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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 15:55 GMT
Ethiopia presses for return of treasures

Ethiopian anklets
The British Museum says all its artefacts were bought legally (Photo: British Museum)


By Nita Bhalla in Addis Ababa

The United Kingdom is coming under renewed pressure from Ethiopia to return millions of pounds worth of treasures which Ethiopia believes were stolen by British soldiers in the 19th century.

The Association for the Return of the Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet), whose members are historians and notable academics, are campaigning for the return of the treasures looted from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros's northern citadel capital.

Professor Richard Pankhurst, a British historian based in Ethiopia, is a leading member of Afromet.

At a press conference last week - held, ironically, in the British Council offices in Addis Ababa - he said this extensive looting was unjustified in international law.


Thank you very much for looking after our treasure so carefully. Now please return them to their rightful owners
Historian Richard Pankhurst
"It was an act of injustice, based purely on force. We in Afromet condemn that act. We believe that wrongs deserve to be righted", he said.

"If, as it is claimed, the British library and such-like institutions looked after Ethiopia's manuscripts and other property at a time when this was difficult to in Ethiopia, our reply is simple: Thank you very much for looking after our treasure so carefully. Now please return them to their rightful owners," Professor Pankhurst said.

"The national library and the Ethiopian Studies faculty in the University of Addis Ababa are quite competent to look after these treasures," he added.


It is believed that the looted treasure could be worth millions of pounds and Afromet has called for a petition to be sent to London.

At stake are treasures housed at the British Museum in London, the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Manchester's John Rylands library, as well as in several institutions in France, the United States and Portugal.

'Political issue'

British Museum spokesman Andrew Hamilton pointed out that restitution is a political issue, and decisions are not in the hands of museum trustees.


It is our policy never to acquire anything with a shady past
Andrew Hamilton, British Museum
"It would take primary legislation to make any of this possible even if the trustees were in favour of it," he told BBC News Online.

Mr Hamilton insisted that all the artefacts in the British Museum had been purchased legitimately and not seized forcibly.

"It is our policy never to acquire anything with a shady past," he said.

Ethiopian cross Religious artefacts are among the disputed items
The UK Government has set up a parliamentary commission to investigate, and recommend the return of foreign cultural property unjustly acquired in the past.

As well as appealing to the British, Afromet must also convince Ethiopia's parliament to make a formal request to the UK Government.

Invasion

The dispute dates back to the mid-19th century, when Emperor Tewodros, concerned that the Turks and Egyptians would try and conquer his empire, tried to modernise and unify his country by opening up relations with the British.

But instead, relations deteriorated - to the point where the emperor decided to detain the British Consul in Ethiopia and other foreigners.

The British reacted by sending an army in 1867 to the Emperor's fortress in Maqdala.

The emperor released the prisoners and attempted to make peace with Napier, but failed.

The British commander attacked the fortress of Maqdala. Rather than become a prisoner, Emperor Tewodros took his own life, committing suicide on 13 April 1868.

Extensive looting of the fortress followed. The British forces left with more than 500 ancient parchment manuscripts, two gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver and copper, religious icons, royal and ecclesiastic vestments as well as shields and arms made between the 14th and 19th centuries.

Historians say there was so much bounty, the British needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to cart it away.

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See also:
30 Nov 99 |  UK
Museum admits 'scandal' of Elgin Marbles

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