Robert Napier led the ‘Abyssinian Expedition’ in the Battle of Maqdala, 150 years ago. The Battle was a decisive moment in history, resulting in the suicide of Emperor Téwodros II. In the melee, the British Army looted the Emperor’s citadel, procuring several Ethiopian articles which were either auctioned off to collectors or found their way to British museums.
Today, miles and decades from home, these artefacts, a dress belonging to the Emperor’s widow and a crown amongst others, are displayed in Maqdala 1868, an exhibition which is currently running at the Victoria and Albert Museum until June of next year.
The news of the exhibition came a few weeks after I took the train from Oxford to London to finally see, in the flesh, Tipu Sultan’s Tiger, an automaton shipped to England from Tipu’s summer palace after his execution and the fall of Srirangapatna in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799.
It is a thing of awesome beauty. The contraption is simple in its operation but profound in its effect: a crank handle on the side of the Bengal tiger, when turned, produces a wail from the ‘European’ redcoat and a growl from the organ inside the tiger’s body. The message it sends is clear: Don’t mess with the tiger of Mysore.
But the automaton soon became a site of political contention. After Tipu’s death, his Tiger travelled to the Company’s East India House at Leadenhall Street in London where the organ inside the Tiger’s body was uncased and access was offered to the English public who filed in to play ‘God Save the King’ or ‘Rule, Britannia!’ Its new British custodians might have stood at a distance from the crowd congratulating themselves on how they had managed to turn the tables. Its image became steeped in the idea of cultural superiority.
William Gladstone was severely critical of the objects displayed in Maqdala 1868 and the nature of their reprimand. Perhaps, it is this sense of shame that encouraged the V&A to promise to lend the loot to Ethiopia on a ‘long-term loan’. The director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, called this a ‘close collaboration’ between the two nations.
However, when it comes to Tipu’s Tiger, the shame of the English is difficult to ascertain. Gladstone’s famous words, “Justice delayed is justice denied”, will seem a tad dramatic. Perhaps it is not something quite as grandiose as justice which is my concern. An admission of shame or even an apology might be a suitable alternative to justice. But in the vast majority of cases this admission has been considerably delayed. At least there has been an acknowledgement of the unfairness of stripping Maqdala of its treasures.
In Maqdala 1868 there are excerpts from Gladstone’s speech, but surrounding Tipu’s tiger there is little to provide evidence of any repentance, only further acquisitions, Tipu’s pistols, a brooch from him turban, all of which might have been taken off Tipu’s corpse by a British soldier. Hunt’s framing of V&A’s willingness to loan Ethiopia the artefacts as a ‘collaboration’ seems a polite strategy to maintain a status quo. But, at least, we have been promised that the Maqdala articles will see a return to their homeland, if only as a loan.
One might ask why I have singled out the Tiger when there is a wealth of other treasures which must return to India. It is partly personal, having grown up on the image of the Tiger, so iconic and recognisable, like the Peacock Throne or the Koh-i-noor.
But it is something else as well. There is something emblematic and heart-breaking in the transformation of this icon of resistance into a circus plaything acting as a token of native weakness.
Despite the generosity of V&A’s conservationists, I cannot divorce the idea of theft from the Tiger or any of Tipu’s other belongings. It is time, perhaps, that the V&A extend a similar offer to India as they have to Ethiopia.
The people of the present may not be able to speak for the looters, but such theft should not sit untarnished in our museums, labelled quietly as an ‘acquisition’. We should not be allowed to forget where these acquisitions came from and the shameful history that lies behind them.