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Memorandum on the Loot from Maqdala

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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 1867-8,
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

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 altar 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 from Maqdala.

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


We feel that to clarify the situation of the loot from Maqdala it
may be useful to chronicle the story, as follows:


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.


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 if it 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 the its two
churches. Several Ethiopian manuscripts later brought to Britain
moreover contain tell-tale inscriptions to the effect that they
belonged to Madhane Alem Church, while a manuscript in the
Bodleian Library in Oxford, (M.S. Aeth. d. 1) bears a pencil note,
in English, stating that it was “taken from a church at Maqdala in
1868”, i.e. 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”, i.e.
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”.


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 ten
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, i.e. 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 share – at the expense of the
ordinary soldiers.

The loot from Maqdala was accordingly collected, on Napier’s
orders, for subsequent auction.


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 “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 miles”.

The British troops then secured “good positions”, Stanley states,
“from whence the mighty conflagration …could be seen to

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”.


The loot from Maqdala was then transported, on fifteen elephants
and almost two hundred 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”.


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 two hundred 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 Tewodros 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; ten 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.


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.


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 to

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 Yohannes’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 caption:

“Head of Christ formerly in the possession of King Theodore of
Abyssinia, now in the possession of Sir Richard Holmes,

By then, the request by Emperor Yohannes for the restitution of
the icon had, of course, long since been filed away!


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 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 grounds 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
time – for the manuscripts were retained in England.


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’ royal cap and seal.

The time has come, it is widely believed, to consider the return of
the loot from Maqdala in its entirety, rather than 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 form 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).


AFROMET 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 1867-8 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; ten 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 a hundred and thirty 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, i.e. Saviour of
the World, it constituted not only an act of injustice, but also one of

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 elementary

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.

Andreas Eshete (Professor) Chairman
Richard Pankhurst (Professor) Historian


Written by Tseday

November 20, 2008 at 2:47 pm

Ethiopia seeks prince’s remains

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BBC News – June 2007

Ethiopia’s president has sent Queen Elizabeth II a formal request for the remains of a prince who died in Britain more than a century ago.

The royal household at Windsor Castle, where Prince Alemayehu was buried, is said to be considering the request.

President Woldegiorgis Girma hopes the prince’s bones can be reburied for millennium celebrations in September.

Ethiopia has been waging a lively campaign to get back historic treasures looted during the last two centuries.

Father’s suicide

Its most striking success has been in recovering a massive stone obelisk from Axum, carried off to Rome by Mussolini’s army.

But the campaign now has a new impetus.

Ethiopia’s calendar is more than seven years behind that of the rest of the world – here, it is still 1999 and Ethiopians are planning to mark what they believe is the 2000 anniversary of the birth of Christ with big celebrations in September.

Now the Ethiopian president has put in a formal request for the return of the remains of Prince Alemayehu.

His father, the Emperor Tewodros II, committed suicide after his defeat by the British at the Battle of Magdala in 1868.

The young boy was taken to Britain and sent to boarding school and officers’ training school at Sandhurst, but died at the age of 18.

He was buried at Windsor Castle, with Queen Victoria describing as “too sad” his short life and early death.

The Ethiopian embassy in London says Windsor is now considering their request.

The young prince was not the only thing the British took from Magdala – they reportedly needed 15 elephants and nearly 200 mules to carry away the treasures that Tewodros had accumulated.

Many of them are still in Britain and the Queen has some of them – notably six of the very finest illuminated manuscripts, which are part of the royal collection in Windsor Castle.

Written by Tseday

November 20, 2008 at 2:41 pm

Reading about Téwodros

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by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 62–64)

WHENEVER ONE STARTS TO READ about Ethiopia, very soon he or she discovers Téwodros II, the infamous emperor of the Empire in the mid-nineteenth-century. Téwodros was a great, romantic visionary, and a mad figure of Ethiopian history who rose to power in the 1850s by overthrowing the principal feudal leadership in the north.

