A three-tiered golden crown, an Ethiopian queen’s wedding dress, jewellery and other artefacts looted by British soldiers 150 years ago could be returned to Ethiopia on long-term loan, the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has said.
The offer comes as the objects, which belonged to Emperor Tewodros II, go on display in London to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, when British soldiers on an “expeditionary force” to Abyssinia defeated the emperor at his imposing northern fortress.
About 12,000 British and Indian soldiers, armed with new Snider-Enfield rifles, overpowered the emperor’s troops, and burnt and ransacked the city. Items from the royal household, later auctioned off to raise money for soldiers on the campaign, were lugged away by a train of 200 mules and 15 elephants, according to historians. Emperor Tewodros committed suicide.
Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, said the items — 20 of which will be displayed for a year — had come to London in less than pretty circumstances. “We have to be open about how these objects came to South Kensington,” he said. “We want to better reflect on the history of our collection.”
He also said it was imperative to display what items there were in their rich historical context so that Europeans became more aware that Ethiopia was an “incredible Christian civilisation with a remarkable heritage of biblical artefacts, craftsmanship and design”.
Views of Ethiopia, he said, tended to be stuck in the “1980s’ Bob Geldof famine and civil war paradigm”.
The opening of a dialogue about returning the objects was welcomed by Hailemichael Aberra Afework, Ethiopia’s ambassador to London, who said it was “the first step towards the eventual return of these treasures home”. He said two other golden crowns, including the one used for Emperor Tewodros’s coronation, had already been returned by George V in 1924 and by Queen Elizabeth in 1965.
Discussion of the Maqdala items follows an initiative by Emmanuel Macron, president of France, to work towards repatriating African artefacts housed in French museums.
“African heritage must be highlighted in Paris, but also in Dakar, in Lagos, in Cotonou,” he said in a speech in Burkina Faso in November. Appointing two experts to prepare for the return, either on loan or permanently, he said African heritage could not be a “prisoner of European museums”.
There are huge amounts of African art, some dating back more than 1,000 years, scattered around museums in Europe, the US the Gulf and China, say experts.
Among the most famous items in London are 16th-century Benin bronzes acquired after the sacking of Benin City in modern-day Nigeria in 1897, and the Rosetta Stone, the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, which was taken from Egypt by Napoleon’s troops but later claimed for the British Crown. Both ended up in the British Museum.
Of the civilisation that produced the museum’s Benin bronzes, which show sculpted figures in exquisite detail, Lissant Bolton, the keeper of the Africa, Oceania and Americas section, said: “The courts then were as courtly as any European kingdom of the same period and probably as riven with political intrigue. I don’t suppose Versailles was unique in that.”
Julie Hudson, Africa programme co-ordinator at the British Museum, said the issue of repatriation was rightly under constant discussion.
Much of her time, she said, was spent in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, working with museums and local archeologists to help build the physical and institutional infrastructure necessary to preserve precious items for antiquity in their place of origin.
Colleagues in Nigerian museums often worked in extremely difficult circumstances, she said, sometimes without regular power or running water, but had still had great successes.
She cited what she called the “absolutely stunning” collection in the National Museum in Lagos “with the most amazing and diverse collection — things we can only dream of”.
Asfa-Wossen Asserate, great nephew of Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia, said he supported the return of artefacts to Ethiopia if they could be properly preserved.
“Will they go to a place where there is security and modern institutions to show them to the people? Because I really have my doubts,” he said, adding that, as recently as 1997, a priest in the ancient Christian city of Lalibela had sold off the Lalibela Cross for a pittance. It was later tracked down and recovered from a Belgian dealer.
“Whatever you say about the British, at least they have preserved our heritage for 150 years,” he said.
Ethiopia’s ambassador said the ransacking of Maqdala “constitutes a sad episode in our shared story”.
These days, he added, relations between Britain and modern Ethiopia, a fast-growing economy going through political convulsions, had never been better. “Times change,” he said. “And so do attitudes.”
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