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UK returns looted Emperor’s hair

UK returns looted Emperor’s hair

The lockof hair taken from EmperorTewodros II and stored in a British War Museum for a total of more than 150 years ended as it was handed back to the Government of Ethiopia this week.

The National Museum will accept the hair that will be kept in a secure location until it is taken to the Mahbere Selassie Monastry in Qwara to be buried with the remains of the emperor.

This, in addition to a call from French President Emmanuel Macron to return all stolen African artifacts to their origins has sprung hope that more artifacts might be headed back to Ethiopia, including the body of Prince Alemayehu, only son of Tewodros, who is buried inside a castle in Great Britain. 

A British artist removed the lock of hair as he was painting the emperor who was on his deathbed. The lock of hair was part of the National Army Museum collection.

British forces had looted Ethiopian treasures and religious artifacts following the battle that are now in British museums. The Victoria and Albert Museum currently has 20 Ethiopian artifacts on view it has offered to lend Ethiopia for a limited amount of time. The British Library also has religious manuscripts.

Ethiopia has appealed for the return of these items since 2008. Ethiopian Ambassador to Britain FessehaShawel told The Art Newspaper there are 1500 Ethiopian items in the UK.

Minister of culture, tourism and sportHirutKassaw accepted the lock from the National Army Museum and brought it back to the Ethiopia and called for other British institutions to return items taken during the Mekdela expedition.

It is to be recalled that the V&A Museum offered to loan items to Ethiopia claiming they will be more accessible to an international audience if they remained in British possession.


The handover occurred in London in the presence of government officials and hundreds of Ethiopians who had been pressing for the return of the belongings to Ethiopia from various British museums.  Among these people are the British poet, LemnSissay and others.

Most critics have used the excuse of lack of infrastructure and museums and the capability of Ethiopia to host them as the main worries they have for the return of these artifacts to Africa. 

Britain is known to have many artifacts taken from Africa, in what is referred to as a state-sanctioned looting during the colonization era. In his state visit to Ethiopia, President Macron highlighted the importance of culture and promised to support tourist attractions such as Lailbella and others.

Ethiopia has been struggling to advocate for its cultural interests in the past, notably failing to protect the patent rights of teff and giving a chance for European entrepreneurs with little connection to the country to own it, while wedging a belated and little fight within European courts.

Emperor Tewodros’s choice of suicide over surrender to the British forces made him a symbol of resistance and Ethiopian pride. The battle of Mekdela was the result of the emperor holding Europeans hostage following a disagreement with Queen Victoria.

Contributed by Hiwot Abebe and Samuel Getachew