Questions of restitution of looted artefacts often take us to strange places and directions but the report of the concealed looted Ethiopian tabot took us to a place many would have heard about even if they have never been there, mainly because most important activities of the British monarchy such as weddings and commemoration of events take place there: Westminster Abbey. (1
The story of a looted Ethiopian tarot permanently concealed in the venerable cathedral, however, took me by surprise for we seldom associate this holy place with nefarious activities, having been sufficiently immunized by British propaganda and British education all these years.
According to a report by Martin Bailey in The Artnewspaper, one of the several
objects looted by the British in their devastating attack of Magdala, Ethiopia, in
1868, has been permanently sealed inside an altar in London’s Westminster
The tabot, an Ethiopian holy object that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments and can be seen only by orthodox priests, had been previously inserted into the back of the altar, where it remained visible, along with other sacred objects.
In 2007, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Abune Paulos, went to London to demand the return of the tabot. He received a response that the matter would be considered but nothing happened.
According to Bailey, ‘three years later, a covering was placed in front of the tabot, so it is no longer visible. The inscription, “Fragment of an Abyssinian Altar brought from Magdala in 1868”, was painted over. Today, the ghost-like rectangle where the front of the tabot was once exposed can just be made out.’
Following the opening of the abbey’s museum last month, Ethiopia’s ambassador in London repeated the demand of his government for the return of the tabot. But a spokesperson of the abbey is reported as stating: “The dean and chapter are very conscious of the sensitivity of the Ethiopian tabot, so steps were taken a number of years ago to ensure that the tabot, which is in a very sacred place, was properly covered and could not be seen by anyone.”
This report of a permanent concealment of a looted Ethiopian tabot in Westminster Abbey comes at a time when many States in Europe
are gradually accepting that it is wrong to steal the cultural artefacts of others and stubbornly refuse to return them to the original owners as has been requested almost annually in numerous United Nations/UNESCO resolutions since 1972. (3)
The French, under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron, are busy preparing the grounds for returning African artefacts looted during the colonial regime. Bénédicte Savoy (France), and Felwine Sarr (Senegal) have been charged by the French President to examine the issue and make recommendations for the restitution of African artefacts to Africa. As far as we can tell, we can expect some concrete actions from the French in 2020-21. (4)
Germans have been discussing the issues of African artefacts looted during German colonial regime with an intensity that few people outside the country can imagine.
Even though the German Federal Government has not taken any clear position on the issues involved and seemed for a while to be seeking refuge in The Guidelines for Handling Objects acquired in colonial contexts, issued by the German Association of Museums on 14 May 2018, other bodies have made clear statements of their positions and willingness to return objects found to have been wrongfully acquired.
Lower Saxony Minister for Culture and Science, Björn Thümler, has declared that his government is willing to return the many artefacts in its museums that have been wrongfully acquired.
Herman Parzinger, President of the rich and powerful Prussian Cultural Foundation has declared that objects from Tanzania that were unlawfully taken to the Ethnological Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin would be returned. (5)But one must take Parzinger’s statements with some caution. He has in the past made statements and promises of returning looted artefacts which were not followed by any action but by other statements putting his promising utterances in doubt. (6)
Belgian, a State that also took as much as possible from Africa, including cultural artefacts, does not appear to have taken any clear decision regarding restitution of African artefacts looted during the colonial epoque. One view opposing restitution is expressed by Julien Volper, aconservator at the Musée royal belge de l’Afrique centrale (Tervuren) and a Lecturer at the Centre for Cultural Anthropology of the Free University, Brussel. Volper writes in the Figaro, under a dramatic title, Let us defend our museums!that there are in France and elsewhere, individuals who are waiting to transform museums into tombs by emptying them of their collections. (7)
Several articles have appeared in newspapers supporting restitution after the demand of the Republic of Benin asking France to return the artefacts looted under General Dodds in 1892. He recalls that some of the treasures Benin is demanding, such as the statue of the god Gou were looted by King Glelé from other peoples in Dahomey. He recalls that the major collections in Europe were based on principles of universalism and humanism as opposed to ideas of communitarism, nationalism and dangerous opportunism. On the other hand,
Guido Gryseels, the director general at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), is more flexible but does not believe in any wholesale restitution. He welcomes the initiative of President Macron but suggests that restitution is only possible when African States and their museums improve the security for the objects and conservatory methods. (8)
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