The Prince and the Plunder

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

US President Ulysses S Grant’s Maqdala ‘bible’

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A 16th century manuscript “captured in the quarters of King Theodore” then given to US President Ulysses S Grant

Where: The National Museum of American History, Washington DC, USA

President Grant’s “Coptic Bible”, on the left: Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image # MAH-3759.

Robert Napier, the commander of the British force in Ethiopia, sent U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant a Maqdala “Coptic Bible” after the close of the campaign. According to Grant, the bible was “captured in the quarters of King Theodore”.

In 1885, the year of President Grant’s death, Mrs. Julia Grant and William H. Vanderbilt donated the manuscript along with many of Grant’s Civil War, World Tour, and personal relics and artefacts to what was then the United States National Museum, a body that was later incorporated into the Smithsonian Institution.

The U.S. State Department twice – in 1963 and 1967 – suggested returning the bible as a gesture of goodwill to Ethiopia. But it was rebuffed both times by the Smithsonian and other U.S. officials who brought up legal difficulties. See the correspondence below.

An assessment by J. E. Lodge, curator of the Freer Gallery of Art, in 1935 suggested that the manuscript contained the four Gospels as well as “a long introduction, the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus, the Eusebian Canons and a table of contents for each narrative”. Visiting Ethiopian officials later said it was “from the time of Emperor Sarsa Dengel, 1563-1597” and “threw light on the land records of the monastery from which it was ‘looted'”. Again, see the correspondence below.

The above photograph, showing the “bible” on the left, is from a glass negative in the Smithsonian collection.

Here is its current catalogue entry in the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian.

The correspondence around the gift is recorded in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 30: October 1, 1880-December 31, 1882, kept in the Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library in the Mississippi State University Libraries, and in the accession records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives .

On Sept. 14, 1868
US Secretary of State William H. Seward to USG.
"I have the pleasure to transmit to you a letter which has been received at this Department through the United States Legation in London, together with its accompaniment which is an Abyssinian book sent to your address by General Lord Napier of Magdala." [From the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant]
Nov. 12-18, 1878 
Grant was at Gibraltar - Grant dined with the governor, Lord Napier, joined a fox hunt, and reviewed British troops. [From the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant]
Jan. 16th 1882
To Robert C, Napier
New York City
"My Dear Lord Napier; As a slight return for the honor you did me, at the close of the Abyssinian War, in sending me the bible captured in the quarters of King Theodore please accept the accompanying volumes; Badeau's History of the Rebellion. The book I regard as very accurate so far as it treats of events. The author alone is responsible for what he says of individuals. Remembering with great pleasure our meeting at Gibralter, and hoping that I may yet have the honor of returning your hospitality in my own country, I am Very Truly yours U. S. Grant To Lord Napier of Magdala" [From the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant]
May 9, 1882
Robert C. Napier, Gibraltar, to Ulysses S. Grant.
"I have had the pleasure of receiving your kind letter of the 11 January together with the three volumes containing your History in connection with the gigantic Campaigns which you brought to so successful a conclusion. I shall read the work with the greatest interest and am truly obliged to you for the honor you have done me in presenting it to me. I most earnestly desire and hope that the wounds and sorrows, which such a conflict could not fail to entail, may be healed and that the union between the North and the South may year by year become cemented by forgiveness and kind feelings on both sides; and promote the happiness and prosperity of your great Country. Your visit to Gibraltar is remembered with great pleasure by Lady Napier and myself. With our kind regards to Mrs Grant and yourself . . ." [From the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant]
December 19, 1935

My dear Mr. Belote: -
Thank you for sending over the Ethiopian manuscript. I have examined it with interest, and only wish I were more familiar with the language; but even in my comparative ignorance, I have been able to assemble a few facts which you may not already have in your records.
In addition to the four Gospel narratives, the manuscript contains a long introduction, the letter of Eusebius to Carpianus, the Eusebian Canons and a table of contents for each narrative. The Eusebian sections are indicated throughout, and the lections are indicated and numbered. The text is written in Geěz, except for the last colophon and other later writings at the end of the volume which are in Amharic. The last twelve verses of St. Mark's narrative are included. There are many erasures and corrections, some by the original scribe and some by later hands.
There are 199 leaves, each measuring approximately 37 x 33 centimeters. There are 25 quires, 23 of which consist of eight leaves each, one of ten leaves and one of five leaves. of these quires, 17 containing the narratives of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke are numbered. The text is arranged in two columns to the page, each column averaging 21 lines. The length and level of the lines is determined by vertical and horizontal rulings, and the prickings for these rulings may be seen in the margin. The leaves have never been trimmed, and I think the volume has not been bound more than once, although the velvet cover and metal ornaments appear to be later than the original binding. Perhaps 17th to 18th century is a reasonable date for this manuscript, which I should suppose to be an excellent example of its kind. I return the volume herewith.
Yours very truly,
J. E. Lodge, Curator.
To: T. T. Belote, Esq., Curator of the Division of History, U.S. National Museum.
[From the Smithsonian Institution Archives accession records] 
August 2, 1963

