Ethiopian treasures looted by the British Army in 1868 have all but escaped attention – until now, as museums and institutions increasingly wrestle with facing the past and doing what’s best for the precious artefacts under their custodianship. Report by James Jeffry.
The opening of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Maqdala 1868 exhibition in London in April caused a real stir, as much for the striking Ethiopian treasures on display as for the fact the museum appeared willing to confront the controversial background behind the artefacts – a controversy that isn’t unique to the V&A, and overshadowing many African collections in museums around the world.
In 1868, Robert Napier, one of the most famous British generals of the imperial era, led an expedition to release British hostages being held in then Abyssinia by Emperor Tewodros. After defeating the Emperor’s forces and ransacking his mountaintop fortress at Maqdala, the victorious troops carted away – on 15 elephants and hundreds of donkeys – looted treasure to the Horn of Africa coast and back to the UK, were they have remained without much comment. Until now.
The complex issue of what to do with art and objects looted from Africa and now residing in museums across America and Europe has dragged on without resolution for a number of years, though recently there appears an increasing willingness to engage with the conundrum at various levels.
Last November, during a visit to the West African country of Burkina Faso, President Emmanuel Macron of France described the restoration of African artefacts as a “top priority” for his country and that “African heritage cannot be a prisoner of European museums.”
“They are stunning pieces with a complex history,” says Tristram Hunt, the V&A’s director. “We want to better reflect on the history of these artefacts in our collection; tracing their origins and then confronting the difficult and complex issues which arise.”
Embarrassment over Ethiopian booty
The looting of Maqdala caused much consternation in England at the time. Prime Minister William Gladstone condemned the taking of treasures from Maqdala and “deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles … were thought fit to be brought away by a British army.” He urged that they “be held only until they could be restored.”
There have been some notable restorations over the years. A famous biblical text, the Kebra Nagast, was released by the British Museum in 1872 to the new Abyssinian King Yoannes, on the order of Queen Victoria herself. An imperial crown, throne, cap and seal have also been returned. But these have been exceptions to the general rule.
In 2007, former Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgis made a formal request for the return of the remains of Theodore’s son Alemayehu, who following his father’s death was taken to Britain aged seven to be looked after. He succumbed to illness, dying aged 19, and is buried at Windsor Castle.
“The inclusion of [a photo of Alemayehu] in the display juxtaposes Alemayehu with some of the other great treasures taken from Ethiopia, reminding us that not only material possessions were lost to the British forces,” Hunt says.
Girma’s request was reportedly turned down based on potential damage an exhumation might cause to the surrounding graves, a source of great frustration to those who point out that British law addresses the issue in Ethiopia’s favour.
“The legislation on human remains restitution is clear and as a first step the return of the body of Prince Alemayehu should be a priority,” says Alula Pankhurst, a historian and anthropologist focused on Ethiopia and Ethiopian studies.
One potential dilemma over whether artefacts are loaned or returned to their lands of origin, is how museums currently housing such items decide whether African institutions are fit to take care of the artefacts. This approach, however, is problematic for some, who argue it expresses a paternalistic attitude toward Africa that smacks of “neo-colonialism”.
“It’s true that the level of care and quality in Britain is much better than ours, but if you come to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies you can see how well [items previously returned] are kept and made available to the public,” says Andreas Eshete, a former president of Addis Ababa University – which houses the institute – and who co-founded the Association for the Return of the Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures (AFROMET).
Another potential problem with restorations, some argue, is that African borders were drawn by European powers during the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 without reference to the boundaries existing at the time – hence it would be hard to decide where older artefacts belong.
Beautifully crafted manuscripts taken from Maqdala pose a particular conundrum, as they had been looted by Tewodros himself, says Yves Marie Stranger, editor of Ethiopia: Through Writers’ Eyes. So the British stole already stolen items.
“We have the responsibility, as a public institution and national library, to research, make accessible and preserve the collections under our custodianship for people and researchers from all over the world, as well as encouraging and promoting international cultural exchanges,” Luisa Mengoni, head of the British Library’s Asian and African Collections, says of the manuscripts.
The ongoing debate sees technology playing an increasing role.
“The technology of replicas now makes it easy to reproduce objects such as manuscripts and copies could be left in UK institutions and the originals sent to Ethiopia, or, if not acceptable, there could be the reverse for now, with the possibility of the exchange of replicas for originals later,” Pankhurst says.
The role of technology, however, is seen differently by those at the British Library.
“We have both a growing opportunity and growing responsibility to use the potential of digital to increase access for people across the world to the intellectual heritage that we safeguard,” Mengoni says.
Cooperation in lieu of resolution
For now the debate continues, on the whole relatively amiably, with cooperation already occurring between both sides. While preparing the Maqdala exhibition, the V&A Museum collaborated with the Ethiopian Embassy in London and the local Ethiopian diaspora community to enable “a vital new understanding of the collection’s significance,” Hunt says.
Other recent Africa-based exhibitions include the British Library’s free display called African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia, which aimed to raise the profile of the Ethiopian scribe tradition.
“While some restitutionists may grumble that the majority of items have not been returned, much has been done to spread the knowledge of their existence – and great artistry – to Ethiopian scholars, and to the world at large,” says Alexander Herman, assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law, an organisation focused on law relating to cultural heritage.
But that’s still not good enough for others. “The restitution of Ethiopian property is a matter of respecting Ethiopia’s dignity and fundamental rights,” says Kidane Alemayehu, one of the founders of the Horn of Africa Peace and Development Center, and executive director of the Global Alliance for Justice: The Ethiopian Cause.