Every year during Black History Month, it is said that Black History should not be reduced to just 31 days. It is in that spirit that I would like to pay tribute to one of the recently departed Champions of Afrikan-Caribbean history in the UK; Gabre Menfeskedus aka Ras Seymour Mclean. The epic nature of his life and works would easily be the subject of best seller novels and big blockbuster movies if told correctly. Far beyond his individual life, it is a story deeply embedded in the experience of Black people worldwide.
The name Ras Seymour became a matter of national attention in the 1980s when it came to light that he had lead a monumental effort to reclaim over 2000 books, manuscripts and artifacts previously stolen from Ethiopia well over a century ago. Ras Seymour and others, were able to somehow “retrieve” the stolen property from such notable institutions as the British Museum, Pankhurst Museum and various libraries across London. The reclamation process took several months and was the result of extensive research. The Metropolitan Police needn’t have been blessed with the insight of Sherlock Holmes as they were only able to track down the books a year or so later, due to the fact that Ras Seymour had apparently deliberately left a trail of clues leading right back to himself. When asked how he was able to pull it off, he famously told officers…
“I spirited them out”.
The Back Story
Upon coming to the faith of Rastafari in 1981, Seymour began to research ways of assisting the people of Ethiopia in withstanding the famine that had been ravaging the nation. His activism lead him to do extensive research on the looting of Magdala, which took place in 1968, at a time when Britain along with many other European nations were heavily involved in what would later be called “The Scramble For Africa”; a series of relentless invasions that would culminate in the colonisation of almost the entire Afrikan continent.
Under the reign of Queen Victoria, the British sent 12,000 troops lead by General Robert Napier to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia), apparently to retrieve British hostages who had been captured in a previous expedition. During the battle, Ethiopian Emperor Tewodros II (Theodore), released the hostages, but refused to surrender, so the British forces continued to advance and proceeded to plunder the Emperor’s palace and his church, the Temple of Magdala, in the process. The effort included the theft of over 350 sacred manuscripts, The Crown of Abune (worn by the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and many gold and silver symbolic crosses. So thorough was this expedition of murder and theft, many historians report 15 large elephants and over 200 mules were required to carry the stolen loot. Upon arriving back on British soil, much of the treasure was auctioned off to the highest bidder, many of the artifacts were presented to the Queen of England and the troops also walked away with personal relics of the spoils of war. The majority of the manuscripts were purchased by the British Museum and the Queen’s library in Windsor Castle continues to hold many of the artifacts.
Britain would later assist Italy in its attempt to colonise Ethiopia. They were famously and comprehensively defeated by Emperor Menelik I and Empress Taitu at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. It is notable that in a week during which British soldiers are being remembered for their bravery and sacrifice, the sons and daughters of former Afrikan and Caribbean colonies, should also remember the British Army role in these colonial onslaughts.
Ras Seymour Stands Trial
Ras Seymour was able to retrieve some of the manuscripts and books relevant to Afrikan history from the British Museum, British Library, SOAS University, The Bible Society, Lambeth Library, Wandsworth Library and many other libraries. Many of the books were held in storage at the former Rastafari HQ – St. Agnes Place in Kennington, in order to be returned to Ethiopia. In the meantime they were made available as tools of education for the Afrikan community at large. But Seymour had many stages in his plan.
When Police arrived at St. Agnes place, they were surprised to find that Seymour had been expecting them. Seymour took the rap, refusing to give up any of his “co-conspirators”, he alone would stand trial for the retrieval. It would seem it was his intention to not simply return the stolen artifacts, but to draw national attention to a much broader reality of other stolen Afrkan artifacts including Benin Bronzes, Mummies and other treasures of Ancient Kemet (Egypt), to the so-called “Hottentot Princess”, all of which were stolen directly from Afrikan land, and currently reside in British Museums to this day.
Though Ras Seymour had achieved a monumental feat, it remained that many of the most sacred books and artifacts stolen from Ethiopia were undiscovered or weren’t available to the public. It appears Seymour was acutely aware of this. Later in an interview he said:
“The original problem is caused by the looting of the Ethiopian Church. Sacrilege was committed… All the things they took from the church, they came to England with it. That was Sacrilege. It hurt them. So they sent the Italians to cause a war of occupation in Ethiopia. They’ve not apologised, neither have they returned any of the Ethiopian manuscripts, which goes to the heart of Spiritual and Cultural Education…. No one has seen a copy or even know what they look like, because they contain the whole of the history of Black people.”
Seymour was tried and convicted by the Crown Court and subsequently spent 9 months in jail. The trial was very well dramatised in the 1991 TV movie “The Book Liberator” staring actor and Lovers Rock Legend, Victor Romero Evans along with acting legend, Rudolph Walker.
Seymour would later go on to become president of the Ethiopian World Federation. As well as continuing to campaign for the return of stolen Artifacts, he founded Rastafari International Consultants (RIC)- conducting research of Afrikan history and the Rastafari movement. He lead many humanitarian and entrepreneurial efforts, particularly in relation to the Repatriation to Shashamane, the Ethiopian homeland designated by H.I.M. Haille Selassie for Afrikan returnees. Through RIC, Seymour was able to uncover further historical documents pertaining to the British Parliamentary sanctioning of the invasion in Ethiopia. These efforts contributed to the 2003 return of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tabot.
Seymour remained a die hard Cultural Warrior with a keen focus on education. He would produce many educational pamphlets which he sold to young people through out the country. Not merely satisfied with historical research, he began to promote the concept of “Amharic over English”, stressing the importance of learning an Afrikan language as a means of reclaiming historical and cultural heritage. He challenged this ethos through his involvement in the arts, where for example, while DJing on the legendary Coxsonne sound system, he would chat lyrics over reggae riddims in Amharic.
Ras Seymour passed away on 6th October 2014 and was laid to rest last week on his birthday, 6th November 2014. As well as a prolific activist, he was a dedicated family man, proudly succeeded by 6 children and 6 grand children, all of whom paid tribute to their father at his Passing Over Ceremony.
For the community at large, Ras Seymour stands as an example of bravery, strategy and purpose. Many of the artifacts remain in the custody of the Crown in the name of the Queen of England, who despite various diplomatic exercises and petitions, refuses to return them. As the return and restoration of stolen artifacts remain one of the key demands in the Reparations movement world wide, here is an example of what happens when we take matters into our own hands.
Gabre Menfeskedus – Ras Seymour Mclean, we salute you.
WATCH – The Book Liberator…
feature by Tafadzwa ShakaRa /@ShakaRaBKS for the british blacklist