtually re-enacted in 1996 when the British Embassy in Addis Ababa, celebrating its then Centenary, realized the importance of restitution – and tried to procure the picture (which was still in Portugal) in order to present it to Ethiopia. The Embassy failed in its efforts, with the result that repatriation once again failed: the icon is therefore today still in Portugal – kept in a bank vault, where no member of the public can see it.

Ras Makonnen and Lady Meux

The question of the loot from Maqdala had meanwhile again come to the fore in Britain.

When Emperor Menilek’s envoy Ras Makonnen traveled to Britain in 1902 to attend the coronation of King Edward VII he was shown several of the Ethiopian manuscripts taken to Britain. Much moved he was quoted as declaring that he had “never seen any such beautiful manuscripts” in his own country, and that, on returning to Britain, he would “ask the Emperor [Menilek] to buy them back”.

Makonnen’s words may have an effect on Lady Valorie Meux, the then most important private British collector of Ethiopian manuscripts. Though a collector, she was convinced that they should be repatriated to Ethiopia. She accordingly bequeathed her entire collection of Ethiopian manuscripts in her Will, dated 13 January 1910, to Emperor Menilek. After her death, on 29 December of the same year, her Will was duly read out – and created a furor in Britain. The Times newspaper opposed repatriation on the Anglo-centric ground that “many persons interested in Oriental Christianity” would “view with extreme regret the decision of Lady Meux to send her valuable MSS once and for all out of the country”.

The Will was thereupon overturned – on the ground that Menilek was dead when Lady Meux died. This argument was spurious in that the Ethiopian monarch did not in fact die until December 1913, and had in any case heirs.

The Will was however invalidated – with the result that manuscripts remained in England. Ethiopia was thus in a sense robbed of its manuscripts a second time.

Tafari Makonnen’s Visit to Britain

After Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations in 1923 the country’s then Regent, Ras Tafari Makonnen (the future Emperor Haile Sellassie) paid a State Visit to Britain. Faced with the need to honor the princely visitor, and his then imperial ruler Empress Zawditu, the Foreign Office decided to return one of the two crowns then at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Once again it was thought best to repatriate the inferior of the two. The gilt crown was thus given back to Ethiopia, in 1925, while the crown of solid gold (which Holmes had acquired for the Museum) was retained in London. Whether Tafari Makonnen was informed of that there were in fact two crowns is not recorded.

Queen Elizabeth’s Visit to Ethiopia, and the Kenya Government’s Act of Restitution

The case for repatriation – albeit gradual – was recognized forty years later, in 1965, at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s State Visit to Ethiopia; the royal visitor presented Emperor Haile Sellassie with Tewodros’s cap and imperial seal.

The Kenya Government, realizing the importance of cultural repatriation, subsequently took steps to return to Ethiopia a shield from Maqdala, which happened to have been found in that country. This artifact is on display at the Ethiopian National Museum.


Extensive coverage of the issue of loot, in the Ethiopian and international press, led to the foundation of AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Maqdala Treasures, which we hope to turn to in a later article. The agitation of the association – which has branches in both Ethiopia and Britain, and enjoys the support of the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone – has resulted in the repatriation of an increasing number of articles from Maqdala. Most notable of these was the Royal Amulet which Emperor Tewodros was wearing at the time of his historic suicide: an artifact which can be seen at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies Museum, and has been featured on an Ethiopian postage stamp.

AFROMET has likewise been responsible for the erection in Addis Ababa’s Churchill Road of the large-scale replica of Tewodros’s mortar Sevastopol – which the monarch had brought to Maqdala. This enlarged replica, which is there for all to see – and has become something of a tourist sight – symbolizes AFROMET’s preoccupation with Maqdala – and the demand for the repatriation of the loot there from.

The Millennium and the Repatriation Question Today

The Question today, on the eve of the new Ethiopian Millennium, is what steps can and will be taken to return the booty taken from Maqdala. This loot, it should be emphasized, included some of the finest illustrated Ethiopian manuscripts ever produced: those in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle are particularly fine, and, it is fair to say, virtually without parallel in Ethiopia. The country’s children deserve to see such works to understand and appreciate the cultural heritage, which their forebears created.

The looting of Maqdala, we would repeat, had no justification in international law. International justice requires that this loot be repatriated; and, as the New Millennium approaches, we should ask ourselves, dear readers, whether we are really interested in Ethiopian culture or only paying lip-service thereto.

This is a subject to which we hope to return to in our next article.

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1 Comment »

  1. abay haile said,

    05.25.08 at 9:28 pm

    i fill sorry about what happed at the time of britsh war aganest king theodros specially the stolen of tabot and national tresure of my county deeplly i fill sad when i saw in internet ethiopian orthodx church history to all people you read please to tell to any europen people to retern back stolen history from ethiopia .

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