1860-1899 | Burning towns and cities | Ethiopia | Looting and plunder

British Army loots and burns the Ethiopian city of Maqdala

King Tewodros II (Theodore) had committed suicide.
Wood engraving – out of copyright- via the National Army Museum

13 April 1868

On 13 April 1868, after slaughtering the Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros’s army three days earlier, 12,000 British troops, under Lieutenant-General Robert Napier, seized the fortress city of Maqdala. The emperor committed suicide and most of his soldiers deserted before the British troops arrived. That is perhaps fortunate as the Redcoats shot at sight any man found in possession of a weapon, before turning their focus to the ransacking of the emperor’s palace, the royal treasury and a nearby church.  Once the looting was complete four days later, Napier ordered his men to blow up the fort, before burning down whatever buildings that still remained standing in the city.1

There was so much loot that fifteen elephants and two hundred mules had to be employed to transport it as far as the plain of Dalanta where it was auctioned off.2 Some eventually found its way into the British, the National Army and the Victoria and Albert museums. On returning to England, Napier presented Queen Victoria with gifts of  priceless ancient manuscripts, the emperor’s gold crown and his seven year old orphan son, Alemayehu. A few days later, the general was ennobled by a grateful nation, becoming baron Napier of Magdala. His statue still stands at the Hyde Park end of Exhibition Road in London. As for the young prince, he died eleven years later of pleurisy and was buried in Windsor Castle. Subsequently, there have been many requests to the Queen and Buckingham Palace for the return of his remains to Ethiopia, but they have all been either ignored or refused.3

Prince Alemayehu three months later –
Julia M Cameron via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, Memorandum Submitted by the Association for the Return of the Ethiopian Maqdala Treasures accessed online at https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmcumeds/371/371ap61.htm
  2. “V&A’s Ethiopian Treasures: a Crown, a Wedding Dress and other Loot,” BBC News Online 4 April 2018 accessed online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-43642265
  3. Maaza Mengiste, “This Ethiopian Prince was Kidnapped by Britain: Now it must Release Him,” The Guardian Newspaper, 7 September 2015 accessed online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/07/britain-kidnapped-ethiopian-prince

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