Treasure thieves: Why Britain refuses to return Ethiopia’s stolen treasures

Libby-Jane Charleston
Ethiopia's stolen treasures@Twitter

When the British army looted thousands of Ethiopian treasures in the aftermath of the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, it took 15 elephants and 200 mules to move all the valuables away from the northern citadel capital.

Among the stolen treasures were a gold crown, a gold chalice, royal and ecclesiastic vestments, shields and arms, a royal wedding dress, processional crosses, gold and silver jewellery, illustrated manuscripts and priceless Christian plaques, known as tabots, representing the sacred Ark of the Covenant.

But Britain still owns all Ethiopia’s treasures and is refusing to return them; only agreeing to return a lock of hair belonging to Emperor Tewodros II, who committed suicide to prevent the British from taking him prisoner following their invasion of Ethiopia.

Calls are increasing for the treasures to be returned to their rightful place. Other European countries have agreed to return treasures stolen during the colonial era, including France which recently agreed to return 26 African thrones and statues.

But, more than 150 years after the invasion and battle of Maqdala, Britain continues to ignore Ethiopia’s wishes. The reasons are complex, frustrating and also very puzzling.

But, one thing is for sure, the Ethiopian government is not giving up until its long-lost treasures are back where they belong.

Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia claimed a bloodline which dated back to the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

In the mid-19th Century, Tewodros had decided to modernise his empire, Abyssinia, by opening up relations with the UK. But it proved to be disastrous.

Following a series of diplomatic gaffes, which led to the emperor detaining the British counsel (a group of European missionaries and officials), Britain invaded Abyssinia to rescue the detainees.

Hundreds of Ethiopians lost their lives in the battle and, when the army approached the emperor’s fortress in Maqdala, Tewodros took his own life, for fear of being held prisoner by the British.

On discovering the emperor was dead, the British soldiers looted his treasures and later held an auction to make money from the theft. It’s been claimed that soldiers had torn strips off the emperors clothing as souvenirs while British Museum records claim an artist on the campaign cut the lock of hair from the emperor’s corpse.

The seven-year-old son of the emperor, Prince Alemayehu, was kidnapped and forced to go to England where he was educated before dying of an illness at the age of 18.

During his decade in England he was befriended by Queen Victoria and after his death he was laid to rest at Windsor castle. But there have been several petitions calling for the Prince’s remains to be returned to Ethiopia.

There was much joy in Ethiopia in March this year when Britain returned a lock of the Emperor’s hair. Even though the hair was said to be only the size of a coin, it was a symbolic gesture, leading to hopes that it would pave the way for the return of the looted treasures.

After the looting in 1868, most of the stolen items ended up with private collectors, but they were eventually handed over to museums and libraries throughout the UK.

Across 150 years, Ethiopia has repeatedly requested the return of the national treasures. Even if they receive nothing else, the government is still desperately seeking the return of the sacred tabots, 11 stone and wood tablets, which are kept in a store room at the British Museum.

These tabots are absolutely useless in Britain because nobody is able to look at them. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church insists that it owns the tablets which are so sacred only its priests are allowed to see them.

So why not return them to the rightful owners?

When the country’s culture minister Dr Hirut Kassaw visited England earlier this year she used a speech to reiterate that the treasures stolen at Maqdala were of enormous cultural importance.

Dr Kassaw thanked England for returning Emperor Tewodros’ lock of hair, but she pleaded, once again, for the return of the stolen treasures.

“The Maqdala Expedition of 1868 represents an unsavoury chapter in the, otherwise, glorious history shared by our great nations … Therefore, I would be remiss in my duty, not to take this opportunity to call on all museums and collectors, including the National Army Museum, who retain Maqdala heritage in their collections, to finally right this injustice of history by returning all Maqdala artefacts to their rightful home.” Dr Kassaw said.

“Even your Prime Minister, William Gladstone, speaking in 1871, rightly deplored what had taken place there and argued that the treasures should never have been brought to Britain in the first place.”

In June this year, the British Museum said it would consider the possibility of a long-term loan. But, so far, that is as far as the matter has gone.

It’s a far cry from the reaction of Italy which, in 2005, returned a huge 1700-year-old granite obelisk which was seen as one of Ethiopia’s national religious treasures.

The obelisk had been stolen by Italian troops in 1937, even though the United Nations set out an agreement back in 1947 asking for it to be returned. When the obelisk was returned to the northern Ethiopian town of Axum, thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate.

There are several thousands of items displayed in European museums that were acquired during the age of empire and colonisation. Germany has returned a 15th-century stone cross to Namibia and, along with the Netherlands, has created national guidelines to public museums on the restitution of other colonial-era objects.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently agreed that many of the African treasures in French museums should be returned to their countries of origin.

A report recently commissioned by Macron states that many of the 46,000 items in the Africa collection in the Quai Branly museum in Paris were acquired with a “degree of duress”.

This report means France will return at least 26 artworks taken from the west African state of Benin in 1892. But the authors of the report recommended much more than that: they advised that all objects removed without consent from Africa and sent to France should be permanently returned if the countries of origin ask for them.

It’s important to note that many of these valuables were purchased simply because the seller had no other choice. But, in the case of the Ethiopian treasures, there are no doubts whatsoever that they were all taken by force.

British museums claim they can’t return the treasures because the law prevents them from sending the valuable objects out of the country. The museums have resisted calls to request a broader interpretation of the laws that would allow the stolen goods to be returned.

Only the Victoria and Albert Museum has taken some positive steps, offering to return its Ethiopian items as a loan, but ownership would remain with the British Museum. It’s hoped that move will put pressure on other museums to do the same.

But the V&A is not without controversy of its own. It marked the 150th anniversary of the Maqdala battle by displaying 20 items, including a gold crown, a gold chalice, several processional crosses and imperial jewellery.

According to The Atlantic, the temporary exhibition was tucked away in a “lesser-visited gallery, squeezed into a gap behind an antique English silver dish.”

What makes this story so fascinating is that, for the British, the treasures are part of their history, reflected in the very name of the V&A exhibition, “Maqdala 1868”. In other words, the museum is naming its exhibit after the actual invasion.

Yet, for the Ethiopians, the treasures represent much more than an invasion; they signify a world of Ethiopian history that was stolen from their Emperor.

Curtin university human rights lecturer, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, shared his thoughts about the V&A exhibition, saying the legacy of Magdala 1868 is deeper than the theft of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage.

Woldeyes finds it hard to believe that 150 years after the battle, Ethiopia’s stolen treasures are still used as “war trophies, their meaning forever defined with the abandoned name of a short-lived imperial fortress at Maqdala”.

Woldeyes writes, “But for Ethiopia, there is no connection between the Maqdala war in 1868 and the stolen treasures at Maqdala. The war was imperial aggression against the King of Ethiopia.

“The stolen treasures amount to pure vandalism, a theft of knowledge and a crime against the current Ethiopian generation who are dispossessed of their intellectual heritage and history.”

It’s this meaning of “Maqdala 1868” that the British continue to disregard.

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I'm a journalist and author writing across a wide range of topics, including tech, travel, history, business/startups, relationships, beauty & fashion, British royal history, & local stories concerning Charleston, S.C (where I have a long family history on my father's side: hence my surname! ) Former HuffPost Assoc Ed, ABC TV, ATV Beijing correspondent and many more. Author of "Fatal Females." Mother of three boys: I will love them until the Statue of Liberty sits down.


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