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The Imperial Narrative of Maqdala 1868

Updated: May 15, 2020

On 5 April 2018, the exhibition “Maqdala 1868” opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Comprised of treasures looted from Ethiopia, the exhibition raises ongoing controversy about treasure ownership.

On 5 April 2018, the exhibition “Maqdala 1868” opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Comprised of treasures looted from Ethiopia, the exhibition raises ongoing controversy about treasure ownership. In the case of Ethiopia, what is important in this controversyis the fact that the question of ownership is linked to the question of memory: whose story should be remembered through these treasures? What does the title of the exhibition, “Maqdala 1868”, stand for? Maqdala is a ruined capital of Ethiopia where 23,000 well-armed British and Indian soldiers looted and burned the national treasury of Ethiopia. Yet, the displayed articles in London are not just the spoils of war. As artistic, intellectual and cultural assets, they have meaning beyond their relationship with Britain’s imperial history.

As the name “Maqdala 1868” suggests, the stolen treasures are incorporated into the narrative of the British imperial war, to tell a story of how the British sent a large armyto free their citizens from a savage king called Theodore in 1868.

At that time, a British journalist wrote how the Maqdala campaign “demonstrates the essential character of the wars between civilized and uncivilized states”.

150 years after the battle, Ethiopia’s stolen treasures are still used as war trophies, their meaning forever defined with the abandoned name of a short lived imperial fortress at Maqdala. Past attempts to repatriate these treasures have failed as the British’s long standing policy is not to cease ownership over the treasures.  As David Cameron recently said of Greece’s Elgin Marbles and the India’s Koh-i-Noor diamond, "No, I certainly don't believe in ‘returnism’, as it were. I don’t think that is sensible.” For Ethiopia, there is no connection between the Maqdala war in 1869 and the stolen treasures at Maqdala. The former is imperial aggression against the King of Ethiopia but the latter is pure vandalism, and a crime against the current Ethiopian generation who are dispossessed of their intellectual heritage and history.

Rewriting the Maqdala 1868 Narrative Europeans have been collecting numerous Ethiopian books even before Maqdala. Missionaries and treasure hunters like James Bruce took the Book of Enoch and Johannes Flemming took the 15th Century Book of Jubilees, two books found intact only  in Ethiopia. But Maqdala 1868 was unique because the looting of large quantities of books and manuscripts was carried out through a military expedition popularly known as a campaign for the release of British prisoners. This narrative of war hides the true effect of the expedition. The British were well prepared for the looting of Ethiopia’s treasures. The acting director of the British Museum was already preparing to take manuscripts for his collections. Many other museum curators and collectors were ready to take their share. The Army under Captain Napier was “the biggest yet sent from Europe to the Black Africa”. Ethiopia had begun a new industrial revolution just ten years before the arrival of the British army. Tewodros II unified Ethiopia ending the period of Zamana Mesfint, when regional lords used to challenge the central power of the king. He reduced the power of the church, introduced political reforms, and initiated the construction of roads, carriages, ships, cannons and mortars. He also founded the Maqdalla Madhanialem Library, an extensive collection of important manuscripts from all over the country. What is rarely told in this tale of the brutish king, is that Tewedros initially wrote to the British Queen for assistance and fraternity, as the respective leaders of Christian nations. When these requests were completely ignored, and diplomats were found writing accounts of Tewedros as an uncivilised black king, he detained many British citizens. By the time the British arrived at Maqdala with the help of internal defectors, Tewodros tried to solve the conflict peacefully. He released the British hostages, and on Ethiopian Easter he gave a thousand cattle for Napier’s soldiers as a gesture of friendship. The official stated purpose of the campaign was the release of the hostages. However, Napier was not satisfied. The British demanded the surrender of the King, but King refused to accept humiliation. On 13 April, Tewodros committed suicide and the British went on a looting spree. The national library, the national treasury, the church and other houses were looted. The weapons which include 20 mortars and 10 cannons all brandishing ‘made in Ethiopia’ were destroyed. 200 mules and 15 elephants were needed to carry all the looted bounty. What couldn’t be carried was set on fire. Maqdala burned for weeks with countless destroyed manuscripts left scattered over the abandoned citadel. On the way back, the soldiers held auctions to divide the loot. Richard Holmes acquired 356 manuscripts for the British Museum alone. Along with the treasures, the only son of the dead King, Alemayehu, was also taken. His unhappy life ended in exile at the age of 18, and his bones still lie in the ground of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, despite multiple requests for their repatriation from the Ethiopian Government. In the same chapel where Megan Markel, a black woman, recently married Prince Harry, there is a plaque commemorating Alemayehu’s death. It includes a quote, apparently attributed to the boy, which reads, “I was a stranger and ye took me in.”

