Ethiopian loot and human remains… still in Britain

Posted on: September 7, 2015 by

There was a story this morning in the Guardian which once again brought to light the requests by Ethiopia for the return of the remains of one of the country’s royal princes, Prince Alemayehu, currently buried at Windsor Castle near London. The young prince had been brought to England in 1868 following the destruction of the Abyssinian fortress town of Magdala at the hands of the British. A punitive expedition – meaning an armed incursion with the intention to punish the other side – led by General Robert Napier had resulted in the sacking of Magdala earlier that year. The prince’s father, Emperor Tewodros, had taken his own life rather than give in to the invaders. The prince was then taken by the victors to London where he became a ward to Queen Victoria. He didn’t last long. He died in 1879.

Here is another example of how the assault on Magdala continues to have an impact today. Not only was the prince brought to England, but so were a number of royal Ethiopian treasures, considered by the victors as acceptably removable loot. These included the famous Kebra Nagast manuscripts (the ‘Glory of Kings’), the holiest of books in Ethiopian Christianity. In 1872 the succeeding Emperor of Ethiopia, Yohannes IV, wrote to the British, seeking the return of these manuscripts. Surprisingly, his request was granted and the British Museum agreed to part with one of the Kebra Nagast copies acquired from the expedition (only one though). Here we have an early example of restitution, dating back some 140 years.

So why are the remains of Prince Alemayehu still in Britain? After years of requests, the monarchs have responded either by refusal or silence. But perhaps the time has come to do the honourable thing and return the remains to the country with the most obvious historical and cultural connection to them. The same was done in 2002 when the French returned the remains of the horrendously-treated Saartjie Baartmen to South Africa. The same was done in 2007 when the Natural History Museum in London returned Tasmanian Aboriginal remains to Australia. The same was done in 2011 when Germany returned the skulls of the Herero people to Namibia.

What’s stopping Britain from returning the remains of Prince Alemayehu in 2015?

For more on the topic of human remains and their restitution to countries of origin, see the recently published IAL book, Heritage, Ancestry and Law: Principles, Policies and Practices in Dealing with Historical Human Remains, most notably the chapters by Norman Palmer, Sarah Long and Margaret Clegg, Carolyn Sheldon and Mathilde Roellinger. There you will find plenty of information on the returns listed above. For a more general look at returns of cultural property to African nations, including Ethiopia, see Folarin Shyllon’s comprehensive article in the July 2014 issue of Art Antiquity and Law entitled ‘Repatriation of Antiquities to Sub-Saharan Africa: The Agony and the Ecstasy’.