200 mules, 15 elephants –Loot of the Citadel
From Emperor Yohannes IV to AFROMET-The Quest for Restitution

By Esayas Berhane
Dec. 21 2010

“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!” Richard Pankhrust, “The Ethiopian Millennium – and the Question of Ethiopia’s Cultural Restitution.”

“If our national predecessors did wrong then we cannot escape the requirement of restitution.”
Janna Thompson,
“Cultural Property, Restitution and Value.”

In the aftermath of the Second World War the issue of cultural restitution has been as a pressing matter as was the effort of reconstructing Europe. The British had especially been very dedicated in making sure that every cultural property looted by Hitler, who had attached a looters battalion to his army that was engulfing Europe, should be returned home.

On the other hand Ethiopians have been requesting for more then a century now to be given back cultural properties looted by the British army during Napier’s invasion and the subsequent suicide of Emperor Tewodros.

Available literature in the subject indicates that worldwide there are a number of claims of restitution for cultural properties, artifacts, maps and other treasures looted form their countries of origin and kept in museums, libraries and universities of the looters. Major ones listed in the works of scholars in the topic are Ethiopian manuscripts, crosses and various artifacts of historical significance looted from Mqadala by the British, The Codex Sinaiticus at the British Museum claimed by St Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, Elgin (Parthenon) Marble claimed by the Greeks, Lydian treasures for which the Turks fought a court battle against the New York Metropolitan Museum, Religious Statutes of India claimed by India from the British, bones and other cultural relics claimed by Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and Canadians.

The significance of historical and cultural properties is such that Federal investigators of the United States have been busy since November 2006 in what has been termed the “Operation Historic Protector” launched by the country’s Archives Inspector General’s Office. They are working to retrieve looted properties from the government archives that end up in “a hot business of stolen historical documents” so termed by a Douglas Washington in his article on ‘‘On the Trial of Pilfered History.”

The British had succeeded with the support of their government and other commissions formed else where under the umbrella of the Allied governments and with their active support for the return of the looted properties of European countries by Hitler while Ethiopia’s century old request is being refuted save for some individual generosities that returned the looted properties from Maqdala.

Hitler, according to a Polish Scholar Karl Estreicher who is quoted in the work of Alice Prochaska, Yale University Librarian, had sent special looting battalions attached to the main German commands charged with stripping conquered towns and cities of their archives. Libraries and art treasure: and the special project to set up in Hitler’s birthplace Linz, a collection of the most important works of art illustrating the history and culture of the Holy Roman Empire.

Hitler’s motive behind the looting is described by the Polish scholar as “The Germans reached the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to their ruling over Central and South- Central Europe is the existence in the nations inhibiting those territories, of their own spiritual culture…Therefore, while conquering the respective countries, the German’s decided to destroy also their culture.”

The presence of these looting battalions reminds one of what the British did while dispatching the Napier expedition to Ethiopia, Led by General Napier following Emperor Tewodros’s detention of some Europeans. Theses expedition, a term normally used to describe the British move and which I feel more comfortable to call invasion, is accompanied by the British Museum’s assistant Curator, Richard Holmes (later accorded with the Sir title) in the Department of Manuscripts, traveling with General Napier officially representing the British government under the guise of an “Archeologist”, which by itself is a wonder.

This man’s role can be argued to be similar to that of Hitler’s looting battalions. Though I cannot argue that the British motive is an attempt to destroy the cultural identity of Ethiopians as opposed to Hitler’s motive in Europe, it is, I believe, equally damaging. The continued reluctance by the British is also a disheartening thing and a threat to Ethiopian efforts of preserving its cultural properties and history intact for the current as well as coming generations. With all the looted properties held in England how would an Ethiopian know the history of Tewodros, Ethiopia’s history of the time and of our cultural richness?

The British were so determined and so convinced that it is of paramount importance that the Germans return the looted cultural properties that they unleashed a campaign with the support of the Allied governments. Evidence to this is largely present in the works of various writers and historians. In her paper on Cultural Restitution of Manuscripts and other Historical Materials Alice Porchaska, Yale University Librarian quotes the records of British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art, Archives and other Materials in Enemy Hands (Known as Macmillan committee). This British commission worked closely with the American commission chaired by Owen Roverts, a supreme Court Justice, which absorbed an informal committee for the repatriation of European Culture set up by Wiliam Bell Dinsmoor at the American council of learned societies.

