By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Many Christians consider the Easter season to be the holiest season of the Christian faith. Easter is a special time of celebration for millions of Christians around the world. It is believed that Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection happened around that time. The Easter weekend (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday) is supposed to be a time that Christians commemorate the culminating event of their faith. Some Christians believe that it is a time that proclaims God’s purpose of loving and redeeming the world through Christ’s supreme sacrifice. However, in the eyes of some, not all Christians are created equal.
Easter of 1868 was an especially brutal time for Christian Ethiopians living in Maqdala. Over the three day Easter weekend of 1868 a group of White Christian men slaughtered a group of Christian Africans in Ethiopia. On Easter Monday, 1868, after three days of fighting that began on Good Friday when the British attacked, the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II committed suicide rather than allow his enemies to capture him. On that Easter Monday of 1868 after the British captured the fortress of Maqdala, which was Emperor Tewodros’ mountain capital in north-west Ethiopia, the British soldiers celebrated by desecrating the body of the Ethiopian monarch looting everything of value and burning the town.
The British “expedition” was led by Robert Napier who had been promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of 32,000 men.
Clements R. Markham, who has been recognized as the leading British historian of the time was part of the expedition. Markham wrote that Napier’s men, on entering the citadel, swarmed around the body of the deceased monarch 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”.
British journalist Henry Morton Stanley who wrote glowingly about the British “victory” at Maqdala corroborated Markham’s account of the events. In the 1874 book, “Coomassie And Magdala: The Story Of Two British Campaigns In Africa” (reprinted in 2009) Stanley wrote of the scene where the Emperor’s desecrated body lay: “mob, indiscriminate of officers and men, rudely jostling each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece of Theodore’s blood-stained shirt. No guard was placed over the body until it was naked, nor was the slightest respect shown it. It lay subjected to the taunts and the jests of the brutal-minded”.
These good British Christian soldiers swarmed the area and looted not only the Emperor’s treasury but also the Christian church of Medhane Alem, including its store house, “constituting a gross act of sacrilege”.
Describing the scene of the British soldiers dividing the property they looted from the Ethiopians Stanley wrote: “The perambulatory roll of the drum which in all well governed and systematically military encampments announces a new move or new event, assembled all the officers and crowds of on-lookers around the piled trophies of Magdala which covered half an acre of ground. Fathoms of finest carpets of all countries were spread about, and all the paraphernalia of a thousand churches glittered in the morning sunlight.”
Stanley described the British soldiers at the scene who were covetously waiting to take some of the loot back to Britain in this manner: “and jostling each other in the characteristic confusion of mobs (and the most belligerent mob in the world is an English one)”.
The religious manuscripts, crosses and other ecclesiastical objects stolen by the British troops, today grace museums and some private collections in Britain. Sir Richard Rivington Holmes who was Assistant in the British Museum’s Department of Manuscripts, wrote in an official report that at dusk, 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 6 lbs”. Holmes bought the crown and the chalice for “£4 Sterling.”
Not satisfied with looting the treasures of the Ethiopian people, the British destroyed Maqdala. The well planned and executed arson attack began with destroying the fort/citadel. The palace and all other buildings, including the church of Medhane Alem, were also set on fire.
The British journalist, Stanley, reporting on the destruction: “The easterly wind gradually grew stronger, fanning incipient tongues of flame visible on the roofs of houses until they grew larger under the skillful nursing and finally sprang aloft in crimson jets, darting upward and then circling round on their centres as the breeze played with them. A steady puff of wind leveled the flaming tongues in a wave, and the jets became united into an igneous lake! The heat became more and more intense; loaded pistols and guns, and shells thrown in by the British batteries, but which had not been discharged, exploded with deafening reports. Three thousand houses and a million combustible things were burning. Not one house would have escaped destruction in the mighty ebb and flow of that deluge of fire”.
