The Prince and the Plunder

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

Colonel Prideaux’s gospel, collected during captivity, last seen in Calcutta *

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A 17th century copy of the Gospel of St John

Where: Last heard of in 1883 when it was in the collection of Col W F Prideaux, who had been one Emperor Tewodros’s captives on Magdala. Current whereabouts of gospel unknown

Prideaux, wrote a letter that was printed in the September 1883 edition of the periodical The Bibolographer. He was replying to an earlier letter from a Mr Reade about a book that had been brought back by one of the soldiers on the Abyssinian Expedition.

Prideaux says in his letter that he brought back a 17th century copy of the Gospel of John. See the bolded passage in his letter below.

The Bibliographer
September 1883

“Ethiopic MSS. are not at all uncommon, and I believe a considerable number were brought to Europe by oflicers engaged in the Abyssinian expedition. During my confinement at Magdala, I collected several, but they were all lost during the confusion that attended the capture of the fortress, with the exception of one – a copy of the Ethiopic version of the Gospel of St. John, which I still have amongst my books at home. It is a small 8vo volume of the seventeenth century, to the best of my recollection, bound in boards covered with silk, with a small piece of looking-glass inserted in the inner cover, and a painted frontispiece. Mirrors, it must be remembered, are a greater rarity in Abyssinia than Ethiopic MSS. are with us. The book has a leathern satchel or case, and a Turkey-red outer bag to protect it on a journey. A large number of MSS. were collected in Abyssinia by M. A. ‘Abbadie, which are described by him in a Catalogue Raisonni. The MSS. in the Bibliotheque Nationale have been catalogued by M. Zotenberg, and those in the British Museum, which include the library of King Theodore captured at Magdala, by Prof. W. Wright, LL.D., wh(; would probably give Mr. Reade the information he requires, on application. The book which Mr. Reade describes appears to be a collection of prayers and intercessions addressed to the Holy Virgin, the saints, and the angels. Such books are not uncommon, but they rarely date beyond the sixteenth century.

“While on this subject, I may perhaps be permitted to cast a retrospective eye upon the literature that formed our intellectual pabulum during our enforced detention at Magdala, which lasted from July 1866 to April 1868. The equipment of myself and my companions, Mr. Rassam and Dr. Blanc, was so light that I doubt if it contained a single book which could come under the head of literature. We were therefore obliged to depend on the assistance rendered by our fellow-prisoners, Consul Cameron and the missionaries. To the former we were indebted for our piece de resistance, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and McCulloch’s Commercial Dictionary, as well as for a Russian dictionary and grammar, which served to while away many a heavy hour. The missionaries’ contribution to the menu consisted of an amusing work on Eastern travel, by a certain Gadsby, Bishop Gobat’s account of his journeys in Abyssinia, and Harris’s Highlands of Ethiopia. Add to these the evergreen Horace, which Captain Cameron supplied to the dessert in Anthon’s edition, and the bill of fare is complete. I must not forget a copy of the Amharic translation of the Holy Scriptures. Mr. Matthew Arnold said to me on my return to England, “What a wonderful Biblical scholar you might have become!” In the circumstances in which we were placed, and the abundance of leisure at our command, it would probably not have overtaxed Macaulay’s powers to have committed the whole of the Bible to memory ; but beyond attempting such a tour de force as this, I doubt if any of us would have been qualified to proceed much further on the thorny path of Biblical investigation and criticism, even allowing we had had the heart and the weapons needed for such a struggle.”

Calcutta. W. F. Prideaux.

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