Creating knowledge dependency in Africa Before and after Maqdala, the collection of Ethiopian manuscripts took place through clandestine and diplomatic means. The collection of African materials was to produce knowledge that fits with the European view of Africa. Having numerous manuscripts at their disposal, European scholars started to translate the manuscripts into their own languages and produce books about Ethiopia. Hiob Ludolf wrote “the new history of Ethiopia” without the need to travelling to the country. He is now regarded as the father of modern Ethiopian history. New Centres of Ethiopian Studies emerged in Europe with acquisitions of various Ethiopian manuscripts. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Italian Carlo Conti-Rossini listed about 1200 Ethiopian manuscripts kept in the main European collections. The Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies in Hamburg University recently acquired some 2000 manuscripts from Ethiopian monasteries and digitised them in order “to preserve and study this rich heritage that soon could be lost forever”. The collection of Ethiopian manuscripts and other books is carried out in the name of saving the endangered heritage of humanity. The V&A exhibition itself is portrayed as a show of artefacts. However, Ethiopian books held in various universities and museums in Europe are not artefacts or endangered objects. They are living sources of knowledge that are still in use in the traditional education system. European professors interested in Ethiopia still use them to produce books. However, Ethiopians who research about their own country cannot access these manuscripts. We have to travel to European universities and museums for a brief glance at our own intellectual heritage. Even those books that are digitized are not easily accessible, and those available online are hard to access from Ethiopia due to limited access to the internet. Books and journals written about Ethiopia are in European languages and are expensive to purchase online or in print. The British Museum’s proposal to loan the looted items to Ethiopia adds insult to injury.

The Breaking of History One of the consequences of knowledge dispossession is the breaking of history, the disintegration of the historical narratives that connect past and present generations of Ethiopians and other Africans. Like Egypt, Ethiopia provides the evidence that Africa is the mother of all civilisations. Ethiopians wrote books before the British had an alphabet. They are likely the first to accept Christianity as a national religion, and had the Bible long before Europe. Ancient Greek authors like Homer and Herodotus praised Ethiopia as a land of justice, wisdom and spirituality. Europeans had their own legend that referred to Ethiopia as the Land of the Prester John, a mythical priest King who ruled in a vast Christian empire in the South. Diasporic Africans looked to Ethiopia as the symbol of redemption and holy land. Many of the Ethiopian manuscripts which were looted from Maqdala provided evidence for this glorious image. Yet, the philosophical, astronomical, botanical, medicinal, historical, artistic and spiritual books and objects from Ethiopia are now stored in various European universities and museums with little hope for restitution. Books and other materials produced by many Europeans professors and their Ethiopian followers are criticised for advancing Eurocentric theories that delink Ethiopia from Africa by claiming among other things a non-African origin to Ethiopia’s civilisation. This is a common practice of denying Africa of its own civilizational origin. Economic hardship and political instability did not allow Ethiopians to focus on producing knowledge that were relevant to their own history and environment. Instead, starting in the 1970s, a western education system influenced by either Marxist or Capitalist doctrines dominated the state education system. Currently, Ethiopians study about Europeans more than they study about their own country. English is used as a medium of higher education despite the fact that less than 1% of the population understands it. The Ethiopian generation are cut from their own history, and look to European historians like Ludolf to educate them about their past. The legacy of Magdala 1868 is more than just the looting of Ethiopia’s cultural heritage. It is a time when Ethiopia turned its eye towards Europe as a source of power and knowledge. Today, just as these objects are defined in relation to what they mean to Britain’s imperial past, so too do western educated Ethiopians define themselves in their relationship to the west, in their ability to speak English, compete in the world market, and meet so called benchmarks of ‘development’. 

[1] This article is the first draft of a published article on The Conversation entitled: Reflections on Ethiopia’s stolen treasures on display in a London museu

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