Award-winning poet and author Lemn Sissay urges UK to return Ethiopia’s ‘stolen’ prince

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Poet urges UK to return Ethiopia’s ‘stolen’ prince

By Sinai Fleary

THERE ARE growing calls for the United Kingdom to return the remains of a ‘stolen’ Ethiopian prince Prince Alemayehu. 

The young Prince was deeply unhappy in Britain and died of lung inflammation aged 18 after being captured as a seven-year-old in 1868.

He is buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, but the chapel told The Voice it was impractical to retrieve the boy’s remains because it would disturb the remains of others.

The Ethiopian government has previously called for the prince to be returned to his homeland.

Prince Alemayehu was the only legitimate son of Emperor Tewodros II – who reigned as Emperor between 1818 and 1868, in Abyssinia – now Ethiopia. 

In April 1868, British troops invaded northern Abyssinia, during the Battle of Maqdala, also known as the Napier expedition. 

Following his defeat, the Emperor committed suicide rather than surrender. 

The young Prince was taken back to Britain by Captain Tristam Speedy along with the looted treasures including sacred manuscripts. 

A lot of items were auctioned off before even reaching Britain and as a result, may never be recovered. 

Award-winning poet and author Lemn Sissay, who is of Ethiopian heritage and has been campaigning for the return of the Prince’s remains, said the Prince’s story resonates with his own story, as he was also “stolen” from his birth mother.

He told The Voice: “In any of the pictures of Alemayehu, he is never happy.

“You are bringing a prince to England and all of his family has been killed, he is relative to nobody. Everybody was staring at him because he was not the same colour as them – he was an object of curiosity. 

“They did the same to me! Touching your hair and licking their fingers and touching your skin to see if your colour would come off.”

He added: “Ethiopia was never colonised, so the Ethiopian mentally is not one of someone who has been victimised, so this Battle of Maqdala is like a scar on the body of Ethiopia.

“The Emperor, Haile Selassie I, had a very strong relationship with the Queen, Britain and the monarchy – he was loved here. 

“To the Ethiopian community returning the Prince would symbolise everything which is good about the relationship between Britain and Ethiopia.”

A formal request for the return of the Prince’s remains was sent to Queen Elizabeth in 2007, by the then Ethiopian president Girma Wolde-Giorgis.

However, the monarch sparked a diplomatic row in 2019 after refusing the request.

Sissay said that one of the last things British-Ethiopian scholar Richard Pankhurst said to him before he passed away was to “get the manuscripts” – referring to stolen ancient Ethiopian manuscripts being held in British museums and libraries. 

His son, Alula Pankhurst, a social anthropologist and member of the Ethiopian National Heritage Committee, said the idea that exhuming the body might disturb the foundations of the chapel was “an excuse not to address the issue.”  

He revealed that several high-profile Ethiopians have demanded the remains be returned but their requests went unanswered.

Pankhurst told The Voice: “He would have wanted to go home and one has to consider what his wish was.”

“There have been calls for him to come back and the response has been that the bones had been mixed up with other bones. 

“I don’t think that would be a significant argument because I am sure that they wouldn’t have completely mixed up the bones.

“I don’t think it would be difficult to identify the bones. I’m sure his remains would be kept in a casket separate from others because they know he was royalty.” 

Ethiopian Amhara activist Yodith Gideon, from Stop Amhara Genocide, said the prince’s remains should be repatriated back to Ethiopia. “What belongs to Ethiopia should be returned to Ethiopia.” 

St George’s Chapel dismissed claims the Prince’s remains are mixed in with nine other people, stating: “that is not the case.” 

The Chapel said the area where Prince Alemayehu is buried is the site of forty seven people.  

According to the St George’s Chapel website, the Prince is buried in the catacombs (a subterranean recess for tombs). 

The Chapel said returning the remains would not be possible. A spokesperson said: “The Dean and Canons of Windsor are very sensitive to the need to honour the memory of Prince Alemayehu. 

“However, they have been advised that 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. 

“Conscious of the responsibility to preserve the dignity of the departed it is therefore, with regret, not something we can agree to at this time, but in recent years we have accommodated requests from Ethiopian delegations to visit St George’s and will continue to do so.”

In 2007, Ethiopia demanded the return of Maqdala-era artefacts from the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

The British Museum confirmed they had nine sacred Tabots from the Maqdala but are not on public display, in line with the strict rules of Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. 

A Tabot can only be viewed by priests in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Church.

They also had several other objects that previously belonged to Prince Alemayehu, including a necklace.

A Museum spokesperson said: “Discussions with Ethiopian partners concerning the Maqdala collections are continuing and the Museum is actively invested in these. 

“The Museum is also committed to thorough and open investigation of Maqdala collection histories, and engagement with wider contemporary dialogues within which these collections are positioned.”


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