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Articles in this series:
Series: Looted Crowns
02. The Dilemma of the Two Looted Crowns
“Very Difficult Precedent”
Later that same day, 11 July, one of the Foreign Office officials, Mr. J. Murray, duly reported on the visit to Sir Amherst Selby Bigge, of the Board of Education, and what he had learnt from him. He noted:
“It appears that there are two crowns, the first a highly ornate and rather barbaric headgear is listed in the Museum as the imperial crown and if it is decided to return it to the Empress, it would probably be possible to do so by arrangement with the Secretary of State for India who, it appears, lent it to the Museum.
The Elgin Marbles
“The second crown, though less showy, is from an artistic point of view the superior article. It is listed in the Museum as the crown of the Abouna, but it appears open to doubt whether it is not really King Theodore’s crown. This second crown it will be impossible to restore, as nothing short of an Act of Parliament could get it out of the possession of the Museum; besides to restore it would create a very difficult precedent. We would be besieged with demands to restore the Elgin marbles to Greece, not to mention other objects of interest which have been acquired from time to time as a result of military operations”
Mr. Murray was thus giving Sir John Amherst a choice, which really was no choice at all.
The letter, which thus constituted special pleading for returning the first, “barbaric”, crown, rather than the second, “superior article”, continued:
“Would not actually Whet Abyssinian Appetites”
“If you think, after inspection, that the first crown… would serve the purpose in view and would not actually whet Abyssinian appetites for more and lead to demands for the second crown and a valuable chalice which we acquired at the same time, we will take the matter up with the Secretary of State for India. If, however, you are satisfied that nothing but the second crown… would produce the desired effect in Abyssinia then I am afraid we must let the whole matter drop”.
What Mr. Murray Did Not Say
What Mr. Murray, most remarkably, did not say, but what we now know, is that the two crowns were of entirely different composition. The first crown, which he proposed sending as a gift to Empress Zawditu, was silver-gilt, with coloured glass decorations, whereas the second, which he wanted to retain in Britain, was made of gold, and therefore presumably infinitey more valuable.
“Great Sentimental Value”
The two crowns were duly inspected, and the first, “rather barbaric one”, was duly selected, as one would have guessed, instead of the “superior one”, which was duly kept in Britain.
This latter crown, according to Sophia Shirley of today’s Victioria and Albert Museum, is made “mainly of high carat gold (more than 18 carat) alloyed with silver sand copper”, and, according to Louise Hofman, also of the V. & A., weighs no less than 2,488.8 grammes.
That no doubt was the type of loot the British Government would have preferred keeping in England.
Rushed Off a Letter Urgently
On 14 July, 1924, which was a full week after Tafari’s arrival, the Foreign Office accordingly rushed off a letter to the India Office. Emphasising once again the need for urgency, it stated that King George V would be granting their distinguished Ethiopian visitor a farewell audience the following Friday, and that they were:
“anxious, if possible, that on that occasion His Majesty should be able to inform the Ras that it is the intention to present the Empress with this crown, which has great sentimental value for the Abyssinians”.
Urging this point, and forestalling any possible opposition to the suggested gift, the Foreign Office letter added:
“From the artistic point of view, the crown is said to be of little artistic value, and, as far as Sir Ernest is concerned, there is no objection to the course proposed”.
He therefore concluded:
“If you can persuade the Secretary of State for India to give his consent, you will help us out of a very considerable difficulty. I should be most grateful if you can let me know one way or another tomorrow, Wednesday, as the King’s Speech has to be prepared and translated into Amharic, which takes a little time”.
The Secretary of State, as expected, duly gave his consent, on the following day, 15 July. The “rather barbaric” crown was then packed at the museum that same day – and was therefore not in fact seen by the Regent, or any of his compatriots, in the course of their visit.
A Treasury Minute
The British Government’s decision about the crown was meanwhile noted in a Treasury Minute, which, explaining the need to give the Empress the crown in lieu of other decoration, stated:
“The necessity for this gift arises from the desire of His Majesty’s Government to make a suitable present to the Empress and the ineligibility of women for any such orders as those which are being conferred on the Apparent Heir to the Throne”.
Announcement about the Proposed Repatriation
The proposed repatriation was accordingly announced by King George, in a brief farewell speech to Ras Tafari, on 18 July 1924. The King is quoted in Emperor Haile Sellassie’s later “Autobiography” as saying, “We are returning to you the crown of Emperor Theodore which the commander of the British army at the time of the Magdala campaign had brought back”.
