Prince Alemayehu Simyen Tewodoros, an Ethiopian prince, experienced a heartbreaking abduction from his native land during the 19th century, where he was forcefully taken to Britain by British forces. This distressing incident profoundly impacted his life, severing his connections with his family, culture, and all that he cherished dearly.
The story begins in 1862 when Emperor Tewodros II, the father of Prince Alemayehu, wrote a letter to Queen Victoria as a fellow Christian monarch, asking for British assistance in the region to stop the encroachment of Islam as Muslim Turks and Egyptians repeatedly invaded Ethiopia from the Red Sea and from Sudan. However, his letter went unanswered by Queen Victoria, leaving him deeply frustrated. In a desperate attempt to be heard, the emperor took matters into his own hands by holding several Europeans, including the British consul, hostage. This act of defiance sparked a military expedition led by British and Indian (then an english colony) troops, numbering around 13,000, who aimed to rescue the captives.
Amidst this expedition, an unexpected character joined the British forces—a representative from the British Museum. The inclusion of an official from the renowned institution hints at the colonial mindset prevalent at the time, as the plundering of cultural and religious artifacts was often seen as a trophy of victory rather than an act of preservation or understanding.
In April 1868, the British troops laid siege to Emperor Tewodros’ mountain fortress at Maqdala in northern Ethiopia. Despite formidable defenses, the fortress succumbed to the overwhelming force within a matter of hours. In a tragic turn of events, the emperor chose to take his own life rather than face imprisonment by the British. His self-sacrifice transformed him into a heroic figure among his people, forever etched in the history of Ethiopia.
Following the battle, the spoils of war included an assortment of cultural treasures. Gold crowns, manuscripts, necklaces, and dresses were among the loot, which required dozens of elephants and hundreds of mules to transport.
Many of those looted objects, cultural artefacts and art objects found their way into state and private collections, family possessions, and the hands of ordinary soldiers. Most of the books and manuscripts went to the British Museum or the Bodleian Library in Oxford University, while a few went to the Royal Library in Windsor Castle and to smaller British collections. Other looted objects ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Mankind and the National Army Museum.
After the Battle of Maqdala, Prince Alemayehu, who was around seven years old at the time, was taken to Britain and placed under the care of Captain Tristram Speedy, a well-known English explorer and adventurer. While staying at Speedy’s home on the Isle of Wight, he was introduced to Queen Victoria. The queen took a keen interest in his life and education.
Under Queen Victoria’s watchful eye, Prince Alemayehu’s development and education received close attention. Initially, he was sent to Lockers Park School and later to Cheltenham College. In 1875, he moved to Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire, where he spent three years. However, his time at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1878 was marked by unhappiness.
As a result, the following year, he sought solace in Far Headingley, Leeds, West Yorkshire, where he stayed with his tutor, Cyril Ransome. Sadly, his stay there was short-lived, as he fell severely ill with pleurisy. Despite receiving the best medical care available in Britain, his condition worsened, and he passed away after six weeks.
Queen Victoria recorded the untimely death of Prince Alemayehu in her diary, expressing her sorrow over the loss of a good and kind-hearted young boy. She also mentioned how very unhappy the prince had been, and how conscious he was of people staring at him because of his colour.
Queen Victoria arranged for Prince Alemayehu to be laid to rest in the catacombs of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, far from his beloved Ethiopia. On November 21, 1879, his funeral took place, with a solemn procession honoring the young prince’s memory. A brass plaque in the nave of St George’s Chapel stands as a permanent tribute to him, bearing the inscription “I was a stranger and ye took me in.”
In 2007, over a century after his untimely passing, the Ethiopian government made a heartfelt request to Queen Elizabeth II for the repatriation of Prince Alemayehu’s remains, but their request was ultimately unsuccessful.
Again in 2023, the prince’s family, hoping for a positive response from newly crowned King Charles III, requested his body back. They sought to honor him in his homeland, providing a dignified reburial that would serve as a symbol of reconciliation and healing for the Ethiopian people. However, Buckingham Palace, representing the British monarchy, denied the request, citing concerns about the potential impact on other individuals buried in the catacombs of St George’s Chapel.