The V&A is to stage an exhibition of looted treasures from Ethiopia, reviving a diplomatic row over a controversial episode in British military history.
The royal and religious artefacts were plundered during the Battle of Maqdala in 1868, when a British expeditionary force laid siege to the mountain fortress of Emperor Tewodros II in what was then Abyssinia.
So enormous was the haul that 15 elephants and 200 mules were required to carry it away.
Ethiopia has repeatedly asked for its return, but the pleas have gone unanswered.
The V&A’s new director, Tristram Hunt, has decided to “shine a light on this collection’s controversial history” and reopen the debate by putting 20 objects on show to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle.
They include a gold crown embossed with images of the Apostles, a sold gold chalice, a selection of jewellery and a wedding dress thought to have belonged to the emperor’s wife, Queen Terunesh.
The display will also include the text of a speech given by William Gladstone to Parliament in 1872, in which he “deeply regretted” that the treasures had been taken from their homeland. The British “were never at war with Abyssinia”, he said, expressing sorrow that items so sacred to the Abyssinians “were thought fit to be brought away by the British army.”
Announcing details of the exhibition yesterday, Hunt said: “As custodians of a number of important Ethiopian objects taken from Maqdala by the British military 150 years ago, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, reflect on their modern meaning, and shine a light on this collection’s controversial history.”
He is also “open to the idea” of a long-term loan of the objects to Ethiopia for the first time.
A V&A spokesman said: “In this exhibition we will be frank about how these objects came into the collections – that they were war loot.”
In 2008, Ethiopia’s then president, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, wrote to the V&A, British Museum, British Library and Cambridge University Library seeking restitution.
“Ethiopians have long grieved at the loss of this part of their national heritage. Ethiopians feel that this act of appropriation had no justification in international law. I feel, therefore, that the time has come for the return of Ethiopia’s looted treasures,” he said. His efforts failed.
The 1868 expedition led by Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Napier was mounted after Tewodros, a Coptic Christian ruler, took European hostages including the British Consul, in protest at Britain’s refusal to acknowledge his requests for military assistance against his enemies.
He was defeated – committing suicide rather than be captured – and his fortress ransacked, along with a church housing precious manuscripts.
They were auctioned and many items bought by the V&A and the British Museum. Others were given to Queen Victoria and remain in the royal collection.
The exhibition will feature a photographic portrait taken by Julia Margaret Cameron of Prince Alemayehu, the emperor’s son, and will tell his tragic story.
Tewodros committed suicide during the battle rather than be taken prisoner. His seven-year-old son was transported to Britain, where he was introduced to Queen Victoria. He spent nine miserable years at Rugby School and less than a term at Sandhurst, before dying of pleurisy at 18 in the home of his old tutor in Yorkshire.
Victoria wrote in her diary: “It is too sad! All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him… His was no happy life.”
The exhibition has been organised in consultation with the Ethiopian embassy in London, members of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, representatives from the Rastafarian community and Ethiopian historians.
The Association for the Return of the Magdala Ethiopian Treasures (Afromet) campaigned for many years. Its leading light was Dr Richard Pankhurst, son of Emily Pankhurst and founder of the Institute for Ethiopian Studies, who died last year.