The Battle of Magdala and the V&A

Ethiopian officials have demanded the return of all items of Ethiopian origin, from the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London. This follows a 2018 exhibition of Ethiopian artefacts at the V&A—the world’s largest museum of decorative arts—many of which were looted from Magdala. Fought in April 1868, the Battle of Magdala was between British forces commanded by Robert Napier, and the Ethiopian Empire led by Tewodros II.

With much of his empire in rebellion, Tewodros II had requested military assistance from various European empires—Russian, Prussian, Austrian, British, French—with no response. He imprisoned about three dozen European officials and missionaries in an attempt to draw attention to himself and his request. Instead, the British, supported by the Bombay Army, launched a punitive siege on the Emperor’s fortress at Magdala.

Napier and his men bombarded the fortress and burnt the city. Facing defeat and unwilling to be captured, Tewodros II committed suicide with his pistol—which ironically, had been a gift from Queen Victoria. His wife, Queen Terunesh, with her son, Alemayehu, were taken into custody by Napier to be sent to England. But the Empress never made it, dying shortly from illness. Alemayehu died a few years later at the age of 19.

Following their victory, the British expedition ransacked the Magdala fortress as “punishment,” plundering a large amount of treasure, manuscripts and many religious items. They required 15 elephants and nearly 200 mules to transport all this loot. These items were sent to England and are now at the V&A.

The V&A’s director has commented on the possibilities of establishing a “long-term loan with a cultural institution in Ethiopia,” but so far there is no mention of the outright return of these stolen items. An Ethiopian official has been quoted saying their government would not accept these items on loan.

By Nnenna Onuoha

(Photo: V&A Museum)

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