His objective, as his British admirer Consul Plowden reported at the time to the Home Office in London, was to integrate the country by placing “the soldiers of the different provinces under the command of his own trusty followers.” In this way Téwodros started “organizing a new nobility, a legion of honor dependent on himself, and chosen specially for their daring and fidelity.” And thus began the “arduous task of breaking the power of the great feudal chiefs – a task achieved in Europe only during the reign of many consecutive Kings.”

Among other achievements, Téwodros was responsible for important improvements in the country. He had built, for example, the first road in Ethiopia, from Debra Tabor to his mountain citadel Magdala. He attempted to establish a fleet of boats on Lake Tana. He started a foundry at Gafat and manufactured Ethiopia’s first cannon. He also attempted to stop the slave trade, reform the land tenure system, and introduce Ethiopian dress. He took steps to replace verbal messages with letters, wipe away concubines and promote marriage.

Yet much of what he achieved was rendered futile by the debacle at Magdala, and thereby hangs the tale, the source of much literary prose, and why Téwodros is so well remembered by the world.
All of them: Ethiopian scholars, African historians, romance novelists, adventure travel writers, tourists and travelers have been caught up in the history of this tortured man. Many have written about him, searching for some understanding of the man as well as wanting to tell his tale.

I first read about Téwodros in Alan Moorehead’s The Blue Nile (if you haven’t read The Blue Nile, put this article down and go read that book immediately – it is available in our library and can be borrowed at no cost) when I was teaching at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa in 1962. Between classes, sitting in the backroom of the Teacher’s Lounge, or across Smuts Street at a small café where I’d go for cappuccino early in the morning, I’d read chapter after chapter of Moorehead’s fascinating account of the Blue Nile and of the Empire under Téwodros.

Téwodros claimed that he was of royal blood and in the direct line of kings descending from Solomon and Alexander the Great, but none of that was true. He was the son of a small local chieftain, born in 1818 close to the source of the Blue Nile.
He reign was from 1855 to 1868, and during it he was constantly involved in war. He fought successfully against Tigre and conquered Shewa, taking the boy Menelik, who represented the Shewa dynasty there, to live at his court. He waged war against the Gallas. And all the while, he attempted to modernize the Empire.
While being portrayed as a model of politeness even towards the meanest peasants, he also was the victim of ungovernable rages. His humanity was such, it was recorded, that he would buy slaves from the Muslim traders in order to emancipate and Christianize them, yet at the same time he burned deserting soldiers alive and threw prisoners from precipices.

It was during this period that a number of Europeans found their way into Ethiopia: German and English missionaries, German artisans and zoologists, a French painter and a more than a few travel adventures.
But then in 1864, after the British Foreign Office did not – for two years – answer a letter he had written to Queen Victoria, Téwodros threw the Consul, Cameron, and the other British citizens into prison. The British government sent a man named Rassam to protest and he, plus sixty more Europeans, were seized and chained.

At the time, Téwodros was moving towards Magdala, a natural fortress overlooking Wallo Province. Here is where he met Sir Robert Napier, sent from India by the Queen to free her subjects and all the other imprisoned Europeans. Napier landed near Massawa and using an impressive assortment of transport animals including elephants, bullocks, and camels, advanced overland at a mile a day to Magdala. Of the 3,400 British and Indian troops who took part in the assault on Magdala, not one was lost. Téwodros, who had at first boasted to his chiefs — “Oh! That we may meet those white donkeys. We shall show them what the sword and lance of Ethiopia can do.”- killed himself when he saw that defeat was certain. He was buried in the Magdala church, though suicide, as we know, is a rare and grave crime among Ethiopian Christians. (The story is told of Workneh Gebeyehu, one of the leaders of the failed 1960 coup d’ etat, when cornered by soldier shouted to his assailants, “Téwodros has taught me something.” Putting a pistol into his mouth, and he killed himself, and, therefore, ensured that he would be forever linked to the Emperor Téwodros.)

