Memorandum submitted by the Association
for the Return of the Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures (AFROMET)
The Association for the Return of the Ethiopian
Maqdala Treasures (AFROMET), which was founded in Addis Ababa
in 1999 to work for the return to Ethiopia of the loot unjustly
taken by British troops as a result of the Napier expedition of
1867-68, wishes to recall the basic facts of this looting to the
Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the United Kingdom Parliament.
In doing so AFROMET wishes to emphasise that
the looting of Emperor Tewodros's mountain fortress of Maqdala
in 1868 can in no way be justified in international law, and was
therefore, we believe, in fact an act of injustice. We would further
emphasise that the British looting of Maqdala involved the seizure
of church property in the possession of the Church of Madhane
Alam, or Saviour of the World, at Maqdala, and was therefore an
act of sacrilege.
We feel that the injustice committed by the
British at Maqdala, like other injustices of the past, must be
repaired; and that this can be effected only by full restitution
to Ethiopia of all cultural objects unjustly looted from the country.
We feel, in the words of a British lover of justice, that nothing
is truly settled until it is settled justly.
We would further emphasise that the objects
looted, crowns, manuscripts, processional crosses, and tabots
(or alter slabs), etc, were an integral part of Ethiopia's cultural
heritage, which, we believe, must be returned to their true owners:
the Ethiopian people.
We would further emphasise that, whatever was
the situation in the past, Ethiopia now possesses modern libraries
and museums fully capable of preserving the loot unjustly taken
We would note that the principle of restoring
the loot unjustly taken from Ethiopia has in a way long been accepted
by the British Government, which over the years has returned two
crowns, a royal seal, and an important manuscript to Ethiopia.
These acts of restitution were effected, however, only on a piecemeal
basis. AFROMET by contrast demands total restitution as a long
overdue act of justice.
We reiterate that we are asking for this restitution,
pure and simply, as an act of justice, and feel that the people
of Britain, faced by the looting of their own cultural heritage,
would rightly demand no less.
We feel that to clarify the situation of the
loot from Maqdala it may be useful to chronicle the story as follows:
I. The fall of Maqdala
The British capture of Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros's
mountain capital in north-west Ethiopia, took place on 13 April
1868, immediately after the Ethiopian monarch committed suicide
to avoid falling into the hands of his enemies. The seizure of
the citadel was described by an Ethiopian royal chronicler, Alaqa
Walda Mariam, who, looking at the event from an Ethiopian point
of view, states that when "everything fell into the hands
of the English general . . . every [Ethiopian] soldier at Maqdala
threw his weapons over the precipice and went and grovelled before
the enemy". Those who failed to throw away their arms were,
he claims, "considered as belligerents and many men thus
perished", presumably at the hands of the victorious army.
Elaborating on this assertion, he declares that "the English
troops rivalled one another" in "shooting down"
any Ethiopian seen carrying spears or guns, and that "when
anyone was seen taking up a weapon he was shot".
The above grim picture, it is only fair to say,
finds no confirmation in British official records, which, on the
other hand, do not, however, provide any contradictory evidence.
II. The looting of the fortress
The pillage, and subsequent destruction, of
Maqdala is well documented in contemporary British accounts. The
geographer Clements Markham, one of the leading British historians
of the Expedition, recalls that Napier's men, on entering the
citadel, swarmed around the body of the deceased monarch. They
then "gave three cheers over it, as it if had been a dead
fox and then began to pull and tear the clothes to pieces until
it was nearly naked". This account is corroborated by the
Anglo-American journalist Henry M Stanley, who reports seeing
a "mob, indiscriminate of officers and men, rudely jostling
each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece
of Theodore's blood-stained shirt. No guard was placed over the
body until it was naked".
The troops, it is agreed by all observers, also
seized whatever valuables they could find in and around the citadel.
Markham records that they "dispersed" all over the mountain
top and that the Emperor's treasury was "soon entirely rifled".
The nearby church of Madhane Alam, literally,
the Saviour of the World, or at least its eqa bet, or store house,
was apparently looted, though this action, constituting as it
did a gross act of sacrilege, is glossed over in the British accounts.