According to Alice’s account, the Committee collected and passed on to government large quantifies of valuable information about looted treasures from allover Europe, which formed the basis for restoration to rightful owners after war. At the end of the Second World War it was estimated that nine tenth of looted archives, libraries and works of art were returned to their rightful owners through the agency of the Allied Governments.

On the contrary, Ethiopian cultural heritages have been openly auctioned off in the streets of London at the full knowledge of the British government. One such case, as chronicled by Professor Richard Pankhrust, is The Kwerata Re’esu icon, which was auctioned in London in 1950 having stayed in the possession of Richard Holmes, who at the time was Royal Librarian at Windsor Castle and had accompanied the Napier expedition during the loot. To quote Prof. Pankhrust’s writing, “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”… 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.”

Prelude to the Story

It all began in 1867 when Emperor Tewodros imprisoned European nationals, including British Citizens and the British dispatched an army led by General Napier in a rescue-mission-turned looting campaign, or more like a looting party. Chief among which would go to the Queen of England, Kaiser of Austria and a lot other destinations including museums, libraries, churches and universities.

Or was it a looting campaign under the guise of a rescue mission? I am not a conspiracy theorist but the fact that chief among the men in the operation happens to be an assistant curator of the British Museum makes me wonder so, especially when Tewodros’s citadel and the church of Medhani Alem is looted empty following the invasion and the British end up rich from the looted cultural property, still under their possession for over a century and three decades by now.

The loot, according to the various works of Dr. Richard Pankhrust, a man worth of honor for his efforts for the restitution of Ethiopia’s cultural property and a formation of an organization named AROMET, working to this end, was collected from the soldiers by the British Military Authorities and was transported by 15 elephants and 200 mules.

The loot was auctioned for two days on 20 and 21 of April 1867, at the participation of Sir Richard Holmes, who represented the British museum. The auction raised a total of 5 thousand pounds, according to H. M Stanley, an American journalist present at Maqdala during the looting, as quoted by Dr. Richard Pankhrust “which gave each soldier a trifle over four pound.”

List of the recipients of the loot were the British Museum (now British Library), where 350 of the looted manuscripts ended up, Cambridge University, Boldien Library in Oxford, John Rylands Library in Manchester, Royal Library in Windsor castle, royal library in Vienna and other destinations, South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Queen victory was also a recipient of 6 of the finest manuscripts while the German Kaiser was presented with 2 manuscripts by Robert Napier, who also presented the Austrian emperor with a third manuscript, according to Dr. Richard Pankhrust.

The loot, as listed in his work “Maqdala and its loot” included “350 manuscripts, two crowns, and a royal cap, all three seemingly belonging to Tewodros, and his imperial seal; a golden chalice, ten tabots, or altar slabs, evidently looted from the churches of Maqdala; a number of beautiful processional crosses, which ended up at the South Kensington Museum, later the Victoria and Albert Museum; two of the Emperor's richly embroidered tents, which are now in the Museum of Mankind, in London; and pieces of the deceased monarch’s hair, some of it to be seen to this day in the National Army Museum, also in London.”

Emperor Yohannes, pioneering Ethiopia’s Restitution Claims

Chief among the looted properties were the Kebra Negast, Glory of Kings and the Kwerata Re’esu, which is a valued item during the period and was taken to campaigns by every Ethiopian Monarch.

It was with these items that Emperor Yohannes officially pioneered Ethiopia’s efforts of restitution of its cultural properties looted form Maqadala. In the modern times such effort is being spearheaded by AFROMET, Association for the Return of The Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures, which according to the official website of the association, is “dedicated to retrieving priceless treasures looted during the British invasion of the country in 1867-8.” Its main aim according to the posting is to track down the missing loot and then campaign for its return to Ethiopia.

Not an easy road and definitely no hopes for hurrah.

However sound Ethiopia’s claims for restitution is, as is supported by every writer on the topic, restitution efforts have not been, and do not seem to be now as ever to be easy. Groundless explanation by the now illegitimate owners of the looted properties has crippled efforts of restitution. The British seem passionately dedicated not to return the looted properties of Ethiopia with a vigor matching their efforts for the restitution of the looted properties of European countries by Hitler.

The British claim for the restitution of the looted properties by Hitler was so strong that the director of the British Museum was in the committee formed from the Macmillan committee of Britain and the Roverts committee of the Americans and worked towards the restitution of cultural properties looted by Hitler in the Second World War as recounted earlier in this piece.