After reading about Téwodros in Moorehead’s book, I, too, thought he would make the subject of a great novel, but never did any research on the Emperor. A few years later, when I was on PC/Ethiopia staff as an Associate Director, and had the Dessie Road as part of my responsibility, I ran into a group of British students in Dessie. At the time they were “crashing” at John Hoover’s small house and setting off the next day to climb up to the old fortress at Magdala in honor of the 1867 Napier Expedition. I wanted to tag along but was due in Waldia the next day and never made it to Magdala.

For years, however, Téwodros’s story has stayed with me. Once, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I had gone for the Shakespeare Festival, I spend an afternoon in the Edinburgh library reading Field Marshal Lord Napier of Magdala, a memoir by his son, published in 1927.

Back in London I wandered into the Maggs Bros. Ltd. Antiquarian Booksellers on Berkeley Square and bought for 48 pounds Reconnoitering in Abyssinia by Colonel H. St. Clair Wilkins that was published in 1870. It was the royal engineer’s account of the reconnoitering party that went to Ethiopia prior to the arrival of the expeditionary field force from India.
The opening goes:”In August 1867, the British Government resolved upon the invasion of Abyssinia. It was decided to dispatch a military expedition to that remote county, for the purpose of releasing from the hands of the Christian King Theodorus, a British Consul and an Envoy and suite confined in irons in the fortress of Magdala without just cause, and contrary to the laws of nations; and to obtain full satisfaction for the dishonour thus cast upon the British nation.”

At the time in his Magdala fortress, Téwodros had thirty European artillery pieces, 3,000 soldiers armed with percussion guns and several thousand spear armed foot soldiers. While he was safe within a impregnable fortress, Téwodros decided to attack and the British soldiers (mostly Indians) of the 4th King’s Own had the very latest breech loading rifle – the Snider – which was being used for the first time in battle. The firepower and discipline of the British units completely overwhelmed the musket and spears of the Ethiopians. Over 500 Ethiopians were killed and thousands more were wounded in a battle that lasted an hour and a half.

A ripe source for novelists

From such historical documents, several novels have been written. Alan Scholefield’s The Hammer of God, published by William Morrow & Company in 1973; Ann Schlee’s The Guns of Darkness, Atheneum, 1974; and When The Emperor Dies by Mason McCann Smith, Random House, 1981.

There are other historical accounts, besides Alan Moorehead, but these are the only novels that I have been able to locate

In The Guns of Darkness, Ann Schlee tells the story of Téwodros from the point-of-view of fourteen year old, Louisa Bell, daughter of John Bell and the Princess Worknesh Asfa Yilma. Schelee is a fine writer, mostly of young adult novels set in exotic countries. This novel focuses on the human side of the history, the small details of everyday life that surround the historical events. Schlee touches, for example, on the torture that the ordinary people, Ethiopians and Europeans, suffered under Téwodros. She had based her novel on the alleged fact that John Bell had four children by an Ethiopian woman. The fourth child was called Louisa and was on a list of the released prisoners as recorded by the Royal Geographical Society’s observer, C.R. Markham.
Californian Mason McCann Smith, too, blends fact and fiction in his novel, When The Emperor Dies, using characters, both real and imaginary. Of the two books, Smith has the more details of the march and attack on Magdala, and the most research. However, the novel is overwritten and is centered mostly on Napier and his men.

Alan Scholefield is a well known South African writer, author of Great Elephant, Wild Dog Running, The Young Masters, etc. In The Hammer of God, he has an arrogant Victorian sportsman in search of the rare ibex, his new, young wife, Catherine, an ex-Army officer guide, and a scheming secretary, all in the highlands together when they are captured by the Emperor. Scholefield creates several new characters and uses Téwodros and the events of Magdala as the historical backdrop. Being an experienced novelist, he moves the story at a faster, more telling pace. Nevertheless, both novels pale when compared to Alan Moorehead’s prose and narrative skill in The Blue Nile,* first published in 1962.

