Articles in this series:
Series: Maqdala Looting
Maqdala and its Loot: a Brief History
The Fall of Maqdala
The British capture of Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros’s mountain capital in north-west Ethiopia, took place on 13 1868, immediately after the Ethiopian monarch committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of his enemies. The fall 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 groveled 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, perhaps the leading British historian 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 Medhane Alem, literally, the Saviour of the World, or at least its eqa bet, or store house, was apparently also 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 in fact contain tell-tale inscriptions to the effect that they belonged to Medhane 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.
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 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 expence 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 April 17, 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 Medhane Alem, 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 advantage”.
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 skillful 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 leveled 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”.
V. A 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 Acquisitions
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 Biblioltheque Nationalein 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 collections.
Several of these manuscripts contain extensive archival material, including Tewodros’s tax records, which have been edited by the present author, as much other 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. Mystery of 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 England”.
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 non 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, K.C.V.O.”
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 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 fulfillment 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 ground 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 Restitution
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 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, it is widely believed, to consider the return of the loot from Maqdala in its entirety, rather to continue with such haphazard acts of belated repatriation.
(The above account is based on the author’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).