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Why Buckingham Palace won’t return a ‘stolen’ Ethiopian prince’s remains

May 23, 2023 Updated Tue., May 23, 2023 at 8:53 p.m.

By Adela Suliman Washington Post

LONDON – Favored royal ward – or prisoner of war?

The story of how a young Ethiopian prince came to be buried more than 5,000 miles from his East African home in Britain’s Windsor Castle is still reverberating today, with Buckingham Palace under pressure after refusing to return his remains, and Britain once again being forced to reckon with its colonial past.

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 took his own life during the Battle of Magdala rather than surrendering, making him a national hero to many.

His son Alemayehu was brought to the United Kingdom by British forces. His mother, who was traveling with him, died en route, leaving him an orphan when he arrived to British shores at age 7.

He was put under the care of British army officer Tristam Charles Sawyer Speedy, who took him traveling to India and later enrolled the young African royal at prestigious British boarding schools including Rugby and Sandhurst military college.

The monarch at the time, Queen Victoria, also took a shine to Alemayehu after meeting him at her holiday home on the Isle of Wight, making him a ward, paying for his education and financially supporting him. “The Queen took a great interest in the child,” according to Britain’s Royal Collection Trust archive, which led to “great public interest in the orphaned prince.”

Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, even recalled playing with him at Windsor Castle as a child.

But despite the appearance of a life of privilege, by many accounts, young Alemayehu faced a miserable decade in Britain. Historians say that he was “deeply unhappy” at Rugby and Sandhurst and encountered racism, and that his requests to return home were ignored.

Alemayehu died at 18 from 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 ye took me in.”

But such a narrative of colonial kindness has been challenged in recent years, particularly in the context of a bloody war. While the expedition of 13,000 British army soldiers was initially intended to rescue European hostages held by Tewodros II, it also led to mass plundering and looting after they won, much of which ended up in London museums, including the British Museum. Many Ethiopians now describe Alemayehu as a prince who was “stolen” from his home country as a child.

The Ethiopian government has since made formal requests for the return of Alemayehu’s body, as have his descendants.

“We want his remains back as a family and as Ethiopians, because that is not the country he was born in,” his great-great-cousin Fasil Minas told the BBC in an interview this week. “The fact that he was buried there is meaningless and it was not right.”

Ethiopian American author Maaza Mengiste has described Alemayehu’s predicament as a “kidnap” that resulted from “imperialist arrogance.” She added: “There is no viable reason to continue to hold his remains hostage. He has become, like the sacred and valuable objects still in British museums and libraries, a possession.”

Buckingham Palace made headlines in the U.K. this week when it formally refused another request for the remains, this time from the prince’s family, saying any movement is likely to affect other bodies at the burial site.

“It is very unlikely that it would be possible to exhume the remains without disturbing the resting place of a substantial number of others in the vicinity,” it said in a statement Tuesday.

It said chapel authorities were “very sensitive to the need to honour the memory of Prince Alemayehu” but had to balance that with a “responsibility to preserve the dignity of the departed.”

It added that on previous occasions it had “accommodated 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 Prince Alemayehu deserves a descent burial in his home country,” it said, adding that “the Government of Ethiopia remains committed to redouble efforts to realize the repatriation of the remains … as well as several looted items from Magdala, which are 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 suffered. Kearyam Agegnehu Yideg, an accountant from Addis Ababa, told The Post on Tuesday that she was “devastated” by news of the refusal, as were “many fellow Ethiopians.”

“He died of a broken heart,” she continued, calling it “unforgivable” that “even in death he’s being kept like a keepsake.”

Even Victoria, in a diary entry in 1879, appeared to acknowledge the lonely situation Alemayehu was caught in.

“Very grieved & shocked to hear by telegram, that good Alamayou had passed away this morning. It is too sad! All alone, in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him… . Everyone is sorry,” she wrote, after she learned of his death.

The request for his remains to be repatriated comes at a time when many Western countries and institutions are grappling with how to address their colonial-era actions.

Members of the royal family have at times addressed Britain’s imperial past and condemned slavery as “abhorrent” but have not apologized for the British monarchy’s role in it. In April, King Charles III indicated that he was supportive of a research project into historical links between the monarchy and transatlantic slavery – although campaigners have urged Buckingham Palace to launch a fuller investigation and apologize for the monarchy’s role in Britain’s colonial past and slavery.

Meanwhile, some European countries have returned looted art and items to their original nations – but they’ve stopped short of paying financial reparations.

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