The National Army Museum has quietly removed from display a 19th-century looted lock of hair which the Ethiopian government has requested back as a national treasure.
The Ethiopian Orthodox church says the religious icons are still sacred objects to millions of Ethiopians. It came from the head of the Emperor Tewodros II, who shot himself at the end of the British invasion of Ethiopia in 1868 rather than being taken a prisoner. Tewodros’ clothes were torn from him and the braid was cut off and taken to the UK, along with hundreds of objects pillaged by an expeditionary force under the command of Lt Gen Sir Robert Napier.
In 1868, the military expedition was sent to Africa to save British hostages, among them, was the British consul who had been kept in chains for more than two years. After the British army destroyed the emperor’s Maqdala mountain fortress, it brought back treasures that were eventually deposited in various British institutions. The lock of hair from the head of Ethiopian emperor has been held at the National Army Museum in Chelsea for years.
The ethical side of the historical relics
In 1999, Ethiopian authorities have already sent the request to return the relics. In 2108, the lock was quietly removed from view following a visit in April by the Ethiopian ambassador, who made an official request for braid’s return. Ethiopia wants the braid to be interred with the rest of the Tewodros II’s remains at his final resting place at the monastery of the Holy Trinity at Quara.
The National Army Museum declined to comment on Monday while the Ethiopian Embassy in London confirmed that a restitution request has been made additionally to the April request when the Victoria and Albert Museum announced that a gold crown was among treasures that could be returned on long-term loan.
The Ethiopian government is calling on the British Museum and other UK custodians of treasures seized at Maqdala to follow the V&A’s example. Part of the problem is that institutions like the British Museum do not have legal powers to deaccession. However, the historians are united in their opinion that similar campaign will have some effect even if relics will never be back. At the very least, the campaign will foster greater knowledge of peoples’ past and encourage a greater awareness of countries’ unique cultural and religious heritage.