The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

A manuscript of the Kebra Nagast – Ethiopia’s founding story – returned to Emperor Yohannes IV in 1872

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: An Ethiopian manuscript of the Kebra Nagast, or ‘the Glory of the Kings’

Where: Church of Ragu’el Entoto, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The book tells Ethiopia’s founding story, tracing the origins of the Emperors of Ethiopia from King Solomon of Israel and telling how the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Axum.

It was part of the original Magdala haul. But after petitions from Emperor Yohannes IV, Britain agreed to return it in 1872.

It was most recently recorded in 1975, in the church of Ragu’el Entoto, in the hills above the modern day capital, Addis Ababa – see details in provenance below.

The manuscript also includes The Book of Axum [Mashafa Aksum] , a collection of rules, ceremonials, history, property deeds and so on, that regard Axum and its cathedral. Also included are lists of Emperors, the Patriarchs of Alexandria and the Bishops of Ethiopia. Preceding it, ff. 129b-130a, are two diagrams showing the direction of the provinces of Ethiopia from Axum, the center of the empire, and the “chariot of the wind”.


William Wright’s Catalogue of the Ethiopic manuscripts in the British Museum acquired since the year 1847 lists the manuscript as OR 819 – part of the ‘Magdala collection’ – but says it was “restored to King John, the successor of King Theodore, in 1872”.

The manuscript is described in Addis Ababa in 1975 in Macomber, W. F., Getatchew, H., Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library., St. John’s University (Collegeville, Minn.)., & Hill Monastic Manuscript Library. (1975). A catalogue of Ethiopian manuscripts microfilmed for the Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, Addis Ababa, and for the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library, Collegeville. Collegeville, Minn: Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library, St. John’s Abbey and University.
The catalogue has these notes:
(1) Verso of the fore guard leaf contains the stamp of presentation (to the British Museum) by the Secretary of State for India in August 1868 , after the successful expedition against Emperor Theodore II ( 1855 – 1868 ), and the shelf number that the manuscript had while it was in the Museum, British Museum Oriental MS. 819.
(2) F. 163b: Note of J. Winter Jones, the Principal Librarian of the British Museum, stating: “This volume was returned to the King of Ethiopia by order of the Trustees of the British Museum – dated Dec. 14, 1872.”

The two letters that Emperor Yohannes wrote, one to Queen Victoria and the other to the British Foreign Secretary, in August 1872 are discussed in Ullendorff, E., & Demoz, A. (1969). Two Letters from the Emperor Yohannes of Ethiopia to Queen Victoria and Lord Granville. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 32(1), 135-142.
The official translation of both letters bears this the tail-piece: Translated by the King’s interpreter to “General” J.C. Kirkham by order of Yourness King of Kings at Adwa on the 10th day of August 1872′.
John C. Kirkham (d. 1876) served as a steward with the P & O line and soldiered in China under Gordon. In 1868 he joined the Napier expedition and, on its departure from Abyssinia, he offered his services to Dejazmatch Kassa (later Emperor Yohanes). He was emlpoyed as an army instructor and took an active part in several battles. It appers that the title of ‘general’ was conferred on him by Emperor Yohannes. Acknowledgements to Dejazmatch Zewde and Sir Duncan Cumming.

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