Tuesday 30 October 2012

A historical character you might not know by Elizabeth Laird

This is a variant on our occasional series of "Historical characters we just don't get" by sundry History Girls and a wonderful opportunity to introduce you to Elizabeth Laird, who has just joined us as a Reserve HG. (You can read all about her on the About Us Page).

Photo by A Mortensen

                                            Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia 

Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia
If you've never heard of Prince Alemayehu of Abyssinia, I feel quite proud to introduce him to you. He's gripped my imagination for many years, and I hope he'll touch your heart, too. A poignant, romantic figure during his short life, Alemayehu's story just won't go away.

The scene of his childhood was the mountain fastness of Magdala, the seat of his father, the Emperor Tewodros of Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia). A man of great vision, intelligence, drive and erratic temper, Tewodros had muscled his way to the throne, subdued his enemies and united Abyssinia under his strong rule. But he wanted, more than anything else, to make alliances with the European powers who were increasingly influential in the lands and seas bordering the Highlands of Abyssinia in the 1860s.

Emperor Tewodros's capital at Magdala
To this end, he wrote letters to Queen Victoria. They were in Amharic, the ancient, beautiful script of his mother tongue. No one in the Foreign Office could read them, and no one thought they were important. They were put into a drawer and forgotten.

Tewodros waited impatiently for an answer. He grew increasingly frustrated, and at last, irritated by what he perceived to be the arrogance of the few Europeans who had made their way to his capital, he threw them into prison and clapped iron chains round their ankles. They included the British consul.

The Emperor Tewodros
It took years for the British to respond, but when at last they did, their reaction was extreme. They assembled a huge army consisting of British and Indian troops along with their horses, elephants, rapid assembly guns, a build- yourself-a-railway kit, and, most important of all, the new weapon of choice for an imperial army – the Snider rifle. Journalists accompanied the army, and artists sent back their depictions of the country and the people by means of the newly established telegraph system.
It took this extraordinary expeditionary force months to sail to the port of Zulla on the Red Sea, unroll their railway across the desert (one of the hottest places on earth), and ascend the narrow, treacherous paths that led hundreds of miles up into the Highlands where Tewodros was waiting, filled with excitement at the thought of seeing a modern European army in action.

The British Expeditionary Force on its way to Magdala
The outcome, of course, was never really in doubt. In spite of the incredible courage of the Abyssinian soldiers, the Snider rifles were invincible. A short, sharp battle soon gave the British control of Magdala, which would be immortalised by the triumphalist British in the name of many a Victorian street and pub. Tewodros, having fought to the very end, until he was almost the last man standing, saw that the game was up, and shot himself.

He left one legitimate son, the seven year old Prince Alemayehu, and a young queen, Tiruwork. Before he died, the Emperor is said to have instructed Tiruwork to entrust Alemayehu to the care of General Napier, who was in command of the British forces (and whose statue glares into Hyde Park from the top end of Exhibition Road). He probably guessed that in the power vacuum that would ensue after his death, the boy's life would be in danger. He also wanted his son to learn what the west could teach him, to become a new, modern kind of ruler.

General Sir Robert Napier
In the aftermath of the battle, the British shamelessly looted the imperial treasury. Tewodros had amassed in Magdala a huge hoard of works of art, exquisitely painted manuscripts, gold crosses, church vestments and icons. Ethiopia is the oldest Christian country in the world, and its artworks are unique and of enormous value. These treasures were picked over by an expert sent especially for the purpose from the British Museum (they're still there), and the rest was auctioned off to the troops.
When the conquering army had reduced Magdala to a smoking ruin, they set off down the mountain paths for home. Alemayehu and his mother went with them.

Queen Tiruwork was already ill, and after a few days of being bumped along in her litter, she died, probably of TB. Little Alemayehu, who had already lost his father, his home and the world he had grown up in, was now entirely alone.

General Napier put the little boy into the care of Captain Speedy, one of those wildly romantic Victorian soldier adventurer figures, who had learned Amharic in an earlier expedition to Abyssinia. Over six feet tall, with red hair and masses of whiskers, Speedy and the little boy formed a deep and unlikely friendship.

