Prince Dejatch Alemayehu was heir to the throne of Abyssinia – now known as Ethiopia. In 1868 his father, Emperor Tewodros II, was engaged in a war with British forces and committed suicide during the Battle of Magdala rather than surrender, making him a national hero to many.
Her son Alemayehu was brought to the UK by British forces. His mother, who was traveling with him, died en route, leaving him an orphan when he arrived on British shores aged 7.
He was placed in the care of British Army officer Tristam Charles Sawyer Speedy, who took him to India and then enrolled the young African king in the prestigious British boarding schoolsincluding Rugby and Sandhurst Military College.
The then monarch, Queen Victoria, also shone in Alemayehu after meeting him at his holiday home on the Isle of Wight. She made him a ward, paying for his education and supporting him financially. “The Queen took a great interest in the child,” according to Britain’s Royal Collection Trust records, which sparked “great public interest in the orphan prince.”
Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, even recalled playing with him at Windsor Castle as a child.
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But despite the appearance of a life of privilege, by many accounts, young Alemayehu endured a miserable decade in Britain. Historians say he was “deeply unhappy” at Rugby and Sandhurst and experienced racism, and his demands to return home were ignored.
Alemayehu died at 18 of pleurisy, a lung condition. At Victoria’s request, he was buried at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. His epitaph reads: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
But such a narrative of colonial goodness has been challenged in recent years, especially in the context of a bloody war. While the British Army’s 13,000-troop expedition was initially intended to rescue the European hostages held by Tewodros II, it also led to mass looting and looting after their victory. Much of the loot ended up in museums in London, including the British Museum. Many Ethiopians now describe Alemayehu as a prince who was “robbed” in his home country as a child.
The Ethiopian government has since made formal demands for the return of Alemayehu’s body, as have his descendants.
“We want his remains to come back as a family and as Ethiopians because it’s not the country he was born in,” his great-great-great-cousin Fasil Minas said. said the BBC in an interview this week. “The fact that he was buried there doesn’t make sense, and it wasn’t fair.”
Ethiopian American author Maaza Mengiste described Alemayehu’s predicament as a “kidnapping” resulting from “imperialist arrogance”. She added: “There is no valid reason to continue to hold his remains hostage. It has become, like the sacred and precious objects still in British museums and libraries, a possession.
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Buckingham Palace made headlines in Britain this week when it formally refused another request for the remains, this time from the prince’s family, saying any move is likely to affect other bodies on the burial place.
“It is highly unlikely that it will be possible to exhume the remains without disturbing the resting place of a significant number of other people in the vicinity,” he said in a statement on Tuesday.
He said the chapel authorities were “very sensitive to the need to honor the memory of Prince Alemayehu” but had to balance this with a “responsibility to preserve the dignity of the deceased”.
He added that on other occasions he had “accepted requests from Ethiopian delegations to visit ‘the chapel’ and will continue to do so.”
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry called Alemayehu a “prisoner of war” in a statement to the Washington Post on Tuesday. “We believe that Prince Alemayehu deserves a burial of descendants in his country of origin,” he said, adding that “the Ethiopian government remains committed to redouble its efforts to achieve the repatriation of the remains… as well as several objects looted from Magdala, which are of great historical, cultural and religious significance to Ethiopians.
For many Ethiopians, the words of Buckingham Palace do little to make up for Britain’s colonial past and what they say their prince has suffered. Kearyam Agegnehu Yideg, an accountant from Addis Ababa, told the Post on Tuesday that she was “devastated” by the news of the rejection, as were “many fellow Ethiopians.”
“He died of a broken heart,” she continued, calling it “unforgivable” that “even in death he is kept as a memory.”
Even Victoria, in a diary entry in 1879, seemed to recognize the lonely situation in which Alemayehu was caught.
“Very saddened and shocked to learn by telegram that this good Alamayou had passed away this morning. It’s so sad! All alone, in a foreign country, without a single person or relative belonging to him. … Everyone is sorry” , she wrote after learning of his death.
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The request for the repatriation of his remains comes at a time when many Western countries and institutions are wondering how to deal with their colonial-era actions.
Members of the royal family have sometimes referred to Britain’s imperial past and condemned slavery as “abhorrent”, but have not apologized for the role of the British monarchy in that past. In April, King Charles III indicated he was supporting a research project into the historical links between the monarchy and transatlantic slavery – although campaigners urged Buckingham Palace to launch a fuller investigation and apologize for the role of the monarchy in Britain’s colonial past and slavery.
Meanwhile, some European countries returned looted works of art and objects to their countries of origin, but stopped paying financial reparations.