‘We Want His Remains Back as a Family’: British Royal Family Refuses Request to Return ‘Stolen’ Remains of Ethiopian Prince Because Exhuming Body ‘Would Disturb Other Human Remains’

The British royal family has refused a request to retrieve and return the remains of an Ethiopian prince taken from his country by British troops in the 19th century.

BBC reports that the body of Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia will not be returning to the East African country because removing his remains will disturb others buried in the catacombs under Windsor Castle.

That’s according to a spokesperson with Buckingham Palace who released a statement that said, in part, “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.”

Fasil Minas, an Ethiopian royal descendant and relative of Alemayehu, said, “We want his remains back as a family and as Ethiopians because that is not the country he was born in.” Minas added that the prince’s burial in the UK “was not right.”

This most recent rejection is just the latest refusal in a number of calls and petitions Ethiopia has made to salvage the prince’s remains and other relics that were stolen from the country. In 2007, Ethiopia’s former president Girma Wolde-Giorgis sent a formal request to Queen Elizabeth II for the body to be sent back. That request was also denied.

Prince Alemayehu was just 7 years old when he was taken from his home nation by British forces and brought to England after thousands of troops laid siege to the Abyssinian capital and defeated his father, Emperor Tewodros II, in 1868. The nation of Ethiopia had historically been called the Kingdom of Abyssinia by some countries up until the 1940s.

The British Royal Family has rejected Ethiopia’s request to repatriate the remains of Prince Alemayehu, who was taken to England in 1868, where he died and was then subsequently buried at Windsor Castle. (Photo: YouTube/Red Horizons)

Alemayehu’s kidnapping followed imperial exploits and failed diplomatic efforts of his father who attempted to ally with the United Kingdom in 1862 and petition their help in battling neighboring countries to retain control of his territories.

After sending letters to Queen Victoria with no response, the emperor took some Europeans captive, including a British consul, and detained them in Ethiopia. Once England learned of the hostage situation, Queen Victoria deployed 13,000 British and Indian troops as well as an official from the British Museum.

In 1868, they stormed Tewodoros’ fortress of Maqdala in northern Ethiopia and defeated the country’s forces within hours of their invasion.

More than 500 Abyssinians were killed and thousands were wounded. The emperor committed suicide following the siege, a defiant act that represented his refusal to become a British prisoner and made him a hero in the eyes of his nation’s people. The pistol he shot himself with reportedly was given to Queen Victoria as a gift.

Following the battle, the British ransacked and pillaged dozens of cultural and religious artifacts, including gold crowns, necklaces, manuscripts, and dresses.

It apparently took hundreds of mules and more than a dozen elephants to haul those artifacts away, which were dispersed across Europe. Many still remain in the collections of European museums and libraries or are owned by private collectors and organizations.

The British also took Prince Alemayehu and his mother, Empress Tiruwork Wube back to England, likely concluding that keeping them in British custody would protect them from Tewodoros’ other enemies in nearby factions. His mother died on the journey, and Alemayehu’s orphan status and predicament garnered Queen Victoria’s interest and sympathy.

She financially supported him and sent him to study at elite schools. After more than 10 years living in exile in the U.K., he died at the age of 18 of pleurisy in 1879. Queen Victoria then arranged for his burial in the catacombs of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

The queen wrote this of Alemayehu’s death in her diary: “Very grieved and shocked to hear by telegram, that good Alemayehu had passed away this morning. It is too sad! All alone, in a strange country, without a single person or relative, belonging to him.”

The British Museum has faced intense backlash years for withholding artifacts and other objects belonging to other nations that were stolen during England’s colonial age.

The museum currently houses around 80 objects from the northern Ethiopian locality of Maqdala in its collection. The collection includes ceremonial crosses, chalices, processional umbrella tops, weapons, textiles, jewelry, sacred altar tablets, and other archaeological material. Some of Prince Alemayehu’s possessions are part of that collection.

In 2019, the museum’s Board of Trustees met with an Ethiopian delegation to discuss the state of those materials. Since that meeting, talks have been continuing, including discussions on potential collaborations with other institutions.

Last week, Ghana’s royal ruler issued a request to the British Museum to return 200 Asante gold objects in its collection. Those items were looted from the Asante palace in Kumasi during the war with the British of 1874. Some of those items are also in the custody of different collections around the world.

The Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, who attended the coronation of King Charles, later met the museum director for discussions. The BBC reported the museum said in response it was “exploring the possibility of lending items” to Ghana.

The museum has turned down similar requests from Ghana in the past but says it has worked to cultivate a positive collaboration with the country. Ghana’s government has established a Restitution Committee to survey the return of items taken from the Asante palace.

Nana Oforiatta Ayim, a member of that committee, told the BBC, “These objects are largely sacred ones and their return is about more than just restitution. It is also about reparation and repair, for the places they were taken from, but also those who did the taking.”

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