Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

Thoughts on the Looting of Maqdala, 1868

Professor Richard Pankhurst demonstrates changing attitudes toward looting have been one way society has advanced over time.


He writes about a famous looting which took place 150 years ago and how attitudes changed to the point where, after the Italian invasion in the 20th century, Ethiopia worked to get its historical treasures returned.

Changing moral values

Humanity, we may argue, tends to advance, or progress, with the result that values or institutions considered time as natural or God-given are at another time dismissed as entirely unacceptable. Slavery and the slave trade, or the exclusion from the body politic of women or the poor, once believed normal, are now for example dismissed as intolerable.

On the international plane the institution of colonialism, which the Congress of Berlin sought to legitimise in 1885, has more recently been de-legitimised by the United Nations. This international body has expressly committed itself to de-colonisation, and virtually all statesmen pay at least lip-service to the belief that every people on the globe has a “right to independence”.

A similar transformation in thinking has taken place in relation to the custom of looting in war.

This transformation is of direct relevance to the question of the treasures from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros’s mountain citadel, which were seized by the British Expedition under Lord Napier in 1868.

Changing Attitude to Loot The prevailing international view of loot taken in war at the time of the assault of Tewodros’s fortress was governed among other things by the fact that International Law, as we know it today, did not exist – only what ethno-centric commentators chose to term the Law of the Jungle.

In those days there was likewise no international organisation, such as the League of Nations, to reconcile the views of different countries, or to protect the interests of smaller and weaker members.

The establishment of the League of Nations, after World War I, and the development of International Law, have almost inevitably changed the world-wide attitude to military looting. People who formerly tolerated age-old army traditions of looting now increasingly hanker after justice. They believe that there should be justice in international affairs no less than in national affairs, and realise that looting has no place in the search for such justice.

More recently tolerance of looting has been challenged by the process of decolonisation. Subject peoples who struggled – successfully – against colonialism or other foreign rule, are beginning to demand the restoration of the loot of which they were deprived as a direct result of that rule.

An Obsolete Practice

Opposition to the very idea looting is now so strong that looting, such as that practiced by at Maqdala in 1868, has virtually died out. If such looting had for example been practiced by Coalition forces during the recent wars in Iraq or Afghanistan it does not require much imagination, dear reader, to see that the world would have been up in arms.

There can be no gainsaying that the prevailing attitude towards looting has been transformed since 1868.


This great transformation, it is interesting to note, owes not a little to Ethiopia. This is because the Ethiopian Delegation drafting the Paris Peace Treaty with Italy in 1946 insisted that Italy should return all historical and cultural objects – including the famous Aksum Obelisk – looted during the Italian invasion and occupation of their country.

This  principle was embodied in Article 37, which is firmly  embodied in the final treaty signed by the United Nations, was the first treaty provision of its kind ever enacted.

All in all looting is now so firmly discredited that is highly probable that no power will ever in the future be able to repeat anything like the looting of Maqdala. Looting, we may conclude, has been relegated to of the past.

Maqdala Revisited

How you may ask, dear reader, does the Maqdala story fit into the above transformation in the world-wide approach to loot?.

Some may suppose that British values in 1868 were, in the absence of any League of Nations, no better than the proverbial Law of the Jungle.

Such a conclusion would, however be over-.simplistic.

The question of the looting of Maqdala was officially deliberated upon by the British Parliament on 30 June 1871, i.e. just over three years after the death of Tewodros, when the future of his crown, which was made of silver, and an chalice, also of that metal, was discussed in the House of Commons. Robert Napier, the victor of Maqdala, was on that occasion reported to have favoured their outright repatriation to Ethiopia. He was quoted by Colonel North MP,  as declaring that “the best way” of dealing with these items of loot would be for the British State “to purchase them and deposit them in the British Museum until an opportunity offered for restoring them [to Abyssinia]”.

