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02.06.2019 Feature Article

British Museum To Loan Looted ‘invisible’ Ethiopian Tabots To Ethiopia: How Far Can Absurdities Go In Restitution?

Orthodox priest carries a covered tabot in a ceremony in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo: Jialiang Gao https://commons.wikimedia.
LISTEN JUN 2, 2019
Orthodox priest carries a covered tabot in a ceremony in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo: Jialiang Gao https://commons.wikimedia.

‘From this scene I strolled away to the northern gate, to where the dead body of the late Master of Magdala lay, on his canvas stretcher. I found a mob of officers and men, rudely jostling each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece of Theodore’s blood-stained shirt. No guard was placed over the body until it was naked, nor was the slightest respect shown it. Extended on its hammock, it lay subjected to the taunts and jests of the brutal-minded. An officer, seeing it in this condition, informed Sir Robert Napier of the fact, who at once gave orders that it should be dressed and prepared for interment on the morrow.’ Henry M. Stanley. (1)

Martin Bailey reports in The Art Newspaper of 20th May 2019 that the British Museum is considering loaning back to Ethiopia 11 of the tabots the British looted from Maqdala in 1868 during the notorious Abyssinia invasion from which the British stole thousands of Ethiopian treasures that are now in many Western museums and institutions, including the British Museum, described by some as‘ the greatest depositary of looted objects.’(2)

Tabot is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church holy object that symbolically represents the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments and can be seen only by orthodox priests. The British Museum describes the tabot as follows:

‘The Tabot is the foundation of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and is what sanctifies and consecrates a church building. The Tabot is believed by Ethiopian Christians to be the dwelling place of God on earth, the mercy seat described in the Bible and the representation of the Ark of the Covenant. Every church has at least one Tabot which, when consecrated, is kept in the Qeddest Qeddusan, Holy of Holies, where only the clergy may enter. A church may be known by the name of its Tabot which is often dedicated to Mary, Medhane Alam, The Saviour of the World or to saints and angels’. (3)

According to accounts by the British Museum, none of the museum staff nor even the director has access to these holy objects that can be seen only by priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Martin Bailey states that:

There are 11 tabots in the British Museum. Although the storage arrangements are confidential, they are believed to be kept in a sealed storeroom in the basement of the Bloomsbury complex. Even Lissant Bolton, the museum’s keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, has never set foot in the room, let alone seen the tabots. The Art Newspaper understands they are individually wrapped in cloth and placed on a shelf covered with purple velvet’. (4)

From all this, we may assume that none of the museum officials, including the present director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer has ever set eyes on the holy Ethiopian objects. How do you lend something you are not supposed to see and have never seen? How do you know what is in the tabot? How do you lend an invisible object? How will the museum set down the conditions for the loan and ensure that the conditions are observed? How would the lenders ensure that the objects are properly kept and how can they ever verify this? All these simple questions point to the absurdity of pretending to lend an object that was not made for you and which you have not seen because this is prohibited on religious grounds. We are in an area of complete absurdity because those who stole the religious objects now pretend to loan them to the original owners. Do they know what they are lending at all? The usual categories of lender and recipient of loan just do not apply. But there is a simple and just solution: restitution of the looted objects.

But the simple solution we propose and have always insisted on as answer to the age-old matter of looted artefacts, is not simple for looters and their successors. They have thousands of looted objects and are not thinking of returning any of them to their original owners as our modern times would seem to require. The British Museum officials and the British government have read the Sarr-Savoy report which recommends that all artefacts that were taken away without the consent of the owners or by force must be returned. But they do not seem to be impressed. (5)

The British Museum which holds many looted artefacts is afraid that if it returns one looted object it would have a whole mass of peoples requesting the return of their looted artefacts, the so-called floodgates principle. That museum is at the moment proposing to lend to Nigeria its own looted Benin artefacts and would not restitute the Benin artefacts to Nigeria since this would allegedly result in the Ethiopians asking in turn for restitution of their artefacts. But is this a reasonable attitude? This defence is based on reinforcing one’s previous wrongdoing. This attitude is surely not Christian and is against all moral codes that we are aware of. By withholding religious and cultural objects of many peoples the British Museum and the British government are preventing those people from following their religious and cultural practices; they are denying the various human rights to independent cultural development as envisaged by several United Nations conventions and resolutions.

