The war between Ethiopia (under Emperor Tewedros II) and Britain has a mark in the history of Ethiopia so bold that, to this day, it has deep effects on the culture of the country’s modern citizens.
The war was already dramatic enough even without the climax of it being Tewedros’s decision to use the pistol in his belt to commit suicide when he faced capture and imprisonment. This event is partly why the emperor has such a reverence even among contemporary nationalists.
After the emperor’s death, British troops looted and plundered thousands of precious artifacts. This was right after the Battle of Magdala in 1868.
One hundred and fifty three years later, Ethiopian diplomats hear that the descendants of the soldiers who had looted, stolen and shipped Ethiopian goods during the war were auctioning off a small number of these items at a couple of auction houses. After hearing this, the diplomats tried to negotiate their return to Addis Ababa.
It is known that the hair that the soldiers had taken from the emperor’s head was returned to Ethiopia in 2019.
In October, Jesus College, Cambridge, same had happened to the “Benin Bronze” that the troops had stolen from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Shortly afterwards, the University of Aberdeen handed back their bronze of the head of an Oba (a king).
Twenty six artifacts plundered by colonial troops from the kingdom of Dahomey (present-day Benin) were returned in November of this year. After which a commitment was made by President Emmanuel Macron to return all artifacts that were taken without consent.
As expected, Mr. Macron’s pledge sent shock waves through the world’s museums – presumably, the British Museum felt it most as it has the world’s biggest assortment of Benin bronzes with 928 in its collection, and yet it has no plans to return them.
The reluctance of the British to negotiate comes down to a piece of law, they argue. The institution’s governing body cites the British Museum Act of 1963 as evidence for their seeming inability to do anything. The act forbids the museum from disposing of its holdings, except in exceptional circumstances.