Items stolen from Ethiopia by British troops over the years are being repatriated after renewed pressure from Addis Ababa.
Most recently, locks of hair belonging to the widely revered Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros are slated for repatriation from the National Army Museum which claims the hair was donated by relatives of an artist who painted the emperor on his deathbed in 1969.
The museum now says it hopes the hair will be interred within the tomb alongside the emperor at a monastery in northern Ethiopia.
The strands of hair were among many items carried off by the British including crowns, scrolls and fine clothing after the so-called Battle of Magdala fought in April 1868 some 390 miles from the Red Sea coast.
The embassy commended the museum’s “exemplary gesture of goodwill,” adding that “a display of jubilant euphoria is to be expected when (the hair) is returned to its rightful home.”
Next on the list for repatriation are the bones of the emperor’s son, Prince Alemayehu. The prince, a descendent of Solomon, was taken to Britain by an officer, Tristam Speedy, who was paid to raise the boy, sending him to Rugby school then Sandhurst.
“At school he suffered racism, his letters show,” poet and author Lemn Sissay said. “He had to sleep on the floor at one point. He died at age 18 and was buried at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle at the request of Queen Victoria.
The decision to return the emperor’s hair is “a great start, both in encouraging the British toward looking into the possibilities of returning our looted antiquities and also the Ethiopian stakeholders whose decades-long, painstaking efforts actually can bear fruit,” Yonas Desta, director-general of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, told the AP.
The bulk of what was taken, however, remains in the hands of the descendants of the British soldiers, according to Alula Pankhurst, a former professor at Addis Ababa University and an expert on Ethiopian studies.
“Some items in private collections have already been returned but the bulk of the items are in public collections within the UK and those cannot be restituted without an act of Parliament, and that is something that requires a big change in popular opinion and a bill has to be presented by members of Parliament,” he said last year. “This is something that cannot be done overnight.”
Some in Africa expect the momentum to grow in repatriating heritage from institutions overseas.