The usual excuse given by the British Museum that they are prevented by the British Museum Act 1963 is of course not exactly true. It is an interpretation of the Act that suits the museum officials and trustees. On examination of the British Museum Act in connection with the tabots, Alexander Herman, assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law concluded that:

The trustees should honour Parliament’s decision and use their powers appropriately. In this case that should lead to only one result: the permanent restitution of the tabots to the Ethiopian Church.’ (6)

62201970134 qulxoca543 christ in glory

British Library Or. MS 481, f.110v - Christ in Glory, commissioned by Emperor Iyasu I Yohannes of Ethiopia for use in his royal city of Gondar. Wikimedia Commons.

The absurd situation resulting from the ‘invisible nature’ of the tabot should be enough to convince the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer and the Trustees to restitute the tabots looted during the British invasion of Ethiopia in 1866. They should also consider restituting to Nigeria the Benin artefacts that were looted with tremendous violence by a British invasion army in 1897. David Wilson, a former Director of the British Museum has described the Maqdala invasion as

One of the less glorious episodes in the history of the Museum, in today’s terms, was the Trustees’ involvement in the punitive expedition to Abyssinia…In October 1867 Newton approached the Trustees to pass on a suggestion from a Captain Sherwood that the Museum should appoint ‘ a competent Archaeologist to accompany the army to Abyssinia to investigate the cultures of the area. He was supported by Franks, Vaux ,Watts(Keeper of Printed Books) and Rieu (Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts).’(7)

The British Museum eventually sent R. R. Holmes who later on in 1870 became Librarian at Windsor Castle and was knighted in 1905. (8)

Another less than glorious episode was the invasion of Benin in 1897 where thousands of precious artefacts were looted by the British punitive expedition. This invasion was also accompanied by specialists to determine which objects should be looted. Whether the specialists came from the British Museum or not, is not clear but the museum received the bulk of the artefacts brought to Britain.(9)

62201970134 sxoaredq5k crosses ethiopia now in british museum

Crosses, Ethiopia, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom. 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?

62201970134 wcrevihuto gold chalice

Gold chalice from Ethiopia looted by British soldiers at Maqdala now at Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom

The UK Secretary of State for Culture, Jeremy Wright is reported to have said he is in favour of loans because “You can gain a lot of goodwill. He should be advised that restitution of looted artefacts to Ethiopia and Benin/Nigeria would bring more than goodwill. It will convince the rest of the world that despite her colonial and imperialist past, Britain is ready to start relations with African peoples on a new basis and is willing to correct past mistakes. But there is the abiding wide-spread belief, among our contemporary Westerners that they have a an almost God-given duty and right to supervise Africans, even in the use and locations of our artefacts. They seem to believe they have an inalienable right to steal and hold the treasures and properties of other peoples, especially the dark-skinned ones-Asante, Benin, Ethiopia and India. Greece is the exception that confirms the rule. But can we blame them alone? If I step on your toes and you keep smiling? It always take two to tango.

The idea of loaning looted artefacts to the original owners appeals to some because of the residual rights implied in a loan. A loan also implicitly recognizes the possession that was born out of violence by the conquerors. But do Africans recognize the existence of such a supervisory right of Westerners, independent of who produced the object and how it came under Western control?

William Gladstone, British Prime Minister in 1868, was reported by Hansard as stating that:

"He (Mr Gladstone) deeply regretted that those articles [the crown and the chalice] were ever brought from Abyssinia and could not conceive why they were so brought' he deeply lamented, for the sake of the country [Britain], and for the sake of all concerned. That these articles to us [the British] insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by a British army."


Kwame Opoku.


1. Henry M. Stanley, Magdala: The Story of the Abyssinian Campaign,1866-67. Being the Second Part of the Original Volume Entitled ‘Coomassie and Magdala’, Leopold Classic Library,1896, p. 156.

2. British Museum considers loan of 'invisible' objects back to Ethiopia ...

The Ethiopian Tabots hidden in the British Museum - Elginism

Loan of Looted Ethiopian Treasures to Ethiopia - Modern Ghana

When will the West return Ethiopia's treasures

A History of The World With 100 Looted Objects of Others: Global Intoxication?

3. British Museum tabot

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

4. Martin Bailey British Museum considers loan of 'invisible' objects back to Ethiopia ...

5. Savoy and Sarr, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage

Restitution Report: museum directors respond | The Art Newspaper

Further Comments on Sarr-Savoy Report on Restitution

France Marches to Restitution of Looted African Artefacts: What About ...

