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Series: Looted Crowns
01. The Crown of Emperor Tewodros II
The dispute, in the 1860’s between Emperor Tewodros II and the British Government, led to the extensive looting of the Ethiopian ruler’s mountain fortress of Maqdala, by British troops.
The loot from Maqdala, which included several hundred valuable Ethiopian manuscripts and many other Ethiopian artifacts, both religious and secular, was taken on 15 elephants and nearly 200 mules, from the fortress of Maqdala to the Dalanta plain. There, as the Anglo-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley reported in his autobiographical book “Coomassie and Magdala”, an auction was carried out for three days.
The German Count von Seckendorff, who was also present at the auction, states that the articles sold included “several golden and gilt crowns”. Stanley wrote, with greater precision, that the loot apparently included “four royal crowns, two of which were fine specimens of workmanship, and worth a round sum of money” (page 458).
The German Gerhard Rohlfs
Another German who was even more intimately involved in the story of the Ethiopian crowns was the traveler Gerhard Rohlfs, whom the British had appointed as an “interpreter” to the expedition. This was apparently because he had access, as the modern Ethiopian historian Bairu Tafla notes, to “someone who spoke Arabic and some of the Ethiopian languages”.
Rohlfs in one way or another came into possession of one of Tewodros’s crowns, and had it forwarded, by the Prussian Vice-Consul in Suez, to the Prussian Foreign Minister, Count Otto von Bismarck. The latter dignitary’s possession of the crown came to the notice of the British Foreign Office, which approached the Prussian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the matter. The result was that King (later Emperor) Wilhelm I presented the looted crown to Queen Victoria.
Some readers may ask: Why-should this crown should have been given to Queen Victoria, who had nothing to do with it, rather than to the then ruler of Ethiopia, Tewodros’s successor?
Wilhelm, the head of the Hohenzollern family, was, it may be noted, Queen Victoria’s kinsmen, and, on a visit to London long before, had formed a close friendship with the Queen and her Consort, Prince Albert.
But let us now move down the years to the 1920s!
Ras Tafari Makonnen
On 28 September 1923, largely through the initiative of Ras Tafari Makonnen (the future Emperor Haile Sellassie, who was then Regent and Heir to the Throne), Ethiopia joined the League of Nations. On 31 March of the following year, 1924, Tafari, once more largely through his own efforts, had a first decree issued for the gradual abolition of slavery.
A fortnight or so later, on 16 April, Tafari left Addis Ababa, on his historic visit to Palestine, Egypt, and Europe. He was accompanied by Ras Seyum Mangasha of Tegray and Ras Haylu Tekla Haymanot of Gojjam.
Some writers have likened Tafari’s travels to Peter the Great of Russia’s visit to Western Europe a quarter of a millennium earlier.
Historic Ethiopia, which had long been isolated, largely on account of attempted European interference, first Jesuit and later colonialist, was thus forcing itself, willy-nilly, on to the world stage. Whatever anyone thought, in Addis Ababa, Rome, Paris, or London, there could be no going back.
A Historic Journey
Leaving their sovereign, Menilek’s daughter Empress Zawditu, behind them – the Regent and his distinguished party left Addis Ababa, and travelled to DJibuti by train. This was in itself an innovation, for the railway line to the Ethiopian capital was then only seven years old.
The Ethiopian dignitaries then sailed up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal, after which they proceeded by train to Jerusalem, and Cairo. They then took ship to France (where Tafari appealed for “a free gateway to the sea” for Ethiopia, at the port of Jibuti).
Their trip took them, subsequently, to Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany, and Italy (where Tafari likewise asked for an Ethiopian “gateway to the sea”, at the port of Asab). They then returned to Paris, whence they made their way on 7 July, to London (where, too, Tafari asked for “a seaport”).
The Disabilities of Women
The Regent’s arrival in Britain, quite unexpectedly, and by a strange quirk of official British thinking, opened up the question of the loot which the Napier expedition had taken from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros’s capital, over half a century earlier.
Britain, it should be recalled, was at that time still a highly male-dominated society. British women, largely thanks to the Suffragettes, had obtained a limited parliamentary franchise only six years earlier, and was not to gain the vote on the same terms as men for another four years. The British Government moreover was unaccustomed to dealing with women rulers in their own right. The Foreign Office was therefore at a loss concerning how to honour Ethiopia’s woman ruler – the first, as some liked to say, since the Queen of Sheba -Empress Zawditu!
And yet the arrival of Ras Tafari, who was by then already in the country, made it imperative for British officialdom to do something, and damned quickly!
The Foreign Office Has a Bright Idea
Britain, having, as they believed, no suitable decoration for the Empress, someone in the Foreign Office had the bright idea that she should instead be given “Emperor Tewodros’s crown”. The brainwave was duly conveyed to Mr Ramsay Macdonald, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Britain’s first Labour Government. He gave the idea his full support.
On 7 July, the very day of Regent Tafari’s arrival, one of the Prime Minister’s aides, Mr F.F. P. Adams, of the Foreign Office, wrote a “Very Urgent” letter on the matter to the Secretary of the Board of Education. This was because the V. and A,. as it was generally called, was the organisation responsible for the Victoria and Albert Museum, in South Kensington. This, together with the British Museum, was one of the two principal repositories of the loot from Maqdala.
The letter, we must agree, was in fact “Very Urgent”, for the Regent was already on Ethiopian soil- and would soon leave it – to visit another “friendly country”.
In this “Very Urgent” letter, Adams began by explaining that, in connection with Ras Tafari’s visit, it was “desired to show the Empress and government of Ethiopia some special mark of goodwill”, and added:
“More Satisfaction” than a Gift “from Any other Country:”
“In view of the ineligibility of women for the highest British Orders, such as those which have been or about to be conferred upon the Ras Taffari, the bestowal of an inferior decoration on the Empress might be misinterpreted; it is, therefore, considered necessary under the circumstances to give her a present. It is thought that the only gift which would give her any real satisfaction, and which would also appeal to all classes of opinion in Abyssinia, would be the restoration of the Crown of Emperor Theodore, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Whatever artistic interest may attach to this exhibit can be but small in comparison with its historic and sentimental value for the Abyssinians, and it is considered that the restoration would give that country more solid satisfaction and gratification than any gift which could be made to them by any other country”.
Adams ended his letter by stating that the Secretary of State would be “glad to learn” whether the Board of Education would “see their way to authorise the restoration of the crown in the event of it being considered politically desirable to do so”. He added that, should the Board be willing to authorise this act of restitution, “it would be advantageous to inform Ras Taffari of the matter before he leaves the country”.
An “early reply” was therefore requested.
Notwithstanding the urgency, thus underlined, no very definitive action was taken for four full days. On 11 July, however, officials of the Foreign Office rushed off to speak with Sir Amherst Selby Bigge, of the Board of Education, from whom they learnt that there was, not one crown, but two, both of which had been taken from Maqdala.
This, as we will see next week, posed a serious problem for British officialdom.
Next Week: The Dilemma of the Two Looted Crowns