The remains of Prince Alemayehu in Buckingham Palace

You are currently viewing The remains of Prince Alemayehu in Buckingham Palace
Prince Alemayehu Dejatch

By Patrick Smith & Beril Naz Hassan

Great Britain’s Buckingham Palace has formally refused to honour Ethiopia’s request to have the remains of Prince Alemayehu Dejatch sent back to his home country, Ethiopia. The body of the teenage prince who was captured by British troops in 1868 will not be returned to his biological family in the East African country, the British royal family said in the latest high-profile feud over the legacy of its coercive colonial past.

This isn’t the first time the request was made for the remains of the African prince to be returned to his homeland. Back in 2007, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi Asres, formally reached out to Queen Elizabeth II, but his request was not granted. Buckingham Palace has continued to refuse repeated requests to repatriate the remains of Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia who was taken hostage from his home at age 6 in 1868 and died just over a decade later in England. His body was buried at Windsor Castle, one of King Charles III’s official residences and the traditional site of British royal weddings and funerals.

 The request had often been made by the descendants of the prince. Talking about it, one of his family members said: “We want his remains back as a family and as Ethiopians because Britain is not the country he was born in.” 

In a statement sent to the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said removing the corpse would affect other burials. He explained: “It is very unlikely that it would be possible to exhume the remains of the prince without disturbing the resting place of a substantial number of others in the vicinity.” Buckingham Palace said that while they wanted to honour Prince Alemayehu’s memory, they also had “the responsibility to preserve the dignity of the other departed”.  Perhaps, not many Africans know about this controversy. So, who exactly was Prince Alemayehu? 

Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, was the son of Emperor Tewodros II also known as Theodore and Empress Tiruwork Wube. His father, the emperor, wanted to strengthen his empire. So, in 1862, he started reaching out to Queen Victoria with hopes of building an alliance with the UK. But his letters to the queen were never answered.

Prince Alemayehu Dejatch

He felt offended. And to retaliate, the emperor took some European missionaries, the head of the Ethiopian Church and the British consul hostage and had them imprisoned. 

His action triggered off a rescue mission from the British government involving more than 13,000 British and Indian troops after it was known that European missionaries were imprisoned by King Theodore II of Ethiopia. In April 1868, the troops were successful in overwhelming the emperor’s defences in northern Abyssinia and they freed the hostages. The emperor, not wanting to be a prisoner of the British forces, decided to take his own life.  He shot himself with a pistol Queen Victoria had given him as a gift. And so, he became a hero among Ethiopian monarchs.

After the battle, the British collected thousands of cultural and religious artefacts from the empire, including manuscripts, necklaces, dresses, and crowns. They also took the Emperor’s son, Prince Alemayehu hostage and kept him under Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy.

After the prince’s mother died, the prince’s guardian, Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy, took him to his home on the Isle of Wight. His story was told the Queen. And touched by the prince’s story, Queen Victoria agreed to support the prince financially. 

For a while, the prince and his guardian lived on the Isle of Wight. Later, they travelled to other parts of the world, including India. But even at that, the young prince always expressed a desire to return to his homeland, Ethiopia.

Eventually, it was decided that the prince needed formal education and he attended various schools, including Rugby. After he dropped out of officer training at Sandhurst, Prince Alemayehu went to live with his former tutor, Cyril Ransome who was the father of famous author of Swallow of Amazons, Arthur. Soon afterward, the prince caught pleurisy and died in 1879. He was just 18 years old.

In her diary, Queen Victoria spoke painfully of how saddened she was by his passing. She said: “I am very grieved and shocked to hear by telegram, that good Alemayehu had passed away this morning. It is too sad! He passed on, all alone, in a strange country, without a single person or relative, belonging to him. His was no happy life, full of difficulties of every kind, and was so sensitive, thinking that people stared at him on account of his colour. Everyone is very sorry.”

Queen Victoria

Not every Briton is comfortable that Alemayehu was taken from Africa after British forces defeated his father and looted his imperial capital in one of the most notorious military operations of Britain’s colonial era. Ethiopia has been asking for the prince’s remains and other treasures to be returned for the last 150 years. Fasil Minas, a descendent of the Abyssinian royal family and a relative of Alemayehu, told the BBC: “We want his remains back as a family and as Ethiopians because that is not the country he was born in.” But the palace said this week that this wasn’t possible as it would disturb other human remains buried nearby.

Buckingham Palace said in a statement sent to NBC News: “The Dean and Canons of Windsor are very sensitive to the need to honour the memory of Prince Alemayehu. However, they have been advised that it is very unlikely that it would be possible to exhume the remains without disturbing the resting place of a substantial number of others in the vicinity.” 

The Ethiopian Embassy in London is welcome to keep visiting the grave to pay respect, the statement added — but historians said the Palace should do more to take responsibility for its past. “This is such an emotional issue because it reminds everyone of Alemayehu’s plight — a child stuck in a foreign land, never allowed to go home,” Andrew Heavens, author of a new book on Alemayehu and the British raid on Abyssinia titled “The Prince and the Plunder,” told NBC News. “Emotionally, most people who get to know Alemayehu’s story feel his remains should be returned. He made it so clear before he died that he wanted to go back. The Palace could do more to show Ethiopia exactly why the prince’s body can’t be removed”, Heavens said.

Alemayehu was the son of the emperor of Abyssinia, Tewodros II, a Coptic Christian ruler who had taken missionaries and British government officials captive after Britain refused to assist him in wars with mostly Muslim neighboring countries.

In December 1867, Britain launched an expedition of 13,000 soldiers and 40,000 animals, including 44 elephants trained to pull huge artillery guns, according to the National Army Museum in London, to free the hostages. It took until April for them to reach the Abyssinian capital, Maqdala. More than 500 Abyssinians were killed and thousands injured in a 90-minute battle — some estimates are much higher and no complete contemporary record exists. British forces sustained two deaths, with 18 soldiers injured. Tewodros subsequently killed himself with a pistol that had been a gift from Queen Victoria.

It took 15 elephants and around 200 mules to carry all the wealth the British looted from Maqdala. Alemayehu’s mother, Empress Tiruwork Wube, intended to travel to England with her son but died on the journey.

Queen Victoria took an interest in Alemayehu and arranged for him to study at elite schools, before he was sent to the military training academy at Sandhurst. He left after less than a year for the English city of Leeds, where he died of pleurisy — inflammation of the lining surrounding the lungs — at the age of 18 in 1879.

For Jeremiah Garsha, an expert in the looting of human remains at University College Dublin, originally from California, there is no doubt that Alemayehu was stolen. “He was, he was kidnapped,” he said. “You have a minor coming to another country as an orphan after his mother dies and then he himself dies at 18 — something should feel wrong about that. He’s looted as well, like all the other curios and treasures that were taken.”

The British obsession with Africa at the time created a huge market for stolen goods. This curiosity extended from ceremonial shields and religious items to living Black African people. “You wouldn’t kidnap a white child; Victoria’s not going to end up with a child from Camden Town — there has to be a racial element, the foreignness for this prince to come and be at the palace,” Garsha said.

Many of the treasures that were taken remain in the British Museum, which has been discussing the possible return of certain items with Ethiopian officials since 2019. Several other countries, including Benin and Greece, have long petitioned the British government for the return of items that they consider stolen during the colonial era.

Leave a Reply