Alemayehu died at the age of 18 from pleurisy, a lung disease. He was buried at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, at Victoria’s request. His epitaph reads: “I am a stranger, you took me in”.
But this narrative of colonial benevolence has been challenged in recent years, especially against the backdrop of bloody wars. While the expedition of 13,000 British Army soldiers was initially to rescue European hostages held by Tewodros II, it also sparked massive looting and looting after the British victory, much of which ended up in museums in London, including The British Museum. Many Ethiopians now describe Alemayehu as a prince who “stolen” from his homeland as a child.
The Ethiopian government has since formally requested the return of Alemayehu’s remains, as well as descendants of his family.
“We want his body returned as a family member and as an Ethiopian, because that’s not the country he was born in,” his great-great cousin Fasil Minas told the BBC this week. “The fact that he was buried there is meaningless and just not right.”
Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste described Alemayehu’s plight as a “kidnapping” by “imperialist arrogance”.
“There is no viable reason to continue to hold his body hostage. Like the sacred and valuable objects still preserved in British museums and libraries, he has become a property,” she said.
Buckingham Palace formally rejected another body request this week, this time from the prince’s family, saying any movement could affect other remains in the cemetery.
“It is highly unlikely that the remains will be exhumed without affecting the resting place of a large number of other people nearby,” it said in a statement.
It said church authorities were “very sensitive to the need to honor Prince Alemayehu’s memory” but had to strike a balance between “the responsibility to uphold the dignity of the deceased”.
It added that on previous occasions it had “satisfied requests for Ethiopian delegations to visit” the church “and will continue to do so”.
Ethiopia’s foreign ministry called Al Mayehu a “prisoner of war” in a statement Washington post“We believe that Prince Alemayehu deserves a dignified funeral in his home country,” it said, adding that “the Ethiopian government remains committed to redouble its efforts to achieve the return of the remains… Several items were looted that were of great historical, cultural and religious significance to Ethiopians.”
For many Ethiopians, Buckingham Palace’s words do little to make up for Britain’s colonial past and what they say their prince has suffered. Kearyam Agnehu Yideg, an accountant from Addis Ababa, said she, like “many of my fellow Ethiopians”, was “shocked” by the news of the rejection.
“He died of a broken heart,” she continued, calling it “unforgivable” and “even after death, he was kept as a memento”.
Even Queen Victoria seemed to acknowledge Alemayehu’s solitary situation in her diary from 1879.
“Very saddened and shocked to hear the telegram that good Alamayo passed away this morning. So sad! Alone, in a strange country with no one or relatives belonging to him… everyone is so sorry,” she said in wrote after learning of his death.
The repatriation request comes at a time when many Western countries and institutions are grappling with their colonial-era practices.
Members of the royal family have sometimes spoken of Britain’s imperial history and condemned slavery as “abhorrent”, without apologizing for the role the British monarchy played in it. In April, King Charles III expressed his support A research project on the historical link between the monarchy and transatlantic slaveryActivists have urged Buckingham Palace to launch a fuller inquiry and apologize for the monarchy’s role in the country’s colonial history and slavery.
The UK and some European countries have returned looted art and Aboriginal objects to their countries of origin – but they have not paid financial compensation.
Get a note directly from our foreigner correspondent About headlines around the world. Sign up for the weekly ‘What’s In The World’ newsletter here.