The sad thing it that it is this same museum, the British museum, now the British Library that was the recipient of most of the manuscripts looted from Maqdala, a staggering 350 manuscripts. The British Museum was so determined and believed passionately that looted properties by Hitler had to be returned back to other European countries that its Director was a member of the committee that was vociferous in its attempts for restitution and succeeded in doing so with the support of the Allied governments. It is a quite a paradox!

In her paper on Cultural Property, Restitution and Value Janna Thomson states that leading Museums of Europe and America have recently issued a statement (in 2003), which declares that the ‘diverse and multifaceted’ collections of museums serve the people’s of all nation and should not be compromised for the sake of the interests of one group of people.

If such was the case and what mattered was that the collections of museums serve all nations ands thus where the museum is does not matter why would the British, Americans and other Europeans bother to have the looted properties by Hitler which were to be housed in the museum in Linz be restituted to their original owners, which according to the statement of the leading museums is an interest of one group of people.

If however the restitution of the Europeans is to be justified on the grounds that Hitler’s looting battalions acquired the properties in illegitimate ways, so did the British when they sent out to Ethiopia a Curator of their museum with the invading army of General Napier for a supposed ‘rescue mission’ of their citizens.

Alice Prochaska, the Yale University Librarian and Custodian of the British Library’s special collections between 1992 and 2001, in her paper on “The Cultural Restitution of Manuscripts and other Historical materials” attacks German Scholars for lobbying that Germany should retain what it looted from other European countries. Herself having worked as a custodian for the British Library, which sadly keeps, with no intention of returning, the 350 manuscripts looted from Maqdala, she writes “German scholars working in foreign universities would work to persuade the world that Germany should retain its loot. The public role of the scholar became ambiguous: On one side the champion of learning and culture; on the other, possessing through learning and expertise a power that could be perverted to justify a spurious historical sensibility.”

This same custodian of British Library’s special collection would later on be found to become herself ‘perverted to justify a spurious historical sensibility’ to use her won description used against the German scholars, in the later part of her writing. She tries to romanticize the British claim for not repatriating Ethiopia’s treasured items stating “The history of Ethiopia and the region since 1868 suggests that theses important materials would be more vulnerable to the accidents of war and climate there than in London; where there is some reason to believe that Ethiopian authorities are glad to have copies rather than the responsibility of caring for the originals.’ There is no justification more perverted than this one in the scope of my justification.

Sadly enough it is not just the above stated woman’s view alone. From universities to museums and libraries, which include royal ones, the view is quite identical. They romanticize their hold on the looted properties on some trivial justification and denounce Ethiopia’s claims with equally trivial justifications.

University of Edinburgh, one of the possessors of the looted Ethiopian properties, responded to continued efforts and requests by AFROMET for the restitution of Ethiopia’s rightful properties looted from Maqdala in a press release dated 28th February 2005, which reads: “After careful considerations, the University of Edinburgh Court, is at this time unable to meet the requests made by the organization AFROMET regarding certain Ethiopian manuscripts currently held in the University of Edinburgh collections.”

The university also argued that it has a responsibility to ensure that they are properly conserved in the future and in the words of Helen Hayes, Vice-principal for Knowledge and Management, “The manuscripts form a part of the overall richness and depth of the University’s collections.”

For the University and other prestigious institutions of the British, the illegitimately looted and illegitimately retained cultural properties looted from Maqdala belonging to Ethiopia may form “the overall richness and depth” of their collections but to us, Ethiopians they hold the question of our identity and history that mark the unquestionable and rightful request for restitution.

The university’s decision was met with criticism. The Scotsman issue of 01 march 2005 stated “The University accepted that the manuscripts were looted, but argued that the university had acquired them in “good faith”. The panel (set to see the request by AFROMET) said that, while the manuscripts were of “some importance” to Ethiopia, they were not of “major importance”.” What more sarcasm can be expected?

The Scotsman quotes John Mcluckie, the British chair of AFROMET, responding to the University’s unwillingness to return Ethiopia’s looted properties in its possession, as saying that “In a year devoted to Africa, this is an unfortunate retrograde decision. It shows a complete lack of understanding of a culture that holds such objects sacred and demonstrates that the relationship between the west and Africa has not changed so very much.” So it seems!

This piece was inspired by the various articles written on the subject by Prof. Richard Pankhrust and some other foreign writers, chief among which are Alice Prochaska and Janna Thomson. I have also benefited from a lot of other materials, some of which are directly quoted inside the article, while the others have provided the basis for further research, thus equally helpful. For anyone interested in the story of the loot and the whereabouts of the looted properties it is quite advisable to read the works of Prof. Richard Pankhrust.