Coomassie and Magdala: The Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa
source: Henry Morton Stanley, Coomassie and Magdala: The Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa, London 1874, 455-459.
 […] Over all Magdala were scattered different kinds of military mobs: mob appropriative, mob reckless, mob bibulous, mob demoralised, mob humane, mob decently respectable, menadic mob, and prisoner mob. To describe all these mobs would, of course, be tedious, so I shall only touch upon those most interesting.
The mob bibulous was gathered in the Aulic quarters, prepared to quaff the grateful beverage bountifully provided by his Majesty for his own and his harem’s necessities. Several jars of very fine arrachi, as strong as brandy, were found, and of course eagerly seized and tasted by men who were connoisseurs in the business of tasting liquor. They tasted and tasted again and again; and, as might be expected, the effects of the copious drinks taken by the men became distinctly visible in a very short time; but not to any extravagant extent, as military law is rather strict in the English army, and severe penalties are always awarded to drunkenness.
Another party of soldiers, diving into the barn-like dwelling yclept Imperial Palace, perceived innumerable articles of furniture strewn about. One thing upon another the men picked up; then, examining the article, pocketed it or threw it down; to be picked up, examined, and pocketed or thrown away by others coming after them. Little of the whole was worth  carrying away by soldiers who would be obliged to convey luggage on their backs hundreds of miles.
[…] Some provisions found in the store-rooms were distributed amongst the people, and they were then ushered out of the gates. These scenes are really what passed around the Aulic portions of the fortress. But the tabular surface of this mountain  plateau contained other sights, though not as virtuous, yet as interesting. There were an endless variety of dwellings — silken and canvas tents, Koord-like domiciles, cotes, and such like; and each of these had around it a knot of men commenting, gossiping, pocketing, analysing, breaking into pieces, or tearing into shreds, whatever thing their vision or fancy lit upon.
Upon approaching nearer I saw, not a Bedlam broken loose, but an extempore pandemonium enacted round the Koord tents, which I learnt, to my astonishment, were the treasure tents. The ground was strewn with an abundance of seemingly costly things. The glitter certainly could not be surpassed, were all the treasures of Windsor Castle and the Tuileries exposed on their velvet lawns, side by side, by what were here. If all that glittered among these tons of treasure were gold, the English Government need not have entertained much concern about the cost of the expedition. But taking up a shining candlestick — massive and curiously gotten up — I perceived the worthlessness of the material; and though there were a very considerable number of wares manufactured out of the precious metal, the major part of them were gilt.
Over these trivialities the people sprawled and cuffed; and prominent amongst them, with their voices raised to an unpleasantly high pitch, and their coat-tails fluttering in the breeze, were the gentlemen in black coats, endeavouring to pack off the silken marquees. They would for ever have remained unmentioned by me, had they not sought unenviable notoriety by their unseemly conduct and screeching voices of aroused avarice. These gentlemen in black, with fluttering coat-tails — hear it, oh, ye philanthropists ! — were the captives ! Not all of them, but several of them. Some of the British subjects; three missionaries; the Prussian, German, and Russian mechanics.
Several of these gentlemen had secured this loot long before the soldiers had arrived. It lay in piles at their feet, or had been already spirited away under the envious coat-tails. It was reported that one of these wretches, who had neither the fear of God nor of the devil before his unholy eyes, had the audacity to break open the coffin of the most holy Abuna, and snatch from the neck of the putrid corpse a diamond cross worth many thousand dollars.
 The fame of the treasures brought new comers by the hundred, and General Sir Robert Napier, Generals Staveley, Wilby, Snyder, and their respective staffs, came to visit them; and these gentlemen, together with the members of the press — to the honour of the Fourth Estate be it said — were the only ones exempt from the picking and pocketing mania which had taken possession of all heroes.