Moorehead’s incomparable The Blue Nile

Moorehead spends roughly 70 pages of his 330-page book on Emperor Téwodros, the British expedition, the battle on the Arogi plateau, and seizure of Magdala, and it is a fascinating tale.
“There has never been in modern times a colonial campaign quite like the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868,” Moorehead writes. “It proceeds from first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches at the end. And yet it was a fearsome undertaking; for hundreds of years the country had never been invaded, and the savage nature of the terrain alone was enough to promise failure.”

Other histories

There are a few other useful histories about Téwodros. Walter Plowden’s Travels in Abyssinia, published in 1868; H.A. Stern’s The Captive Missionary in 1868; H. Rassam’s Narrative of the British Mission to Téwodros King of Abyssinia, 2 vols, published in 1869. In 1870, T.J. Holland and H.M. Hozier, wrote the official Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia, 2 vols, with maps and plans. There is also Correspondence Respecting Abyssinia 1846-68 that was presented to the House of Commons in 1869. This 700-page report gives much information not only about the imprisonment of the captives but about Téwodros and Ethiopia in general. H.M. Stanley published in 1874 Coomassie and Magdale; the Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa.
Some recent publications are S. Rubenson’s King of Kings: Téwodros of Ethiopia, published in Addis Ababa in 1966. The March to Magdala by Myatt, Frederick, published in 1970 by Leo Cooper. And in 1973 R.J. Pankhurst’s essay “The Library of Emperor Téwodros II at Magdala” appeared in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, XXXVI, 15-42. And more recently, Oxford Press published in 1979, The Abyssinian Difficulty: The Emperor Theodorus and the Magdala Campaign, 1867-68 by Sir Darrell Bates.
I am sure I have missed other accounts, but for anyone interested in this historical moment in Ethiopia, the books I’ve mentioned are a good start. And it is a great story.


John Coyne is the editor of the and editor of Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers published by Curbstone Press in 2000. He has written or edited over twenty books.

Written by Tseday

November 7, 2008 at 5:50 am

Posted in Ethiopia

Tagged with , , ,

Treasures from Ethiopia

with 2 comments

The collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum include a number of Ethiopian objects and images. Many of these are associated with a British military expedition undertaken to Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) in 1867-68, which ended with the ransacking of the Ethiopian Emperor’s fortress at Magdala. Not all of the objects, however, are straightforward products of plunder. Indeed, the stories behind the acquisition of the photographs, textiles, jewellery, religious and other artefacts held by the V&A reveal a complex web of people, places and politics brought together by conflict. This article presents the stories which lie behind some of these objects and contrasts the personal experiences of those caught up in the conflict with the way in which the ‘Abyssinian Expedition’ was presented to the British public. This article highlights just some of the objects and images associated with the Expedition which can be found in the V&A’s collections.

Personal histories

Julia Margaret Cameron - 'Dejatch Alamayou' Photograph of Prince Alamayou 1868

The Ethiopian Prince Alamayou was one of the casualties of the conflict. He is pictured (on the right), aged seven, in a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron after he had been brought to England following the death of his parents. Alamayou’s sad story was reported in the British press and attracted the sympathy of many, including Queen Victoria who arranged for the state funding of his education. He was popularly cast as a romantic and melancholy figure, as is apparent in Cameron’s photograph. Alamayou’s death of pleurisy at the age of 18 was described by the Queen as ‘too sad’. His image appears in four places in the V&A’s collections; in the Cameron photograph, on two cartes de visite and in a photograph pasted into a family album.

Alamayou’s guardian in England was a British army officer and colonial official, Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy. Speedy was well-acquainted with the Prince’s homeland having travelled to Ethiopia in 1860 to assist his father, the Emperor Tewodros II (Theodore), with military training. Whilst there Speedy developed a strong affinity with the Ethiopian people; he learned to speak Amharic and adopted native dress. In 1868 he returned to serve as civilian interpreter to the British expedition. Back in England, the six foot five, red haired and bearded Captain made an unlikely but affectionate guardian figure to the slight Prince.

