February 11, 2005
A miraculous return
While Ethiopia is waiting for Italy to return its obelisk, here is something to keep the country's culture vultures happy.
A leading British lawyer has decided to return two pages from an 18th Century Book of Miracles that his great uncle took from Ethiopia after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. You can find out more about the battle and all the plunder stolen by British soldiers from AFROMET, an organisation that campaigns for the return of the Maqdala loot.
I have uploaded scans of both pages - the other is below the fold, along with a story I wrote for AP on the event.
These two pages are the latest in a string of items that have been returned to Ethiopia over the past five years. The bulk of them came in after 2001, when the Rev John McLuckie, an Episcopal priest from Edinburgh, Scotland, sent a Maqdala Tabot (a sacred altar slab) back to Ethiopia. I was in Edinburgh at the time to watch the handover ceremony. It was a very dramatic and emotional event - John's McLuckie's church was crammed with Ethiopian priests, Rastafarians and members of its regular congregation. (The Scotsman did a great story on it here.)
It was my first direct contact with Ethiopian culture and had a large part to play in our decision to move out here three years later. Since John returned the Tabot, there has been a steady trickle of returns - a royal amulet in 2002, another Tabot in 2003, a Book of Psalms later that year and a shield in 2004.
Each of these returns has been made by an individual rather than a big institution like the British Museum (which has a hoard of Maqdala loot including 350 illuminated manuscripts and 10 other tabots). "These individuals come to us, not us to them," Richard Pankhurst of AFROMET told me yesterday. (He is also the son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst). "For them it is a matter of conscience."
I find it interesting that human beings as individuals find it easy to see the justice of restitution claims. But when you collect those individuals together in an institution like a museum, that clear vision gets cloudy.
AFROMET is hoping that the actions of these individuals will one day shame the big institutions into action. Perhaps this grassroots-up approach could work in other African restitution campaigns. There is the appeal for the return of Nigeria's Benin Bronzes and of Ghana's Ashanti gold. Any others?
British Plunder Returned to Ethiopia
By Andrew Heavens
Two sacred paintings have been returned to Ethiopia 137 years after they were ripped out of a holy book by invading British troops.
The paintings were among Ethiopian treasures looted by British troops and later locked up in British museums, royal palaces and private collections.
The paintings were handed to the Ethiopian embassy in London this week by a British lawyer who inherited them from his great uncle, an embassy official said
The lawyer's great uncle was an officer in the British force that captured Maqdala, the mountain capital of Emperor Tewodros.
The monarch committed suicide to avoid falling into the hands of British troops in 1868.
British troops and others in their company plundered illuminated religious manuscripts, gold crosses, precious crowns and royal cloth.
Experts said the two full-page works that were handed back to Ethiopia were torn out of a book of the Miracles of Jesus or Mary – both venerated volumes in the literature of the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The lawyer, who has asked to remain anonymous, told officials that he decided to hand them over because his conscience and children pressed him to do so.
“We believe that this is an example that should be followed by all institutions that hold Ethiopian loot, among them the British Museum and the Queen's library in Windsor Castle,” said Richard Pankhurst of the Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures.
The royal family holds six religious manuscripts, which are said to be the finest examples of Ethiopian manuscripts anywhere in the world.
By far the most valuable item is one of two copies of the Kebra Negast – or Glory of Kings – Ethiopia's holy book which is held in the British Library.
The Ethiopian Church and government has also been exerting diplomatic pressure on Britain to return the stolen items, which are cumulatively valued by Ethiopian campaigners at £1.6 billion.
Posted by aheavens at February 11, 2005 4:38 AM