The Prince and the Plunder

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

Mr Reade’s prayer book, last seen near Dublin, ‘picked up after the sack of King Theodore’s palace’

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: An 86-page Ethiopian vellum book, possibly of prayers, with “quite beautiful” writing

Where: Last heard of in 1883 when it was in the possession of a George H. Reade of Greythorn, Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire, Dublin). Current whereabouts of the book unknown.

Reade wrote a letter that was printed in the June 1883 edition of the periodical The Bibliographer, looking for information on an 86-page Ethiopian book that had come into his possession via the mother of a soldier on the Abyssinian Expedition.

Col W F Prideaux, who had been one Emperor Tewodros’s captives on Magdala, wrote back with some information and suggestions in the September edition of the Bibliographer.

Read Reade’s description of the book and his account of where it came from in his letter below.


The Bibliographer
June 1883

“It is not often, in these active and energetic times, when antiquaries, bibliographers, and bibliomaniacs ransack every likely and unlikely spot of earth in search of literary food for their cravings, that even a black-letter volume of the fifteenth century — much more a true and veritable Eastern vellum manuscript — turns up to delight their eyes and reward their labours.

“Mount Athos and Mount Sinai, and many another venerable monastery, have given up their treasures ; and that most felicitous labourer, Constantine Tischendorf, has borne away the palm — the prize of all prizes, in the Sinaitic Uncial Manuscript. Yet even now, still from some unexpected quarter and most unlikely locality, a dingy black-letter volume turns up to enrapture the bibliomaniac eye. Perhaps few places in the world would be deemed more unlikely to contain such a gem as a time-stained, double-columned vellum manuscript than “The Dark Continent”.

“It is not, however, from the travels and researches of a Livingstone or a Stanley, a Speke or a Baker, that the subject of this notice has appeared. In the late Abyssinian war, in Magdala, a British officer picked up a strange-looking brown object in a dark leather case ; this proved to be the much-worn satchel which contained a small vellum volume. Amazed to find such a thing in such a place, he brought it away with him, and eventually upon his return to England presented it, as a memorial of the siege of Magdala, to his mother. The whole of its value to this good lady consisted in its being a proof of her son’s gallantry. Accordingly she carefully locked it up in her cabinet of curiosities, where it safely remained from that time until now, unnoticed and almost forgotten. The volume consists of eighty-six pages, of a very thick vellum of sheepskin, each page containing two columns, written in clear, bold, and large manuscript in red and black, both colours as distinct and clear as when first laid on. It is in the Ethiopic tongue, and in bibliomaniac eyes a gem ; the pages are eight and a half inches long by four and a half inches wide, and two inches thick. And though stained by time the writing is perfectly distinct, and those pages which have many passages rubricated, quite beautiful. The form of the letters gives token of great antiquity, many of them differing from any alphabet that I have the power to refer to, and some of them not found at all. So that after some toil I was only able to surmise that the first words were, “In the name of the Father,” gathering from thence that it was a religious work. I brought it to the professor of Eastern languages in Trinity College, Dublin, who informed me, “It is not one of the languages I teach.” I then brought it to the professor of Hebrew (Regius), who also informed me that he knew nothing more about it than that it was Ethiopic. Hoping to find that it was a manuscript of the Gospels of very early date – both from the antique appearance of the vellum, the form of the letters, the careful writing, and also from the city in which it was found, the royal residence of a semi-Christian king in the heart of Ethiopia, — I had a page photographed, and forwarded it to Doctor Krapf, of Stuttgart. After some time he informed me that the page sent contained prayers for deliverance in adversity. The book is not bound, but two rough boards of palm-tree wood, cut out as if with a hatchet, are fastened by a small twisted rope like whipcord, made of coir or cocoa-nut fibre, or some coarse hemp. The cover or case is made of coarse leather, which I have been informed is of rhinoceros hide, and much abraded, as it was evidently slung over the back of the owner for carriage, something like the old “cumdach ” of the Irish manuscripts of the Gospels, as described by Sir William Betham and Dr. Petrie. I believe it to be of the tenth century.”

George H, Reade
Greythorn, Kingstown

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