The tragic prince of Abyssinya in Malta
✍🏼 Giovanni Bonello ℹ️ Times of Malta
Leandro Preziosi’s portrait of Prince Alemayehu in Abyssinian costume taken in Malta on June 27, 1868. A frail and melancholic seven-year-old boy was marched through the door of Malta’s leading photographer to have his portrait taken.
A frail and melancholic seven-year-old boy was marched through the door of Malta’s leading photographer to have his portrait taken. He was the crown-prince of a defeated empire and a spoil of war, like the jewels from the State treasury or the captured artillery. Leandro Preziosi, the island’s first professional photographer, had earlier moved his studio from Floriana to secluded and shadowed Fredrick Street, No 28, in Valletta.
On Saturday June 27, 1868, Preziosi must have welcomed his royal guest graciously – the Preziosis themselves had piled up their not inconsiderable wealth as relentless corsairs, but had later melded into the titled aristocracy of Malta and had contributed gainfully to the public life of the island – the renowned orientalist painter Amadeo Preziosi, the pioneer Maltese photographer, Leandro, and Sir Luigi Preziosi, bold eye surgeon and popular symbol of national unity after the Sette Giugno riots.
Prince Alemayehu, the young captive, arrived in Malta late in the evening on Thursday, June 25, 1868, the prisoner, ward and guest of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. He had travelled by HMS Urgent, from Alexandria to Grand Harbour, on his way to exile and to school in the United Kingdom.
His stop in Malta included the photo-session at Preziosi’s. When he entered the studio, an attendant was dutifully carrying a change of clothes for Preziosi to take not one, but two photos of the boy. The first, of the tiny Abyssinian wearing European clothing, shiny boots with spats, and holding on to a straw sailor’s hat, with the ship’s name HMS Urgent on the tally – the silk ribbon. The manufacture of straw hats worn by UK sailors in the Mediterranean – the sennit – accounted for one of Malta’s more significant cottage industries up to the end of World War I.
But Preziosi also took a second portrait on the imperial prince: one in which he wears high Abyssinian ceremonial costume. In this second photo, the boy is barefoot and so his feet rest on a dutiful cushion. And he is wearing a rich necklace of shiny seashells, to which he was profoundly attached. He put on the same necklace for portraits taken shortly later by Margaret Cameron in the Isle of Wight. The prince’s garments could not look more different in the two Preziosi photos, but there is one feature that ties both portraits together: the tragic, defeated look etched on the child’s face.
The boy-Prince Alemayehu had every reason to look tragic. His father, the Emperor of Abyssinia, King of Kings, Son of David and Solomon, had just committed suicide after a crushing defeat by the British invaders in the mountain stronghold of Magdala. His splendid young mother had also just died “heartbroken” of an unclear illness on foreign soil – “a chest complaint of some standing”. Prince Alemayehu was utterly alone, in strangers’ hands, in strangers’ lands.
The crown Prince of Abyssinia remained in Malta until July 4. A newspaper report says that on landing he was taken straight to the Governor Sir Charles van Straubenzee, and then he lodged in what was then the undisputed centre of Malta’s social life: the Union Club, the old Auberge de Provence, in today’s Republic Street.
“The Prince is an interesting lad,” another local paper observed, “having handsome features, but evidently a delicate frame, and much care will be required to rear him, especially in such a country as England. He is attired in a striped knicker bocker suit, with a sailor’s hat bearing ‘Urgent’ on the ribbon. He seems quite at ease, barring the wearing of boots to which he has not yet got accustomed. He seems very intelligent for his years, and has already picked up a little English, though not enough to express fully his wants. On Saturday last he sat for his photograph to Mr Preziosi”.
How else the boy prince whiled his time away on the island is unknown. His appointed tutor, Captain Tristram Speedy, known to the natives and to the young prince as Basha Felika, no doubt took good care of him and did his utmost to keep him happy. Speedy, six foot five and red-bearded, of the Intelligence Department of the Abyssinian punitive expedition, in whose care Alamayou’s dying mother had refused to entrust her son, eventually became the derelict boy’s friend and confidant.
After the Magdala disaster, the prince’s Abyssinian retinue had accompanied Alamayou up to Egypt on the clear understanding that they would be in charge of the little royal, but they had then been summarily dismissed and turned back by the British authorities on the party’s arrival in Alexandria. From then onwards the young orphan was to be ever alone, bereft of the comfort of one friendly or familiar face, or of anyone who could speak his language.
On the island, the media reported: “It is rumoured that it is the intention of Her Majesty our sovereign, to have the young prince educated in England under her distinguished patronage.”
From Malta, the prince was, in fact, taken to England, again on HMS Urgent, as a colonial prize of war, together with many precious objects looted from the imperial palace, the Coptic churches and the houses in Magdala. On arrival in London, a Maltese paper informs us, the spoils of war were to be put on public display at South Kensington Museum. Pride of place went to King Theodore’s robes and ritual jewellery, all worthy of the title of spolia opima, a dig borrowed from Roman history to describe what was looted from the corpse of the commander of the enemy killed in battle.
These are described in great and gloating detail in the feature; they included: Emperor Theodore’s robe, crown and slippers, all worked in beautiful filigree “known to connoisseurs as Maltese work”. The robe was “ornamented with pieces of stamped silver, and both the robe and the crown have silver balls attached to them with barbaric silver pendants”.
The queen’s robe appeared to be “of Indian workmanship, the warp being of gilt thread, the rest of silk and embroidered with silk silver thread in patterns of flowers. The ground is yellow, and the fashion of it is curious in the extreme”. Together with the other exhibits the reporter noticed several seals, among others a large gilt one with a jasper handle and with “a monstrously rude lion” on it.
This was only the small fraction of the loot that the British public were allowed to know about. Another source says that after the king’s tragic suicide, the British “looted a vast amount of treasure from the citadel, including Tewodros II’s crowns, a huge number of both royal and ecclesiastic robes, vestments, crosses, chalices, swords and shields, many embroidered or decorated with gold or silver, hundreds of tabots (precious tablets of the law), the great Imperial silver negarit war drum, and a huge number of valuable manuscripts. Many of these continue to be held in various museums and libraries in Europe, as well as in private collections”.
The Maltese papers of the time took a keen, and prurient, interest in the dead king’s love life, which they painted in less than favourable terms. Though a Christian Copt who wanted Abyssinia to be a modern Christian kingdom, the dead Theodore II was described, a few days after his child had left Malta to proceed to the UK, as an immoral satrap.