Looted Ethiopian Tabot Concealed Permanently In Westminster Abbey, London. Is There Somewhere A Minimum Sense Of Shame?

Feature Article Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom.
JUL 16, 2018 LISTEN
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom.

Questions of restitution of looted artefacts often take us to strange places and directions but the report of the concealed looted Ethiopian tabot took us to a place many would have heard about even if they have never been there, mainly because most important activities of the British monarchy such as weddings and commemoration of events take place there: Westminster Abbey. (1)

The story of a looted Ethiopian tabot permanently concealed in the venerable cathedral, however, took me by surprise for we seldom associate this holy place with nefarious activities, having been sufficiently immunized by British propaganda and British education all these years.

According to a report by Martin Bailey in The Artnewspaper, one of the several objects looted by the British in their devastating attack of Magdala, Ethiopia, in 1868, has been permanently sealed inside an altar in London’s Westminster Abbey. (2)

The tabot, an Ethiopian holy object that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments and can be seen only by orthodox priests, had been previously inserted into the back of the altar, where it remained visible, along with other sacred objects.

In 2007, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Abune Paulos, went to London to demand the return of the tabot. He received a response that the matter would be considered but nothing happened.


Orthodox priest carries a covered tabot in a ceremony in Gondar, Ethiopia.

Photo: Jialiang Gao, https://commons.wikimedia.

According to Bailey, ‘three years later, a covering was placed in front of the tabot, so it is no longer visible. The inscription, “Fragment of an Abyssinian Altar brought from Magdala in 1868”, was painted over. Today, the ghost-like rectangle where the front of the tabot was once exposed can just be made out.’

Following the opening of the abbey’s museum last month, Ethiopia’s ambassador in London repeated the demand of his government for the return of the tabot. But a spokesperson of the abbey is reported as stating: “The dean and chapter are very conscious of the sensitivity of the Ethiopian tabot, so steps were taken a number of years ago to ensure that the tabot, which is in a very sacred place, was properly covered and could not be seen by anyone.”

This report of a permanent concealment of a looted Ethiopian tabot in Westminster Abbey comes at a time when many States in Europe

are gradually accepting that it is wrong to steal the cultural artefacts of others and stubbornly refuse to return them to the original owners as has been requested almost annually in numerous United Nations/UNESCO resolutions since 1972. (3)

The French, under the leadership of President Emmanuel Macron, are busy preparing the grounds for returning African artefacts looted during the colonial regime. Bénédicte Savoy (France), and Felwine Sarr (Senegal) have been charged by the French President to examine the issue and make recommendations for the restitution of African artefacts to Africa. As far as we can tell, we can expect some concrete actions from the French in 2020-21. (4)

Germans have been discussing the issues of African artefacts looted during German colonial regime with an intensity that few people outside the country can imagine.

Even though the German Federal Government has not taken any clear position on the issues involved and seemed for a while to be seeking refuge in The Guidelines for Handling Objects acquired in colonial contexts, issued by the German Association of Museums on 14 May 2018, other bodies have made clear statements of their positions and willingness to return objects found to have been wrongfully acquired.

Lower Saxony Minister for Culture and Science, Björn Thümler, has declared that his government is willing to return the many artefacts in its museums that have been wrongfully acquired.

Herman Parzinger, President of the rich and powerful Prussian Cultural Foundation has declared that objects from Tanzania that were unlawfully taken to the Ethnological Museum/Humboldt Forum, Berlin would be returned. (5) But one must take Parzinger’s statements with some caution. He has in the past made statements and promises of returning looted artefacts which were not followed by any action but by other statements putting his promising utterances in doubt. (6)

Belgian, a State that also took as much as possible from Africa, including cultural artefacts, does not appear to have taken any clear decision regarding restitution of African artefacts looted during the colonial epoque. One view opposing restitution is expressed by Julien Volper, a conservator at the Musée royal belge de l'Afrique centrale (Tervuren) and a Lecturer at the Centre for Cultural Anthropology of the Free University, Brussel. Volper writes in the Figaro, under a dramatic title, Let us defend our museums! that there are in France and elsewhere, individuals who are waiting to transform museums into tombs by emptying them of their collections. (7)