Julia Margaret Cameron - 'Spear or spare', Báshá Félika - Photograph of Captain Speedy 1868

Julia Margaret Cameron -

Speedy appears in a photograph by Cameron in the V&A’s collections. Wearing Ethiopian dress, he stands over a reclined unidentified African man, with a spear in his hand, apparently playing out a fantasy of conquest (the photograph has been titled ‘Spear or spare’). The mount carries the handwritten caption ‘Báshá Félíka’ meaning ‘speedy’; the Amharic name given to Speedy by Tewodros. Speedy’s relationship with the Ethiopian people is also reflected in a small collection of objects given to the Museum by his goddaughter in 1936. Unfortunately the stories behind how he acquired the engraved silver and iron handcrosses, silver anklets, hairpin and ornament have not been recorded although it is possible the objects may have royal connections. Further items formerly in the collection of Speedy are held by the British Museum.

Speedy was not the only European to make the acquaintance of the Ethiopian Emperor. In the years before the Expedition Tewodros had been an admirer of Europe and its technologies, particularly those used in the manufacture of arms. He had formed close associations with the British traveller John Bell, who visited Ethiopia in the early 1840s, and Walter Plowden, the first British consul to Ethiopia, who arrived in 1848. However, by the 1860s Tewodros had become frustrated by a lack of support from Europe for his campaigns against Turkish expansion on the Red Coast. In 1864, in an attempt to prompt the British and French governments into action, he took a number of Europeans hostage including the second British consul, Captain Cameron. Queen Victoria sent a letter to Tewodros seeking their release but her envoy, the civil servant Hormuzd Rassam, was also captured. Following parliamentary debate, Britain began to plan a punitive military expedition. Under the leadership of General Sir Robert Napier, in 1868 the expedition marched to Tewodros’s fortress at Maqdala and a brief battle took place nearby. Britain won the conflict, but not before the captives were released and Tewodros himself had committed suicide.

Tewodros’s suicide on the eve of the storming of his fortress left a widow, Queen Woyzaro Terunesh. She requested that her son, Prince Alamayou, and she be escorted by British forces to her native province of Semyen, in northwest Tigray. However, as the party reached Haiq Hallet on 15 May 1868, the Queen died, apparently of lung disease. A report in the British press described ‘Her funeral [which] took place next morning in the great church at Chelicut … The women of her household, showing her robe, her ornaments, her slippers and her drinking cup, beat their breasts, tore their hair, and scratched their cheeks, shedding tears of real grief as they bewailed her death’ (Illustrated London News, 1868). The Queen’s possessions, which were listed by the British political agent at Aden (Yemen), were sent on by ship to the Secretary of State for India at the India Office, London. They were given to the South Kensington Museum (later V&A) in 1869 and included two cotton robes lavishly embellished with silk embroidery; a shawl; silver bracelets, anklets and rings; two ‘amulet’ necklaces of leather, silver and amber and a silver hair pin with decorative finial.

Woman's dress formerly in the possession of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh - Cotton embroidered with silk - Ethiopia - 1860s

Woman's dress formerly in the possession of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh - Cotton embroidered with silk - Ethiopia - 1860s

The Queen’s possessions, the collection of Ethiopian objects formed by Captain Speedy and the photographs of Speedy and Prince Alamayou, provide a tangible link to people whose experiences of the conflict in Ethiopia strayed from the official narrative. In the British public sphere, however, these disparate experiences were written over by a unified and triumphant tale of conquest. The second part of this article reflects on the public presentation of the Abyssinian Expedition.

Public narratives

Given the great complexity and expense of the Abyssinian Expedition, which involved more than 13,000 men, 30,000 animals and a journey of some 400 miles, it was necessary to engage the support of the British public. This was largely achieved through recounting a patriotic tale of a great imperial power overcoming a hostile territory and ‘barbarian potentate’. Significantly, the expedition was one of Britain’s earliest military operations to be captured via the relatively new science of photography. Two sets of photographic stores and equipment were sent from England by the Royal Engineers’ Establishment and used to record the landscapes, camp scenes and leading individuals associated with the expedition.

