Thursday 29 June 2023

The Return of Emperor Tewodros’ Locks of Hair

Emperor Tewodros was the son of a provincial chief who rose to power to become Nəguśä Nägäśt or King of Kings thus ending a chaotic period in Ethiopian history known as “Zämänä Mäsafənt” (the era of princes).

However while peace was established between the different Ethiopian ethnic groups there were still threats from Islamic Turks threatening to occupy parts of Ethiopia. Emperor Tewodros assumed that the Christian West would to come to his aid and made an appeal by  letter to Queen Victoria of England saying, ‘…when I told the Turks to relinquish the soil of my fathers, they refused, and so, by the power of God, here I am about to struggle against them.’

However, to his utter bewilderment, the queen refused to help. The emperor could not understand how a Christian nation like England could refuse to come to his aid.

Out of fury Tewodros jailed the British consul and other foreigners, however his response led Britain to see Ethiopia as a “risk without profit”. In 1868 under the command of Sir Robert Napier 64,000 people (including 12,000 fighting men) were sent from Britain to invade Ethiopia, it was the largest military offensive by the British Empire in Africa. Emperor Tewodros’ fortress was captured and he chose to die rather than be taken.

The British then proceeded to loot Magdala they left with more than 500 ancient manuscripts, 2 gold crowns, crosses and chalices in gold, silver and copper, religious icons, royal and ecclesiastic vestments, shields and arms. They took so much wealth that they needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to cart it away.

They also kidnapped the emperor’s 7 year old son, Prince Alemayehu who was later said to be a ‘favourite’ of the British queen. Prince Alemayehu died aged 18 of pleurisy and was buried at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle at the request of Victoria.

In 1959 locks of Tewodros’ hair was given to the National Army Museum by the family of the artist who had painted the emperor on his deathbed, one of the locks was framed with a letter and the emperor’s seal.

In 2018, a national outcry erupted in Ethiopia over the display of the tresses in an exhibition by the National Army Museum on the 1868 British invasion to what was then called Abyssinia.

The Ethiopian government successfully negotiated the return of Emperor Tewodros’ hair.. The Ethiopian embassy in London stated that “For Ethiopians everywhere, as the locks of hair represent the remains of one of the country’s most revered and beloved leaders, a display of jubilant euphoria is to be expected when it is returned to its rightful home in Ethiopia.”

The West has caricatured Emperor Tewodros in a negative way to justify the British looting of precious artefacts as ‘war trophies’ but modern research and the Ethiopian documentation of that horrific event are setting the record straight. 

No other leader has influenced popular culture in Ethiopia as Tewodros did. He is a treasure trove for songwriters, playwrights and poets. Once Abbe Gubegna, a prolific writer said, ‘Tewodros will continue to sparkle like a jewel in the heart of many generations.’ 

The dramatic nature of his life, his rise from an ordinary background and his ambitions of transforming Ethiopia into a modern state has led many to be fascinated by his life and action. He is viewed as a true leader who authored his immortality by refusing to surrender to British forces and taking his own life instead.

Ethiopia lodged a formal request in 2008 at various British institutions for the return of the Magdala treasures worth millions of dollars but the British continue to resist. However Yonas Desta, director-general of Ethiopia's Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, said the country would continue to seek to reclaim heritage taken decades, even centuries, ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...