To enumerate even the, one-tenth of the articles scattered about would be a task as tiresome as it would be fruitless. In one of the tents was found the Imperial standard of Ethiopia — a lion rampant, of the tribe of Judah, worked in variegated colours. In another was found the Imperial seal, with the same distinctive figure of a lion engraved on it. A chalice, of pure gold, was secured by Mr. Holmes, on which was engraved in ancient Ethiopic: —
THE CHALICE OF
KING ADAM LEGUD CALLED GAZOO
THE SON OF
QUEEN BEHAN MOGUSSA
PRESENTED TO KOSKWAN SANCTUARY GONDAR
MAY MY BODY AND SOUL BE PURIFIED
The Abuna’s mitre, 300 years old, of pure gold, probably weighing six or seven pounds troy weight; four royal crowns, two of which were very fine specimens of workmanship, and worth a round sum of money; were worthy things to be placed in a niche of the British Museum. A small escritoire, richly ornamented with mother-of-pearl, was found also, full of complimentary letters from European sovereigns, and the state papers; besides various shields of exquisite beauty. There were also an infinite variety of gold, and silver, and brass crosses, and censers, some of extremely elegant design; golden and silver pots, kettles, dishes, pans; cups of miscellaneous descriptions; richly chased goblets, of the precious metal; Bohemian glasses, Sèvres china, and Staffordshire pottery; wine of Champagne, Burgundy, Greece, Spain, and Jerusalem; bottles of Jordan water; jars of arrachi and tej; chests full of ornamental frippery; tents of rose, purple, lilac, and white silk; carpets of Persia, of Uschak, Broussa, Kidderminster, and Lyons; robes of fur; war capes of lion, leopard, and wolf skins;  saddles, magnificently decorated with filigree gold and silver; numerous shields covered with silver plates; state umbrellas of gorgeous hues, adorned with all the barbaric magnificence that the genius of Bejemder and Gondar could fashion; swords and claymores; rapiers, scimetars, yataghans, tulwars, and bilboes; daggers of Persia, of Damascus, and of Ind, in scabbards of crimson morocco and purple velvet, studded with golden buttons; heaps of parchment royally illuminated; stacks of Amharic Bibles; missals, and numberless albums; ambrotypes and photographs of English, American, French, and Italian scenery; bureaus, and desks of cunning make. Over a space growing more and more extended, the thousand articles were scattered in infinite bewilderment and confusion until they dotted the whole surface of the rocky citadel, the slopes of the hill, and the entire road to camp two miles off!
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 another mob — mob indiscriminate — of officers and men, rudely jostling each other in the endeavour to get possession of a small piece of Theodore’s blood stained shirt.
Henry Morton Stanley (born John Rowlands, 1841-1904) was a journalist and explorer. Born in Wales, he emigrated in 1858 to the United States, where he took a new name and participated in the American Civil War. After selling stories from the frontline to newspapers, Stanley became a journalist. He first gained contemporary journalistic fame for his coverage of the British sack of Mäqdäla in Ethiopia for the New York Herald. In 1874, he published a book on the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹ to Mäqdäla. Between 1874 and 1890, Stanley led a number of other expeditions to Africa, driven by the conviction for a need to »pour the civilization of Europe into the barbarism of Africa«. Africa, in Stanley’s opinion, was a continent of »savages«, over which the British should strive to attain control (H. M. Stanley 1909, 333, 377). His engagements in Africa ended after his marriage in 1890; from 1895-1900, he served as a member of the British Parliament and was knighted in 1899 for his service to the British Empire in Africa. He died in 1904. Between 1872 and 1898, Stanley published twelve books on Africa; another four – collections of letters as well as an autobiography – were published posthumously.
