The Prince and the Plunder

By Andrew Heavens
Published by The History Press
Published August last year.  Paperback to follow this August.



The story of Ethiopian Prince Alamayu, or Alemayehu, depending on your choice of spelling, is haunting because it could have been so different.  Above all, he should never have died when and where he did.

In our post-colonial era of efforts to right complex wrongs and confront episodes of history long omitted from the national curriculum, the body of work analysing his tragedy and the events surrounding it is steadily growing.

Reuters journalist Andrew Heavens’ contribution stands apart in that it combines a compelling narrative with a damning catalogue of the plunder snatched by a victorious army and being fought over to this day.  He moves us without being sentimental and is morally aware without being sententious or didactic.  The list of items ranging from jewellery to a human skull to religious icons – significant enough to invite comparisons with the Elgin Marbles (or Parthenon Sculptures) – is so much more than a list because of the connections with the narrative we have just read.  Like a good barrister, Heavens makes us appreciate the full meaning of the evidence before us.

The plunder was taken, along with Prince Alamayu, as the forces of the British Empire retreated from the battle at the mountain fortress of Magdala in 1868.

The conflict might have been avoided had Britain at least acknowledged the plea of Alamayu’s father Emperor Tewodros to join him in forming an alliance against Islam.  Some kind of response to the request might have prevented him from holding captive Europeans who provided a casus belli for an army massively better equipped than the Ethiopians it defeated.

Tewodros chose to shoot himself rather than be taken prisoner by the victors, but not before he had conveyed a desire that his son should be educated in Britain.

That meant the almost seven-year-old Alamayu was bundled out of Ethiopia, or Abysinia as the British referred to it, with the empress, his mother.  She died on the way, making the prince an orphan whose pain Heavens forces us to imagine when many in Victorian England preferred to ignore it.

Queen Victoria did not, and her maternal instincts were stirred after she met the winsome prince, but one of the book’s many strengths is that it reminds us Victoria did not always get her way against the hard-hearted male politicians of her time.

Alamayu was also up against an education system characterised by bullying and conformity.

All too little remains to tell us what he thought as he suffered, and we have to be content with glimmers of his personality and how much more he might have been.

Echoing some of the strengths of his father, who, for all his faults, impressed with his courage, ambition and efforts to modernise Ethiopia, Alamayu was athletic, brave and generous.  He was, however, unable to thrive in a system intolerant of difference.  Sandhurst, then notorious for horrific bullying, was especially cruel.

The implied conclusion is it destroyed Alamayu’s sense of self-worth and maybe his desire to live.  By the time he ended up living in Leeds, northern England, to have the gaps in his education patched up by Cyril Ransome – who was to become the father of the writer Arthur Ransome – he was so broken, it is hardly surprising he caught pleurisy, aggravated by his refusal to eat for fear of being poisoned.

Alamayu’s untimely death – at the age of 18 – made him just one among the millions of innocent victims of Empire.  The fight for reparation goes on as Ethiopia demands the return of his remains currently buried in the catacombs of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Chapel.

Barbara Lewis © 2024.