It is, however, evident that most of the many religious manuscripts,
crosses, and other ecclesiastical objects acquired by the British
troops at Maqdala could only have come from one or other of its
two churches. Several Ethiopian manuscripts later brought to Britain
moreover contain tell-tale inscriptions to the effect that they
belonged to Madhane Alam Church, while a manuscript in the Bodleian
Library, in Oxford, (MS Aeth, d 1) bears a pencil note, in English,
stating that it was "taken from a church at Maqdala in 1868",
ie the year of the Expedition. One of the tabots, or altar slabs,
in the British Museum, is likewise incised with the words "Tabota
Madhana Alam", ie Tabot of Madhane Alam.
The loot from Maqdala, according to Stanley,
included "an infinite variety of gold and silver and brass
crosses", as well as "heaps of parchment royally illuminated",
and many other articles which were, before long, "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".
III. Sir Richard Holmes
One of those present at this act of plunder
was Richard, later Sir Richard Holmes, Assistant in the British
Museum's Department of Manuscripts, who had been appointed the
Expedition's "archaeologist". He claimed in an official
British Museum report that the British flag had "not been
waved . . . much more than 10 minutes" before he himself
had entered the fort. Shortly afterwards, at dusk, he met a British
soldier, who was carrying the crown of the Abun, ie the Head of
the Ethiopian Church, and a "solid gold chalice weighing
at least 6lbs". Holmes succeeded in purchasing both for £4
sterling. He was, on the same occasion, also offered several large
manuscripts, but declined them because they were, he says, too
heavy to carry!
The British military authorities, which, in
accordance with the custom of the day, saw no objection to the
principle of plunder, sought, however, to regularise it: to render
the distribution of booty "fairer", and in effect to
ensure that officers, and others with ample funds, could acquire
the lion's shareat the expense of the ordinary soldiers.
The loot from Maqdala was accordingly collected,
on Napier's orders, for subsequent auction.
IV. The burning of Maqdala
Steps were meanwhile taken by the British military
authorities, on the afternoon 17 April, entirely to destroy the
city. Working-parties, according to a British officer, Captain
Hozier, laid mines under the gate and other defences, as well
as Tewodros's artillery which had been cast with great difficulty
by the Emperor's European artisans. The fort was then blown up,
together, Markham notes, with "an ill-fated cow", who,
unfortunately for her, happened to be present at that moment.
The Emperor's palace and all other buildings, including the church
of Madhane Alam, were next set on fire. The conflagration, Hozier
reports, "spread quickly from habitation to habitation and
sent up a heavy cloud of dense smoke which could be seen for many
The British troops then secured "good positions",
Stanley states "from whence the mighty conflagration . .
. could be seen to advantage".
Describing the destruction of Tewodros's capital
in some detail, Stanley continues:
"The easterly wind gradually grew stronger,
fanning incipient tongues of flame visible on the roofs of houses
until they grew larger under the skilful nursing and finally sprang
aloft in crimson jets, darting upward and then circling round
on their centres as the breeze played with them. A steady puff
of wind levelled the flaming tongues in a wave, and the jets became
united into an igneous lake!"
"The heat became more and more intense;
loaded pistols and guns, and shells thrown in by the British batteries,
but which had not been discharged, exploded with deafening reports
. . . Three thousand houses and a million combustible things were
burning. Not one house would have escaped destruction in the mighty
ebb and flow of that deluge of fire."
V. Two-day auction
The loot from Maqdala was then transported,
on 15 elephants and almost 200 mules, to the nearby Dalanta Plain.
There, on 20 and 21 April, the British military authorities held
a two-day auction to raise "prize money" for the troops.
"Bidders", Stanley states, "were not scarce for
every officer and civilian desired some souvenir", among
them "richly illuminated Bibles and manuscripts". Holmes,
acting on behalf of the British Museum, was one of the principal
purchasers. Stanley describes him "in his full glory",
for, "armed with ample funds, he out-bid all in most things."
Colonel Frazer, buying for a regimental mess "ran him hard",
and "when anything belonging personally to Theodore was offered
for sale, there were private gentlemen who outbid both".
