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MP supports return of Maqdala Treasures

21 August 2008

Subject: MAQDALA

Ethiopia 's Lost Crown: Repatriation - What Prime Minister William Gladstone said in the House of Commons in 1871


By Professor Richard Pankhurst


In view of the fact that the Victoria and Albert Museum has been requested to return Emperor Tewodros's Crown, looted by British  troops at Maqdala in 1868, it may be of interest to recall the Parliamentary debate, held in British House of Commons over a century ago, on 30 June 1871. In that debate the case for restoration was voiced by none other than the great Liberal leader William Ewart Gladstone – who was then Prime Minister..


The present Victoria and Albert Museum is, we should recall, the successor of the old British Museum referred to in the Debate here quoted.


Gold Crown and Chalice


The matter was raised in the British House of Commons when Colonel North, a Member with a military background, raised a remarkable matter: British troops had seized a solid gold crown believed to have belonged to the Abun, or Head of the Ethiopian Church, and a gold chalice dating back several centuries to the reign of Emperor Iyasu I, but had not received any prize money for them!


The two items had been appropriated by Richard Holmes, the British Museum’s representative at Maqdala, but the Treasury had refused to pay for them.


Colonel North moved a Motion  that the House prayed the Queen, i.e. the Government, “to direct that the Abyssinian Crown and Chalice captured at Magdala by the force under General Lord Napier of Magdala, shall be purchased for the Nation" - for £2,000 Sterling.


Colonel North declared that he wanted justice for "a body of men”, i.e. the British soldiers, who had fought at Maqdala,  and  "deserved well of the country” (He said nothing about the Ethiopians who had been robbed of their treasures). Elaborating, he declared that when the Expedition was despatched the British Museum had sent with it Richard Holmes – “for the purpose of collecting any article of worth” to add to its collection.


Holmes had acquired the Ethiopian crown and chalice, and had asked Napier to retain them for the Museum; in which they had  been deposited. He proposed that the Museum purchase the two items, by paying the Army £2,000 Sterling- what would  have been obtained by auctioning them as Prize Money for the troops.


The Museum, North explained, did not possess this money, and had therefore applied to the British Government to “complete the necessary purchase as soon as possible”. A year had, however, elapsed, and nothing had been heard from the Treasury. 


Lord Napier


Lord Napier, the victor of Maqdala, had then been approached. To the surprise of many, he had replied, on 27 August 1868,  that “the best way of treating the crown and chalice would be for the State to purchase them and deposit them in the British Museum until an opportunity offered for restoring them; and that opportunity would arise when a Government was established in Abyssinia with some prospect of stability. Their selection of the party to whom they should leave the crown and chalice”, he had declared, “would be an indication that they regarded them as the rightful rulers of the Empire”.


Another speaker, Mr Eastwick, urged that the crown and chalice should be  "given back on a proper opportunity to the Abyssinian Government. A time would very likely soon come”, he added, “when they would be desirous of making some present to that Government, and there would be nothing of our own manufacture which would be so acceptable to the Abyssinians as those things. Although the Abuna from whom they were taken was dead, there was, or soon would be, another Abuna in his place, and to him let those articles be given. In that way they would obtain a double advantage – they would conciliate the people of Abyssinia, and they would remove out of the way a matter which would for a long time to come rankle in the minds of the soldiers, and make them dissatisfied and discontented”.


William Gladstone advocates repatriation


The great Liberal leader William Gladstone then rose to speak..Refering to  the two looted Ethiopian artefacts, he spoke, as reported in Hansard, the official record,  of  the “unsatisfactory state of the question from first to last”, and continued:


“He (Mr Gladstone) deeply regretted that those articles were ever brought from Abyssinia, and could not conceive why they were so brought. They [the British] were never at war with the people or the churches of Abyssinia. They were at war with Theodore, who personally had inflicted on them an outrage and a wrong; and he [Mr Gladstone] deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that those articles, to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by a British army. He admitted that the Trustees of the British Museum had done their duty by dealing promptly with the application made to them; but he entirely dissented from the conclusion at which they arrived”.


Elaborating on this he continued:


“... the Trustees [of the Museum] in their letter had apparently, through the use of an unguarded expression, gone far to sustain the declaration that these articles were impounded. The expression was that the articles were ‘secured' by Mr Holmes. In as much as Mr Holmes had no authority to ‘secure’ them, he, no doubt, merely suggested that the articles should be sent to the museum, in order that the Trustees should have an opportunity of considering whether they should be acquired for the nation or not. Still, the term was most unfortunate".


Gladstone  forcefully concluded:


“Lord Napier said these articles, whatever the claim of the Army, ought not to be placed among the national treasure, and said they ought to be held in deposit till they could be returned to Abyssinia. It was rather a painful confession, because, if they ought to be returned, it seemed to follow that they ought not to have been brought from Abyssinia; but he must say that he [Mr Gladstone] agreed with Lord Napier”.


That said Mr Gladstone declared that, in consultation with his colleagues, i.e. members of his Government, “he could not consent” to Colonel North’s resolution”, because it contemplated that the articles be purchased for the nation. "If they were purchased, it should be”, he insisted, “upon the basis described by Lord Napier, with the view of their being held only until they could be restored”.


The British Prime Minister thus spoke in favour of Repatriation!


                                                            And What Now?



And that, dear Reader, is where the question of the Ethiopian Crown and Chalice rested on 30June 1871 – and how they have rested ever since.


But today, in 2008, we feel that the time for final restoration, then envisaged by both Robert Napier and William Gladstone, has now arrived,


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