Captain Charles Speedy in Abyssinian dress by Julia Margaret Cameron
Back in Britain, little Alemayehu was taken at once to meet Queen Victoria, who adored children and rather fell in love with him. She saw that Alemayehu was comfortable with Speedy, and arranged for him to be paid to foster the little prince. When Speedy married, shortly afterwards, he and his new wife became loving surrogate parents.

Speedy, a career soldier, was posted to India are year or so after returning to Britain, and Alemayehu went too. He seems to have been happy enough in the cantonment, playing with the other children, but it was not to last. The Chancellor, Robert Lowe, insisted that he be brought back to Britain and sent to a proper English public school. After all, thought the good Chancellor, he would only be morally corrupted by associating with Indian children.

So Alemayehu was put into the charge of the headmaster of Cheltenham School, Dr Jex-Blake, who had nine daughters and a cold wife. When Jex-Blake transferred to Rugby School, Alemayehu went with him.
The Entrance to Rugby School
It has to be said that Alemayehu did not shine at school, at least not in his academic work. He came bottom of every class. But he loved sport, especially Rugby football, and was popular with his classmates. His holidays must have been rather bleak. No one knew what to do with him. He was shunted round between the families of courtiers and government officials, and often taken to see the Queen at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, or Balmoral.

Prince Alemayehu as a schoolboy at Rugby
The army seemed to be the obvious destination for Alemayehu. He duly started officer training at Sandhurst, but he was very unhappy there, and Victorian racism meant that everyone assumed that a black officer could not possibly be put in command of white troops.

Before any further decisions could be made, Alemayehu developed pleurisy while staying with his tutor Cyril Ransome (the father of Arthur Ransome) in Leeds. After a short illness, he died. He was nineteen years old.

Queen Victoria was very upset to hear about the death of "dear, good Alemayehu". "It is too sad!" she wrote in her journal. "All alone in a strange country, without a single person or relative belonging to him... His was no happy life".

She arranged for him to be buried in the Royal Chapel at Windsor. There is a plaque to his memory by the west door.

The story doesn't end there, however. British historians, writing from the point of view of conquerors needing to justify their vastly expensive military adventure, wrote off the Emperor Tewodros as a blood thirsty madman. Modern Ethiopian historians have revised this view. Violent and erratic he may have been, but Tewodros is now widely admired as a social innovator, powerful soldier and clever politician.

A (rather fanciful) depiction of the Emperor Tewodros giving audience accompanied by his lions

There is, and always has been, widespread indignation in Ethiopia at the looting of the national treasury, and increasingly urgent calls for it to be returned. There is a move, also, to have the mortal remains of Prince Alemayehu removed from the Royal Chapel at Windsor, and reburied alongside later emperors in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.

I have always been fascinated by the "Abyssinian campaign" (as the Victorians called their imperial adventure. I gave in to inner urgings at last, and wrote a novel about Prince Alemayehu. It's called The Prince Who Walked with Lions, and it was published earlier this year by Macmillan.

We're destined to hear more about this tragic young prince. The poet Lemn Sissay (himself an Ethiopian) has chosen him as the subject of his Great Lives broadcast with Matthew Parris, coming soon on Radio 4.

(All photos Creative Commons or out of copyright)


Penny Dolan said...

What a wonderful true story, even with all the sadnesses and stupidity and ignorance! Hard to imagine how young Alemayahu could cope with - or make any sense of - so many changes in his short life, though I feel glad he had the admirable Speedy.

Thank you, Elizabeth.

Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

This actually brought tears to my eyes. Thank you -

michelle lovric said...

Beautiful story, beautifully told.thank you

Susan Price said...

I'd never heard of any of this - though had some faint inklings of the military expedition - so found this fascinating, though very sad. Thank you.

Leslie Wilson said...

Fascinating, though shaming to Britain's record. I admire your work enormously, Elizabeth, and will definitely get the book.

Katherine Langrish said...

What a sad story. I had no idea about any of this. Like Leslie, I will be getting your book now, Elizabeth. Thankyou!