This officially organised sale raised a total
of £5,000, which assured each enlisted man "a trifle
over four dollars".
VI. British Museum and other British Library
As a result of Holmes, the British Museum, now
the British Library, became the receiver of 350 Ethiopian manuscripts,
many of them finely illuminated. A further six exceptionally beautiful
specimens were acquired by the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.
Sir Robert Napier later presented another manuscript
to the Royal Library in Vienna, while two others reached the German
Kaiser, and a further two the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris
Almost 200 other volumes were subsequently acquired
by the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library,
the John Rylands Library in Manchester and several smaller British
Several of these manuscripts contain extensive
archival material, including Tewodros's tax records, which have
been edited by Professor Richard Pankhurst in his Tax Records
and Inventories of Emperor Téwodros of Ethiopia (London,
1978), constitute data essential for the study of Ethiopian history,
including that of the history of the country's art.
The loot also included: two crowns, and a royal
cap, all three seemingly belonging to Tewodros, and his imperial
seal; a golden chalice, probably that mentioned in Holmes's above-mentioned
report; 10 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.
VII. The initiative of Emperor Yohannes IV
Tewodros's successor, Emperor Yohannes IV, was
deeply grieved by the loss of the treasures from Maqdala. Having
no hope of obtaining full restitution he wrote two letters, on
10 August 1872, to Queen Victoria and the British Foreign Secretary,
Earl Granville, respectively. In them he requested the return
of two items, a manuscript and an icon. Both were considered of
particular importance. The manuscript was a Kebra Nagast, or "Glory
of Kings", which, though not specified in his letter, was
of especial interest in that its end-papers contained "historical
notices and other documents" relating to the city of Aksum,
as Dr Dieu of the British Museum was later to note.
The icon was no less notable. Known in Ge`ez
as a Kwer'ata Re`esu, literally "Striking of His Head",
it was a representation of Christ with the Crown of Thorns. This
painting had, since at least the seventeenth century, been taken
by Ethiopian rulers and their armies with them whenever they went
on a major, or particularly hazardous campaign. This highly prized
painting had been captured by the Sudanese in the eighteenth century,
but had later been repurchased, on which occasion, the Scottish
traveller and historian James Bruce recalls, Gondar, the then
Ethiopian capital, was "drunk with joy".
On receiving the two letters from Emperor Yohannes,
the British Government informed the British Museum that it would
be a "gracious and friendly act", if it complied with
the Ethiopian request. The Museum authorities, on investigating
the matter, found that they possessed two copies of the Kebra
Nagast, both taken from Maqdala, and accordingly agreed to return
one, in Dr Dieu's view the less interesting.
This manuscript is noteworthy in that it was
the only acquisition of the Museum ever to be restored to its
former owners, and thus sets an interesting precedent for the
return of loot not only to Ethiopia, but also to the Third World.
VIII. The missing icon
The icon, unlike the manuscript, could not be
found. Queen Victoria accordingly replied to Emperor Yohannes,
on 18 December, declaring: "Of the picture we can discover
no trace whatever, and we do not think it can have been brought
In this belief Her Majesty was, however, completely
mistaken, for the painting had been acquired by Holmes, who had
kept it for himself. Having some time later left the Museum's
service, he was at that very moment none other than the Queen's
Librarian at Windsor Castle.
His ownership of the painting was not, however,
publicly acknowledged until 1890, a year after Yohanne's death;
and it was not until 1905 that a photograph of the icon was allowed
to appear in The Burlington Magazine, an art journal with
which Holmes was associated. The reproduction bore the revealing
"Head of Christ formerly in the possession
of King Theodore of Abyssinia, now in the possession of Sir Richard
By then, the request by Emperor Yohannes for
the restitution of the icon had, of course, long since been filed
IX. Lady Meux
The most famous private collection of Ethiopian
manuscripts from Maqdala was that acquired by an English woman,
Lady Valorie Meux, who had several of them published in London,
in facsimile editions, with translations by Sir Ernest Wallis
Budge. These manuscripts were seen by Emperor Menilek's envoy
Ras Makonnen, who had come to England in 1902 for the Coronation
of King Edward VII. When the Ras saw these manuscripts, he expressed
great admiration, stating that he had "never seen any such
beautiful manuscripts" in his country, and declared that
he would "ask the Emperor to buy them back".
