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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Challis

Towards Reconciliation? Colonial Plunder and Legacies of Maqdala in Lancaster

Last Monday I visited the City Museum in Lancaster and popped into the King’s Own Regiment Museum; mainly as my son was excitedly explaining different kinds of guns (based on Fortnite knowledge) to granny. Granny had spotted a display and called me over to look at it. ‘Isn’t that what you wrote about?’ she asked. There were a couple of display boards on Maqdala 1868, which my colleague Lucia Patrizio Gunning and I had written about in two essays (Planned Plunder and The Plunder of Maqdala). I have also previously blogged about finding traces of the campaign and Prince Alamayu on display in London in two different galleries.

Lancaster’s King’s Own regiment (1680-1959) had been mostly based in India during the mid nineteenth century. Due to the proximity of Ethiopia (then known to the British as Abyssinian) to India via the Arabian Sea, it was mainly the British Indian Army and regiments based in India that were sent on a campaign of retribution for the taking of European hostages. The panels about the ‘Campaign’ in the museum were very text heavy and have been produced online here. but reproduced some fascinating photographs taken by the regiment.

What was particularly striking were the letters home from Lieutenant Herbert Charles Borrett to his new wife Annie. On 14 April, after the fall of Maqdala and the death of the Ethiopian Emperor Tewedros, he wrote:

I find that everyone's feelings are the same, at first you expect to be killed, but in a few minutes, when a few showers of bullets have whizzed past you and you are untouched, you become as collected as if nothing but a common parade was going on. You feel no compunction in taking human life, because you know if you don't kill the enemy, the enemy will kill you; but passing over the battlefield several hours after the engagement and when you have sobered down, is indeed a fearful thing.

And yet this feeling did not stop Borrett taking a ring from a dead Abyssinian soldier, which the panel said was in the display case behind and is listed on the website as ‘Ring taken from a dead Abyssinian soldier by Lieutenant Borrett. Accession Number: KO0467/04’. This understanding of the enormity of the carnage does not stop the soldier taking part in the plunder post-battle. It is this juxtaposition of text with object and the reality of what happened that almost literally displays the violence involved.

Except it doesn’t. The display case behind had a cover over saying ‘We are sorry that you cannot see this display case as it is currently being redisplayed.’ This items listed as taken in the plunder of the fortress at Maqdala include a beautiful Coptic parchment strip of St Mark’s Gospel and a Bible. (These are all online if you scroll down the museum display page). Fortunately, the ‘Part of handkerchief taken from the body of King Theodore after he killed himself - stained with his blood. Accession Number: KO0229/15’ or ‘Two pieces of cloth from the tent of King Theodore. Accession Number: KO0327/02A-02B’, which Andrew Heavens notes in The Prince and the Plunder, pages 209-210, are not online.

This ‘redisplay’ is presumably linked to the recent funding that the museum has been awarded by Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund via the Museums Association for ‘“Abyssinia: re-appraising the legacy of the King’s Own Royal Regiment”. A project aiming to work with members of the Ethiopian Community in North-West England to explore items relating to the Napier Expedition to Abyssinia 1867-68.’ From reading the job description funded by this award, it looks like the museum is ‘linking the local with the global’ as recommended as a way through thinking about our imperial past across very different audiences by Jake Riddle and Sunder Katwala in their Paul Hamlyn funded report Inclusive Histories. This useful report from British Future pointed out that many people who do not feel ashamed about the British Empire (only 1 in 4 do according to the report) and that confidence building is needed to support museum and other heritage professionals to talk about these emotionally difficult and violent areas of history.

Crucially the report stresses this is important for front of house staff – who are often volunteers – and bear the brunt of the questions and visitor reactions. For example, last Monday I asked about the display and was told it was complicated and different people have different opinions. I was not told about this funded project, which I later looked up online. Communication is difficult and my experience of both front of house and working on projects is that information is often not shared, even in small teams. Internal and external dialogue matters.

There is much to do, not least in changing the language of the interpretation. It always astonishes me how ‘primitive people’ is used in descriptions while then showing exquisitely crafted objects that are admired as art, though mean so much more to the people they are taken from. There is also a statement that ‘looting was not allowed’ though it was with strict rules and sharing of booty as debates in Parliament from the time show. I very much look forward to returning to the museum and finding out what steps have been made to bear witness to this colonial violence and hear about how the Ethiopian community inform future display and / or restitution.


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