(AFROMET) Memorandum on the Loot from Maqdala (Ethiopia)

By Seymour Mclean

Memorandum on the Loot from Maqdala (Ethiopia)
addressed to
The Culture, Media and Sport Committee
of the United Kingdom Parliament, by the Association for

the Return of the Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures
in Addis Ababa.
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