Buckingham Palace rejects calls to return Ethiopian Prince’s 19th century remains to descendants

22 May 2023, 20:32 | Updated: 22 May 2023, 20:40

Buckingham Palace has rejected the request.
Buckingham Palace has rejected the request. Picture: Alamy/Getty

By Jenny Medlicott

Buckingham Palace has declined a request to return the remains of an Ethiopian prince who was buried at Windsor Castle in the 19th century.

The family of Prince Alemayehu has requested for his remains to be returned to Ethiopia after the young prince was taken to the UK in the 1800s.

He was taken to the UK aged seven with his mother, who died on the journey over.

Queen Victoria expressed interest in the prince after he arrived and arranged for him to be educated, until he died 11 years later at the age of 18 and was buried in the UK.

But now the prince’s relatives have made a request for his remains to be returned - the second time such a request has been made in two decades - but Buckingham Palace have declined the plea.

A Buckingham Palace spokesman said removing his remains could impact others buried in the catacombs of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

“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,” the palace told the BBC.

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Prince Alemayehu in 1868.
Prince Alemayehu in 1868. Picture: Alamy

How did Prince Alemayehu end up in the UK?

In 1862 the prince’s father, Emperor Tewodros II, wrote to Queen Victoria seeking an alliance between the UK and Ethiopia.

But the Queen never replied to his requests, which angered the emperor and resulted in him deciding to hold some Europeans, including some from the British consul, hostage.

British and Indian troops then launched a military expedition to rescue them, recruiting some 13,000 troops.

The troops laid siege to to Tewodros' fortress at Maqdala in northern Ethiopia in 1868, and soon overthrew defences, which made the emperor decide to take his own life.

Following the battle, the British stole thousands of artefacts, including manuscripts, necklaces, gold crowns and dresses – and took the emperor's son and wife.

They took away the prince and his mother, as they argued it was for their protection after the death of Emperor Tewodros, because they believed his enemies would capture them otherwise.

The young prince later arrived in England in June 1868, following the death of both his mother and father, and Queen Victoria was moved by his story.

She decided to support him financially, as well as assign him the guardianship of Captain Tristan Charles Sawyer Speedy, who accompanied the prince on his journey from Ethiopia to England.

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The prince with his guardian Captain Speedy.
The prince with his guardian Captain Speedy. Picture: Getty

The prince moved to the Isle of Wight, followed by brief trips around the world later in life, in places such as India.

He was also sent to a public school in Rugby and the Royal Military College in Sandhurst – but neither brought him happiness, he had a “hankering” to return home.

The prince later contracted a fatal illness, possibly pneumonia, and eventually died in 1879, aged 18.

His death prompted nationwide discussion and media coverage – Queen Victoria even wrote of her sadness at his death in her diary.

She wrote: “Very grieved and shocked to hear by telegram, that good Alemayehu had passed away this morning. It is too sad! All alone, in a strange country, without a single person or relative, belonging to him.

"His was no happy life, full of difficulties of every kind, and was so sensitive, thinking that people stared at him on account of his colour... Everyone is very sorry."

Ethiopia’s president, Girma Wolde-Giorgis, sent a formal request to Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, asking for the body to be returned but with no success.

“I feel for him as if I knew him. He was dislocated from Ethiopia, from Africa, from the land of black people and remained there as if he had no home,” his descendant Abebech Kasa told the BBC.

“We want him back. We don't want him to remain in a foreign country," she said.

"He had a sad life. When I think of him I cry. If they agree to return his remains I would think of it as if he came home alive."

Speaking of the family's second entreaty to the palace, Professor Alula Pankhurst said returning the prince’s remains is as an opportunity “for Britain to rethink its past”.

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