British Museum Returns Emperor's Hair!

Mar 21, 2019 By Mehek K. Writer
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The National Army Museum in Britain will be returning a piece from its collection to Ethiopia. It’s not a traditional painting or sculpture, but two locks of hair belonging to Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia. 

The British also took many of Ethiopia’s treasures, including a gold crown and wedding dress that were placed in the museum, and will be returned along with the hair.

The museum believed the hair and treasures were important to their collection due to their historical ties to the Battle of Magdala. But the Ethiopian government believed it was inhumane and asked for the hair back to be left at the emperor’s burial grounds in the Trinity Monastery. 

Ethiopians dressed in their national colors celebrated on Wednesday when the National Museum handed the remains to Hirut Kassaw, Ethiopia's minister of culture and tourism. 

The Battle of Magdala

Emperor Tewodros II is considered the first modern ruler of Ethiopia. In his brief reign from 1855-1868, he unified the country by bringing together the various kingdoms. He tried replacing the feudal system with one based on merit and taking power away from the church. Both these were extremely unpopular and led to rebellion. 

Tewodros II reached out to Queen Victoria and the British Empire for help. When his appeal went ignored, the short-tempered Emperor imprisoned British envoys and missionaries. The British forces, with help from a rebel kingdom, attacked and defeated the Emperor's army at the Battle of Magdala in Northern Ethiopia in 1868. Rather than give himself up to the British after his mountain capital was captured, Tewodros II chose to die. 

The British looted treasures and artifacts from the palace, which they carried out on 15 elephants and 200 mules. A British soldier cut the locks of hair from the head of Emperor Tewodros II -- these were later donated to the National Museum by his descendants. Emperor Tewodros’ seven-year-old son was also kidnapped during the battle and died at age 18 at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. There is a campaign to return his remains to his home country as well.

Debate: Who Has The Right?

Countries like Britain and France had colonial roots in many African and Asian countries. During their rule, they either seized artifacts or took them as spoils of wars, and brought them to their own countries where they are displayed in museums.  

Over the years, European museums have received requests for the return of artifacts. The European museums consider the artifacts as important to their own history. They also believe that the treasures are better cared for in Europe and can be viewed by millions of visitors. 

France recently conducted an independent review of its looted treasures and decided to return 26 artifacts to the country of Benin in Africa.

The British Museum, which is home to very unique collections, has denied requests. One such case is an ongoing fight to have the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum returned to Greece. The museum claims that its collections are protected by law, namely the British Museum Act of 1963. Any restitution would require new laws to be approved by the British Parliament and the general public, and approved by the museum's board of trustees. The only exceptions are artwork stolen by Nazis or human remains. 

However, African and Asian countries believe that as a show of goodwill and reparation for the past, items belonging to their history ought to be returned. They reject the suggestion from some European museums who are willing to loan artifacts, saying they should not have to borrow back stolen treasures. 

What do you think? Who should have ownership of looted treasures?

Sources: AtlasObscura, Britannica, BBC, Reuters, theartnewspaper