Updated on June 6, 2023 8:54 P.M. Addis Ababa Time
I must confess that I am both enchanted and intrigued by the recent coverage and interpretation in the British media of some fragments of Ethiopian history dating back 150 years ago, concerning Emperor Tewodros II and his son, Prince Alemayehu – who both hold a special place in the hearts of many of us Ethiopians. The maverick Emperor took his own life dreading the capture by the British, and the poor orphan prince was taken to England and later died at the age of 18 and was buried there.
For a change, the stories in the British media are not about drought and famine-stricken children, but about royalties and treasures looted from ‘the great Christian emperor of the South [Ethiopia]’ by ‘the great Christian queen of the north [Britain]’. True, it was a tragic end for our two icons and for Ethiopia, but I don’t see any humiliation for Ethiopia or the historical viciousness on the part of the British Imperial power. The whole incident seemed to have resulted chiefly from royal swaggers on both sides – one of them being Ethiopia! Queen Victoria sent 13,000 British and Indian troops led by none other than General Napier – whose giant statue is hoisted up front in Trafalgar Square in London. It certainly had the semblance of a clash of heavyweights.
Some fellow Ethiopians seem to feel immense indignation about this bit of our history and have started a campaign to repatriate the young prince’s remains to Ethiopia from their current resting place in Windsor Castle. I find this utterly misplaced: a waste of energy and compassion at best, and an outright red herring at worst.
What I find outrageous and gullible is for us Ethiopians to be so consumed by this, while an existential threat is hovering over the country. God forbid, but if the ethnic strife the Ethiopian regime has been fanning were to explode to the whole country, we would be lucky to find enough fosterers for Ethiopian children. Ethiopia is now a country where citizens cannot travel safely across regions. And what are we Ethiopian obsessed with? The return of the remains of a long past prince!
By far the most farcical aspect of this issue is the Ethiopian government’s stance. This is a regime that has plainly disowned Emperor Tewodros and everything this great king stood and died for: Ethiopian unity. In the eyes of this regime, Ethiopian history ‘stretches back only to 100 years’ – making Emperor Tewodros and Prince Alemayehu aliens!
Like everyone else, my heart goes out to the poor little prince; I can’t even begin to imagine the brutal loneliness and melancholy that befell him in a foreign land – having lost his mother during the long and arduous journey to Britain. And, yes, it was rather misguided for the British to snatch Prince Alemayehu away from his homeland in the first place. But to say that he was ‘stolen’ is ludicrous. “Stolen” for what purpose?
God only knows what the motive was for the British to take the young prince with them – a looting-instinct overdrive, you might say. But for all practical purposes, Prince Alemayehu was treated in a princely manner: he was close to the Queen, went to the country’s elite schools (including Sandhurst), the British Parliament had heated debates about the budget for his upkeep, and he was finally buried next to the British monarchs in Windsor Castle. “He suffered from racism!”. How did that happen? While unbearable, it was the 19th century after all, if we consider what current day princesses like Meghan Markel experience! Nonetheless, having read Queen Victoria’s moving personal diaries about Prince Alemayehu, I was rather touched by the content, so full of love and praise. She would write about his “beautiful curly hair” or his amiable, yet deeply sad, demeanour.
I cannot help speculating about what would have happened to Prince Alemayehu if the British had left him (and his mother) behind? Would he have been safe and become the king in waiting?
Yohaness IV, the then ruler of the Tigray region, had conspired with the invading British army and helped General Napier’s troops to navigate the treacherous Ethiopian mountains and capture Emperor Tewodros. He rivalled against Emperor Tewodros and succeeded him to be the next Emperor. Would the young prince have been spared by Yohaness IV? It is doubtful whether he would have even made it to his 18th birthday or had a recognisable grave to speak of.
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