Ethiopia’s Cultural Heritage & the International Community Further Considerations

Professor Richard Pankhurst

May 05 2009

In a previous article on the seizure of Tewodros’s capital, Maqdala, in 1868, we saw that Sir Richard Holmes, an official dispatched by the British Museum (later British Library), foresaw that the British soldiers would embark on extensive looting – and sought to forestall them by taking what he could in advance.

The looting which followed was indeed so considerable that Tewodros’s citadel was stripped of virtually everything of any cultural importance – after which the entire settlement was burnt to the ground. The booty taken by the Napier Expedition from Tewodros’s capital included gold crowns, the icon of the Qwerata Re’esu, or Christ with the Crown of Thorns, the Emperor’s great seal, numerous gold, silver and bronze crosses and religious paraphernalia, regal tents, over five hundred Ge‘ez manuscripts, many of them beautifully illustrated, and a wealth of archival material, including Tewodros’s tax records, data on marriage and property, and copies of his correspondence with a variety of his officers of state.

Any appraisal of the looting of Maqdala must take account of the fact that Tewodros had assembled at his capital by far the largest collection of manuscripts ever seen in Ethiopia, numbering at least one thousand volumes. Collected from many parts of the country they ranked moreover among the finest – and best illuminated - ever produced in this country.

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The immensity of the booty taken from Maqdala was described with amazement by several contemporary observers, among them the famous Anglo-American journalist H.M. Stanley. He states that the loot included “an infinite variety of gold and silver, and brass crosses”, “heaps of parchment royally illuminated” and “stacks of bibles”. “Over a space growing more and more extended”, he writes, “the thousand articles were scattered in infinite bewilderment and confusion until they dotted the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill, and the entire road to the [British] camp two miles off”.

When the looting of Maqdala was virtually complete the British military authorities, operating in essentially class terms, ordered that the soldiers who had taken loot should hand it over to sentries, so that it could subsequently be auctioned to raise Prize Money for the troops. Soldiers were accordingly appointed to confiscate booty in the possession of ordinary soldiers and non-commissioned officers.

The loot thus collected was then transported – on no less than fifteen elephants and almost two hundred mules - to the nearby Dalanta plain, where a two-day auction was staged. The result was that the officers, who were infinitely wealthier than the ordinary soldiers, were enabled to purchase the loot which the latter had originally seized. Each non-commissioned officer or ordinary soldier, according to H.M. Stanley, received “a trifle over four dollars” in Prize Money.

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The above arrangement was far from efficient. The removal of larger articles by the ordinary soldiers was curtailed, but the guards had only limited authority over the officers, and were in any case unable to prevent the moving of smaller, more easily concealed items. Frederick Myatt, a recent historian of the Expedition, notes that many articles were “undoubtedly” smuggled out.

Another effect of the above policy was that illustrated manuscripts, too large to smuggle out, were torn up to enable pages with illustrations to pass by the guards, while the remainder of the volumes were trashed. Examples of such vandalism are quoted in the present author’s article “Detached Ethiopian Illustrated Manuscript Folios from Maqdala”, published in the Orbis Aethiopicus volume for 2007.

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The lion’s share of the loot purchased at the Auction consisted of some 350 volumes which Holmes purchased for the British Museum (now the British Library).

Queen Victoria was presented with sixteen manuscripts, but, having little interest in them, gave ten to the British Museum . The remaining six, were remarkable - and indeed perhaps chosen - for their immense size – far larger than most manuscripts to be seen in Ethiopia today.

Other Maqdala manuscripts were acquired by major British libraries; a minimum of 47 by Cambridge University Library, 34 by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and four by the John Rylands Library in Manchester. Two other manuscripts went the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh , Scotland .

It as estimated by Professor Edward Ullendorff that between 150 and 200 Maqdala manuscripts were taken to Britain by individual members of the Expedition. Perhaps a quarter or a third of the manuscripts from Maqdala were thus appropriated, and dissipated, by individuals not connected with any institution – and still from time to time come on sale at auction houses in Britain and throughout the world.

A dozen other identified Maqdala manuscripts ended up in other countries: one in the Vatican, and another in Ireland, and two each in France, Germany, Austria, the United States, and India (A large proportion of the soldiers at Maqdala came, it will be recalled, from then British India).

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The most important private collection of Maqdala manuscripts was that acquired by Lady Meux, wife of the prominent British brewer of that name. Five in number, they were originally obtained at Maqdala by an undentified British officer, who sold them to the famous British antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch. The latter offered them to Lady Meux in 1897, soon after acquiring them. The oldest manuscript was a 15th century Ge’ez life of Hanna, mother of the Virgin Mary, illustrated with many remarkable full-page paintings.

Later, when Ras Makonnen visited Britain, with three Ethiopian bishops in 1902, Lady Meux invited him to her estate at Cheshunt ; and showed him her Ethiopica collection.

According to the historian Sir Wallis Budge, who was there, the Ras “knelt on the floor” in front of the oldest manuscript, and “lifting the book on the top of his head remained in this attitude and prayed for several minutes”. The Times later quoted Makonnen as at one point bursting into tears, and declaring that “never had he seen such beautiful manuscripts in the country he and they had come from”. The Ethiopian visitor added that “he would ask the Emperor [Menilek] to buy them back”. Later that day Makonnen’s secretary approached Budge, and is reported to have “offered him a handsome bribe if he would induce the owner [Lady Meux] to sell”.

Lady Meux was clearly moved. Evidently referring to the looting of Maqdala, The Times quotes her as sarcastically saying to Budge; “What a beautiful thing it is for your horrid people to go about the world stealing these books! What is the use of them? [i.e.what use to the British]”.

Her views were more explicitly demonstrated on 22 January 1910, when she made her Will. She bequeathed her entire collection of Ethiopian manuscripts to Emperor Menilek or his successor. A report in The Times stated that it was believed that the bequest was “the fulfillment of a promise” - presumably made to Makonnen at the time of his visit and that “envoys from the Emperor” [Menilek] “had been sent over to Britain to arrange for the manuscript’s “recovery”.

Lady Meux died on 20 December of the same year, and the reading of her Will early in the following year created a sensation. The Times reported on 7 February 1911 that “many persons [in England] interested in Oriental Christianity will view with extreme regret the decision of Lady Meux to send her valuable MSS once and for all out of the country”.

So strong was such chauvinistic pressure that Lady Meux’s Will was overturned – and Ethiopia was thus for a second time robbed of her manuscripts!

Please see part two