The Prince and the Plunder

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

Category: Crowns

The emperor’s gold and silver crown or cap

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A crown or “tarboosh” cap made of silver and gold, said to belong to Emperor Tewodros

Where: The Royal Collection, Britain

The catalogue entry, which has no image, describes: “an Abyssinian crown composed of eight silver, shaped-rectangular linking sections, each overlaid with gold filigree and inset with silver studs, with a circular finial from which hang 24 chains ending in cone-shaped finials.


“Belonged to Tewodros II, Emperor of Abyssinia. Taken after Tewodros’ defeat at the 1868 Battle of Magdala and sent by General Sir Robert Napier to Queen Victoria with Tewodros’ robes, seal and slippers (RCIN 62108). These items were presented to the queen at Windsor Castle by Lieutenant Colonel T.W. Milward on 18 June 1868.  They were subsequently sent for inclusion in a display of ‘Royal Treasures from Abyssinia’ at the South Kensington Museum, where this crown was described as a ‘TARBOOSH’ or close-fitting cap, mounted in silver filigree’ (Spottiswoode, A Guide to the Art Collections of the South Kensington Museum, 1872, p.20). 

“Illustrated in Edwin Arnold, ‘Theodore The King’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol. 225, 1868, p.381.

“Loaned to the South Staffordshire Industrial & Fine Arts Exhibition, Molineux House, Wolverhampton, in 1869.

“Displayed in the North Corridor at Windsor Castle (no.2083), where it was incorrectly described as the crown which ‘belonged to The Queen of Shoa… presented at Buckingham Palace in 1843 by Sir William (then Captain) Harris’.”

The emperor’s ‘rather barbaric’ crown

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

What: A silver gilt crown with glass decorations returned to Ethiopia in 1924

Where: Unknown

The British Government agreed to return this Maqdala crown to Ethiopia during a state visit by Ras Tafari Makonnen (the future Emperor Haile Sellassie, who was then Regent and Heir to the Throne).

Ras Tafari Makonnen left Addis Ababa in April, 1924, starting an historic visit to Palestine, Egypt, and Europe to mark Ethiopia’s entry into the League of Nations.

The Regent’s eventual arrival in Britain, quite unexpectedly, and by a strange quirk of official British thinking, opened up the question of the loot which the Napier expedition had taken from Maqdala, Emperor Tewodros’s capital, over half a century earlier.

The British Government was unaccustomed to dealing with women who were rulers in their own right. The Foreign Office was therefore at a loss how to honour Ethiopia’s reigning woman ruler – Empress Zawditu.

Britain, having, as they believed, no suitable decoration for the Empress, someone in the Foreign Office had the bright idea that she should instead be given “Emperor Tewodros’s crown”. The brainwave was duly conveyed to Mr. Ramsay Macdonald, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of Britain’s first Labour Government. He gave it idea his full support.

On 7 July, the very day of Regent Tafari’s arrival, one of the Prime Minister’s aides, Mr F.F. P. Adams, of the Foreign Office, wrote a “Very Urgent” letter on the matter to the Secretary of the Board of Education. This was because the latter was responsible for the Victoria and Albert Museum, in South Kensington. This institution, together with the British Museum, was one of the two principal repositories of the loot from Maqdala.

He wrote: “In view of the ineligibility of women for the highest British Orders, such as those which have been or about to be conferred upon the Ras Taffari, the bestowal of an inferior decoration on the Empress might be misinterpreted; it is, therefore, considered necessary in the circumstances to give her a present. It is thought that the only gift which would give her any real satisfaction, and which would also appeal to all classes of opinion in Abyssinia, would be the restoration of the Crown of Emperor Theodore, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Whatever artistic interest may attach to this exhibit can be but small in comparison with its historic and sentimental value for the Abyssinians, and it is considered that the restoration would give that country more solid satisfaction and gratification than any gift which could be made to them by any other country”.

On 11 July officials of the Foreign Office rushed off to speak with Sir Amherst Selby Bigge, of the Board of Education, from whom they learnt, to their surprise, that there was, not one crown, but two, both of which had been taken from Maqdala.

A Foreign Office official reported: “It appears that there are two crowns, the first a highly ornate and rather barbaric headgear is listed in the Museum as the imperial crown and if it is decided to return it to the Empress, it would probably be possible to do so by arrangement with the Secretary of State for India who, it appears, lent it to the Museum.

“The second crown, though less showy, is from an artistic point of view the superior article. It is listed in the Museum as the crown of the Abouna, but it appears open to doubt whether it is not really King Theodore’s crown. This second crown it will be impossible to restore, as nothing short of an Act of Parliament could get it out of the possession of the Museum; besides to restore it would create a very difficult precedent. We would be bebattled with demands to restore the Elgin marbles to Greece, not to mention other objects of interest which have been acquired from time to time as a result of military operations”.

He continued: “”If you think, after inspection, that the first crown… would serve the purpose in view and would not actually whet Abyssinian appetites for more and lead to demands for the second crown and a valuable chalice which we acquired at the same time, we will take the matter up with the Secretary of State for India. If, however, you are satisfied that nothing but the second crown… would produce the desired effect in Abyssinia then I am afraid we must let the whole matter drop”.

What Mr. Murray, most remarkably, did not say, but what we now know, is that the two crowns were of entirely different composition. The first crown, which he proposed sending as a gift to Empress Zawditu, was silver-gilt, with coloured glass decorations, whereas the second, which he wanted to retain in Britain, was made of gold, and therefore presumably infinitey more valuable.

This latter crown, according to Sophia Shirley of today’s Victioria and Albert Museum, is made “mainly of high carat gold (more than 18 carat) alloyed with silver sand copper”, and, according to Louise Hofman, also of the V. & A., weighs no less than 2,488.8 grammes.

On 14 July, 1924, which was a full week after Tafari’s arrival, the Foreign Office accordingly rushed off a letter to the India Office. Emphasising once again the need for urgency, it stated that King George V would be granting their distinguished Ethiopian visitor a farewell audience the following Friday, and that they were: “anxious, if possible, that on that occasion His Majesty should be able to inform the Ras that it is the intention to present the Empress with this crown, which has great sentimental value for the Abyssinians”.

The Secretary of State, as expected, duly gave his consent, on the following day, 15 July. The “rather barbaric” crown was then packed at the museum that same day – and was therefore not in fact seen by the Regent, or any of his compatriots, in the course of their visit.

The proposed repatriation was accordingly announced by King George, in a brief farewell speech to Ras Tafari, on 18 July 1924. The King is quoted in Emperor Haile Sellassie’s later “Autobiography” as saying, “We are returning to you the crown of Emperor Theodore which the commander of the British army at the time of the Magdala campaign had brought back”.

The Foreign Office decided that, to attain maximum publicity, the crown’s presentation should be carried out by the British Minister in Addis Ababa.

Final restitution was in fact delayed, for almost a year.

It’s current whereabouts are unknown. Professor Richard Pankhurst – the son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and the founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies – believed it was plundered again by Italian forces who occupied -parts of Ethiopia during World War 11.