Last week, the Institute of Art & Law had the opportunity to attend an evening seminar discussion organised by The Anglo-Ethiopian Society and The Centre of African Studies at the campus of SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies). The topic of the evening centred on The Abyssinian Expedition (otherwise known as the ‘Maqdala Expedition’) which was a military expedition led by the British in the late 1860s to rescue hostages taken on the orders of Abyssinian Emperor Tewodros II, in his attempt to obtain Britain’s alliance in his wars against his Muslim neighbours. The attack was waged against the Emperor’s capital at Maqdala.
At the time, despite having been highly successful, the British expedition was already controversial, as victory had come at an exorbitant cost, the impact of which led to extensive debates in Parliament. Today, the expedition remains controversial, although perhaps for different reasons, as many artefacts taken by the British from what is now Ethiopian soil remain in British public collections, such as the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British Museum  and the British Library.
With regards to the return of artefacts wrongfully taken, the most informative presentation of the evening came from Chair of the Anglo-Ethiopian Society John Mellors, who discussed certain garments in the V&A and BM collections. Some of the garments are believed to have belonged to the former Empress consort of Abyssinia, Queen Terunesh, the second wife of Emperor Tewodros II.
This affair is the perfect case study for modern-day return requests: the garments are believed to have been taken by British soldiers of all ranks as war booty, as was customary at the time. These objects were subsequently taken to Britain where they remained within the soldiers’ families for several generations until donated to public institutions. They remained within these collections, where they have been cared for, studied and made accessible to the public for at least the last 100 years.
Abyssinia is today known as Ethiopia. The Ethiopian people have placed formal requests for the return of these items, primarily in relation to ongoing plans to establish a museum in Maqdala to display the history of the place, including the notorious expedition. The British institutions have refused to permanently return the items, having proposed instead long-term loan arrangements. Such proposals elicited strong responses from the Ethiopian people, according to Mellors, since in their view they are being deprived of what already belonged to them. Amidst this impasse, people at Magdala have started making their own versions of some of the garments now in Britain, reproducing the pattern and design, but using contemporary materials. The question remains as to whether these modern-day garments can truly serve as ‘replacements’ for the originals.
The evening got even more interesting when audience members started sharing their own stories. A number of individuals had come upon such artefacts through inheritance (or even at work) and had decided to repatriate the objects, without compensation, purely because “it was the right thing to do”. Some of these objects can now be found at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. Unfortunately, public institutions are seldom able to dispose of their collections in such a way. For example, the British Museum Act 1963 (at section 3(4)) is very stringent in this regard, and there’s little legal recourse around it. This means that a formal return arrangement between these institutions and the Ethiopian government is rather unlikely.
Nonetheless, what is certain about the Maqdala affair is that the stream of returns based on moral values rather than steadfast legal rules seemed to inspire the most hope amongst the audience.
The collection items linked above serve as examples of the types of objects in these museums’ collections but are not meant to serve as an exhaustive view of those holdings.