An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"


with 4 comments

Written by Dr. Kwame Opoku
Friday, 19 September 2008

Probably very few countries have been so systematically and intensively deprived of their cultural objects with tremendous violence by Western European countries as Ethiopia has been. First, the British under Queen Victoria sent an army in 1868 to conquer the African country under Emperor Tewodros. The Ethiopian ruler committed suicide in Magdala, the capital, with a gun given to him previously as a gift by Queen Victoria rather than let himself be captured and humiliated by the invading British Army. The barbarous behaviour of the invading army after conquer and loot has been described many times. 

The list of objects stolen by the British, including processional crosses, imperial gold and silver crowns, historical and religious illustrated manuscripts and other objects from Ethiopia will fill pages. Ethiopia became Christian in the 4th Century, long before many in Europe had heard of Christianity.

The second military invasion and despoliation of Ethiopia was in 1936 by the Italians under the fascist leadership of Benito Mussolini who with his soldiers took, among other things, the obelisk at Axum, now returned. But there are still other objects such as works of art, archives, library of Haile Selassie, objects of religious and cultural significance, and the plane of the daughter of the Emperor held by the Italians from their occupation of the land of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Italy has returned the heavy obelisk and can be expected to return the various stolen crosses and manuscripts it still holds. If the recent impressive historic action of Italy paying compensation to Libya for colonization is any indication of its future policy, we can expect Italy to pay also compensation for the colonial occupation of Ethiopia. Furthermore, the return of the Venus of Cyrene to Tripoli should facilitate the return of stolen Ethiopian artifacts in Italy.

During all these historic gestures of compensation and reconciliation, including apologies for wrongful historical acts, we have not heard from the British that they have also understood the necessity for such gestures and restitution. There is no indication that Great Britain, which started the looting of African cultural objects with military force, has any intention of following the path opened by Italy. The British Museum has thousands of very precious Ethiopian manuscripts and objects. The Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and others all have their share of these stolen precious manuscripts and objects. The British Museum pretends to respect the religious objects such as the holy tabots. With all due respect to Neil MacGregor, respect for objects does not replace respect for the rights of ownership and the freedom of religion and religious practice. How long are the British going to refuse to do the right thing? How can Christians steal the crosses, Bibles and other religious objects that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church needs for its religious practice and refuse to return them? Where then is the belief in democracy and the freedom of religion and religious practice which the British are always preaching to the rest of the world?

The hope of many who are holding onto stolen cultural objects may be that time will obliterate the painful memories of such wrongful acts. Experience however has shown that no people ever forget such historical injustices and the Ethiopians have shown enough that they intend to recover their cultural treasures however long this may take. The article below shows the determination of the Ethiopians to keep on fighting for their rights. How long are the Western Europeans going to pretend not to hear the painful but courageous cries of the Ethiopians? Is the present generation of Europeans as rapacious, aggressive, insensitive and brutal as their forefathers? Are they going to condone the crimes and wrongdoings of the past generations? Only time will tell but they should make no mistake: the issue of restitution of stolen or looted objects will not disappear from our world.

4 Responses

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  1. I wish to add a futher comment. As a painter of Tewahedo Icons,it is my life mission to present my Icons of Dengal Maryam &Her Son to Our Churches as I have been blessed with the guidance of a very elderly Mamher. But also because of looting that has gone on & that still does;as one of mine was stolen at St.Mary EOTC in La.Ca.USA;last year.I implore Ethiopian & the friends of Ethiopians to educate themselves on this matter.

  2. i really dont know how or when those holy and royal items gonna return home safely and peacefully but it is my deepest wish i have no other ways to make that dream come true but by praying my god with lot of fear may him have mercy on my judgment

    wodlde tafari

    June 26, 2009 at 11:41 pm

  3. Tenestellen~I feel it necessary to communicate that several years ago,I had a very ancient cross of the Tewahedo Church come into my hands in America. On examination identified as a processional cross of Our Church,the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo. It my honor to return this relic,not for my own merit but only that through God’s guidance that these precious Holy items are restored to there proper place.

  4. I am so sad about Prince Alemayehu and the many treasures of Ethiopia being stolen. The effort to get them back must be stepped up and backed by us all. This must first start with the young Prince’s return. If there is no humanity then there wont be return of history, if no values exist. I am deeply affected by this.

    sian evans

    February 21, 2010 at 3:01 am

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