Socialist Worker

How British imperialism looted Ethiopia in 1868

Issue No. 1950

The pillage of Magdala is well documented in contemporary British accounts.

One historian says that British troops swarmed around the body of the deceased Ethiopian monarch. They then “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”.

The loot from Magdala, included “an infinite variety of gold, and silver and brass crosses”, as well as “heaps of parchment royally illuminated”, and many other articles which were “scattered in infinite bewilderment and confusion 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”.

Sir Richard Holmes, assistant in the British Museum’s department of manuscripts, had been appointed the expedition’s “archaeologist”. He wrote how he met a British soldier who was carrying the crown of the Abun — the head of the Ethiopian church — and a “solid gold chalice weighing at least 6lbs”. Holmes succeeded in purchasing both for £4.

The loot from Magdala was transported, on 15 elephants and almost 200 mules, to the nearby Dalanta Plain. There the British military authorities held an auction to raise “prize money” for the troops — and especially the officers. The British Museum received 350 Ethiopian manuscripts. A further six exceptionally beautiful specimens were acquired by the Royal Library at Windsor Castle.


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International
Thu 5 May 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1950
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