6. British Museum must recognise its own powers in matters of restitution ...

7. David M. Wilson, The British Museum A History, British Museum Press, 2002, p. 173.

What David Wilson considers as ‘less glorious episode in the history of the Museum’, i.e. the involvement of the museum in the invasion and looting of artefacts through the sending of R.R. Holmes as a specialist to help the invading army to select what cultural objects to be looted, seems to be standing practice of the British anytime they have sent an army to punish ‘recalcitrant’ peoples. This was done in Beijing (China) 1860, Magdala (Ethiopia) 1868, Kumasi (Ghana)1874, and Benin City (Nigeria) 1897. Understandably, specialists must assist soldiers in a foreign country as to what from the foreign culture would be useful to the museums and who better can do this than the specialists from the museums and universities who have spent years in studying the foreign culture? Are modern invasion armies any different?

8. Richard Rivington Holmes, an assistant in the manuscripts department of The British Museum, had accompanied the expedition against Magdala, Ethiopia, as an archaeologist and acquired a number of objects for the British Museum, including around 300 manuscripts which are now housed in the British Library.”

Professor Richard Pankhurst has written about Richard Holmes as follows: “One of those present at this large-scale looting was Richard (later Sir Richard) Holmes, an Assistant Curator in the British Museum's Department of Manuscripts, who had been appointed “Archaeologist” to the expedition. He later noted in an official report that the British flag had “not been waved… much more than ten minutes” over the fort of Maqdala before he had himself entered it. Shortly afterwards, while night was falling, he met a British soldier who was carrying the golden crown of the Abun, or head of the Ethiopian church, and a “solid gold chalice” weighing “at least 6 lb”, i.e. pounds. Holmes purchased them both for four pounds Sterling. He was also offered several large manuscripts, but declined to buy them as they were too heavy for him to carry” “The Ethiopian Millennium – and the Question of Ethiopia's Cultural Restitution”

An internet site provides the following: The invading British force included a number of mysterious civilians and an "official archaeologist", a Mr Richard Holmes, said to have secured "many interesting items" from Magdala. Holmes was an assistant in the British Museum's Department of Manuscripts, but soon after the successful war became Sir Richard Rivington Holmes KCVO, Keeper of the Queen's Pictures and Librarian to Queen Victoria and her son Edward VII at Windsor Castle (from 1870 until 1906). -

See also Adrian Cooper „Arts & Artefacts: Raiders of the lost ark, “ Terry Kirby, Hidden in a British Museum basement: the lost Ark looted by colonial raiders

Writing about the auction at Magdala, Henry M. Stanley states: ‘Mr. Holmes, as the worthy representative of the British Museum, was in his full glory. Armed with ample funds, he outdid all in most things; but Colonel Frazier ran him hard because he was buying for a wealthy regimental mess- 11thHussars - and when anything belonging personally to Theodore was offered for sale, there were private gentlemen who outbid both. Mr Holmes secured many interesting articles’. Henry Stanley, op. cit. p.168.

On the Ethiopian treasures that are in the British Museum, see www.afromet Ethiopian treasures are found at the following places in the United Kingdom: The British Library, The British Museum, Duke of Wellington's Regimental Museum, Halifax, Dundee University Museum, Edinburgh University Library, The John Rylands University Library, Lancaster Museum & Priory, National Archives of Scotland, The Schøyen Collection (London/Oslo), The Victoria & Albert Museum and Windsor Castle. More stolen African treasures can be found at the homepage of the African Reparations Movement

9. The Foreword in C. H. Read and O.M Dalton, in Antiquities from the City of Benin and from other parts of West Africa in the British Museum, states as follows: :‘The whole of the panels shown in the plates have been given to the Museum by Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. They formed two-thirds of the whole series sent home by Sir Ralph Moor, K.C.M.G, Her Majesty’ Commissioner and Consul-General for the Niger Coast Protectorates.

The rest having been sold for the benefit of the Protectorate, These latter,though not strictly duplicates, were practically repetitions of the panels in the collection. The series sent home by Sir Ralph Moor consisted entirely of bronze panels .All the objects in the round, as well as the carved tusks, are from private individuals, either by gift or purchase’. February,1899.

10. See AFROMET - The Association for the Return of The Maqdala or Richard Pankhurst, The Loot from Magdala, 1868: Some Historical Ideas of Repatriation,

62201970135 uypcsferrm cotton dress of queen woyzaro terunesh

Cotton dress of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh ,in Victoria and Albert Museum, ,London, United Kingdom.


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