Commentary – Henry M. Stanley and the Sack of Magdala
In 1867-68, the British Empire despatched a military expedition led by General Sir Robert Napier to the Christian kingdom of Solomonic Ethiopia. From an originally amicable relationship, relations between the British and Ethiopia had deteriorated in the early 1860s: in 1864, the Ethiopian nǝguś or king (full title nǝguśä nägäśt, ›king of kings‹), Tewodros II, imprisoned several Europeans as well as two representatives of the British government. From his ascent to the Ethiopian Solomonic throne in 1855, Tewodros had maintained close ties with selected Europeans, including two Englishmen: British Consul Walter Plowden and John Bell, who acted as his personal advisor. In 1860, both Plowden and Bell died at the hands of rivalling Ethiopian forces led by a rival to the throne. Increasingly isolated within Ethiopia, Tewodros asked several European powers for military support and attempted to rouse their interest in a joint Christian crusade against Islam in 1862. When results failed to materialize and the British Empire in particular did not fulfil his demands, Tewodros took a number of European craftsmen, many of whom were also lay missionaries as well as the new British Consul to Ethiopia as captives and held them in his mountain fortress of Mäqdäla. By 1865, his power within Ethiopia had weakened considerably: the Ethiopian ruler was »isolated and hated by most of his subjects, and had lost control over the larger part of his realm« (Crummey, Nosnitsin, and Sokolinskaia 2010, 932). When the British expedition led by Napier dispatched to free the captives landed in Ethiopia in late 1867, they encountered little to no resistance from princes, local leaders and people. On 10 April 1868, the British forces defeated Tewodros’ army at Aroge. Tewodros’ stronghold of Mäqdäla was taken three days later. Tewodros himself had committed suicide shortly before the arrival of the British on the plateau. (Crummey, Nosnitsin, and Sokolinskaia 2010).
Journalist Henry Morton Stanley had been tasked with covering the looming war between Britain and Ethiopia for the New York Herald in December 1867. In February 1868, he joined the Anglo-Indian invasion force of the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹. Stanley was an eyewitness to the battle of Mäqdäla in April 1868; his articles on the British intervention in Ethiopia were first published shortly thereafter. They enjoyed immense contemporary interest in Europe and the US and laid the groundwork for his journalistic career.
The above account is taken from Stanley’s book dealing with the British Campaign in Ethiopia. It was published in 1874, six years after the battle. The section presented here describes the looting of Mäqdäla by the British immediately after the suicide of Tewodros II. It is simultaneously apologetic, condescending and appreciative: an account of an English »mob bibulous« is for instance immediately qualified by a statement that the British soldiers’ drunkenness was »not to any extravagant extent, as military law is rather strict in the English army«. Stanley disdainfully compares Tewodros’ imperial palace at Mäqdäla to a »barn-like dwelling«; he presents the captives as grave-robbing, pillaging louts. The largest part of the excerpt describes some of the treasures and objects ultimately looted from Mäqdäla in what Stanley characterizes as a »picking and pocketing mania«. The Ethiopian objects themselves are portrayed alternatingly in tones of condescension and appreciation: while many items were »trivialities« of only »seemingly costly« nature, others exhibited »barbaric magnificence« and were thus »worthy things to be placed in a niche of the British Museum«.
Two of the treasures described by Stanley can be identified as objects now located in in London. Stanley judged »four royal crowns, two of which were very fine specimens of workmanship« as »worthy« to be taken from Ethiopia to Britain in order to be displayed in an English museum. Just four years later, in 1872, one of these crowns was deposited at the South Kensington Museum, which is now the Victoria and Albert Museum (M.27-2005). Textual sources assert that crowns not unlike the one now in London date back to at least the 14th century (Raineri 1999), but the earliest still-extant examples date back to the early Gondärine period and thus the 17th century. In Gǝʿǝz (old Ethiopic), they were often referred to as ›helmets‹ (›gera‹ ጌራ / pl. ›gerat‹ ጌራት). Made from gilt silver, bronze or copper, Ethiopian royal crowns are indeed often oversized and dome-shaped, adorned with filigree finials and pendants as well as precious stones. In the 18th and 19th century, the old imperial city of Gondär was one of two main centres of production (Balicka-Witakowska 2003). The crown now on display at the V&A was once believed to be the royal crown of Tewodros himself and thus dated to the mid-19th century. Recent scholarship now dates it to the 1740s, however (Gnisci 2018). This crown was probably commissioned by Ethiopian Empress Mǝntewwab for her son, King of Kings Iyasu II, and given to a church in the imperial capital of Gondär for commemoration in the second half of the 18th century (Mercier 2006).