Several articles have appeared in newspapers supporting restitution after the demand of the Republic of Benin asking France to return the artefacts looted under General Dodds in 1892. He recalls that some of the treasures Benin is demanding, such as the statue of the god Gou were looted by King Glelé from other peoples in Dahomey. He recalls that the major collections in Europe were based on principles of universalism and humanism as opposed to ideas of communitarism, nationalism and dangerous opportunism. On the other hand,

Guido Gryseels, the director general at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), is more flexible but does not believe in any wholesale restitution. He welcomes the initiative of President Macron but suggests that restitution is only possible when African States and their museums improve the security for the objects and conservatory methods. (8)

The British Government and British museums have so far not shown any inclination to consider returning artefacts looted during the colonial period to their owners in Africa. The most the British museums seem to be willing to do, is to set up an exhibition with looted Benin objects in Benin City whilst still retaining ownership in the objects. Other European museums, such as the World Museum in Vienna and the Ethnology Museum/Humboldt Forum in Berlin, seem to participate in the meetings of the so-called Dialogue Group on Benin.


Crown of Tewodros, Ethiopia, now in Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The idea of setting up an exhibition in Benin City, with ownership in the looted artefacts still held by European museums is not only obviously a neo-colonial invention but also an insult to the Edo People, Benin City, Nigerians and all Africans. We are really surprised that Nigerians would even listen to such proposals which do no honour to the memory of those who died in the invasion of 1897 nor to their successors. We hope Nigerians and other Africans who entertain such proposals know the implications. After the NCMM has declared that all Nigeria’s artefacts abroad must be unconditionally returned, it seems strange that any Nigerian official would listen to proposals contrary to the declared policy. (9)

We have put on record our fundamental objections to a scheme that would be of no benefit to Benin City, Edo, Nigeria and Africans who want to keep a minimum of self-respect. (10) What do the British propose to do about other Nigerian and African artefacts looted during their colonial rule, such as the Asante golden objects now in the British Museum and in the Wallace Collection? When will the British Government, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Wallace Collection and others return some of the Asante regalia looted in 1874 in Kumasi, Ghana? (11)

The unwillingness of the British to return ownership of looted artefacts to their owners underlies the recent proposals by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to loan to Ethiopia some of the looted Ethiopian artefacts. (12) But when we recall the concealment of a tabot bearing the Covenant of the Ark and the Ten Commandments in Westminster Abbey, we can easily see why insulting proposals are easily made by Victoria and Albert Museum without shame; stealing and hiding an artefact bearing the Ten Commandments makes it easier to deal with other religious objects. The eighth commandment, thou shall not steal, seems not to apply, in the opinion of some, to religious and precious objects of others. How else can one interpret the British attitude and treatment of Ethiopian religious artefacts, including the many Christian crosses and manuscripts that were looted in Magdala in 1868 and the less than respectful, some would say, disrespectful, blasphemous, and sacrilegious way of handling the issues of the restitution of Ethiopian artefacts?

emEthiopian cross, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.emEthiopian cross, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.

The treatment of the tabot in Westminster Abbey also raises several points concerning restitution. One can only return what is still available. What about objects that have been damaged, broken or lost? What about objects the European museums may have exchanged for other objects? Should the museums not be liable to pay compensation? Would the museums finally make available to interested readers and visitors to museums the complete inventory of their holdings? Would the museums inform us about other African treasures that are concealed in palaces and churches?


Prince Alemayehu, as photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron at the Isle of Wight in 1868.

