The British Expedition against Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia
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:
I THE FALL OF MAQDALA
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.
II. THE LOOTING OF THE FORTRESS
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”.
III. SIR RICHARD HOLMES
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. Shortlynafterwards, 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.
IV. THE BURNING OF MAQDALA
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,
“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
“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”.
V TWO-DAY AUCTION
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”.
VI BRITISH MUSEUM AND OTHER BRITISH LIBRARY
As a result of Holmes, the British Museum, now the British Library,
became the receiver of 350 Ethiopian manuscripts, many of them
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.
VII. THE INITIATIVE OF EMPEROR YOHANNES IV
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.
VIII. THE MISSING ICON
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
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!
IX. LADY MEUX
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.
X. TWENTIETH CENTURY PIECEMEAL
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
Andreas Eshete (Professor) Chairman
Richard Pankhurst (Professor) Historian
***The British Government occasionally returned some of the looted items. In 1965, Queen Elizabeth II returned to Emperor Haile Selassie I the royal cap and seal of Tewodros II. So far 10 items have been returned by private donors including a hand-written Book of Psalms, two Tabots and a shield. More than 460 items are still being claimed.**