The looted treasures of Maqdala were transported to the Dalanta Plain on 15 elephants and 200 mules. The stolen goods were shipped to Britain from the Dalanta Plain. On April 20 and 21, the British military held a two-day auction to dispose of the stolen Ethiopian property. The British coveted the many “richly illuminated Bibles and manuscripts” and other property of the Ethiopian people and wanted them as souvenirs of the horror they had visited upon the Ethiopian people.
The British Museum, now the British Library, benefitted from the auction and received 350 Ethiopian manuscripts, many of them “finely illuminated”. The Royal Library at Windsor Castle received six “exceptionally beautiful specimens”. Some other recipients of the stolen Ethiopian manuscripts were the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, the John Rylands Library in Manchester, the Royal Library in Vienna, the German Kaiser and the Biblioltheque Nationale in Paris. Several of these manuscripts contain extensive archival material, including Tewodros’s tax records and other data essential for the study of Ethiopian history. The stolen property also includes two of Emperor Tewodros’ crowns and a royal cap, his imperial seal, the golden chalice and 10 tabots from the church’s altar. Several beautifully decorated processional crosses were given to the South Kensington Museum, the name later changed to the Victoria and Albert Museum; two of the Emperor’s richly embroidered tents are now in the Museum of Mankind, London.
The barbarity of the British knew no bounds as they also stole locks of Emperor Tewodros’ hair, some of it displayed in the National Army Museum, London.
Not content with looting and destroying Maqdala, the British took the widowed Empress Tiruwork Wube and her son, the seven-year-old Ethiopian prince, Dejazmach Alemayehu Tewodros, prisoner. While the Empress and prince were being taken away from their home, the Empress transitioned and the prince was orphaned. Prince Dejazmach Alemayehu was taken to England where he transitioned in 1879 when he was 18 years old. His remains are buried in a crypt beside St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Over the years his tomb has been visited by numerous Ethiopians including His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I.
Beginning with Emperor Tewodros’ successor, Emperor Yohannes IV, there have been numerous requests to the British monarchy and government for the return of Ethiopia’s stolen property. On August 10, 1872 Emperor Yohannes IV wrote to Queen Victoria and the British Foreign Secretary, Earl Granville, requesting the return of a Kebra Nagast and an icon, the Kwer’ata Re‘esu. Since they possessed more than one stolen copy, the British Museum very generously returned one copy of the Kebra Negast to Ethiopia. On 18 December, 1872 Queen Victoria replied to the Emperor declaring: “Of the picture (icon) we can discover no trace whatever, and we do not think it can have been brought to England.” The icon was indeed part of the looted property that was taken to England but was not publicly acknowledged until 1890, a year after Emperor Yohannes’s death. In 1905 a photograph of the icon appeared in The Burlington Magazine, a British art journal.
Since the return of the Kebra Negast in the nineteenth century there has been great resistance to return Ethiopia’s property. An English woman who had in her possession a collection of Ethiopian manuscripts from Maqdala had several of them published in London, with translations by Sir Ernest Wallis Budge. These manuscripts were seen by Emperor Menelek’s envoy, Ras Makonnen (Emperor Haile Selassie I’s father), who was in England in 1902 for the Coronation of King Edward VII. In January 1910, perhaps in an attack of conscience, the woman who possessed the Ethiopian manuscripts bequeathed them in her will to Emperor Menilek. The Times reporting this, stated that “envoys from the Emperor were sent over to arrange for their [the manuscripts’] recovery, and it is believed that the present bequest is the fulfillment of a promise then given”. The English woman died on 20 December 1910 but the powers that be refused to honour her bequest to return the manuscripts to the Ethiopian people.
The Ethiopian president made a formal request to Queen Elizabeth II for the remains of Prince Alemayehu to be returned to Ethiopia in time for the celebration of the Ethiopian Millennium (September 12, 2007.) In an article published on Sunday, June 3, 2007 the BBC News reported: “The royal household at Windsor Castle, where Prince Alemayehu was buried, is said to be considering the request.”
Like the looted treasures of his homeland, the remains of the teenage prince who was taken prisoner after being orphaned by the British, are still in Britain seven years after that request was made.