When will Britain return to Ethiopia the human remains of Prince Alemayehu, son of Emperor Tewodros, who was stolen along with Ethiopian crosses and tabots and brought to Britain at the age of 7 where he died at the age of 18 and was buried in the Windsor Castle? Ethiopia has been seeking in vain the return of human remains of the prince. (13)

The very retrogressive attitude of the governing classes in Great Britain in matters of restitution of artefacts is in no way representative of the views of the average British citizens, who like most Western Europeans, are against policies in this area which, even at a cursory glance, appear undemocratic and unfair and downright oppressive. Anytime there has been an opinion poll in Britain on the question of the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, an overwhelming majority has voted for their return to Athens. (14) But the British Government and the British Museum have never bothered about the opinion of the people. This is a singular attitude of a system of government that prides itself of its representativity. A British art historian, Jonathan Harris has explained the attitude and policy of the British government as follows:

The question of the meaning of the 'Benin bronzes' or 'Elgin Marbles' in London – 1900 or 2000 – is inseparable from the issue of British attitudes towards Africa and the Orient as sites, once for direct military and political colonisation, and now for their post-imperial economic exploitation and indirect manipulation. To return them would imply the belief, on the part of the British authorities, that the peoples of those parts of the world were now capable of competently looking after artefacts that were removed ostensibly on the grounds that the local inhabitants were unfit, because of the 'degeneration' of their societies, to act as their curators. Their return would also imply admission of their illegal possession by the British. Both implications remain largely unthinkable because post-imperial racism continues to be a highly significant aspect of British foreign policy. Though British society may be relatively 'multicultural' now, its ruling elite, like that of the US, is still predominantly white, middle-class and male.' (15)

Some Africans may encourage the British in their untenable positions but in the long run, they would have to recognize that even their own people do not support them in their positions which were wrong from the start. Their own people have accepted human rights and the right to independent cultural development. Imperialists impositions such as the British now want to advertise as the pinnacle of international cooperation and service to the heritage of humanity, as dictated from London, would not be accepted, even in London.

The proposals to loan looted Ethiopian artefacts to Ethiopia, and to loan looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria, show that the British ruling classes have not changed, in more than hundred years, their arrogant and condescending attitude to those they defeated in aggressive invasions and robbed of their cultural artefacts. But, must Africans accept such repeated humiliations?

emChrist, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appear before Saint Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the 18th century Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanotem. emimage via and courtesy of the British LibraryemChrist, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appear before Saint Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the 18th century Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot. (image via and courtesy of the British Library)

Kwame Tua Opoku.


1. Westminster Abbey: Home

2. Ethiopia claims Ten Commandments tablet hidden in Westminster ... ...

Ethiopia claims Ten Commandments tablet hidden in Westminster ...

Westminster Abbey urged by African ambassador to hand over looted relic (Ethiopia, UK)

Culture crime news 2–8 July 2018 - Anonymous Swiss Collector .

ETHIOPIA demands British return tablet of Ten Commandments looted ...

Hidden in a British Museum basement: the lost Ark looted by colonial ... › News › UK › This Britain

The Question of the "Westminster Abbey" Tabot; an Urgent Call for ...

"Ethiopia: Returning a Tabot" by Odhiambo Okite, Christianity Today , 22 April 2002

Damian Zane, "Raided Lost Ark returns home" , BBC News, 1 July 2003, 11 May 2013

Letters: Tabots belong in Ethiopia | From the Guardian | The Guardian ...

3. Resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the Return of Cultural Property to their vountries of origin. Resolutions adopted by the United Nations General ... - Unesco

4. Restitution du patrimoine africain : « Nous sommes face à un défi ...

Bénédicte Savoy et Felwine Sarr, les experts du président - 14 mars ... .

Restitution du patrimoine africain : les explications de Bénédicte Savoy ... ...

« Un moment historique pour les restitutions de patrimoine » - La Croix ...

French President Takes Next Step Toward Repatriating African Artifacts ...

France to return African artifacts from Senegal, Benin Dahomey, Mali ...

Bénédicte Savoy – UNESCO Speech, June 1st, 2018 (with ... - YouTube

5. Germany presents code of conduct on handling colonial-era artefacts ...

K. Opoku, Germany’s Answer to Macron on Restitution of African Artefacts: Guidelines for Handling Colonial Artefacts?

Germany's Answer to Macron on Restitution of African Artefacts ...

