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The Prince and the Plunder: How Britain took one small boy and hundreds of treasures from Ethiopia

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Mr Franks has the honour to report that two cases have been received from the India Office, containing various fragments of marble excavated by the British troops in Abyssinia. They appear to have been chiefly found amid the ruins of a church at Adulis, near Annesley Bay, a view of which has been published in the ‘Illustrated London News’ for September 5, 1868. During the progress of the excavation fragments of carved marble, flat pieces of alabaster, having one side well-polished, were dug up, and some fragments of marble shafts; also one carved capital in marble, which may be referable to Byzantine architecture. Rough drawings of all these fragments are herewith submitted, and may prove interesting to those possessing more archaeological knowledge than I can lay claim to.

The book is written in an uneasily breezy style. Readers are told to “hold tight”, that “it’s a fair cop”, and there is a lot of “perhaps” and “maybe”. And in telling rather than showing, Heavens does Alamayu a disservice. His tragic tale needs neither elaboration nor anachronistic moralising. A story of adventure, trauma and tragedy, The Prince and the Plunderis also a tale for our times, as we re-examine Britain’s past, pull down statues of imperial grandees and look for other figures to commemorate and celebrate in their place. The basics Ironically, this image of Christ, which had become the most sacred icon of the Ethiopian people after its mysterious arrival in the 16th century, is the work of a European Renaissance Master, probably Flemish. In 1744, it had been captured by Sudanese Muslims, and its return to Ethiopia 20 or so years later was greeted with unbridled joy. Holmes’s widow sold it via Christie’s in 1911, and it has since entered the collection of the Portuguese art historian Luiz Reis Santos. This work, of Flemish origin, of Portuguese ownership, and sacred to Ethiopians, has not been seen since 1998. Its fate currently rests in the hands of the Portuguese Ministry of Culture. The columns, judging from the portions lying about, were apparently in their original state built up, clamped with iron and run with lead.I can recommend comedian James Acaster for a 3 minute run-through of the arguments for and against repatriation on this youtube video. ↩︎ Alamayu never had the chance to write his own memoirs so almost all of the time we see Alamayu through other people’s eyes - whether they are British journalists, members of the public, or his classmates speaking on his behalf. All we have directly from Alamayu are a few scraps of writing and letters written for the moment. Kuper cites the more famous example of the Benin Bronzes, taken by British forces in 1897. The city-state of Benin was located in what is now Nigeria, though, as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “One thing we know for sure is they [their creators] didn’t make them for Nigeria.”

What: A 6th century column capital with acanthus leaves, made of white marble, taken during Britain’s Abyssinian Expedition during a hit-and-run archaeological dig at Adulis in modern day Eritrea


I have the honour to report that in accordance with the wishes of his Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, as communicated to me at Antalo on the 14th ultimo, I lost no time on coming to Zula, arriving here on the 24th ultimo. Below is his report, as it appeared in the official record of the expedition, compiled by Holland and Hozier. In just two days his father’s empire had been emphatically destroyed, and Alamayu was surrounded by enemies - British and other Ethiopians opposed to Tewodros, as his own Grandfather had been. Heavens is a good storyteller and guides us with a sure pen through the events of 1868 and beyond. He sprinkles in first hand sources throughout the book so that people who met or knew Alamayu, like Queen Victoria, can speak to us directly. Presumably it’s the palace’s intention for Ethiopian petitioners to picture, as you do from euphemisms like “others in the vicinity”, scenes of such ghastly Hadean mayhem that they will tactfully withdraw. British subjects may, on the other hand, wonder if expert accounts, with diagrams, of what would become of the late queen’s body, disguised the fact that the royal vault is actually a chaotic ossuary in which unidentifiable parts of foreign princes are so carelessly jumbled up with those of Charles’s forebears that only DNA testing could positively tell them apart (some hair of Alemayehu’s father is in fact available, courtesy of Lord Napier’s pillaging Victorians). It would certainly accord with an earlier royal excuse for inaction that “identifying the remains of young Prince Alemayehu would not be possible”.

For the first time, Andrew Heavens tells the whole story of Alamayu, from his early days in his father's fortress on the roof of Africa to his new home across the seas, where he charmed Queen Victoria, chatted with Lord Tennyson and travelled with his towering red-headed guardian Captain Speedy. The orphan prince was celebrated but stereotyped and never allowed to go home. In the first part of the book, the prince’s short life and his times are covered. It traces the prince’s journey from the Red Sea port of Massawa (in present day Eritrea), through Suez, Alexandria and Malta, to his first landing on the shores of Britain at the Port of Plymouth. Three days after his arrival, he would meet Queen Victoria and the royal family at their summer home of Osborne House. Soon after, he would travel again. His guardian, who goes by the name of ‘’Speedy’’, would take him to The Crown Jewel of the British Empire, India. Heavens makes many tenuous claims; footnotes or endnotes would have been preferable to the summary of sources he offers at the book’s end. At Cheltenham, Alamayu “mastered the chief virtues of public school life – the suppression and repression of troubling emotion” – how does he know? Heavens also suggests that Alamayu’s melancholy nature and poor performance at school were due to dyslexia – though he at least adds the caveat that “it is a risky business diagnosing anyone from the distance of 160 years, especially with no medical or other relevant expertise”. Well, quite.I have been unable to discover any capitals to suit the stone columns, nor is there any trace of how the roof of this building was supported. Before his death Alemayehu had “hankered”, Heavens writes, for Ethiopia. During his lifetime his plight touched some would-be protectors, including Victoria (his Windsor burial was a respectful gesture), while one of her prime ministers, William Gladstone, condemned the removal, at the same time as the child, of Abyssinian spoils. He “deeply lamented”, Hansard recorded, “that those articles, to us insignificant, though probably to the Abyssinians sacred and imposing symbols, or at least hallowed by association, were thought fit to be brought away by a British Army.” The seven year old Alamayu had lost his father and his mother, and he was about to lose his country too - bundled onto a waiting ship, he would never return to Ethiopia. What’s in the book? The following is the report by the officer in charge of the Department of Antiquities of the British Museum, on the articles found at Adulis, which were presented to that Institution:- By good fortune, Alamayu’s uncles were not part of the massacre. His Grandfather is thought to have died in prison the year before in 1867. ↩︎

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