TO: Dr. Carmichael Thru: Mr. Taylor
[Added in handwriting "Dr. Smith A.C.S." (spelling ?) and "RH.H" in a circle]
FROM: Wilcomb E. Washburn and Richard H. Howland - Department of Civil History
SUBJECT: Possible return of Coptic Bible to Ethiopia

On July 23, 1963, His Highness, Assrate Kassa, and two other Ethiopian officials, visited the Division of Political History and examined the Coptic Bible in the Grant-Vanderbilt collection. They were quite fascinated by it, and asked for photographs of various pages which threw light on the land records of the monastery from which it was "looted"-- to use the word of the Prince--by the English in 1868. The photographs are now being made. The Ethiopian party will return on August 8-9, to pick up the photographs.
Nothing was said about asking for the return of the manuscript, which dates from the time of Emperor Sarsa Dengel, 1563-1597, but from the tone and tenor of conversations with the Prince, it is possible that the return of the Bible may be requested, possibly in conjunction with the forthcoming visit of the Emperor Haile Selassie in the fall. We recommend that the matter be discussed at the highest levels and a plan of action decided upon in case the request is made. A condemnation committee could meet and recommend that the Bible be returned to the Ethiopian government. It was seized in the course of the 1868 English punitive expedition by Lord Napier and then given by him in 1878 to ex-President Grant, from whom it was purchased and given to the National Museum. We would recommend that the Bible be returned if requested.
The Bible and other articles in the Grant-Vanderbilt gift were accepted by a special resolution of the Senate and House of Representatives, approved August 5, 1886. Would it take another act of Congress to relinquish the Bible, as a gift of the United States to the Emperor of Ethiopia?
[Handwritten note from Taylor: It would be desirable to have a legal opinion on how to proceed if the return of the Bible is requested.]
[Handwritten note from ACS: Return of this item without a formal request would seen a proper gesture, if it can be done legally.]
August 6, 1963
Mr. E. James Adams 
Assistant General Counsel 
National Gallery of Art 
Washington 25, D. C.

Dear Mr. Adams:
I am enclosing a memorandum that I have just received concerning a Coptic Bible at the Smithsonian. My uninformed opinion is at variance with the tenor of this recommendation and I certainly would not favor taking any steps to suggest the return. The precedent of looking with doubt at the history of museum objects is dangerous.
May we have you helpful thoughts about this matter?
With best personal greetings.
Sincerely yours,
Leonard Carmichael 
August 13, 1963

Dear Dr. Carmichael:

Reference is made to your letter of August 6, 1963, with respect to a Coptic Bible at the Smithsonian Institution.

The Joint resolution of August 5, 1886, is as follows:

"Whereas Julia Dent Grant and William H. Vanderbilt, by deed of trust executed on the tenth day of January, eighteen hundred and eighty-five, presented to the United States. certain swords, medals, paintings, bronzes, portraits, commissions and addresses, and objects of value and art presented by various Governments in the world to General Ulysses S. Grant as tokens of their high. appreciation of his illustrious character as a soldier and a statesman: Therefore,
"Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the United States accept, with grateful acknowledgments, the said property and articles, more fully described in the schedule attached to said deed of trust, to be held by the United States and preserved and protected in the city of Washington for the use and inspection of the people of the United States.
"Sec. 2. That the said property and articles be placed under the custody of the Director of the National Museum; and he is hereby directed to receive the same for safe-keeping therein."

Under the Constitution (Art. IV, Sec. 3) public property cannot be disposed of without the authority of Congress. In my opinion, therefore, it would be sound for the Smithsonian to take the position that it cannot dispose of the Bible, which I assume is not surplus, in the manner proposed without the specific consent of Congress.

I am certain that the other Trustees and the officers of the National Gallery of Art would agree with you that it is dangerous to look with doubt at the history of museum objects.

If there is any further information I can furnish

you please do not hesitate to let me know.

