The Loot from Maqdala, 1868: Some Historical Ideas of Repatriation

Professor Richard Pankhurst

May 11 2009

The stripping of Emperor Tewodros’s citadel of Maqdala in 1868, and the looting of priceless crowns, and innumerable manuscripts and crosses, constituted an immense depletion of Ethiopia ’s cultural heritage. This loss was comparable only to the destruction effected during the religious wars of the 16th century. The loot from Maqdala in fact constituted the largest amount of Ethiopian cultural property ever shipped out of the country – and some of the most valuable booty snatched from Africa in the entire Colonial Era.

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The first proposal to return at least part of the loot from Maqdala came, interestingly enough, from the former British commander, Sir Robert Napier, himself. When asked what should be done with two specific items of loot, Tewodros’s crown and a gold chalice, he replied very simply on 27 August 1868, that “the best way” of dealing with the two artifacts would be:

“to deposit them in the British Museum, until an opportunity offered for restoring them, and that opportunity would arise when a Government was established [in Ethiopia] with some prospect of stability”.

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Outright opposition to the looting of Maqdala was voiced three years later, on 30 June 1871, by none other than the renowned British Liberal leader, and Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. Speaking in the House of Commons, he declared that the whole question of the acquisition of these two looted artifacts was “unsatisfactory… from first to last”. He continued, as reported in Hansard’s Parliamentary record that:

“he deeply regretted that those articles were ever brought from Abyssinia , and could not conceive why they were so brought. They [the British] were never at war with the people or the churches of Abyssinia. They were at war with Theodore…, and he [Gladstone] deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles, to us [the British] insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by a British army”.

Commenting on Lord Napier’s above–quoted statement that the treasures in question should be kept in the British Museum until they “could be returned to Abyssinia”, Gladstone pithily commented “if they ought to be returned,… it seemed to follow that they ought not to have been brought from Abyssinia [in the first place]”.

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A year after the Liberal leader’s forthright speech a letter arrived in London from no less a figure than the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV. On ascending the Imperial Ethiopian throne in 1871, he lost little time in raising the issue. On 10 August 1872 he wrote to Queen Victoria and to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Granville, requesting the return of two items looted from Magdala. One was a Ge’ez manuscript of the Kebra Nagast, or Glory of Kings, which told the story inter alia of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. The other was the Kwer’ata Re’esu, an icon of Christ with the Crown of Thorns, which Ethiopian rulers had for hundreds of years taken with them on campaign.

The British Foreign Office, which looked at this idea not unfavorably, thereupon asked the British Museum to inquire about the possible restitution of these two items to Ethiopia.

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The Museum authorities ascertained, with little difficulty, that the loot they had acquired from Maqdala included two copies of the Fetha Nagast. They accordingly proposed retaining what their expert Dr. Dieu believed the more “interesting” copy, and returning what he considered the less so.

The poorer copy was accordingly repatriated. Reputedly the only looted item ever repatriated by the British Museum; it can be seen to this day in the Raguel Church in Addis Ababa’s market area.

The copy retained in London came to be known in the Museum (later the British Library) as Orient 818. It was considered so interesting that the renowned cataloguer William Wright devoted no less then 16 pages to it in his Catalogue of Ethiopic Manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1877).

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The story of the Kwer’ata Re’esu icon of Christ with the Crown of Thorns was very different. On receipt of the Emperor’s letter the Foreign Office asked the British Museum authorities whether they knew about the picture’s whereabouts, but the latter replied that they had no information on the matter. This was perhaps not surprising, as the Museum’s representative, Sir Richard Holmes, had appropriated the icon for himself.

Since Sir Richard was the Museum’s man at Maqdala we must assume that he was asked if he knew anything about the icon – which he had by then placed in his private collection. There is, however, no record any such inquiry in the British official archives. One must further suppose that, if asked, he denied all knowledge, for the British Foreign Secretary wrote back to Emperor Yohannes on 18 December 1872, declaring that the picture could not be found.

Queen Victoria wrote to Yohannes in similar vein, observing: “Of the picture we can discover no trace whatsoever, and we do not think it can have been brought to England”. The picture was then, as we now know, actually in the possession of Holmes, who was by then Her Majesty’s librarian at Windsor Castle.