Similarly identifiable with a holding in the V&A is the »chalice of pure gold« engraved in »Ethiopic« described by Stanley, which he dates to the 15th century. According to him, its inscription read: »The chalice of King Adam Legud called Gazoo, the son of Queen Berhan Mogussa, presented to Koskwan sanctuary Gondar, may my body and soul be purified«. A solid gold chalice held as item M.26-2005 in the Victoria and Albert Museum features an inscription quite similar to Stanley’s translation. Written in Amharic – the modern Ethiopian language written in Gǝʿǝz script – it reads: »This is the chalice of our king Iyasu, whose throne name is Adyam Sägäd, and of our Empress Wälättä Giyorgis, Bǝrhan Mogäsa, which they gave to the tabot of Qwǝsqwam so that it might be for them salvation of body and soul.« While Stanley’s account has mangled the names of the royal personages, they are still clearly identifiable. Stanley’s »Adam Legud called Gazoo« is King of Kings Iyasu II (1723—1755), also known by his regnal name of Adyam Sägäd. »Queen Berhan Mogussa« is Empress Mǝntǝwwab, mother of Iyasu II, whose regnal and baptismal names were Wälättä Giyorgis and Bǝrhan Mogäsa, respectively. Mǝntǝwwab was crowned ǝtege or ›Empress‹ in 1730. She ruled Ethiopia as regent for her son and grandson for nearly 40 years and was one of the most important Ethiopian political figures of the 18th century. A grand patroness of the arts, she was responsible for the foundation of the imperial complex of Qwǝsqwam in Gondär (Berry 2003). The end of her reign ushered in a time of diminished royal sovereignty, political decentralization and disintegration of the Ethiopian Church at an interregional level known as the zämänä mäsafǝnt, the ›Age of Princes‹ or ›Era of the Judges‹. This tumultuous period lasted from 1769 – the year the nonaged Solomonic ruler, Mǝntǝwwab’s grandson Iyoʾas, was deposed and ultimately killed by a rivalling regional lord – to with the coronation of Tewodros in 1855. Stanley’s assertion that the chalice dates from the 15th century is thus off by a good three-hundred years: we can securely date it to the mid-18th century.
It is important to realize that both objects looted from Mäqdäla now exhibited in the V&A are tied to the same place, time and even historical personages: they had originated from Gondär, the capital of Ethiopia, and are tied directly to Empress Mǝntǝwwab and King of Kings Iyasu II of the mid-18th century. Both crown and chalice thus date to the phase of cultural and political prosperity immediately preceding decades of comparative chaos during the zämänä mäsafǝnt. Nearly a hundred years later, both of these objects connected to Gondärine authority had been taken to Mäqdäla by Ethiopian King of Kings Tewodros, from where they were taken yet again by the British shortly thereafter. They were thus doubly translocated: from Gondär to Mäqdäla, and from Mäqdäla to London. This double translocation shows how Tewodros’ local strategies to legitimize his kingship and the British intervention in Mäqdäla both laid the groundwork for the displacement and loss of hundreds of worldly and ecclesiastical treasures from Ethiopian history.
Tewodros II was born to parents of minor Ethiopian nobility in ca. 1820. During the zämänä mäsafǝnt, he rose to power as a rather unlikely candidate amongst a number of contenders for the throne of the largely fractured former empire. By 1855, when he was crowned King of Kings, Tewodros had set about unifying Ethiopia: he executed numerous military campaigns against regional rivals and enacted religious reforms that harshly persecuted some groups within Ethiopian Christianity. An additional strategy of legitimization was the consolidation of countless imperial treasures connected to preceding rulers of the Solomonic dynasty and especially the Gondärine court of Solomonic Ethiopia, to which Tewodros could claim a tenuous connection. The Solomonic dynasty had first come to power in Ethiopia in 1270. Since the 1330s, large parts of the highlands of the Horn of Africa had been consolidated under Solomonic Christian rule. This was the lineage from which Tewodros claimed descendance.
