A LONDON museum said on Monday it will return to Ethiopia locks of hair allegedly taken by British troops from an emperor who committed suicide rather than be captured more than 150 years ago.
The National Army Museum will repatriate the hair, cut from the head of emperor Tewodros II, following a formal request from Ethiopia in 2018.
‘We believe the Ethiopian government claim to repatriate is reasonable and we are pleased to be able to assist,’ said Terri Dendy, the museum’s head of collections standards and care.
She added the museum had reached the decision after spending ‘considerable time researching the provenance and cultural sensitivities around this matter.’
‘[It] is very much based on the desire to inter the hair within the tomb alongside the emperor,’ Dendy said, adding that Tewodros was entombed in Trinity Monastery in northern Ethiopia.
The museum noted it was returning the items on the basis they are ‘human remains’.
It acquired the two locks in 1959 — one of which was framed with a letter and the emperor’s seal — from the family of an artist who had painted the emperor before his death in 1868 as British soldiers closed in.
The Ethiopian embassy in London hailed the move as a ‘commendable deed.’
‘This exemplary gesture of goodwill … signifies the dawn of a new level of shared understanding in our complex history,’ it said in a statement.
The embassy said ‘jubilant euphoria … is to be expected when it is returned to its rightful home in Ethiopia.’
It said officials will hold talks with museum staff on Thursday about repatriating the hair later in March.
Ethiopa believes British soldiers removed the locks from Tewodros — a Coptic Christian who had ruled the country then known as Abyssinia since 1855 — after discovering his body inside his fortress at Magdala.
As they closed in, the emperor committed suicide with a pistol that had been a gift from queen Victoria, according to historical accounts.
The troops were on an expedition to free European hostages, including British consul Charles Cameron, taken by Tewodros in anger at London’s refusal to help in wars with his mostly Muslim neighbours.
The soldiers also looted an 18-carat gold crown, more than 500 ancient manuscripts and a painting.
Ethiopia has demanded the return of the most significant of these ‘treasures of Magdala’, which are housed in British institutions, including London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
The requests mirror those of numerous African countries who want art and treasures taken during their colonisation by European powers to be repatriated.