“A lock of hair unlocks a story”

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the return of Emperor Tewodros’s hair by a British Museum

By Alula Pankhurst

This week witnessed a rare historic event. One hundred and fifty years after Emperor Tewodros chose to commit suicide rather than give himself up to the British forces, the UK National War Museum handed over two pieces of Atse Tewodros’s hair, to H.E. Dr Hirut Kassaw, Ethiopia’s Minister of Culture. The ceremony took place at the Museum in London on Wednesday 20th of March in the presence of H.E. Ato Fisseha Shawel the Ethiopian Ambassador to the UK and the Director of the United Kingdom’s National Army Museum, Brigadier Justin Maciejewski DSO MBE. Among other dignitaries was Lemn Sissay, the Chancellor of Manchester University, who tweeted the succinct title of this article.
This is a small but important step and a welcome goodwill gesture, resulting from persistent diplomatic initiatives of the Ethiopian Government and its Embassy in London. During her visit to the UK last year Dr Hirut Woldemariam, the Minister of Culture protested that “Displaying human parts in websites and museums is inhumane”. In response the National Army Museum the same month removed the image of the hair stuck on a letter from Emperor Tewodros bearing his seal from their display and their website.
The Emperor’s plaits
The classical images of Atse Tewodros portray him, as also Atse Yohannes, wearing his gungun plaits. Ethiopians will therefore be saddened to hear that the two bits of hair that have been returned are only small snippets. So how did they find their way to the UK and the National Army Museum? and what happened to the rest of his shurrubba?
When the British troops finally stormed the Amba of Meqdela, on the 13th of April 1868 the first soldiers of the 33rd Regiment came across Atse Tewodros who had just shot himself. They only realised it was the Emperor, who was wearing plain clothes on top of his royal clothing, when they saw lying by his side the pistol that Queen Victoria had sent him with the following inscription on a silver plate:
“Presented by VICTORIA Queen of Great Britain and Ireland to THEODORUS, Emperor of Abyssinia As a slight token of her gratitude for his kindness to her servant PLOWDEN 1864”.
The conquering soldiers showed little respect for the deceased body of the Emperor, tearing parts of his bloodied shirt to take as souvenirs. In his book A History of the Abyssinian Expedition, published a year later Clements Markham wrote:
“A crowd came round the body, gave three cheers over it as if it had been that of a dead fox, and then began to cut and tear the clothes to pieces until it was nearly naked. The days of chivalry are gone!” (1869, p.352).
Frederick Myatt in his book March to Magdala concludes:
“Even Theodore did not escape the souvenir hunters: his body was left exposed for some time, during which fragments of his clothing steadily disappeared until it was practically left naked.” The corpse was then placed in a more secure situation” (1970, p.166).
The mystery of the Emperor’s hair: how many locks and where are there?.
In some of the sketches of the deceased Emperor he seems to have plaits while in others he is clean shaven or with cropped hair, suggesting his locks had been cut. Who were those who cut it and when did they do it? Markham writes in describing the deceased Emperor’s body:
“The hair was much dishevelled, crisp and coarse and done in three plaits, with little stumpy tails. But it had evidently not been dressed or buttered for days”.
So according to this source the Emperor had three plaits. Atse Tewodros’s chronicler Aleqa Taye at the end of his Chronicle notes that the Emperor’s burial was delayed by a day as the Europeans wanted to draw sketches. And indeed several sketches were made. However, although the Emperor’s corpse was carefully examined to ascertain that his death was a result of suicide, strangely no photograph seems to have by taken by the Royal Engineers, who did, however, take a picture of his son Leul Alemayehu.
Portraits of the deceased Emperor
Richard Pankhurst in an article on depictions of Emperor Theodros in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies published in 1887 describes five sketches of the deceased Emperor
One of these sketches by a British officer Major Leveson was the basis for an engraving that appeared in the Illustrated London News on 30th May 1868. In this depiction there is no sign of the Emperors tresses and he is portrayed with short cropped hair. The author adds in brackets:
“(It should be noted in this connection collectors among the British soldiers are known to have cut off some of the dead monarch’s hair, one piece of which is preserved in the National Army Museum in London)”.
Another engraving appeared in the French journal Le Tour du Monde of 1869 engraved by a Frenchman named Bayard apparently based on an English sketch. One of the most interesting sketches of the Emperor on his deathbed was made by Caption Frank James, who later produced a beautiful watercolour that can be seen on the National Army Museum website. In this Tewodros is portrayed lying on a bed made with interlaced leather straps and four posts, inside a hut with the roof and door visible. Tewodros has one eye still open, and a sad expression with a knitted brow. Most interestingly his plaits are clearly visible. What is particularly significant is that, according to Philip Marsden in his book The Barefoot Emperor, Captain Frank, who was one of the first to reach the body of the Tewodros, wrote to his mother:
” I send home to the girls a real lock of Theodore’s hair which I cut off myself and to you my dear mother, a little coin” (2007, p. 336).
We therefore know that by his own admission Captain James cut at least one lock of hair. His painting of Tewodros on his deathbed (and several other beautiful paintings of the expedition and the storming of Magdala) are in the National Army Museum. Moreover, since the Museum in its Press Release of March 4, responding to the repatriation request, stated that one of the locks of hair in their possession “was given to the Museum by a family related to an artist who painted the Emperor on his deathbed”, we can safely assume that this lock was donated by the family of Captain Frank. The provenance of the other lock remains a mystery. If the assumption that several soldiers cut locks at souvenirs is correct, there may well be more hair in public and private collections in the UK that could and should be returned.
The revealing tale of two sketches by Sir Richard Holmes
Two very different sketches of the Emperor on the day he committed suicide on 13 April 1868 were produced by Sir Richard Holmes, who was commissioned by the British Museum and accompanied the expedition to purchase artefacts. Sir Richard was also a well-known artist, who was a frequent exhibitor at the Royal Academy, the Grosvenor and New Galleries. The sketches were said by several of the Europeans who knew Tewodros personally to be very accurate in their depiction. A postcard of one of these has the caption in italics attributed to the Times correspondent: “An admirable likeness of him”.
In the first sketch, which Holmes apparently produced just fifteen minutes after his death, the Emperor’s plaits are still visible with a line at the front. The Royal Engineers took a photo of the sketch, which is in the album of the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. (I am most grateful to the Embassy, which kindly allowed me to take the photograph reproduced in this article). The photograph of the sketch is also reproduced in several books including The Abyssinian Difficulty by Darrell Bates. Another version of this sketch produced into a postcard by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company has the caption “Theodore / Taken at Magdala 1/4 of an hour after his death – By Mr. R.R. Holmes”
In Holmes’s second sketch produced the same day the Emperor’s hair seems to have been cut off. One version, which is in the British Museum collection, has as a caption “Theodore Emperor of Abyssinia sketched immediately after the capture of Magdala 13 April 1868 by R.R. Holmes F.S.A. Archaeologist attached to the Expedition”. Interestingly the description on the British Museum website states: “Head of King Theodore with short upstanding hair, lying back after death, with one eye opened”.
A welcome first step towards restitutive justice. What next?
After 150 years at least two pieces of Emperor Tewodros’s hair have now finally been returned, thanks to the National Army Museum transcending an historical injustice through a welcome act of restitution.
However, the remains of his son Leul Alemayehu remain for now buried outside St George’s chapel in Windsor Castle. The British Museum has at least nine sacred tabots belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that it has agreed never to display or show to anyone. Given the mission of museums to inform the public and the sacrilegious nature or retaining these holy objects, what is the point of a UK museum retaining these in its custody? This should be the next stage of the campaign for the restitution of the Meqdela treasures.