With all best wishes,

Sincerely yours, 
E. James Adams 
Assistant Secretary

Dr. Leonard Carmichael 
Secretary Smithsonian Institution 
Washington 25, D. C.
September 24, 1963

TO: Dr. Carmichael Through: Dr. Smith, Mr Bradley
FROM: Frank A. Taylor
SUBJECT: Coptic Bible

A Mr. McClanahan of the African Desk, State Department (182 5555) phoned to say that the Assistant Secretary of State, Mr. Williams, wished to recommend that the Coptic Bible in the Smithsonian's Grant Vanderbilt gift be presented by President Kennedy to the Emperor of Ethiopia on the occasion of the Emperor's visit Tuesday or Wednesday of next week.

The Bible was seen here by the President of the Senate of Ethiopia and he informed officers of the State Department that the people of Ethiopia would be greatly pleased to have the Bible returned and that he thought it would be a fine gift from the President to the Emperor.

Mr. McClanahan said that if we wished he would obtain a letter from Mr. Williams requesting the Bible. Mr. McClanahan also stated that in the opinion of Ambassador Korry, who is in Washington in advance of the Emperor's visit, the return of the Bible would be a fine gesture of friendship. 

Attached is Mr. Adams' advice that the Smithsonian take the position that it cannot dispose of the Bible--without the specific consent of Congress. [Handwritten note: This opinion should be followed.]

In view of the language of the Joint Resolution placing the Bible under the custody of the Director of the National Museum for safekeeping therein, I respectfully request that I receive written instructions for the record with regard to its disposition, if it is decided to remove it from the National Museum.

Our Division of Ethnology expressed little interest in the Bible, except to have a microfilm of it and to state that its return might make field trips in Ethiopia easier.

Our Division of Political History has little interest in it except as a part of the Grant gift and the general reflection in the Bible's history of events of the mid-19th century.

As a museum director, I would regret to see the precedent established of selecting objects from the national collections to be used as gifts of state. The next step would be the return to our states of objects originating in them.

I promised Mr. McClanahan that someone would phone him about this today.
September 26, 1963

This was agreeably settled by Sec. Carmichael by telephone. We keep the Bible.

F.T. (?)
January 24, 1967

Mr. Ripley
THRU: William Warner

Kenneth Whitehead

State Department Request for Ghe'ez (Ethiopian) Bible in the Custody of the Smithsonian

You may receive inquiries either from the State Department or the White House concerning a Ghe'ez (Ethiopian) Bible in the custody of the Smithsonian.

Last week Mr. Matthew Looram, State Department Country Director for Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan, called to inquire about the possibility of using this Bible as a gift to be presented by President Johnson to the Emperor Haile Selassie during the state visit of the latter in February. The Bible was removed from Ethiopia in 1869 following the British punitive expedition against the Ethiopian Emperor Theodore; the leader of this expedition, the British General Napier, later presented this Bible to General U.S. Grant at Gibraltar during Grant's world tour. Mr. Looram described members of the White House staff as "enthusiastic" over the possibility of returning to Ethiopia this Ethiopian "national treasure" during Haile Selassie's visit.

Upon examining the record, I find that a similar request for this Bible was made by the State Department in 1963, during a previous visit by Haile Selassie. At that time it was determined that the Bible, part of a collection of memorabilia which had belonged to General Grant, had no particular scientific interest for the Smithsonian and thus no objection was raised to giving up the Bible on these grounds. A question was raised about the possibility of establishing an unfortunate precedent of selecting objects from the national collections to be used as gifts for chiefs of state.

The primary reason the Bible was not given up in 1963, however, was the determination that the Smithsonian had no legal power to dispose of it in this manner. The Bible, along with the other objects belonging to the late President Grant, was presented to the United States by a deed of trust executed by Julia Dent Grant and William H. Vanderbilt on January 10, 1885; by a Joint Resolution dated August 5, 1886, the Congress accepted the gift of the objects which had belonged to Grant and placed them "under the custody of the Director of the National Museum." The Director was "directed" by this Congressional resolution to receive them in order that they might be "preserved and protected in the city of Washington for the use and inspection of the people of the United States." Because of the clear intent of this language, the Smithsonian took the position in 1963 that it could not dispose of the Bible without the specific consent of the Congress.

I have raised this question again with Mr. Powers. He confirms that, according to the language of the Joint Resolution, the Bible, while it appears to be U. S. Government property, is not the property of the Smithsonian and could not legally be transferred to the State Department or to the White House to be presented as a gift of state. Only an examination of the original deed of trust giving the Grant objects to the United States would disclose whether even the Congress had the power, by another Joint Resolution, to dispose of this single object from among all the objects in the Grant collection, according to Mr. Powers; in any case, with less than a month remaining before the arrival of Haile Selassie, getting such a Joint Resolution through Congress would be highly problematical. Mr. Looram has been informed of the Smithsonian position in the matter.

ce: Mr. Bradley
Mr. Taylor
Mr. Powers
Miss Weiss

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