The V&A’s collections include at least seven photographs taken by the Royal Engineers from a series of 78. Three of these are panoramas, painstakingly formed by pasting together three photographs. One records the expedition camp at Zoola (Zula). Taken from a high vantage point, it captures the huge amount of equipment and technology required for such an expedition. Feats of engineering were a particular focus for visual record and the Zoola image includes part of a British-built railway line which ran ten and a half miles inland. Another photograph in the series presents a view up the Sooroo Pass, or ‘Devil’s Staircase’ as the Assistant Field Engineer charged with forging a path through it, is said to have called it. It took four companies three months to construct a ten-foot-wide cart road up the pass.

Images such as these were disseminated through official and unofficial reports, museum displays and the British press as evidence of Britain’s military and technological powers. The Illustrated London News published numerous engravings of the Expedition. Some were based on the Royal Engineers’ photographs, others on sketches made by the newspaper’s Special Artist in the field, William Simpson. The V&A holds two Ethiopian handcrosses which were donated to the Museum by Simpson’s wife following his death. Both carry the inscription ‘Abyssinian Cross 1868 William Simpson’ and presumably fulfilled a function somewhere between medal and souvenir.

Military personnel involved in the Expedition were encouraged to make drawings and reports. On the orders of the Secretary of State for War, Major Trevenen James Holland wrote the only official account of the expedition with a military colleague, Sir Henry Montague Hozier. Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia was published in two volumes in 1870. Holland may be the vendor of several Ethiopian items to the South Kensington Museum in April 1869 including a pair of silver anklets, a ‘Galla’ (Oromo) necklace, a pair of earrings and two processional crosses.

Crown - Ethiopia - 1740

Crown - Ethiopia - 1740

Following the defeat of Abyssinian troops, British forces entered the Magdala fortress with the aim of collecting anything of value to be later auctioned off to raise money for the troops. They were accompanied by Richard Holmes, an assistant in the department of manuscripts at the British Museum, who removed a number of objects – manuscripts, regalia, religious antiquities and other material – from the imperial treasury and from the Church of the Saviour of the World. Holmes also made a sketch of the face of the dead Ethiopian emperor, which was reproduced in the British press and in popular print formats such as carte de visite. A golden crown and chalice initially acquired by Holmes from a soldier were deposited with the South Kensington Museum by H.M. Treasury in 1872. Recent scholarship has suggested that they were commissioned by Empress Mentewwab for a church she founded in Gondar in 1740. Today these items can be seen on display at the Museum, in a gallery which highlights the role of precious vessels of gold and silver in religious rites and ceremonies.

Today, the Abyssinian items are valued for their beauty, craft and religious significance but an 1868 display at the South Kensington Museum entitled ‘Abyssinian objects from the Emperor Theodore, Lent by the Queen, the Admiralty and others’ was clearly intended to celebrate an imperial conquest. No list of exhibits survives but an essayist in the Gentleman’s Magazine described the display as a ‘show-case full of victorious trophies, “spolia opima” of our late enemy, his Majesty King Theodore’. Another noted the inclusion of a portrait of the dead Emperor’s head, presumably based on Holmes’ sketch. Even 20 years later a Guide to the South Kensington Museum noted that ‘vestments and garments’ on display had been ‘captured during the Abyssinian campaign under Lord Napier of Magdala’.

The objects and images described in this article, then, have fulfilled many different functions – religious, ceremonial, decorative, documentary and political – and their current home at the V&A represents one stopping-off point on a turbulent historical journey. In the 21st century, as in the 19th, they make a conflict distant to us in time and place more tangible and immediate. The material also challenges the idea that the ‘Abyssinian Expedition’ was a clear-cut clash between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and provides an unsettling reminder of the imperial processes which enabled British museums to acquire the cultural assets of others.

Written by Tseday

November 6, 2008 at 6:41 pm


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.