Disraeli's Abyssinian triumph

On 4 April, a report in The Daily Telegraph referred to a scheme being considered by the Victoria and Albert Museum under which Ethiopia would be allowed to loan some of the historic items brought from that country (then known as Abyssinia) 150 years ago after its defeat by British forces. In a letter published in the paper on 10 April, Alistair Lexden explained how Disraeli, prime minister at the time, relished this British triumph, and went on to counsel caution over the V & A’s loan scheme. The letter appeared under the heading “Pitfalls of loaning Britain’s Ethiopian treasure”.

SIR—This month, it will be 150 years since an Anglo-Indian expeditionary force stormed the Abyssinian fortress of Magdala to liberate the British consul and a number of others who had been held in chains for over six months by the Emperor Theodore II, unmoved by Queen Victoria’s requests for their release.

Benjamin Disraeli, newly appointed as prime minister, received news of victory early on April 26 1868, “gorgeously arrayed in a dressing gown and in imposing headgear”, as an awed cabinet colleague recorded. With characteristic hyperbole, he reported to the House of Commons that “the standard of St George was hoisted on the mountains of Rasselas”, and raised income tax from fourpence to sixpence to cover the cost of the campaign and the rapid departure of British troops, their mission accomplished.

Is it wise of the Victoria and Albert Museum to make the spoils of war available to the current Ethiopian regime, even in the form of a loan (report, April 4)? Guarantees of safe return could be hard to obtain and enforce, and other requests could follow. On no account should the Emperor’s necklace, presented to Disraeli, leave Hughenden, the house he adored, where it is now displayed by the National Trust, as he would have wished.

Lord Lexden
London SW1