The Prince and the Plunder

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

A manuscript of the Life and Miracles of Takla Haymanot, with signatures of the Magdala prisoners (MS. 77)

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A “particularly fine” Ethiopian manuscript, probably early 17th century, including the Life and Miracles of Takla Haymanot, many illustrations and the signatures of the Magdala prisoners.

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

According to Edward Ullendorff’s Catalogue of Ethiopian Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library: Volume II: “Arthur Wellesley Ray no doubt acquired this MS. at Magdala and brought it back to Europe when Lord Napier’s Expedition returned. One the same page (f. 1a) we find the original signatures of the prisoners who had been detained at Theodore’s Court and were the object of the British Military Expedition:

H. Rassam
Laurence Kerans
W. F. Prideaux
J. M. Flad
H. Blanc
Mrs H. Rosenthal
H. Rosenthal
H. A. Stern

“The MS. is a particularly fine specimen of Ethiopian MS. art and is in a good condition. Purchased in 1893,” Ullendorf adds.

His catalogue 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 77 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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