Tue, 16 Sep 2008 Feature Article

When Will Western Nations Return Ethiopia's Stolen Treasures?

Obelisk from Axum was in Rome for decades before returning home.Obelisk from Axum was in Rome for decades before returning home.

Probably very few countries have been so systematically and intensively deprived of their cultural objects with tremendous violence by Western European countries as Ethiopia has been. First, the British under Queen Victoria sent an army in 1868 to conquer the African country under Emperor Tewodros. The Ethiopian ruler committed suicide in Magdala, the capital, with a gun given to him previously as a gift by Queen Victoria rather than let himself be captured and humiliated by the invading British Army. The barbarous behaviour of the invading army after conquer and loot has been described many times. The list of objects stolen by the British, including processional crosses, imperial gold and silver crowns, historical and religious illustrated manuscripts and other objects from Ethiopia will fill pages. Ethiopia became Christian in the 4th Century, long before many in Europe had heard of Christianity.

The second military invasion and despoliation of Ethiopia was in 1936 by the Italians under the fascist leadership of Benito Mussolini who with his soldiers took, among other things, the obelisk at Axum, now returned. But there are still other objects such as works of art, archives, library of Haile Selassie, objects of religious and cultural significance, and the plane of the daughter of the Emperor held by the Italians from their occupation of the land of Emperor Haile Selassie.

Italy has returned the heavy obelisk and can be expected to return the various stolen crosses and manuscripts it still holds. If the recent impressive historic action of Italy paying compensation to Libya for colonization is any indication of its future policy, we can expect Italy to pay also compensation for the colonial occupation of Ethiopia. Furthermore, the return of the Venus of Cyrene to Tripoli should facilitate the return of stolen Ethiopian artifacts in Italy.

During all these historic gestures of compensation and reconciliation, including apologies for wrongful historical acts, we have not heard from the British that they have also understood the necessity for such gestures and restitution. There is no indication that Great Britain, which started the looting of African cultural objects with military force, has any intention of following the path opened by Italy. The British Museum has thousands of very precious Ethiopian manuscripts and objects. The Universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and others all have their share of these stolen precious manuscripts and objects. The British Museum pretends to respect the religious objects such as the holy tabots. With all due respect to Neil MacGregor, respect for objects does not replace respect for the rights of ownership and the freedom of religion and religious practice. How long are the British going to refuse to do the right thing? How can Christians steal the crosses, Bibles and other religious objects that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church needs for its religious practice and refuse to return them? Where then is the belief in democracy and the freedom of religion and religious practice which the British are always preaching to the rest of the world? (See Afromet homepage for what has so far been returned.

The hope of many who are holding onto stolen cultural objects may be that time will obliterate the painful memories of such wrongful acts. Experience however has shown that no people ever forget such historical injustices and the Ethiopians have shown enough that they intend to recover their cultural treasures however long this may take. The article below shows the determination of the Ethiopians to keep on fighting for their rights. How long are the Western Europeans going to pretend not to hear the painful but courageous cries of the Ethiopians? Is the present generation of Europeans as rapacious, aggressive, insensitive and brutal as their forefathers? Are they going to condone the crimes and wrongdoings of the past generations? Only time will tell but they should make no mistake: the issue of restitution of stolen or looted objects will not disappear from our world.

Kwame Opoku, 16 September, 2008.


Saturday 13 September 2008

The return of these stolen items is essential to heal and garner national awareness of Africa's culture and history, says the weekly Sub-Saharan Informer.

Arguing that the return of historical and archaeological relics as well as other works of art is not negotiable, the paper stresses: "This applies to all the countless artefacts and manuscripts that continue to remain in the possession of private collectors and museums that have no moral right to possess them.

"No matter the reputation of the possessor of these stolen items, the items remain stolen property and should be repatriated to its rightful owner."

The focus of the Ethiopian papers was the Axum Obelisk, the 160-tonne and 24-met re stone pillar that was curved by Ethiopians 1,700 years ago and looted by Italian fascist invaders in 1937 at the order of Benito Mussolini.

For years, the obelisk was a landmark in the city of Rome until its return to Axum, a small town in Tigray Regional State of northern Ethiopia, in April 2005.

"Through collective efforts our nation is proud to have finally achieved what at various moments in the last 67 years had seemed impossible," writes the weekly business tabloid Capital after the official rededication of the Obelisk at its original location 5 September 2008.

Having the Obelisk once again gracing their landscape at this time is a momentous event for the Ethiopians as they celebrate the end of the first year of the third millennium and ring in 2003, according to the Ethiopian calendar, 11 September 2008 (Gregorian calendar).

"That historic and much travelled monolith shall serve as a stout reminder that having brought it back to its original spot, we collectively embrace a vision to build a nation that would be a worthy home," adds the Capital.

Commenting on the same issue, The Ethiopian Herald says the Obelisk festivity and other celebrations staged throughout the year to mark the new Ethiopian millennium, symbolised the peoples' true identity and, therefore, must be preserved for posterity.

"As such, they also signify metaphorically the determinations of the peoples of Ethiopia to renounce decadence and neglect, and revive their ancient civilisations in away that befits our contemporary world.

"The Axum obelisks epitomise the aspirations of their builders, our ancestors, who hoped to transmit these aspirations and wills to us, their descendants, in an internal form, built in stone on the strongest foundation."

The government-run daily recalls that the government of Emperor Haile Selassie initiated negotiations with Italy for the return of the obelisk to Ethiopia in 1956.

Attempts to come to an agreement dragged on for 50 years and involved historians, researchers, diplomats and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), among others.
Ethiopia still demands possession of several ancient artworks that were taken from the country to European galleries without its consent. These include writings and crafts that immortalise the nation's culture and history for future generations.