The Prince and the Plunder

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

Ethiopian manuscript, including Guba’e Salamta, miscellaneous hymns and miracles (MS. 54)

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: An Ethiopian manuscript, probably late 18th century, including Guba’e Salamta, miscellaneous hymns and miracles

Where: Bodleian Library, Broad St, Oxford OX1 3BG

MS 54 “originates from the Church of Madhane ‘Alam (f.3a, top), and may be assumed to have been brought to this country by a member of Napier’s British Expedition in 1867/8,” according to Edward Ullendorff’s Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: Volume II. “Purchased in 1938,” he adds.

Ullendorf’s book describes 66 manuscripts in the Bodleian collection. He writes: “On the whole, it is safe to assume that the majority of the MSS here described, were acquired in Ethiopia by individual members of Napier’s expedition in 1867-8. After the death of their owners many found their way to auction sales and were then purchased by the Bodleian Library.”

Rita Pankhurst’s paper The Library of Emperor Tewodros II at Mäqdäla is more conservative and lists MS 54 as one of five manuscripts in the Bodleian Library that certainly or very likely came from Magdala, on top of six manuscripts that probably did.

She adds: “Thirty-two other manuscripts in the Bodleian could conceivably have also come from Maqdala although there is no evidence to this effect.”

Many of the Western academics who got a first look at the manuscripts were scornful.

Here is Jacob Leveen on some of the manuscripts listed in Ullendorff’s catalogue:

“Of the 66 items catalogued here, a large proportion consists of copies of those magical scrolls, which are perhaps too well represented in the libraries of Europe. They offer a melancholy spectacle of the depths of credulity and superstition to which Abyssinians sank. The hagiographical literature is no less depressing, with its exhibition of ‘Mariolatry run mad’ (as Willliam Wright so aptly called it).” [Jacob Leveen’s review of Ullendorff, E. (1951). Catalogue of Ethiopian manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: 2 7. Oxford: Clarendon Press]

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