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Buckingham Palace Won’t Return the Remains of Ethiopian Prince
Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron/Getty Images

Buckingham Palace Won’t Return the Remains of Ethiopian Prince

Buckingham Palace is embroiled in another controversy regarding looting from Africa.

Buckingham Palace has turned down a plea to return the remains of Prince Alemayehu, an Ethiopian prince laid to rest at Windsor Castle in the 19th century.

Prince Alemayehu, who has historically been revered as a descendant of the biblical King Solomon, was taken to England—some contend through questionable means—following the looting of his father's imperial citadel by British soldiers after the Battle of Maqdala in 1868. Queen Victoria ordered that he be buried at St George's Chapel in Windsor Castle.

For a span of 150 years, Ethiopians —and the Ethiopian government—have been pushing for the return of Alemayehu to his homeland. High profile figures like Lemn Sissay, a renowned author with Ethiopian roots, has joined campaigns to push for this repatriation.

A Buckingham palace spokesperson told BBC that it would be impossible to exhume Prince Alemayehu without negatively affecting the other resting corpses who are buried at 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 spokesperson said.

According to the statement, the authorities at the chapel were sensitive to the need to honor Prince Alemayehu's memory, but that they also had "the responsibility to preserve the dignity of the departed."

It also noted that in the past, the Royal Household had “accommodated requests from Ethiopian delegations to visit” the chapel.

The presence of Prince Alemayehu in the United Kingdom—who died at 18—was not a mere coincidence, but rather the outcome of significant imperial actions and diplomatic failures. Emperor Tewodros II, the prince's father, aimed to consolidate his empire's strength and sought an alliance with the United Kingdom in 1862. However, his appeals to Queen Victoria went unanswered, leaving him frustrated.

Driven by this silence and a desire to take matters into his own hands, Emperor Tewodros II resorted to holding several Europeans—including the British consul—as hostages. This bold move triggered a massive military expedition led by approximately 13,000 British and Indian troops, determined to secure the release of their compatriots. Notably, an official from the British Museum also participated in this endeavor.

In April 1868, the British forces laid siege to Emperor Tewodros II's mountain fortress situated at Maqdala in northern Ethiopia. Within a few hours, they triumphed over the defenses, overpowering the stronghold. Faced with the prospect of becoming a captive of the British, the emperor made the fateful decision to take his own life. This act elevated him to a revered and heroic status among his people, commemorating his defiance and unwillingness to surrender.

After a battle, the British looted numerous cultural and religious items such as gold crowns, manuscripts, necklaces, and dresses. These treasures were transported using elephants and mules and are now scattered across various European museums, libraries, and private collections.

These historical events ultimately shaped the trajectory of Prince Alemayehu's life, placing him in the United Kingdom during his formative years.

Upon arriving in Britain in 1868, Prince Alemayehu's status as an orphan and his unfortunate circumstances caught the attention and alleged sympathy of Queen Victoria and she offered to provide financial support and entrusted his guardianship to Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy, who had accompanied the prince from Ethiopia.

Eventually, the prince was enrolled in Rugby, a British public school, but did not find happiness there. He later attended the Royal Military College in Sandhurst, where he faced bullying. BBC reports that the prince ended up being tutored in a private home in Leeds, eventually became ill with suspected pneumonia, an d after a decade in exile, died in 1879 at 18.

Despite his longing to return home, any thoughts of doing so were quickly dismissed.

This is not the first time that Ethiopians are demanding the young royal’s remains. In 2007, Ethiopia’s then-President Girma Wolde-Giorgis sent a request to Queen Elizabeth II for the body to be sent back, but his efforts also fell flat.

"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," Ethiopian royal descendent Abebech Kasa shared with the BBC.

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

Professor Alula Pankhurst agrees with this sentiment, stating that restitution is a way to bring about reconciliation.

"Restitution is used as a way to bring reconciliation, to recognise what was wrong in the past," said Pankhurst.

As of now, reports are showing that the royal family may have other ideas about this matter. It will be interesting to see how this issue develops given the British royal’s dicey history with colonialism on the African continent.