The hair of a long-dead emperor and an intricate golden crown are among the artifacts Ethiopia’s government is demanding to be returned from British government institutions and private collections, as more countries seek to reclaim heritage they say was taken decades, even centuries, ago.
“Displaying human parts in websites and museums is inhumane,” Ethiopia’s minister for culture and tourism, Hirut Woldemariam, told The Associated Press. “We have submitted a letter to the relevant officials in Britain to return the looted items and we are waiting for their reply. We will use whatever legal and diplomatic instruments we have at hand to secure their return.”
The outcry in Ethiopia comes as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London displays some of the items in a new exhibit that explores the 1868 British expedition to what was then called Abyssinia. “Even at the time, this episode was regarded as a shameful one,” the museum’s website says, noting “these objects’ difficult past.”
During that British campaign, in which 13,000 troops were deployed to freeing free several British hostages, Emperor Tewodros killed himself and his fortress was captured and looted. His young son, Prince Alemayehu, was taken to Britain and died there at age 18. He was buried at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
“Not only material possessions were lost to the British forces,” the Victoria and Albert Museum’s website says.
Emotions are high in Ethiopia as the East African nation marks the 150th anniversary of that Battle of Maqdala and its officials seek the return of the emperor’s hair — currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum — and his son’s bones.
“There is plenty of evidence of British soldiers raiding and looting Africa. It is more likely Prince Alemayehu was one of the more vulgar exploits and spoils of the Battle of Maqdala,” Ethiopia-born author and poet Lemn Sisay, who has profiled the young prince for the BBC, wrote on his blog this month. The soldiers took gold, historical texts and even the empress’ clothing, which also is now on display, he said.
One descendant of the emperor has said the artifacts should be returned as soon as possible. “We want everybody’s support. This is time to return their bodies back home for eternal peace,” Abebech Kassa said at an event this month to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Ethiopia’s demand comes as more countries address the growing interest in returning artifacts. Late last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to Burkina Faso that “African heritage cannot be held prisoner of European museums” and that he hoped conditions would be met within five years for the temporary or permanent “restitution of African heritage to Africa.”
Such efforts could be complicated by the number of items held in personal collections.
The bulk of what was taken in the Battle of Maqdala remains in the hands of the descendants of the British soldiers, said Alula Pankhurst, a former professor at Addis Ababa University and an expert on Ethiopian studies.
Securing the artifacts’ return to Ethiopia will be a gradual process and not an easy one, Pankhurst said.
“Some items in private collections have already been returned but the bulk of the items are in public collections within the U.K. and those cannot be restituted without an act of Parliament, and that is something that requires a big change in popular opinion and a bill has to be presented by members of Parliament,” he said.
“This is something that cannot be done overnight.”