Lower Saxony:

Herman Parzinger:

Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz erklärt sich zur Rückgabe von ...

Berlin Postkolonial - Home | Facebook

6. K. Opoku, Parzinger's Misconceptions And Misrepresentations ... - Modern Ghana

Parzinger's Cri De Coeur: Genuine Plea for UN/UNESCO Assistance or ... ...

'We Will Return Looted and Stolen Objects': Parzinger's Miraculous ...

Parzinger must have been greatly influenced by his Tanzanian partners to write:

Colonialism is part of the objects’ history. They were sometimes forcibly removed from their contexts and then stored in the depots of museums, where they were given a new context. However, the ‘spoils of war’ are, and remain within a context of illegality, which requires a different treatment and suggests restitution as a possible solution ‘. p. 20, Humboldt Lab Tanzania, Reimer Verlag, 2018.

7. Défendons nos musées! - Le Figaro › VOX › Vox Société

8. Guido Gryseels, directeur du Musée de l'Afrique centrale : « C'est le ...

In his most recent statements in Le Monde of 18 June 2018, Guido Gryseels seems to have improved his views to bring him on par with Macron’s views but he still seems to think a conference preferably under auspices of UNESCO, between African owners of the artefacts and the European holders to discuss cooperation and conservation will be necessary. Restitution d'œuvres : « L'Afrique a été pillée, nous ne pouvons pas l ...

See also K. Opoku, Would Westerm Museums return artefacts if they could? - Elginism

9. Commission wants unconditional return of stolen works - Vanguard ... › News

Britain should unconditionally return all stolen artifacts back to Nigeria

Nigeria demands unconditional return of looted artefacts: A season of ...

Nigeria Demands Unconditional Return of Looted Artefacts: A Season ... European museums to 'loan' looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria ...‘loan’-looted- ...

British museums may loan Nigeria bronzes that were stolen from ... › News › UK › Home News

We Will Show You Looted Benin Bronzes but Will Not Give Them Back ... ..

Monday Midnite - - YouTube

10. European museums to 'loan' looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria ...‘loan’-looted-...

We Will Show You Looted Benin Bronzes but Will Not Give Them Back ...

News -

11. K. Opoku, When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts? A ... ...

Henry M. Stanley who reported on both British campaigns in Africa, lists in Comassie and Magdala,1874, at p.233 some of the gold items looted from the Palace of the Asantehene, Kumasi.

12. Loan Of Looted Ethiopian Treasures To Ethiopia - Modern Ghana ...

New research claims British ripped up Ethiopian manuscripts - Elginism

Anger mounts as UK museum offers to return looted Ethiopian ...

13. There is quite a lot of information on the tragic life of the Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu, son of Emperor Tewodros, who was stolen by the British after the defeat of Tewodros during the British invasion of Magdala in 1968 and his subsequent suicide. The British stole not only various precious Ethiopian artefacts and manuscripts but also the only son of their defeated enemy. The prince died at 18 a lonely death in Britain where he was taken at the age of seven


I had intended to write about this child prince, taken away from his country and relatives to the cold land of those who had defeated his father and ultimately caused his suicide. But the more I read about Prince Alemayehu, the more depressed I became. In all the photos of the prince I could see sadness written on his face. How can the British who believe in monarchy not instinctively feel that the little prince should have been left in Ethiopia with his relatives rather than bring him to a land he did not know and a people, with a language he did not know? What did they really want to do with the Ethiopian prince? Kidnapping is seldom for a noble cause. More worrying is the refusal of Britain to return the human remains of Prince Alemayehu who is apparently buried in Windsor Castle. What do the British have to hide?