What is remarkable is not so much that Queen Victoria was led to send Yohannes a false reply, but that, when Sir Richard Holmes’s possession of the icon became common knowledge in Britain, the Foreign Office made no attempt to explain the situation, let alone to repatriate the looted painting.

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No less remarkable was the story of Lady Valorie Meux, the principal private British collector of Maqdala manuscripts. Having met Ras Makonnen – and seen the intensity of his interest in his country’s manuscripts, she bequeathed her collection to Emperor Menilek or his successor, on 23 January 1910.

Lady Meux died on 20 December of that year, after which her Will created great excitement among British chauvinists, The Times reporting that “many [British] persons interested in Oriental Christianity… will view with extreme regret the decision of Lady Meux to send her valuable MSS out of the country”.

Her Will was accordingly overthrown – and not one of her manuscripts were ever returned to the country to whom she had bequeathed them.

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An unexpected act of repatriation followed a decade or so later. It was a result of the European tour in of Ras Tafari Makonnen, then Ethiopian Regent and Heir to the Thro (the future Emperor Haile Sellasie).

The story began on 7 July 1924, the very day when Tafari arrived in Britain – and the Foreign Office awoke to what it considered a major problem of protocol. This resulted from three facts: (1) The Ethiopian Head of State was a woman, i.e. Empress Zawditu; (2) In view of Tafari’s visit she needed to be given some kind of recognition; (3) The existing British decorations for women were not suitable for a foreign woman head of state, who in any case needed a higher decoration than tht awarded to Ras Tafari Someone at the Foreign Office thereupon had the bright idea of solving this problem of etiquette by presenting Zawditu not with a decoration, as first conceived, but with a crown looted from Maqdala. A “Very Urgent” letter was accordingly dispatched from Mr. F. Adams of the Foreign Office to the then Board of Education, which had responsibility for the Victoria and Albert Museum in which the crown from Maqdala was stored. Discussing the proposed return of the crown, Adams wrote:

“it is thought that the only gift that would give her any real satisfaction, and which would also appeal to all classes of opinion in Abyssinia would be the restoration of the Crown of Emperor Theodore… and it is considered that the restoration would give that country more solid satisfaction and gratification than any gift that could be made to them by any other country”.

Correspondence between the two brought branches of government then brought to light the fact that the Victoria and Albert Museum possessed not one, but a two Ethiopian looted crowns. One was made of virtually solid gold; the other, which was described “of little value”, was of silver, gilt. Choice as to which crown to repatriate presented no problem: it was immediately decided that the one “of little value” should be returned to Ethiopia, while the gold one should be kept in London.

The Foreign Office at the same time warned that repatriation to Ethiopia should not be allowed to set a precedent for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

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The question of crown having thus been thus settled, a British Treasury Minute was drawn up - which read:

“The necessity for the gift arises from the desire of His Majesty’s Government to make a suitable present to the Empress and the ineligibility of women for any such orders as those which are being conferred on the Apparent Heir to the Throne”.

Such thinking was supposed to be k secret. It was not revealed to Ras Tafari, who, as stated in a Foreign Office memorandum, was “given to believe that the crown was the King’s spontaneous gift”, i.e. a gift from King George V. The Foreign Office was therefore not a little irritated when The Times, without any consultation, published the full text of the Treasury Minute.

The Foreign Office was more successful in hiding the fact that the Victoria and Albert Museum had in fact acquired two Ethiopian Crowns, not one. Emperor Haile Sellassie, as evident from his Autobiography, was thus left with the impression that Britain was returning Tewodros’ one and only crown – and perhaps never knew that the one he was offered was in fact the one described as “of little value”.

The final hand-over was carried out in Addis Ababa on 11 July 1925 when the British Minister, Charles Bentinck, presented the returned crown to Empress Zawditu. The ceremony, he reported, was “distinctly impressive”.

Nothing was said about the gold crown which remained in London.

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For further details see the British House of Commons report, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s Seventh Report on Cultural Property: Return and Illicit Trade, London, 2000, Volume III, Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, pages 354-8.

Please see part one