Socialist Worker

Why celebrate Britain’s murderous past in Africa?

by Charlie Kimber
Issue No. 2597

A section of the stolen crown

A section of the stolen crown


An exhibition opens soon in London that glorifies murder and plunder.

It will celebrate 150 years since the Battle of Maqdala.

A British imperial army of 40,000 soldiers and other forces, armed with all the latest killing technology, slaughtered the forces of Ethiopia’s Emperor Tewodros II.

The Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum claims it will demonstrate “the craftsmanship and beauty of the Maqdala treasures within the context of the collection’s complex history”.

It’s not complex.

British forces crushed a group they regarded as “savages”, stole their most sacred objects and then sold them to museums, libraries and private collections.

The supposed justification for the invasion was a “humanitarian” mission to topple a dictator and free innocent captives.

Tewodros was holding a small group of British hostages.

Tewodros was a reformer and moderniser.

But he was a good target to show that anyone who obstructed the British imperial project would face bloody destruction.

Power

As the National Army Museum enthuses today, the invasion “demonstrated the enormous power of Britain in this era”.

The British force had been despatched from India under General Napier and had taken months to reach Tewodros’ fortress.

The decisive battle saw two British killed—and around 700 Ethiopians.

As the citadel of Maqdala was stormed, Tewodros killed himself.

The geographer Clements Markham, an embedded chronicler, recalled Napier’s men swarmed around Tewodros’ body. They “gave three cheers over it, as if it had been a dead fox and then began to pull and tear the clothes to pieces until it was nearly naked”.

Journalist Henry M Stanley said the loot from Maqdala included “an infinite variety of gold, and silver and brass crosses”.

There were “heaps of parchment royally illuminated”. Other articles were “scattered in infinite bewilderment until they dotted the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill and the entire road to the British camp two miles off”.

Maqdala was then set on fire, burning the emperor’s palace and all other buildings, including the church of Medhane Alem.

The fire, reported one witness, “spread quickly from habitation to habitation and sent up a heavy cloud of dense smoke which could be seen for many miles”.

The items from Maqdala were transported, on 15 elephants and 200 mules, to the nearby Dalanta Plain where the British military authorities held a two-day auction.

The sell-off included two crowns, a golden chalice, ten altar slabs and a number of beautiful processional crosses which ended up at the V&A.

Two of the emperor’s richly embroidered tents went to the Museum of Mankind in London.

Pieces of Tewodros’s hair went on display in London’s National Army Museum.

Haul

Other parts of the haul are now in Edinburgh, Halifax and the Queen’s personal collection in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.

There have been numerous requests during the last 100 years from Ethiopian authorities for the treasure to be returned.

Nearly all have been arrogantly rebuffed.

Earlier this year the French historian Benedicte Savoy resigned from Berlin’s Humboldt Forum in protest at the lack of attention to where exhibits had been stolen from.

“I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork,” she said.

There’s no doubt about the gore surrounding the Ethiopian items displayed in London.

They should all be immediately returned to Ethiopia, full compensation paid, and be replaced with an exhibition about Britain’s imperial crimes.


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