For 150 years, Ethiopians have been asking when Prince Alemayehu will come home. The orphan prince, a descendant of Solomon, was taken to England – some say “stolen” – after British soldiers looted his father’s imperial citadel following the Battle of Maqdala in 1868.
He died at the age of 18, after an unhappy childhood, and was buried at St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle at the request of Queen Victoria. Now, as discussions take place with the Victoria &Albert Museum about the return of royal treasures taken by British forces during the battle, the Ethiopian government told the Observer it is “redoubling” its efforts to finally bring back the prince’s remains. Last week there were celebrations in Addis Ababa to commemorate the life of the prince’s father, Tewodros II, on the 150th anniversary of his death in the battle. A selection of the objects in the V&A’s possession went on display last week.
Lemn Sissay, the poet and author, has joined the campaign to repatriate the young prince’s remains. Sissay, whose birth mother was Ethiopian, has been invited to speak about Alemayehu by the Ethiopian goverment in June.
“It’s my goal, my sincere hope that in my lifetime [Alemayehu] will go back to Ethiopia,” Sissay told the Observer. “This isn’t going away because I’m not going away.”
Sissay, who was fostered then put into care in Lancashire despite the wishes of his mother, feels there is a resonance between Alemayehu’s life and the widespread international adoption of Ethiopian children, a practice which was banned by the Ethiopian government earlier this year.
“The first corrupt theft of an Ethiopian child was this one in 1868,” Sissay said. “He was taken from his family. He deserves, too, for his remains to go back to Ethiopia, back to where he was stolen from.”
The campaign to return Alemayehu began in earnest in 2006, when the Ethiopian president wrote to the Queen asking for the remains to be exhumed, but the request was rebuffed. According to the Ethiopian embassy, the Lord Chamberlain replied on behalf of the Queen, saying that “while Her Majesty was in favour of repatriation […] identifying the remains of young Prince Alemayehu would not be possible.” The prince’s remains had been added to a grave at St George’s Chapel with nine others.
Campaigners for his repatriation believe the key to identifying the remains may lie in in the National Army Museum, which has a collection devoted to the battle of Maqdala.
In the aftermath, as the British forces carried off crowns, scrolls and fine clothing, a war artist cut a lock of Tewodros’s hair. The lock of hair is now at the National Army Museum in London. Sissay and others believe that a DNA test could establish whether any of the remains in the grave match it.
“Slowly but surely the excuses we’ve been given, that we can’t find him because we can’t identify the bones, doesn’t hold water,” Sissay said.
After the sacking of Maqdala, a British officer named Tristram Speedy took the prince and his mother, the Empress Tiruwork, to Britain. The empress died on the way and before the party was due to embark on a ship from Alexandria in Egypt, the officer ordered all the other Ethiopians to return.
Speedy took Alemayehu to his home in the Isle of Wight, where he was presented to Queen Victoria. Speedy was paid a stipend for the education of the prince, who went to Rugby school then Sandhurst.
“At school he suffered racism, his letters show,” Sissay said. “He had to sleep on the floor at one point.
“He was taken away from all of his family and told he had to build a relationship with this man, who was one of those responsible for his father’s death.”
The intensity of feeling among Ethiopians is growing, according to the Ethiopian embassy. “Ethiopians revere Prince Alemayehu as a young prisoner of war – he was only seven years old when taken hostage,” it said in a statement. “Prince Alemayehu remains the son of a hero, who chose to end his own life, rather than surrender to foreign soldiers. Ethiopians view the Prince with the same level of affection and respect.”
Addis Ababa is also stepping up pressure for the return of objects taken after the Battle of Maqdala, which include a gold crown with intricate filigree work, a royal wedding dress and hundreds of illuminated manuscripts, including six which are kept in the Queen’s personal library at Windsor.
Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-American writer, said: “We’re seeing global renewed interest in the return of looted items currently in British museums and the library, and I am hoping that with this will come increasingly vocal calls to finally do what is right and let Prince Alemayehu’s remains be sent back to his home country. “
Embassy officials said that Ethiopians viewed the status of the Maqdala artefacts with “anger as well as fervid desire to leave no stone unturned to secure their restitution to Ethiopia”.
“Great Britain should not have accepted treasures extracted by way of plunder,” the embassy said in a statement, adding there was a “strong-willed desire to right a historic wrong.
“The government of Ethiopia is committed to ensuring that Her Majesty the Queen’s 2007 consent to repatriate the remains of Prince Alemayehu is realised. The Embassy will therefore redouble efforts to realise the repatriation of the remains of Prince Alemayehu, as well as looted items from Maqdala.”
A force of 13,000 soldiers from India was sent in 1868 under the command of Sir Robert Napier into the Abyssinian mountains to capture the mountain capital of Maqdala, at the top of a dead volcano.
Prince Alemayehu’s father, Tewodros II, had taken a group of missionaries hostage in the hope of persuading the British to join him in a campaign against the Ottoman empire.
Some 700 Abyssinians died and more than a thousand were injured in the siege. When Tewodros saw he had lost, he shot himself with a pistol that had been a gift from Queen Victoria. The fortress was looted and razed to the ground. It is said to have taken 15 elephants and 200 mules to remove the loot.