The Prince and the Plunder

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

Tag: Victoria & Albert Museum – London

A 17th century parchment with sacred drawings, from the emperor’s palace

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What: Drawings of St George and the Dragon , the Virgin and Child, Christ and His Disciples, in Gethsemane, Christ scourged, Christ mocked, the Crucifixion and Taking Down from the Cross, likely taken from a manuscript

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

The catalogue entry reads: “This drawing was brought from the Emperor Theodore’s Palace at Magdala on its destruction by the Abyssinian Expedition, 1868. Purchased from Mr McNaughton, 4 Oct 1920.”

Museum number:
E.3937-1920

Service book including Song of Songs

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What: Service book, containing psalms, biblical hymns, Song of Songs and praises of the Virgin Mary

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

The catalogue entry has several pictures and says it was from a church in Magdala and purchased from W.H. Saunders.

It describes a parchment book of 150 leaves with 18 coloured head-pieces and a leather carrying case.

NAL accession number: MSL/1869/185 
Object number: 38041800153454 (book); 38041800156218 (case)

Prayer scroll with red-tinted drawings

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What: A prayer scroll with three red-tinted pen drawings

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

The catalogue describes: “Prayers, charms and incantations for diseases and evil spirits: Manuscript”. 

Label and date:
“Maqdala 1868 display, 5 April 2018 – 30 June 2019″

Museum number:
MSL/1869/187

Queen Tirunesh’s dress

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What: The dress of Queen Tirunesh, Alamayu’s mother

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

Overview: Part of a collection of the queen’s clothes, jewellery and other personal possessions. It was kept aside after she died on the march back from Maqdala and given to the museum by the Secretary of State for India.

The dress of Queen Tirunesh, Alamayu’s mother, in the Victoria & Albert Museum
Image © The Victoria & Albert Museum

On one hand, it’s tragic how little we know about Queen Tirunesh, beyond her family line and the fragments of myth. On the other, there are few great figures from history that we can get to know so intimately, if we take the time to look through her possessions. Take this dress.

All the accounts agree she was young when she married Emperor Tewodros, very young indeed, maybe 12. She would have grown into her role from young girl to young woman and you can see her do it in real time through the adjustments and tweaks in her gown as she got bigger and taller. The dress is 49in long, including a whole extra panel extension sewn in at the bottom. I can hardly imagine it fitting an average 12-year-old now, so Tirunesh must have been tiny when she first put it on.

The V&A, which suggests the dress was part of the queen’s dowry, was kind enough to let me have a closer look a few years back when it was in storage. The first thing that stood out were the cuffs, so narrow that no one but a child could have got their hands through the holes.

There are lots of details to admire, particularly the beautiful silk embroidery on the cotton that loops down the torso like a giant neck-lace. (Silk wasn’t produced in Ethiopia so there is a good chance the thread came from an imported piece of cloth that was painstakingly unravelled, according to academic Nicola Stylianou in her paper ‘The Empress’s Old Clothes’.) But it is the overall form that lingers. Even when the dress is laid out on a table, you can get a very real idea of the young woman who wore it and the life that she lived.

It may have been a luxurious garment when she got it. Over the years though, as Tirunesh waited neglected at the top of her mountain fortress, it got more than its fair share of regular use, down to the stains and marks of wear and earth and the ragged hem. Tirunesh was very much an empress who had to walk on the ground.

Details:

Accession number 399-1869

More images and detail on the museum’s website – https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O69064/kamis-unknown/

Further reading:

Dress in Detail From Around the World. By Rosemary Crill, Jennifer Wearden and Verity Wilson. V&A, 2002

The Empress’s Old Clothes: Biographies of African Dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By Nicola Stylianou. From the book Dress History : New Directions in Theory and Practice. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, pp. 81-96

Ethiopian Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By Alexandra Jones. African Research & Documentation, no. 135 (2019): 8-24. Read the full text here.

‘Set of Articles of Deceased Queen of Abyssinia’ and related correspondence in British Library collections at IOR R/20/AIA/503.

Silk: Fibre, Fabric and Fashion. Edited by Lesley Ellis Miller and Ana Cabrera Lafuente with Claire Allen-Johnstone, Thames and Hudson Ltd. in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom, 2021, p. 446-447

Queen Terunesh’s necklace

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What: Silver necklace of two bands of 8 thin silver chains, said to belong to Queen Terunesh, Alemayehu’s mother

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The Accessions Register reads: ‘Neck ornament. Silver plaques with cord ornament connected by eight minute chains, belonging formerly to the Queen of Abyssinia. Abyssinian. Given by the Secretary of State for India. April 28th 1869’.

See ‘Set of Articles of Deceased Queen of Abyssinia’ and related correspondence in British Library collections at IOR R/20/AIA/503.

Displayed in “V and A Africa: Exploring Hidden Histories”
15th November 2012- 3rd February 2013

Museum number:  405-1869

Silver and gilt bells

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What: A bunch of 31 silver and gilt bells strung onto a wire, said to have belonged to Ethiopia’s Queen Terunesh

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The catalogue entry says the bells were “formerly in the possession of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh, second wife of the Ethiopian emperor Tewodros II (Theodore) and mother of the prince Alamayou … Given by the Secretary of State for India. April 28th 1869.”

See ‘Set of Articles of Deceased Queen of Abyssinia’ and related correspondence in British Library collections at IOR R/20/AIA/503.

Museum number:
412-1869