Why are looted Ethiopian treasures still in Britain?
Ethiopia’s government is calling for the return of cultural artifacts plundered 150 years ago by British military forces. The relics, some of which are currently on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), were stolen in 1868 after the Battle of Maqdala, in which British troops raided the fortress of Abyssinian Emperor Tewodros II to release a group of imprisoned missionaries.
Upon the defeat of his army, Tewodros killed himself and British forces loaded elephants and mules with their loot. They also spirited away Prince Alemayehu, the emperor’s seven-year-old son.
The dispute over the pieces on display at the V&A has once again cast a spotlight on the debate over whether the spoils of war should remain in Western museums, or be returned to the people and lands from which they were taken.
Ethiopia has previously requested that several British institutions give back hundreds of manuscripts and artifacts – and that the remains of Prince Alemayehu are returned.
V&A Director Tristram Hunt has proposed lending items in the museum’s collection to Ethiopian institutions as part of a “long-term loan” partnership.
Several Ethiopian officials, however, have balked at the suggestion.
“It is clearly known where these treasures came from and whom they belong to”, said Ethiopian National Museum Director Ephrem Amare. “Ethiopia’s demand has always been the restoration of those illegally looted treasures. Not to borrow them.”
So, should looted historical artefacts remain in Britain’s museums, or should they be returned to Ethiopia?