In the 1850s and 1860s, a period still marked by political rivalry and an oscillation between unification and disintegration, Tewodros carried off countless treasures from ecclesiastical libraries and treasuries connected to Solomonic sovereignty. In 1866, for instance, he sacked Gondär – which was held by political and religious opponents – and plundered the old capital’s churches (Crummey, Nosnitsin, and Sokolinskaia 2010). His loot was taken to Mäqdäla, a high flat-topped mountain and seasonal settlement which he developed into a near-impenetrable mountain fortress and temporary residence. Incidentally, Mäqdäla also served as Tewodros’ prison for political detainees, which included opposing important Ethiopian nobles, but also the European foreigners ultimately ›liberated‹ by the British forces. British interests thus centered on a place that coincidentally also held the vast majority of Tewodros’ consolidated treasures. Amongst other precious ecclesiastical items, over a thousand Gǝʿǝz manuscripts ended up in in the Mäqdäla treasury (Nosnitsin and Ancel 2014). The »thousand articles scattered in infinite bewilderment« on the »whole surface« of the citadel, as Stanley put it, had thus been brought from important Ethiopian religious centers to Mäqdäla only comparatively recently. The crown and chalice now on display in London would be examples of treasures likely looted by Tewodros himself only two years prior to the seizure of the stronghold by the British, which resulted in their eventual transfer to England. Stanley’s account thus provides incidental insight into Tewodros’ desire for tangible claims of Solomonic heritage.
Tewodros used ›local translocations‹ to construct and produce Solomonic identity. Not all of his precious items were recognizable as such to the British, however: Tewodros had also acquired countless documents pertaining to previous rulers, establishing what might somewhat anachronistically be termed Ethiopia’s first national archive – these would be »state papers«, »heaps of parchment royally illuminated« and »ambrotypes and photographs« casually mentioned by Stanley. Of little apparent value to the British troops, these papers were strewn all over the citadel – resulting in an unfathomable loss of cultural heritage, obliterated from the collective memory of Ethiopia.
Other treasures were recognized as such by the British. Two small late medieval enamels – which themselves are testament to much older, far-reaching transcultural connections of previous Solomonic rulers – show very different fates of connected pieces as a result of the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹. The first example is a painted enamel produced for a member of Emperor Lǝbnä Dǝngǝl’s court (1508—1540), possibly the Emperor’s mother. Made in Limoges in France in the early 1520s, it was imported to Ethiopia prior to 1530, opening up a window into the far-reaching collecting and patronage strategies of the medieval Ethiopian court. Sometime between 1855 and 1868, Tewodros had it brought – probably from a church in Goǧǧam, hundreds of kilometers to the west – to Mäqdäla. From there it was in turn looted by the English. It is now on exhibition at the British Museum (Af1868,1001.7). A second piece, also a painted enamel specifically manufactured with Gǝʿǝz writing in Limoges for the Ethiopian court in the 1520s, suffered a different fate: while it was amongst the hundreds of sacred and secular Ethiopian objects originally taken by the British from Mäqdäla, it was only locally displaced. A week after the sack of Tewodros’ stronghold, the British auctioned off hundreds of objects over the course of two days to raise prize-money for the troops. It is now in the possession of the Church of Giyorgis Dǝngǝlat, not far from today’s Eritrean border in Northern Ethiopia – in close proximity to the route the British took on their way back to the Red Sea (Krebs 2014, 389–428). It has been utterly removed from its original cultural context.
The arguably most stunning cultural loss that resulted from the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹ dates from the same time as the two painted enamels from France: the Kwǝrʿatä rǝʾǝsu, the so-called ›Imperial Icon‹. A panel painting depicting ›Christ crowned with Thorns‹, it was probably made in a Dutch workshop in the early 16th century and imported by a high-ranking Ethiopian noble prior to 1530 as part of a larger contemporary Ethiopian interest in ›exotic‹ Latin Christian religious material culture. From ca. 1600 onwards, it was kept in the royal palace in Gondär. The image was highly venerated: it was carried into battle by various 17th and 18th century Ethiopian rulers, mentioned in Ethiopian royal chronicles and had a major impact on local art. In 1868, Richard Holmes, an archaeologist attached to the British Expedition that sacked Mäqdäla, privately took the Kwǝrʿatä rǝʾǝsu back to England. It was never publicly displayed again, and has been rumoured to be preserved in a private collection in Portugal (Chojnacki 1985, 3–4; Bailey 1998).
