The story begins 150 years ago. In 1868, deep in the deserts of east Africa, a British expedition led by General Robert Napier, was attacking the capital of the Abyssinian Empire, Maqdala, ruled over by King Tewodros. The British were looking to teach Tewodros a lesson for having imprisoned a number of British envoys and European missionaries. This was the usual model of the ‘punitive raid’, a nineteenth century tool utilised by colonial powers to brush aside pesky native leaders. And this one would be devastatingly successful.
Not only did British forces defeat the smaller Abyssinian army, prompting the capitulating Tewodros to commit suicide, but they also took with them countless cultural treasures from the city. These included crowns, a throne, an imperial seal, a golden chalice, processional crosses and altar ‘tabots’, together known as the Maqdala Treasure, in addition to a large number of early Christian manuscripts. Lastly – and perhaps most humiliating to the Abyssinians – they brought the King’s son, now parentless, with them to Britain. The young boy, whose name was Alemayehu, was only seven. He would soon go to Windsor Castle and live as a ward of Queen Victoria, but he wouldn’t last long. He would die eleven years later, short of his nineteenth birthday.
Roughly 350 of the books from that initial haul are now in the British Library’s collection. They had been acquired at auction shortly after the battle by Sir Richard Holmes, a member of the British Museum’s manuscripts department, who had been appointed ‘archaeologist’ of the expedition. The loot taken by the soldiers had necessitated 15 elephants and 200 mules to be carried down from Maqdala to a nearby auction. Holmes knew what he wanted and he pounced. His acquisitions made it into the British Museum’s collection and were later passed to the British Library upon the latter’s independence from the mothership in 1973.
The latter-day history of the manuscripts, as well as the Maqdala (also written as ‘Magdala’) Treasure, has been far from straightforward. Some pieces were returned to Abyssinia, notably the famous biblical text, the Kebra Nagast, released by the British Museum in 1872 to the new Abyssinian King Yoannes, on the order of Queen Victoria herself. Over the years, an imperial crown, throne, cap and seal have also been returned.
But this doesn’t mean that the dispute surrounding the items has died away. In 2000, several claims were submitted to a British Parliamentary Committee for the return of the remainder of the Maqdala Treasure to Ethiopia, the modern state successor to Abyssinia (see a very eloquent example here), though none of these seemed to have had much impact. As late as 2015, there were claims for the return of the bones of Alemayehu, which are still interred at Windsor Castle.
And yet, with all this history, the British Library managed an impressive feat this week: to open a small exhibition on its Maqdala manuscripts without a hint of controversy. In fact, the exhibition has been welcomed by representatives of Ethiopia, including the Ambassador to London, who gave an address at the opening, as well as several Ethiopian church leaders, who were also present. The British Library has embarked upon an ambitious project to digitise their Ethiopian holdings, making them freely available online (this has already begun). The Ambassador even used the opportunity to announce an upcoming two-day conference on Ethiopian manuscripts to take place in Addis Ababa later this year.
So while some restitutionists may grumble that the majority of items have not been returned, much has been done to spread knowledge of their existence – and great artistry – to Ethiopian scholars, and to the world at large. This has been made possible by the willingness of the British Library to invest in this once-overlooked part of its collection and the openness of the Ethiopians to see the benefit of such projects for their culture in general. Of course this is not the end of the story; it doesn’t mean the manuscripts will never travel back to east Africa… although in some regards, many of them already have. At least in digital format.
Anniversaries always have the effect of reigniting interest in moments in history (see the sensational Magna Carta show of 2015). If they can inspire debate and reflection, this can only be a good thing.