Ethiopia has never forgotten its boy prince, captured by the British Army and taken to England, where he died more than a century ago, a lonely, royal orphan and curiosity who still lies entombed in Windsor Castle. The prince spent barely a brief decade in his country of exile, arriving at age seven and dying at 18. Prince Alemayehu, born in 1861, was the son of the Empress Tiruwork and Emperor Tewodros, in a royal lineage that claimed to go back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
When British forces conquered the imperial fortress of Magdala in 1868, the emperor committed suicide rather than turn himself in. The British, who carried back numerous treasures and war trophies, decided to bring the prince and his mother to England reportedly as hostages, but the empress died during the trip due to reasons that remained unclear.
According to a book by Ethiopian academic Mandefro Belayneh, The Turbulent Life and Death of Prince Alemayehu, Queen Victoria described the youth as “a pretty, polite, graceful boy with beautiful eyes and a nice nose and nice teeth, though the lips are slightly thick … There is nothing whatever of the Negro about him”.
Prince Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros Full Biography and Profile
Prince Alamayu was born 1861, a prince with a bloodline stretching back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the son of an Ethiopian emperor and heir to the treasures of one of Africa’s richest royal dynasties.
Prince Alamayu was uprooted from his home after the British defeated his father in the Abyssinian Expedition of 1868. Taken to England as an orphaned seven year old, speaking no English, he was befriended by the Queen and became an unwilling national celebrity. The young boy was sent to boarding school and officers’ training school at Sandhurst.
Alemayehu may well have been the first Ethiopian international adoptee in Britain, though he was never officially adopted. While he had various guardians, he was essentially a ward of the British government.
A British officer, Captain Tristram Speedy, was appointed as the guardian of the young boy wrote: “The distressing alarm that then seized him rendered him so timid that for the following three months no persuasion could induce him to sleep out of my arms, so great was his terror that if he happened to wake and find me asleep, he would wake me and earnestly beg me to remain awake until he should fall asleep, and it was only by continued care and tenderness that he is gradually losing his timidity.”
Dr Mandefro Belayneh, an Ethiopian academic researching the life of Alemayehu, said: “He didn’t have any friends or family to call on. There were letters coming from Abyssinia from his grandmother … and all the letters said, ‘When are you coming back? Your people are expecting you.’ But I suspect these letters were never shown to him.”
A prince in a long line of royalty, Alemayehu was state-less and home-less, in the sense of never having been allowed to return to Ethiopia, and never fully feeling comfortable in England. Alamayu was refused permission to return home despite the pleas of his grandmother. He died at the age of eighteen while staying with a friend in Leeds, of pleurisy, an inflaming of the lungs.
But, taken as a boy to Victorian England by British soldiers who ransacked his father’s mountain-top palace, Prince Alemayehu died alone aged 18. He was buried at Windsor Castle, with Queen Victoria describing as “too sad” his short life and early death.
Now the Ethiopians want his body returned to mark their millennium which, according to the Ethiopian calendar, falls on Sept 12 this year. Campaigners in Ethiopia argue that Alemayehu was not so much taken in as spirited away, he was just as much of a “war trophy” as the gold crowns and altar pieces seized by the army of Sir Robert Napier, sent by the monarch to crush Emperor Tewodros.
Mulugeta Aserate, a second cousin of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, and a senior figure on the organising committee of the millennium celebrations, said the return of the remains for burial in a monastery in the northern city of Gondar would remove a blight on relations with Britain. He told The Independent: “The prince was a prisoner of war. Our relations with Britain are good and warm but the episode of Prince Alemayehu represents a dark side of that relationship.
“His return would be a cause for celebration here and what better time for it than this very African millennium of ours? He died in a foreign land but Alemayehu’s name has not been forgotten in Ethiopia.”
Amid the gothic splendour of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle there is a little-noticed brass plaque. Erected in memory of Prince Alemayehu Tewodros, it reads: “I was a stranger and ye took me in.”
The memorial plate and the skeletal remains that lie behind it are the only concrete traces of the tragic and extraordinary tale of a seven-year-old boy who became embroiled in what many believe was the greatest orgy of looting conducted in the name of the British Empire.
The young prince was not the only thing the British took from Magdala – they reportedly needed 15 elephants and nearly 200 mules to carry away the treasures that Tewodros had accumulated.
Many of them are still in Britain and the Queen has some of them – notably six of the very finest illuminated manuscripts, which are part of the royal collection in Windsor Castle. There is plenty of evidence of British soldiers raiding and looting Africa.
President Girma Wolde-Giorgis has written to the Queen, requesting that the prince’s remains be exhumed from where they were buried in a crypt beside St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
“It really was such a tragic and short life,” said Richard Pankhurst, 78, professor of Ethiopian studies at the University of Addis Ababa, and the son of universal suffrage campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst.
“The boy saw his parents die, he was taken from his home, sent to India and then to the intense cold of England, but the government simply refused to listen to his requests to return home.”
Britain sent a military force to the palace of Emperor Tewodros II at Maqdala, in the mountains of northern Ethiopia, to bargain for the release of diplomatic hostages.
Denied an audience, the troops routed the emperor’s army in a three-day battle over Easter 1868. The emperor committed suicide as his fortress fell to the British.
The seven-year-old prince’s mother succumbed to illness days later. In the care of the British, he was first handed to the Raj in India, which administered Abyssinia, and then sent to Britain.
In London he was befriended by Queen Victoria, who enrolled him at Rugby School and later sent him to Sandhurst for officer training.
But having grown up in a royal household he never settled into British public school life. After nine unhappy years at Rugby, and less than a term at Sandhurst, he died of pleurisy at the home of his private tutor, in Leeds, in November 1879.
Queen Victoria was struck by the orphan prince’s melancholy during audiences at her palace, writing in her journal at the time: “It is too sad! All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him…His was no happy life.”
His remains have been visited by Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selassie and by its current prime minister, Meles Zenawi.
Officials at Windsor Castle yesterday refused to discuss “private correspondence” received by the Queen, but a spokesman for Ethiopia’s embassy in London said she understood that the request was “being considered”.
“The prince was a prisoner of war,” said Mulugeta Aserate, Haile Selassie’s second cousin. “His return would ease the minds of lots of Ethiopians who believe his rightful resting place should be here with his father.”
There have also been requests for the return of Ethiopian artefacts, including illuminated manuscripts and altar slabs, which are now held at the British Museum and in private collections at Windsor Castle.
- Prince Dejazmatch Alemayehu Tewodros Full Biography and Profile