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This post was inspired by @susanquinn’s recent book review of John Blashford-Snell’s From Utmost East to Utmost West: My Life of Exploration and Adventure, and her mention of JBS’s meeting with Emperor Haile Selassie in 1966.
The account of the meeting takes place in the first chapter, and I’m reminded of it by a recent event in the UK, which really ticked me off. (More about that in a minute.) It’s quite clear from the story that JBS had the utmost respect for the Emperor and that the respect was reciprocated, as when JBS writes that, Selassie “turned to me with a smile and said quietly: “I hope you will return one day and explore my Great Abbai.”
I knew he was referring to the Blue Nile, but this was like asking an average hill walker to climb Everest. Trying diplomatically to avoid making a full commitment, I replied: “That would be quite a challenge, sir.”
The eyes of the nearest being to a living god I had ever met seemed to bore into mine. He said nothing more but simply nodded, put out his thin hand, and shook mine with a noticeably firm grip.
That (on page four) was when I decided I was going to love this book. You see, “my” British Empire functioned like that. It was a world of tremendous mutual respect, and a world where friendships between people such as my father–a senior Colonial administrator–and local leaders, chiefs, and commoners were routine, reciprocal, genuine, and sometimes even life-long.
A few days ago, on the British Antiques Roadshow program, an “expert in ethnic, tribal, and folk art,” evaluated an item belonging to the granddaughters of a former Governor of both British Somaliland and Nyasaland–a golden robe given, along with a personal letter, to their grandfather, by Haile Selassie. The family said their grandfather, Sir Harold Kittermaster, had developed a close friendship with the Emperor in the 1930s.
Having estimated the value of the robe at about £4,500, this “expert,” one Ronnie Archer-Morgan asked, “So, if there’s a call for these things to be repatriated, would you be happy to do that?”
Unsurprisingly, this threw the granddaughters (who I bet have always been tremendously proud of Grandpa’s story, and who I’m sure weren’t expecting any question of this sort) into a bit of a tizzy, and they said they “absolutely would” and that they’d now have to “have a think” about what to do with the robe.
What a bloody patronizing question. And what a racist assumption, that the robe and the letter were not given freely as a gift to a friend by the King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Emperor of Ethiopia and (as Blashford-Snell points out) an honorary Field Marshal in the British Army, but that they might be some sort of “loot,” either stolen from, or coerced from an inferior by a superior, and that they might rightfully belong back in their country of origin.
I must confess, as I read the story, I accelerated–very quickly–straight from “miffed” to “a bit cross,” entirely skipping over “peeved” and “irritated” as I went.
Hanging halfway up my stairs is a coffee tray, about 27″ in diameter and made of silvered brass, with an intricate hammered design and decorative edge. I doubt it’s worth terribly much. But it, too, has a story.
It was one of two gifts given to my dad by Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Nigeria. The other was an elephant’s tusk, carved to show the Elephant’s Child stuck in the jaws of the crocodile. The two men exchanged other gifts over the years, and then there was the heavy silver ring he gave my mother–of whom Sardauna also thought very highly. He had one made for her, and one made for himself, and then he ordered the mold broken. In 1963, when one of Dad’s sworn enemies–who’d been trying to have the entire family killed (not a joke–we each had an armed guard who never left our side for about a year)–put about that Mum and Dad had been killed in a car crash (we were all in England at the time)–Sardauna wrote to my grandmother offering to adopt my sister and me, both of whom he’d given Hausa names when we were infants.
But that’s not the entire story of the tray and the tusk. The last part of it was Sardauna’s directive that Dad was to take them and keep them, and then–when Dad died–see that I got one and my sister got the other.
Now, I ask you, does that sound like some sort of conscripted behavior that this man–the holder of numerous and prestigious religious and civil titles, including Knight Commander of the British Empire–was pressured into by a Colonial oppressor?
I think not.
Things being what they are, and when the time came, my sister and I divvied up the spoils and she kept the ivory tusk in the UK, because I’d probably never have got it into the States, I took the tray, and we both ended up with a wonderful story and a treasured memory.
I daresay something similar in terms of friendship was at play between Emperor Haile Selassie and Sir Harold Kittermaster, something which prompted the gift of the robe, and the letter. Perhaps there was a gift given in return; we’ll never know. But it’s entirely possible that the Lion of Judah had some fond memories of his British friends just as Sardauna did of his. [That last, I know for a fact. We received a Christmas card from him (he was the fourth or fifth most influential Muslim in the country and belonged to the family which inherits the Sokoto Caliphate) in 1965, written in his signature green fountain-pen ink, and wishing us all a happy Christmas and New Year. By this time, we were in the States, and Nigeria had been independent a little over five years. Less than a month later, Sardauna was dead.**]
Let me be very clear, lest anyone mistake this post for an unqualified encomium to all things related to the British Empire from start to finish–it’s not. We can find plenty of low points to abhor, and plenty of high points to admire, and we may even find some things we agree should be repatriated because of the circumstances under which they were removed from their country of origin; however, I’m not going through an exhaustive list of either, any, or all in the comments. This post isn’t about the Koh-i-noor Diamond or the Benin Bronzes or the Elgin Marbles. This post is about small gifts exchanged between friends. And this post is about those friendships, formed between men from all corners of the earth, with little in common except their common humanity and manhood, their recognition of it in each other, and the ways in which those friendships and those gifts changed lives, even down through generations.
And, of course, this post is about the narrow-minded, shallow people who can’t set their racist biases aside for a moment, let alone for long enough to acknowledge that such things might be possible, and who diminish both themselves and the people they think they speak for and “help,” when they say the things they say.
Thank goodness for Cambridge professor David Abulafia, who has said such discussion is senseless, and that:
even for those who believe in returning objects, this simply doesn’t qualify because it was an open gift. It shows how people get caught up in a fashionable idea and they don’t actually think through the fundamental principles…Some of these completely unhistorical demands for restitution are extraordinary, it felt like it was the answer they were expected to give.
Speaking strictly for myself, and mindful of what I’ve read in the Telegraph and the Daily Mail about Antique Roadshow’s fast-pedaling of concerns of “reputational risk” when discussing the British Empire,” “public scrutiny,” and worries over “sensitive areas such as colonial history,” I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that we may have seen the last item of such provenance to be shown on this program.
That’s a pity. Because the country will get a little smaller, colder, more insular, more ignorant, and more unhappy as a result.
**Alhaji Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Nigeria, was assassinated in a coup on the night of January 15, 1966, along with Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first–and so far only–elected Prime Minister.Published in