It would be interesting to know the implications from this statement, in Wikipedia: ’Initially, Empress Tiruwork had resisted Captain Speedy’s efforts to be named the child’s guardian and had even asked the commander of the [ko1] British forces, Lord Napier, to keep Speedy away from her child and herself. After the death of the Empress however, Napier allowed Speedy to assume the role of caretaker. Upon the arrival of the little Prince’s party in Alexandria however, Speedy dismissed the entire Ethiopian entourage of the Prince much to their distress and they returned to Ethiopia.’

What were the grounds for Empress Tiruwork asking the British commander to keep Captain Speedy from her son and herself? Why did Napier ignore a mother’s plea for the protection of her only son and herself?

Did Queen Victoria who is said to have expressed her sadness at the death of the prince know anything about the character of Speedy that would have made him unsuitable as guardian of Prince Alemayehu? Could Victoria, as a mother not feel the need for Alemayehu to be with his own people? Why did the British not allow the Ethiopian prince to go back to his people as he often requested?

We may also consider this statement from the Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Prince Dèjatch Alamayou was the son of an Ethiopian emperor who committed suicide rather than surrender to the British in 1868. Captain Speedy brought the Prince to England and the orphan prince came to live on the Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria took a particular interest in him, paying for his education and allowing him to be buried at Windsor Castle when he died of pleurisy aged eighteen’.

Dèjatch Alámayou & Básha Félika / King Theodore's Son & Captain ...

I hope one day we will get a full study on this statement by Lemn Sissay :

‘He was a foster child. He was taken away by the British army. They looked after him at first, but by the time he was 18, they got rid of him. They stopped giving Captain Speedy a stipend to look after him. Captain Speedy said he is out; then he went to the north of England, a place called Leeds and he died within a year. And they said he died of pleurisy . They said it was just a natural illness. No! Something else was going on there. Something else was going on there. Imagine, they looked after him until he was18, until then everything was fine. Then they got rid of him. He died, and they said he died of natural causes. Was that so?

Queen Victoria loved him, they said. Queen Victoria loved princes from India as well. We don’t know what was going on between Captain Speedy and Alemayehu. There are a lot of stories breaking in England about the abuse of children. We don’t know.

To triumph against all odds | The Reporter Ethiopia English

The director of the Victoria and Albert Museum said in connection with the exhibition on Magdala that the British must face their history: ‘We should not to be afraid of history, even if it is complicated and challenging’

. Are they doing that with respect to the little prince they stole in 1868 whose human remains they refuse to return despite several requests by the Ethiopian people and their government? Loan Of Looted Ethiopian Treasures To Ethiopia - Modern Ghana ...

Prince Alemayehu - Wikipedia

Ethiopians urge Britain to return bones of 'stolen' prince after 150 years

Prince Alemayehu Tewodros (1861-1879) - Find A Grave Memorial › ... › Windsor › St George's Chapel

Ethiopia demands Queen returns prince - Telegraph ...

Runnymede Trust / Ethiopian Prince Alemayhu's remains must be sent ...

14. YouGov | British people tend to think Elgin Marbles should be returned ...

88% of people support Parthenon Marbles return in Guardian Poll

Return of the Parthenon Marbles - Ipsos

Elgin Marbles - Wikipedia

The Guardian Poll on The Return of The Parthenon Marbles ...

UK Labour Leader Says He 'Would Return Parthenon Marbles to ...

Opinion: The defiant tactics of the British Museum | Community | Ligali

The Guardian has a poll on return of Parthenon Marbles: "Are you with ... › News › Culture

Art and Artifice: Elgin Marbles: British Museum rejects UNESCO ...

Survey: Only Quarter of Britons Want UK to Keep Parthenon Marbles ... › Industry sectors › Culture

K. Opoku, Arrogance & duplicity - the British loan of the Parthenon Marbles

Kwame Opoku: British Museum Director Defends Once More ...

Lord Elgin and the Parthenon marbles - The Economist

Marbles Reunited | Responses to Neil MacGregor's refusal to see the ...

15. Jonathan Harris, The New Art History A critical Introduction, Routledge, London, 2001, p. 275.


Pair of woman’s anklets, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.


Gold cross, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom.