The treasures of conquest

When visiting museums we’re often so impressed by the exhibits that we don’t stop to think how they came to be there. Sometimes they were “acquired” as “spoils of war” or, to put it more bluntly, by looting – although the guardians of the treasure haven’t always been keen to advertise the fact. Artifacts “came into the possession of…” or (my favourite) “fell into the hands of…”, as if from a tree or upper balcony.

treasure 1These cigarette cards issued by Churchmans in 1937 are a good example. All the loot was in the care of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, at the time. If you aren’t familiar with the period or its Imperialist wars, just follow the links.

The Golden Throne of Ranjit Singh.
The ambitious nature of the Maharaja Ranjit Singh [1780-1839], combined with his forceful character and military genius, earned him the title of “The Lion of the Punjab.” The throne illustrated was made for him after his accession to the throne of Zaman Shah, King of Afghanistan, whom he defeated in 1799. It is made of wood covered with richly-chased gold plates, analysis showing the metal to contain 97-75% of pure gold. The throne later came into the possession of the East India Company, becoming the property of the British Government after the Indian Mutiny [1857].

Gold treasures from the Burmese Regalia.
treasure 2After the third Burmese War of 1885-6, in which King Thibaw was decisively defeated, the Burmese Regalia were taken from the Royal Palace at Mandalay, passing into the possession of the Secretary of State for India and thence, in 1890, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. We illustrate two of the many magnificent objects from the Regalia on view there : left, a gold food-vessel in the shape of a duck, elaborately chased and set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds; right, a gold salver, 23¼ inches in diameter, bearing a 9-stone ornament in the centre.

treasure 3

Gold Crown and Chalice from Abyssinia [Ethiopia].
When the British military expedition to Abyssinia, under Sir Robert Napier, entered Magdala on April 13th, 1868, several of the Emperor Theodore’s treasures fell into Sir Robert’s hands. We show two interesting items of this treasure. The gold crown (on right) belonged originally to the Abuna or Head of the Abyssinian Christian Church, being subsequently appropriated by the Emperor Theodore [Tewodros II]. The chalice, of hammered gold, bears incised inscriptions recording that it was given by King Joshua (1682-1706) to the Sanctuary of Quesquam.

A few of the looted treasures have been returned to Ethiopia over the years. An association was founded in 1999 to lobby for the rest.

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