Later towards the end of her life, when Lady
Meux made her Will, on 23 January 1910, she bequeathed her Ethiopian
manuscripts to Emperor Menilek. The Times, reporting this,
stated that "envoys from the Emperor were sent over to arrange
for their [the manuscripts'] recovery, and it is believed that
the present bequest is the fulfilment of a promise then given".
Lady Meux died on 20 December of the same year.
Her Will created a sensation, because a section of the British
public apparently pined for the manuscripts' retention in England.
An article in The Times of 7 February 1911, stated: "Many
persons 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".
The Will was thereupon overturned, on the ground
that Menilek was dead when Lady Meux died. He did not in fact
die until December 1913, and in any case had heirs.
Lady Meux's intention was, however, frustrated.
Ethiopia was in a sense robbed a second timefor the manuscripts
were retained in England.
X. Twentieth century piecemeal restitution
The story of the loot from Maqdala came to the
fore again several times in the twentieth century, and will continue
to do so, no doubt, until restitution is finally made.
The British Government, though thus far apparently
unwilling to recognise what would now be considered the original
immorality of looting Tewodros's capital, found it convenient,
when suitable occasions arose, to dole out a few articles of loot,
almost as articles of charity.
During the visit of Ras Tafari Makonnen, the
future Emperor Haile Sellassie, to Britain in 1924, the British
Government thus arranged to send the then Ethiopian ruler, Empress
Zawditu, one of the Tewodros's two crowns. The one selected was
silver-gilt, enabling the Victoria and Albert Museum to retain
the more valuable, gold crown.
Forty years later, at the end of Queen Elizabeth's
State visit to Ethiopia in 1965, the British Government likewise
arranged that Her Majesty should present Emperor Haile Sellassie,
with Tewodros's royal cap and seal.
The time, it is widely believed, to consider
the return of the loot from Maqdala in its entirety, rather to
continue with such haphazard acts of belated repatriation.
(The above account is based on Professor Pankhurst's
article "The Napier Expedition and the Loot from Maqdala",
which appeared in Presence Africaine (1985), Nos 133-4, pp 233-40.
The latter article contains full bibliographical references to
all the passages above quoted.
AFROMAT urges the United Kingdom Parliamentary
Committee to recognise the elementary right of all peoples to
struggle for the restitution of their cultural property, no less
than for their freedom, when taken away from them by force.
We recall that the British Expedition against
Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia in 1867-68 was accompanied by extensive
looting of his capital at Maqdala.
We observe that this loot comprised numerous
items of major historical and cultural importance for Ethiopia.
They include over 350 Ethiopian manuscripts on parchment, many
of them exquisitely illustrated; two crowns, one of them of almost
pure gold; an early sixteenth century icon of Christ with the
Crown of Thorns, traditionally carried by Ethiopian monarchs on
campaign; Tewodros's two royal tents; 10 tabots, or holy altar
slabs; and many fine processional church crosses.
We affirm our conviction that, whatever the
rights and wrongs of the case, the dispute between Emperor Tewodros
and the British Government over 130 years ago, in no way justified
Ethiopia's permanent deprivation of her cultural property.
We declare further that inasmuch as the loot
was largely the property of Maqdala's church of Madhane Alam,
ie Saviour of the World, it constituted not only an act of injustice,
but also one of sacrilege.
We note further that British Governments, while
insisting on the unjust retention of this loot, have long recognised
the value of restitution. On three occasions, over the last century
and a half, Britain, when wishing to purchase Ethiopia's good
will, returned a total of four items looted from Maqdala. We urge
that such piecemeal restitution for political ends should be replaced
by the return of all property looted from Maqdala, as an act of
Our Association, which has held numerous meetings
on the subject in Addis Ababa, welcomes the initiative of the
British Parliament in establishing your Committee, and trusts
that, after due deliberation, your Committee will (1) recognise
the injustice of the looting of Maqdala in 1868; and (2) recommend
the restitution to Ethiopia of this loot.