By comparison, other items looted from Mäqdäla suffered a somewhat better fate: since Holmes, the man responsible for the disappearance of the Kwǝrʿatä rǝʾǝsu, happened to be an assistant in the British Museum’s Department of Manuscripts, the majority of the ransacked objects ended up in a number of British cultural collections. Some 350 manuscripts, eleven tabots – altarpieces made from stone or wood that represent the Ark of the Covenant, the centerpiece that sanctifies an Ethiopian church – as well as numerous processional crosses, robes, hangings and jewelry are still in the British Museum. Another 200 manuscripts are in the possession of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Cambridge University Library, the John Rylands Library in Manchester. Other objects of (religious) material culture such as exquisitely engraved hand crosses, jewelry and a dress belonging to Tewodros’ widow as well as the royal crown and chalice described above ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Calls for the return of the Mäqdäla treasures date back to the immediate aftermath of the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹ and came from both Ethiopia and the British government. On 30th June 1871, the House of Commons debated the sale of the chalice and crown described above within Britain, and whether these items – which had first been deposited unpaid-for in the British Museum – should be »purchased for the Nation« or should only be held until they »were restored to the individual who proved to be the strongest in that country«, i.e. Tewodros‘ successor. British Prime Minister William Gladstone himself condemned the looting of Mäqdäla, stating that he »deeply regretted that those articles were brought from Abyssinia, and could not conceive why they were so brought«, urging they should be sent back to Ethiopia. A year later, in August 1872, Tewodros’ successor Yohannes IV requested the return of the Kwǝrʿatä rǝʾǝsu and an important manuscript from the British crown. Only the manuscript, a copy of the Ethiopian dynasty’s foundational myth, was returned. In the 20th century, Ethiopian Empress Zäwditu and Emperor Haile Selassie effected the return of individual items, such as Tewodros’ crown, royal cap and seal. In 2007, the Ethiopian government formally but unsuccessfully requested the restitution of hundreds of objects held in British institutions. Individual items – such as a necklace, a scroll and a lock of Tewodros’ hair – were returned to Ethiopia by the descendants of Robert Napier, who led the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹, and the British National Army Museum respectively in 2018 and 2019. While concurrent calls to return all looted artefacts have gotten louder, the vast majority of Tewodros’ treasures remains in the United Kingdom. Some looted items, like the tabots, possess a huge inherent sanctity in the Ethiopian faith yet have virtually no use in a British museum context. Objects like the processional crosses displayed in London are preserved by the hundreds in Ethiopian churches. Others – like the textiles – meanwhile probably owe their continued existence to the fact that they were expertly preserved in an English museum (Gnisci 2018). In 2018, on eve of a special exhibition dedicated to the Mäqdäla artifacts on the 150th anniversary of the ›Abyssinian Expedition‹, the V&A first proposed instead the possibility of a long-term loan of objects to Ethiopian Museums. It remains as of yet unrealized.
Verena Krebs is W1 professor for “Medieval Cultural Realms and their Entanglements” at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany, and co-director of the Bochum Centre for Mediterranean Studies.
Sources and literature
Martin Bailey, The Kwer’ata Re’esu Brought to Light, in: The Art Newspaper IX (1998), 80.
Ewa Balicka-Witakowska, s.v. Crowns, in: Encyclopedia Aethiopica, edited by Siegbert Uhlig et al., vol. 1, Wiesbaden 2003, 822–824.
LaVerle B. Berry, s.v. Bǝrhan Mogäsa, in: Encyclopedia Aethiopica, edited by Siegbert Uhlig et al., vol. 1, Wiesbaden 2003, 534–535.
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Jacopo Gnisci, The Looted Ethiopian Artefacts That Ended up in UK Museums, in: Apollo Magazine, May 30, 2018, available online.
Verena Krebs, Windows onto the World: Culture Contacts and Western Christian Art in Ethiopia, 1402-1543. PhD thesis, Universität Konstanz / Mekelle University, 2014.
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Denis Nosnitsin/ Stephane Ancel, On the History of the Library of Mäqdäla: New Findings, in: Aethiopica 17 (2014), 90–95.
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Cite this article as:
Stanley: Coomassie and Magdala (1874), commented by Verena Krebs, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike
, published 20.04.2020.