Elaborating on the above thesis Napier reportedly declared that an opportunity for repatriation “would arise when a government was established [in Abyssinia] with some prospect of stability. The selection of the party to whom they [the British] should leave the crown and chalice”, he added, “would be an indication that they [the British] regarded them [i.e. future rulers] as the rightful rulers of the [Abyssinian] empire”.

The question of the loot from Maqdala was then discussed, much more forcibly, by the British Prime Minister – no less than the great William Ewert Gladstone, who spoke in blunt and forthright terms. He declared, as quoted in Hansard’s Parliamentary report, that:

“He deeply regretted that those articles [i.e. the crown and the chalice] were ever brought from Abyssinia, and could not conceive why they were so brought. They [the British people, he argued] were never at war with Abyssinia [and] he deeply lamented, for the sake of the country [i.e. Britain], and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles to us [i.e. the British people] insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by the British army”.

Commenting on Napier’s above-cited proposal that the Abyssinian treasures taken by his army should be returned, Prime Minister Gladstone added, most pertinently, that:

“Lord Napier said these articles, whatever the claim of the [British] army, ought not to be placed among the national treasure, and said they ought to be held in deposit till they could be returned to Abyssinia. It was”, Gladstone concluded, “a rather painful confession, because, if they ought to be returned, it seemed to follow that they ought not to have been brought from Abyssinia”.

The Grand Old Man thus expressed the view that the Maqdala treasures should never have been taken from Ethiopia, the country which produced them.

Maqdala Re-assessed

Prevailing views of the Maqdala Expedition, and of the capture of Ethiopian loot, have also undergone a great transformation. In the past unsophisticated observers frequently expressed surprise that Britain had defeated Tewodros, but had not annexed his country to their African empire. That was of course not a cause of much satisfaction to African colonial intellectuals whose territory, unlike Ethiopia, had been annexed. The Nigerian author Adewale Ajadi’s graphic play Abyssinia, featured the looting of Maqdala, and drew large audiences when performed at the Southwark Playhouse in 2001, and later at other provincial theatres.

Many people nowadays consider that what was unique about Maqdala was not that the British thereafter refrained from annexing Ethiopia, but that they ran off with an unimaginable quantity of loot, much more than in any earlier or later expedition in Africa.

The Extent of the Loot

The loot from Maqdala was on any showing immense. It included two royal crowns, the Emperor’s grand seal with Ge’ez and Amharic writing and the Lion of Judah insignia, the Qwerata Re’esu icon (Christ with the Crown of Thorns) which Ethiopian monarchs had for centuries taken with them on campaign, the royal drums, formerly at Gonder, many items of royal clothing, numerous Amharic documents, among them letters and tax documents  (reproduced by Girma  Sellassie Asfaw and the present author in our book on Tax Record and Inventories of Emperor Tewodros…), and a couple of huge marquee tents, as well as some 500 bound manuscripts, many beautifully illustrated, and much church paraphernalia, including processional and hand crosses, and many ecclesiastical vestments.

Looted articles from Maqdala were scattered widely. A fraction of them, recently returned, are on display at the Ethiopian National Museum, the Museum of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, and the Ethiopian Postal Museum.

Looted, but un-returned Ethiopian artefacts can likewise be seen at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, where Queen Victoria was presented with six particularly large and beautifully adorned illustrated manuscripts, and at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as at Hughenden Manor, in Buckinghamshire, once the residence of Pri me Minister Benjamin Disraeli, which houses the royal necklace of Emperor Tewodros’s consort Queen Teru Warq; and Westminster Abbey, which holds a Tabot, or altar, Lancaster Cathedral. a processional, and several other British churches, and army museums.

Manuscripts from Maqdala are also stored in both Oxford and Cambridge University Libraries, and at the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, Scotland, the British Museum in London, well as    – a residue of the British raj – the Royal Asiatic Society in Mombay. Other Maqdala manuscripts are in sundry European and North American libraries – in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, New York, and Grafton (Mass.).