It is a work of exquisite craftsmanship and an important symbol of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church: a gold crown, alloyed with silver and copper with filigree work and glass beads. Constructed of an inner raised and domed cylinder, with green fabric between the embossed tiers, the crown is completed with images of the Apostles. Once believed to be the royal crown of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II himself, recent scholarship now suggests that it was probably commissioned in the 1740s by the Empress Mentewwab and her son King Iyyasu II. It is believed to have been given as a gift to a church in Gondar, along with a solid gold chalice.
These objects have been on display at the V&A for the past 146 years. They are stunning pieces with a complex history. Taken by the British Army during the 1868 Abyssinian Expedition, a number of objects from Maqdala are now held across several British cultural collections. The crown and chalice have been on permanent display at the V&A since their arrival in 1872, most recently in the Sacred Silver galleries which highlight the role of precious vessels of gold and silver in religious rites and ceremonies.
Museums have a global responsibility to better understand their collections, to more fully uncover the histories and the stories behind their objects, and to reveal the people and societies that shaped their journeys. To this end, we want to better reflect on the history of these artefacts in our collection – tracing their origins and then confronting the difficult and complex issues which arise.
This vital process has started with Maqdala 1868, a free display in the V&A’s silver galleries opening on 5th April. It tells the story of the British Expedition to Abyssinia through around twenty objects relating to this significant moment in British and Ethiopian history. Even at the time, this episode was regarded as a shameful one. To secure the release of several British hostages imprisoned by the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier gathered together an expeditionary force of 13,000 British and Indian troops, 26,000 camp followers, and 40,000 animals.
In April 1868, the forces reached Maqdala, stormed the fortress, secured the release of the hostages, recorded the Emperor’s suicide (with a sketch) and took with them any items of value which could be auctioned off to raise money for the military. Under the stewardship of Richard Holmes, a manuscripts curator at the British Museum, the crown, chalice, and many other Ethiopian objects made their way back to England where they were deposited with various national museums.
As well as the military history behind the acquisition of these objects, the objects on display in Maqdala 1868 also reveal deeply personal stories. The display includes a dress and jewellery belonging to Tewodros’ widow, Queen Terunesh, who died only a month after her husband. Terunesh had asked that the British troops escort her to her native province of Semyen in order to protect her from Tewodros’s rivals, but she died from lung disease during the journey. After her death, her dress and jewellery were sent to the Secretary of State for India at the India Office in London. They were then given to the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A, in 1869.
Perhaps the most moving part of the Maqdala story is the fate of Tewodros’s son, Prince Alemayehu. Terunesh’s death left the prince an orphan at just seven years old. He was placed under the guardianship of a British army officer, Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy. Alemayehu was brought to England, where the government assumed responsibility for his care and education. Maqdala 1868 includes a photograph of Speedy and Alemayehu taken by the famous photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, on a visit to Queen Victoria’s Isle of Wight residence, Osborne House. Queen Victoria was particularly fond of Alemayehu, and was deeply saddened to learn that he had died in 1879 at the age of just nineteen. The inclusion of this photograph in the display juxtaposes Alemayehu with some of the other great treasures taken from Ethiopia, reminding us that not only material possessions were lost to the British forces.
As Prime Minister, William Gladstone condemned the taking of treasures from Maqdala, particularly the gold crown and chalice, and ‘deeply lamented, for the sake of the country, and for the sake of all concerned, that these articles … were thought fit to be brought away by a British army.’ He urged that they ‘be held only until they could be restored.’ In the display, visitors will be able to read these excerpts from Gladstone’s speech next to the Ethiopian treasures themselves, along with a number of other quotes from contemporary sources. These quotes are presented alongside present-day insights from members of the Ethiopian and Rastafari communities in London, which underscore the continuing significance of these objects to communities in Britain and beyond.
As custodians of these Ethiopian treasures, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, shine a light on their cultural and religious significance and reflect on their living meaning, while being open about how they came to Britain. Maqdala 1868 marks the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue about the history of these objects and their place in our national collection today.
The display has been organised in consultation with the Ethiopian community here in London, and is the result of strong collaboration, generous support and valued advice. I’d specifically like to thank His Excellency Dr Hailemichael Aberra Afework and the Ethiopian Embassy in London; members of the Ethiopian Heritage Fund and the Anglo-Ethiopian Society; members of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church; and members of the display’s advisory group.
I think this close collaboration really underscores the continuing significance of these objects to communities in Britain and beyond, whilst enabling a vital new understanding of the collection’s significance. With this important free display, we are pleased to share these objects with a new V&A audience, to encourage a better – and a wider – understanding about these objects’ difficult past and their rich Ethiopian cultural heritage.
Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A
Maqdala 1868 will run from 5 April 2018 to July 2019, in the Silver Galleries, Room 66. Admission is free.
2018 also marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Emperor Tewodros.