Tafari, in a speech of thanks, widely reported on the following day in the British press (but not mentioned in his “Autobiography“) is said to have declared:
“I am deeply touched by this mark of consideration on the part of His Majesty the King on behalf of the British nation. It affords me particular pleasure to carry this token of friendship with me and I can assure you that it will give the greatest satisfaction to Abyssinians generally”.
Though he spoke of carrying the crown with him, the British had in fact decided to have it returned to Ethiopia through their diplomatic service.
A Faut pas by “The Times”
These friendly exchanges received something of a jolt, on 6 August, when “The Times” published the above Treasury Minute. It revealed that the “necessity” of the gift of the crown had been due, not to any desire to return the loot as such, but rather to what the British Government, imbued with its sexist traditions, considered “the ineligibility of women for any of such orders as those which are being conferred on the Apparent Heir to the Throne”.
Publication of this Minute greatly peeved the Foreign Office, where an official, Mr D. G Osborne, confidentially noted:
“It is unfortunate that this Treasury minute should have been published, and still more that the Times should have reproduced part of it.
“Neither the Treasury nor the Board of Education were consulted before publication.
“Ras Taffari was given to believe that the crown was the king’s spontaneous gift and we can only hope that he won’t see the Times cutting.
“I spoke to Mr. Russell [i.e. Claud Russell, the British Minister in Addis Ababa] about this and, although he also regretted the publication, he seemed to think he could explain the matter away if Ras Taffari raises it with him”.
Tafari’s Own Comment
There is no evidence that Tafari ever saw the offending Times article, or for that matter that he knew Ethiopia had been returned the inferior of the two crowns.
Be that as he may, he chose to write of the return of the crown, in his Autobiography, as notable event. He observes:
“Although the capture of Emperor Theodore’s crown and its removal to England in no way affected Ethiopia’s independence, yet to have it said ‘this was the crown of an Ethiopian emperor’ and to have it appear in a foreign country did not please me. Hence H.M. King George’s gracious permission that the crown of Emperor Theodore now be returned to Ethiopia was, I conceived, a great mark of friendship; and since I felt very pleased, I expressed to the king my profoundly sincere gratitude”.
The same arguments applied of course equally to the remaining crown, but Tafari, then apparently then unaware of its existence in Britain, did not mention it.
The Crown Returned
The “barbaric” crown, though mentioned in these exchanges, did not in fact change hands, as some believe, during the Regent’s visit to Britain. The Foreign Office decided, on the contrary, that, to attain maximum publicity, its presentation should be carried out by the British Minister in Addis Ababa.
Final restitution was in fact delayed, for almost a year. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, because the British Government had decided to make Empress Zawditu a rather ornate wooden throne, and it was felt that the return of the crown should await the completion of the throne, so that the two gifts should be made together. The other reason was that relations between Ras Tafari and the British Minister, Claud Russell, were then so bad that the Foreign Office decided to cut short his stay in Addis Ababa, and that the gift should be effected by his successor, Charles Bentinck.
The crown, as the latter Minister reported to the Foreign Office on 13 July 1925, was accordingly presented by him to Empress Zawditu, two days earlier, on 11 July. Bentinck, who describes the ceremony as “distinctly impressive”, drove that day from the British Legation to the Imperial Palace. He was accompanied by his entire staff, and their wives. They drove in two motor cars, escorted by an Indian escort impressively mounted on horses.
Inside the palace itself, a small table was placed in front of Empress Zawditu, and upon it Tewodros’s crown and its case were duly deposited. The Legation’s guards stood, in correct military fashion, on either side of the hall, and made way for Bentinck an his wife as they approached the imperial throne. The British representative, and his “madam”, then shook hands with the Empress, after which he opened the case, and thus exposed the crown to full view of all the assembled Ethiopian courtiers and officials. Bentinck then made a short speech, to which Tafari responded, on the Empress’s behalf.
The above British diplomatic report, on which the above account is based, was duly read at the Foreign Office, by Mr. Murray. He noted, on 18 August, that Bentinck had “managed the ceremony very well”.
Thus was it that Emperor Tewodros’s “barbaric” crown of “little artistic value” was returned to Ethiopia, almost as an oversight. The exisence in Britain of the “superior” crown, of high carat gold, was conveniently forgotten. This beautiful crown remains, to this day, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, whence its repatriation, after one hundred and thirty years, is still awaited.