Priest's crusade to return African treasures
WHEN a Scottish priest returned a 400-year-old carved wooden object he found in the back of a vestry cupboard to Ethiopia, he thought it might have some religious significance to the people of the African nation.
But he didn’t realise quite how important it would be.
It turned out to be a tabot - a consecrated altar slab and symbol of the Ark of the Covenant stolen by British troops - and when he returned it two years ago, a million jubilant Ethiopians lined the streets of Addis Ababa to welcome it home.
Now the Rev John McLuckie, formerly of St John’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, has launched a fresh crusade - to return hundreds of similarly looted items now scattered throughout Britain’s museums and art collections to their rightful place in the African continent.
Among them are more than 1,200 artefacts seized from the treasury of Emperor Tewodros and Ethiopian churches after the bloody battle of Magdala in 1868.
Top of the list is the hair of the Emperor of Ethiopia, then Abyssinia, torn off his head by victorious British soldiers in the siege. It currently lies in the National Army Museum in Chelsea.
Edinburgh University is among several bodies, including the Queen’s collection at Windsor, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, which feature on his hit list.
Mr McLuckie, who is now the chairman of the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopia Treasures, Afromet, has written to all the museums to ask for them to be returned.
"There are compelling moral reasons why these objects should be given back," he said.
"They were taken illegally and they are objects of clear religious significance."
Recently, Edinburgh University’s director of collections rejected Afromet’s pleas - but Mr McLuckie said he would lobby the university’s court and its rector, Tam Dalyell, MP.
On 13 April, more than 130 years ago, British troops overtook, destroyed and plundered the palace of King Theodore II of Abyssinia, once a friend of Queen Victoria.
A force of 13,000 troops had been dispatched from Bombay to Ethiopia to rescue British hostages held by the king, also known as Emperor Tewodros, after a dispute.
Within four months, the British overran the country and defeated Tewodros. However, rather than surrender, he killed himself, with one of two pistols Queen Victoria had given him as a present.
One historian, Clements Markham, recording what happened next, said that the troops swarmed round the body of the dead king. They then, "gave three cheers over it as if it had been a dead fox and began to pull and tear at the clothes to pieces until it was nearly naked".
They then pulled out chunks of the monarch’s black hair. His humiliation complete, they set about looting the palace, to the extent that 15 elephants and 200 mules were needed to carry off the spoils. The resulting 5,000 artefacts, including nine of the precious tabots, are scattered in museums across the UK.
The episode, which came to light much later, was such an embarrassment to William Gladstone, the prime minister, that he apologised in Parliament in 1872.
Hansard recorded: "He [Mr Gladstone] deeply regretted that these articles were ever brought from Abyssinia, and could not conceive why they were so brought.
"They were never at war with Abyssinia. They were never at war with the people or churches of Abyssinia.
"They were at war with Theodore ... and he deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that those articles, to us 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."
"What is so shocking about the hair is that it was taken as a trophy," said Mr McLuckie.
He hopes that a new parliamentary bill, the Human Tissues Bill, which was written in the wake of the Alder Hey scandal - where doctors retained body part of babies without consent - will force the museum to return the king’s hair.
Institutions such as the British Museum have argued in previous cases where artefacts were sought by the countries of origin that they had a duty to keep collections together.
But clause 49 of the tissue bill grants a power to certain museums to transfer "human remains" out of their collection.
"This is the sort of thing we have been waiting for," said Mr McLuckie. "We hope it sets a precedent - we are determined to get all the objects back eventually."
In Ethiopia tabots are the focus of worship in churches. They represent the ark, which the Old Testament says was used by the Israelites to carry the Ten Commandments.
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