‘From this scene I strolled away to the northern gate, to where the dead body of the late
Master of Magdala lay, on his canvas stretcher. I found a mob 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, nor was the slightest respect shown it. Extended on its hammock, it lay subjected to the taunts and jests of the brutal-minded. An officer, seeing it in this condition, informed Sir Robert Napier of the fact, who at once gave orders that it should be dressed and prepared for interment on the morrow.’
Henry M. Stanley. (1)
Crown of Tewodros, Ethiopia, now in Victoria and Albert Museum, London
For the last few months, I have been under the impression that Western museum directors have finally understood and accepted that Africans are endowed with the same basic human characteristics as Europeans and all others. That is, intelligence, pride and sensibility. But when I turn to questions of looted art and restitution, I have the impression that some museum directors do not consider us and our peoples as intelligent human beings.
How else should one consider the recent statements by Tristram Hunt, Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in connection with the exhibition ‘Maqdela 1868’, from 5 April 2018 to 30 June 2019, organized to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Maqdala? (2)Why is the museum showing only twenty of the thousands of objects looted by the British Army at Magdala?
Gold chalice from Ethiopia looted by British soldiers at Maqdala now at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom.
The history of the British invasion of Ethiopia has been told several times and we shall spare the reader all the terrible details. (3) Simply put, in 1868 a British expeditionary force set out to secure the release of the British Consul and some foreigners held by the Emperor. The Emperor released them, but the British general Napier refused to accept this gesture and continued with his campaign.
The British army attacked Ethiopia and defeated the Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Magdala on 13 April 1868 resulting in Emperor Tewodros committing suicide with a gun sent him as a gift by Queen Victoria rather than surrender to the invading army. The British army looted whatever treasures they could find.The British soldiers took more than 500 ancient parchment manuscripts, two gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver and copper, religious icons, royal and ecclesiastic vestments as well as shields and arms. It took 15 elephants and 200 mules to transport the loot.
It is interesting to note that the context of British attacks and invasions of non-Europeans has often followed similar pattern whether we look at the attack on, Beijing (China) in 1860, Maqdala (Ethiopia) in 1868, Kumasi(Ghana) in 1874 or Benin (Nigeria) in 1897. (4)The scheme is usually as follows:
Ethiopian cross, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom.
- Existence of lucrative trade in a non-European country or its strategic importance in the region.
- The British seek to take control over trade in the area and meet resistance.
- The British send a team or delegation allegedly to negotiate peace, a delegation which is often secretly armed.
- Some members of the delegation are attacked and killed. In some cases, the alleged killing or imprisonment of some Europeans, such as missionaries, suffices as justification. Even if the prisoners are released or the menaced party offers truce, the invading army presses on.
- Britain sends an army, a punitive expedition army to the non-European country.
- The non-European country is attacked, government or king there is deposed, city or main palace there is burnt but before doing that, all treasures, including artworks are looted. What cannot be taken is burnt. British looting is usually systematic and done with expert advice from specialists who are officially appointed as part of the expedition. This was the situation in most punitive expedition. For example,Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, accompanied the expedition against Magdala, Ethiopia, as an archaeologist. He acquired several objects for the British Museum, including about 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library.(5)
In view of the historical record and the evidence of established British tradition, it is remarkable that some have tried to argue that the burning of a town such as Benin City was due to an accidental fire started by a soldier or give the impression that looting was by locals or a few undisciplined soldiers.
The pattern of behaviour of Britain towards States on other continents should be borne in mind when considering present claims for restitution of objects resulting from aggressive colonialist actions. A pattern of this kind, which is traditional in the British army, cannot be obscured by allegations of instances or incidents.The Ethiopian artefacts are now distributed in universities and institutions such as British Museum in London, the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and Manchester’s John Rylands library. Large collections of Ethiopian manuscripts are in Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vatican, in Portugal, in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, and in the United States of America. (6)
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