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Trinity asked to give back Ethiopian 'booty'

The Sunday Times 08 April 07


TWO leading academics have said Trinity College Dublin should consider returning historic manuscripts looted from Ethiopia by the British Army in the 19th century.

They say at least five of 13 Ethiopic documents in the university library can be linked to the plundering of Magdala in 1868 by British soldiers. More than 400 manuscripts and dozens of artefacts were seized in the raid, with 15 elephants and 200 mules used to transport them away.

The calls have been made by Professor Richard Pankhurst, son of the suffragette Sylvia and a long-time campaigner for the repatriation of Ethiopian treasures, and Dr Elene Negussie, a lecturer at UCD, whose father is Ethiopian.

Negussie has discovered that two manuscripts in the TCD library appear to have been purchased at a two-day auction following the Magdala raids. They were bought by Lieutenant Francis William James Barker of the Royal Artillery, who signed his name and the date on the manuscripts in pencil. He sold them to Trinity in 1905.

"It is reasonable to think that these manuscripts can be linked to the auction on April 20 and 21 1868 after Magdala was captured," Negussie said.

The British Museum came into possession of most of the Ethiopian treasures sold at the auction. Some 200 volumes were subsequently bought by the Bodleian library in Oxford, Cambridge University library and other British collections.

There is growing international pressure to return such loot, with Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, among those supporting a campaign led by the Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet).

Some material has been returned. Ian MacLennan, an Irish doctor, bought a holy Ethiopian Tabot, a replica of the biblical ark of the convenant, at Maggs Bros book dealers in Mayfair in 2003. He returned it to Addis Ababa where it was presented to the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

Another replica of the ark, stolen from Magdala, was discovered in a Scottish church in 2001 by a priest. It was handed back to a group of Ethiopian priests and officials at a formal ceremony in Edinburgh the following year.

Negussie has suggested to Trinity that it launch a digital photo project in order to make copies of its documents available to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in Addis Ababa.

"They were receptive to that suggestion," she said. "What is important is that these cultural organisations establish direct partnerships, to make sure information is going to the right place."

In a co-authored article in this month's Village magazine, Pankhurst and Negussie say the first step is to allow Ethiopian scholars access to manuscripts in Ireland. "Written in Ge'ez, an ancient language still used in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the manuscripts are of little use to scholars outside Ethiopia. They are, however, essential for the study of Ethiopia's history and culture," they say.

"The likes of Yale university have provided microfilm of all manuscripts in their custody directly to the institute. TCD should follow this example by initiating a digital photograph project.

"The second step is to consider whether some of the manuscripts in Ireland those that carry the stigma of loot -should be returned."

Trinity College said yesterday that it has worked closely with the institute over a number of years. "We are aware that the origin of Ethiopic manuscripts is linked to European expeditions of the 19th century. We are not aware as yet that manuscripts in our collection can be definitively traced to the British Abyssinian Expedition in 1868, but are very willing to co-operate with academic colleagues to establish their exact provenance," it said.

The library has made microfilm copies of Ethiopic manuscripts and sought to supply these to the institute. It would be happy to provide digital copies if asked.

"The college has not received a request for the return of the manuscripts," it said. "Any such request would be considered. It is our policy to adhere to ethical standards in regard to curatorial responsibilities."

Several manuscripts in the Chester Beatty library in Dublin have also been linked to the plundering of Magdala. In 2002, Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, visited the museum and was presented with a microfilm of manuscripts dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

Asked if he would prefer to take home the originals, Zenawi said that duplicates of many of his country's art treasures could be found in Ethiopia. Where none existed, microfilm was a "second-best option".

Italian fascist forces also looted Ethiopia in the 1930s, and the Axum obelisk was among the artefacts they brought back to Rome. It was flown back to Axum and reassembled two years ago, but has yet to be re-erected.

Negussie said: "Not all Ethiopian manuscripts are loot. We are not looking for short-term or instant solutions, and we are open to debate on what should happen.

There is an ethical question on the manuscripts that can clearly be linked to Magdala. What is just as important is to establish partnerships between Irish academies and the institute in Addis Ababa.

"It recently secured funding for a new library in the former palace of Haile Selassie, the last Ethiopian emperor."

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