University refuses to return looted manuscripts

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The Independent Online

A campaign for the return of treasure looted by British soldiers in Ethiopia more than 130 years ago suffered a blow when organisers were told that four valuable manuscripts were unlikely to be returned.

A campaign for the return of treasure looted by British soldiers in Ethiopia more than 130 years ago suffered a blow when organisers were told that four valuable manuscripts were unlikely to be returned.

Edinburgh University's director of collections rejected a plea for the return of the documents, taken as spoils of war by victorious troops after the bloody siege of Magdala in 1868. Edinburgh University is among several bodies, including the Queen's collection, the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, which feature on a "hit list" compiled by the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet).

A spokesman for Afromet said: "This is a definite setback for us, but it has made us even more determined to step up our campaign. The university's reasons for holding on to these artefacts is little more than a sophisticated form of 'finders keepers'. They seem to be suggesting that as they are now in the collection they should stay in the collection. Does that mean that after something is stolen it should remain stolen?"

In December, 1867, a force of more than 13,000 troops was dispatched from Bombay to Ethiopia to rescue British hostages held by King Theodore II of Abyssinia, a Coptic Christian. He had been trying to force Britain to side with him against his Muslim enemies.

Within four months the British expeditionary force overran the country and defeated Theodore, who killed himself rather than surrender, after taking the mountain fortress of Magdala in April, 1868.

In keeping with the tradition that "to the victor belongs the spoils", the troops ransacked the city and took 15 elephants loaded with gold crowns, crosses, sacred altar slabs, manuscripts and other plunder back to Britain. Among the looted treasure were four holy manuscripts, now described as "treasure troves for historians and those involved in cultural studies in Ethiopia", which were given to Edinburgh University in the 19th century.

Afromet's vice-chairman, Professor Richard Pankhurst, son of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, wrote to the university last December seeking return of the manuscripts as a sign of the "strengthening of links" between the Scottish and Ethiopian capitals.

But John Scally, the university's director of collections, wrote back saying he believed the manuscripts should not be repatriated as no human remains were involved.

A spokesman for Afromet said it was ironic that the university was refusing to co-operate when other Edinburgh institutions had led the way in handing things back. In 2002 the Reverend John McLuckie, of St John's Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, returned a 400-year-old carved tabot (a consecrated wooden altar slab) found in his church cupboards. When it arrived in Addis Ababa, jubilant crowds took to the streets to welcome it.

So far Afromet has identified 468 missing items out of an estimated 5,000. Of those items only nine have been returned and many remain in the hands of institutions including the British Library, British Museum, Dundee University, the Bodleian Library in Oxford and Windsor Castle. Hundreds more items are thought to be in private family collections and in the military trophy rooms of those regiments and their successors involved in the invasion.

"We are determined to get them all back eventually," said Andrew Heavens, a spokesman for Afromet.

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