The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 11th February 2004

Magdala Revisited

Given by - Dr Ian MacLennan

Reviewed by - Tony Diggle


On 11 February, Dr Ian MacLennan told the Society the intriguing story of the return of this artefact, a story that began with the history of the Battle of Magdala in 1868, and the first 'association' of England and Ethiopia, and which must be briefly recounted.

At a time of instability in the country with princes warring with each other, Ras Kasa, himself described as a 'marauding shifta', but who at least had a vision of modernisation and unification, defeated everyone else in 1853. It was the end of the age of princes, Ras Kasa became 'King of Kings', and took the title Tewodros II. He was advised by two Britons, John Bell and Walter Plowden, who had come to Ethiopia 10 years earlier and drawn up the first trade agreement with England. Bell became his general and chamberlain.

But this wasn't the end of the fighting, and three tragedies occurred in 1860. The King's wife died, Plowden was killed by rebels, and Bell was killed in a skirmish. Tewodros had to ransom the body of Plowden. Tewodros lost three stabilising props in quick succession. When Bell's replacement, a man called Duncan Cameron, arrived in 1862, things got off to a bad start when Tewodros immediately asked him what he should do about all the rebels, and caught by surprise, Cameron was unable to answer. Tewodros also wrote to Queen Victoria, but received no reply. Worse was to follow when Cameron visited the Turks and Egyptians in the north to see what was going on, left the country without permission, and had talks across the borders. On his return he was put under house arrest. Nor was he the only Briton to receive this sort of treatment. A missionary called Henry Stern wrote a book criticising Tewodros and was rewarded with the same fate, and there were others including a Dr Beck.

In 1864 Queen Victoria attempted to deal with the situation through an emissary called Hormuzd Rassam who was based in Aden. He was sent to Massawa to deal with the 'hostage' situation. Tewodros in turn ignored the Queen's first two letters: meanwhile Dr Beck was writing about his situation from prison. In August, 1865, Rassam went to the Highlands to treat with Tewodros and was incarcerated as well.

Finally, in 1867, Parliament passed a bill to spend £12 million on an expedition under General Napier to effect a rescue. The rebels did not oppose Napier, and there was only one serious battle (at Arogee) before Napier reached Magdala, defeated Tewodros, who committed suicide, and released the hostages.

Napier, however, failed in one thing. He gave assurances that there would be no plunder of any kind, but plunder there was, much of it taken from the bodies of dead Abyssinian soldiers.

And it is this aspect of the fairly 'well- known story' we have just recounted that is the remarkable prequel to Dr MacLennan's real story.

Fast forward 135 years to last summer, (June, 2003) when, following his interest in the artefacts, history and religion of Ethiopia, Dr MacLennan came upon the information that a box of Hormuzd Rassam's belongings was being held in Maggs Bookshop in Berkeley Square. Curious, he went to investigate, the box was presented, and the lid removed.

Inside were items you would have expected to have found among loot from the Battle of Magdala: the collection included beads, a cross, incense burners, anklets of ivory, the impression of the seal from Tewodros and science books. But Dr MacLennan, a practising member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), also spotted something else - a tabot - the portable altar that is the replica of the Ark of the Covenant, highly regarded and venerated. So sacred is the tabot to the EOC that even senior clergy, let alone ordinary members, are not supposed to look at it directly. However, Dr MacLennan knew enough to realise the importance of what he had discovered. It was hastily covered up again, and Dr MacLennan lost no time in coming to the decision to buy the box and return it to its rightful owners in Ethiopia.

Thus it was that the Berkeley Square bookshop issued a document explaining the history of tabot's ownership from the custody of the Ethiopian monk from whom Hormuzd Rassam took it in 1868 to a Captain Anderson, to whom it passed from Rassam, and who was the step-brother of a Mrs Gulston, wife of Alan Stepney Gulston of Carmarthen, Wales, who next held it right through until 1997 when it was acquired by Humphrey Winterton after purchase by Sotheby's in a house sale. He in turn put it on the market in 2002 completing the story of its arrival in Maggs Bookshop and its transfer to Dr MacLennan.

There remained the job of returning the tabot to Ethiopia safely, coupled with Dr MacLennan's desire to do so quietly and without fuss. In the end he decided not to say anything about it, but to take it in his hand luggage by air back to the country. On the plane, he was gratified to find no-one in the seat next to him: it immediately became occupied by the tabot. His concern for its security was so great that it accompanied him to the plane's toilet. It proved impossible to deny the curiosity of the lady passenger in the third seat in the row, who reacted to the revelation first with disbelief and then by continual attempts to kiss his feet as they left the plane. Customs still had to be negotiated. Having a good deal of luggage he did not escape scrutiny. On being told that there was a tabot in the luggage, the customs man demanded to see the documents and to inspect the suitcase. However, he appeared to have been sufficiently religious himself to be worried about looking at the tabot, and it was waved through after the briefest of 'peeks'. Even the normal gravitas of Professor Richard Pankhurst was disturbed, as, arriving to learn about the artefacts more fully, he quickly dismissed his driver, and then whispered eagerly, "What have you got? What have you got?"

Finally the tabot was formally returned at a sober ceremony with Abuna Paulos, gifts were exchanged, and Abuna Paulos warmly acknowledged the return of the Ark of St. Gebre Menfes Kidus (inscribed on the tabot).

This happy story was also timely, coinciding as it did with the dismantling of the Axum obelisk in Rome, and Dr MacLennan concluded that this was the start of a trend of returning objects to Ethiopia. In a recent Radio 3 programme he had done with the director of the British Museum, Niall McGregor, Mr McGregor had countenanced the possibility that other Ethiopian artefacts might be returned in the future.

In a brief discussion following the talk, the question was raised as to exactly where in Ethiopia various objects should be returned. Dr MacLennan replied that religious objects should go back to the churches, and secular objects should go back to the museums. The question of whether Ethiopia at present had the facilities to look after and conserve all these objects satisfactorily was less easy to secure agreement on, and it was pointed out that 'thieving' was not confined to foreigners: inter-Ethiopian removals also took place.

No doubt the debate on these important matters will continue for some time to come.

First Published in News File Spring 2004

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