British society has sometimes shown itself to be faster than its government institutions when it comes to repairing the damage of a long period of colonial rule in the world, even if it is with small gestures that are more symbolic than anything else. On Thursday, in a low-key ceremony in London, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Teferi Melesse, received a lock of Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu’s hair. The young man was taken from his land in 1868 when he was seven years old and buried at 18 in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, property of the British royal family.
His relatives, descendants of King Theodore II (negas negusti or emperor of Abyssinia, in the Amharic language), and the Ethiopian Government itself, incessantly demand the return of Alemayehu. Buckingham Palace has to date resisted returning his remains, arguing that it is not possible to do so “without disturbing the rest and peace of a large number of deceased who also remain buried there.”
The person who possessed that remains of Alemayehu was Leoni Turner, a descendant of Captain Tristam Speedy, one of the main people responsible for the assault on the Magdala fortress in 1868, under the command of Robert Napier, an officer in the army of the British Raj (the Colonial rule of the British crown over the Indian subcontinent). Through the Scheherazade Foundation, dedicated to building bridges between cultures, both the lock and much of the looting of Magdala have been returned to the Ethiopian Government.
“This is an important step towards achieving reparative justice, and an excellent way to build better collaborative relationships between British and Ethiopian institutions,” Alula Pankhurst, member of the National Commission for the Restoration of Heritage, told the BBC. from Ethiopia. But she has also made it clear that this is, from her perspective, a first step.
The kidnapping of the prince
In 1868, Emperor Theodore II, irritated by Queen Victoria’s lack of response to a letter suggesting an alliance between the two empires, as well as a request for ammunition, weapons and military experts, ended up capturing and holding them hostage. to several European missionaries and diplomats in the city of Magdala, including the British consul. “What happened next can be described as a rain of fire, and one of the greatest orgies of plunder and plunder carried out in the name of the British empire,” the Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste recounted years ago.
The story goes that Emperor Theodore committed suicide by shooting himself in the mouth, amidst the thousands of deaths at the hands of the British in the Battle of Magdala. To reinforce his safety on the return journey, the expedition captured Empress Tiruwork Wube, Theodore’s wife, and her son, Prince Alemayehu, who was then seven years old. The empress died during the voyage back to England, aboard the Feroze. Queen Victoria became fond of the little prince and his melancholy manner—which she never abandoned him—when she met him on the Isle of Wight, where she used to rest. She agreed to leave the first child kidnapped by the empire and taken from her land in the hands of Captain Speedy. A strange man, always dressed in oriental clothes, even accustomed to sleeping in the same bed as the prince, he took him with him on a trip halfway around the world until Buckingham Palace decided that the little boy needed a formal education.
It’s so sad! Alone, in a strange country, without a single family member (…) his life was not happy. Full of difficulties of all kinds. “So sensitive, always thinking that people were staring at him because of the color of his skin.”
Queen Victoria, after the death of the prince
He was sent to the private school Rugby, and shortly after to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. In both places he was bullied and was an unhappy child. When he turned 18 and lost royal support, Speedy decided to leave him in the hands of Dr. Arthur Ransome, in the English town of Leeds. He died shortly after from pleurisy, convinced that someone had poisoned him and still longing for his native Ethiopia. “Very pained and shocked to have learned, through a telegram, of the death this morning of good Alemayehu,” Queen Victoria wrote in her diary. “It’s so sad! Alone, in a strange country, without a single family member (…) his life was not happy. Full of difficulties of all kinds. So sensitive, always thinking that people were staring at him because of the color of his skin. “We are all very sad,” concluded the monarch.
He decided to bury him in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. But not in the royal crypt where the remains of Henry VIII or Elizabeth II rest, but in the catacombs adjacent to the chapel. “A bronze plaque in the nave of St George’s contains the words written by Queen Victoria herself, ‘I was a stranger and you took me inside you.’ But Alemayehu’s body rests in the brick crypt outside the chapel. He was not welcomed ‘inside’, denounced Lemn Sissay, a British author and broadcaster of Ethiopian origin.
Already in March 2019, the United Kingdom presented, at the National Army Museum in London, a lock of Emperor Theodore II’s hair to a delegation from the Ethiopian Government.
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