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The tragic prince of Abyssinya in Malta

August 5, 2020

 August 5, 2021
Giovanni Bonello/Times and Malta

Leandro Preziosi’s portrait of Prince Alemayou 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. 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 Alamayou, 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.

Preziosi’s portrait of the Abyssinian crown prince taken on the same occasion in western clothes, with the sailor’s cap of HMS Urgent.

The boy-prince Alamayou 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”. Alemayou 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”.

The red-haired giant Captain Tristram Speedy who became Prince Alemayou’s tutor during his exile.


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.”

The boy-prince Alamayou had every reason to look tragic

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.

Captain Tristram Speedy with Prince Alemayou, wearing the same shell necklace he wore in Malta.

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.

HMS Urgent in the Bay of Biscay. Prince Alemanyou was taken to Malta on this warship.

The marriage of Theodore II with Alamanyou’s mother, recorded the Malta Times, “proved a most unhappy one. The Empress, the daughter of a chief vanquished by Theodore, was even more haughty than her fiery consort whom she despised as an upstart. It was impossible for two such firebrands to live together, and for some years past, she resided apart from him, with her son, in the palace at Magdala.

“Since this separation,” the Malta Times added, “Theodore has lived a disgracefully immoral life at Debra Tabor (then the capital city), and Stamamu, a corpulent Yedju Galla woman, his favourtite concubine, was left to live with the wife at Magdala, receiving, almost daily, letters from her absent Lord… Theodore had, as may be imagined, several illegitimate children, among whom was a son named Mashesha, now about 20 years of age.”

Our Alamayou Tewodros, son of Emperor Theodore II (Tewodros II) of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Empress Tiruwork Wube, was born on April 23, 1861. Although a highly controversial figure in his lifetime, the man who tried to unite Abyssinia but not always successfully, he is today “remembered by Ethiopians as the founder and moderniser of Ethiopia’s reunification. He is now one of the most revered historical figures”. A branch of Theodore’s pedigree settled in Russia, and the renowned actor Sir Peter Ustinov claimed, with considerable plausibility, to be one of the direct descendants of Theodore II.

Photographer G. Micallef of No 163, Strada Vescovo, Valletta, in 1868 marketed in Malta this photographic image of Abyssinian soldiers defeated by the British armed forces.

The proud Theodore II’s conflict with the British colonial authorities stemmed from his desire to modernise his kingdom. He wrote a dignified personal letter to Queen Victoria, monarch to monarch, requesting her to send a mission of technicians to his kingdom, to teach engineering and other modern technologies to his subjects. He handed the letter to the British consul with a request to take it personally to Queen Victoria.

The Foreign Office laughed him off and told the consul not to bother; sending the king’s message by ordinary courier would do just fine. The letter was left unanswered to gather dust in the Foreign Office ‘pending’ file and no one ever thought it worth forwarding to the Queen.

When, after waiting patiently for two years, Theodore learnt this, he indignantly imprisoned the consul and various other Europeans, including a missionary who had described him publicly as “a barbaric, cruel, unstable usurper”. Theodore did this deliberately and explicitly to attract Queen Victoria’s attention.

Britain finally did pay some belated attention. Queen Victoria now sent an insipid reply, but none of the technical assistance asked for three years earlier. Theodore had the messengers imprisoned.

This provoked Britain to launch a punitive expeditionary force in 1868 under the military command of General Robert Napier of the Indian Army. His force, counting 37,000 soldiers, carriers and auxiliaries, marched to the mountain fortress town of Magdala where Theodore was hoping to resist him with 9,000 men.

His death was his fortune and his release

The two armies engaged on April 10, and the far better equipped British battalions decidedly defeated the Abyssinian forces. “Tewodros’s muzzle-loading muskets, swords and home-produced artillery were no match for Napier’s breech-loading rifles and steel cannon. The Abyssinians lost 2,200 men, the British just 20.”

Theodore freed the European prisoners and sent them to Napier together with a peace offering of cattle. Napier took this as a formal offer of surrender, and replied he would treat the emperor and his family with every dignity. The incensed Theodore replied that he had not surrendered and never would. The British forces then shelled Magdala furiously and killed most of Theodore’s remaining loyalists.

The book by Elizabeth Laird about the tragic life of Prince Alemayou. The book does not mention the stay of the prince in Malta.

The emperor, slightly wounded in one leg, shot himself dead, recording that “he would rather surrender to God than to man”. He placed a revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The weapon that cut his life off had been a personal 1854 present to him by Queen Victoria “as a slight token of her gratitude” the inscription on the butt of the gun testified. The victorious officers jostled each other to hack away pieces of the dead emperor’s clothing as his corpse lay bleeding on the floor, to keep as a memento, until he was left completely naked.

The British forces looted everything worth taking. The Irish-American war correspondent Henry Morton Stanley (of Dr Livingstone, I presume?) who was present, recounts in sordid detail the destruction and the remorseless plunder. Richard Rivington Holmes, official representative of the British Museum, was there on the front line, choosing and picking up with a trained connoisseur’s eye the most precious looted artefacts. Twenty elephants and almost 200 mules were employed to carry away the plundered prizes, the historian Richard Pankhurst counted.

Four years later, British Prime Minister William Gladstone, referring to the Magdala treasures in British public and private collections, some gifted to Queen Victoria herself, declared publicly “that he deeply regretted that those articles were ever brought from Abyssinia and could not conceive why they were so brought”. Noble words, ignoble actions. Not one of those artefacts was ever returned to its cultural context, 150 years later.

On Napier’s direct orders, the troops set the ghost town on fire. It was Easter Monday, April 13, 1868, 10 days shy of the seventh birthday of the emperor’s son. Maltese papers glorified Napier as “the hero of the Abyssinian expedition” and the British received him in Malta on his way back with a rapturous welcome.

The general married twice and fathered 15 children. Queen Victoria elevated him to the peerage as Baron Napier of Magdala. Of the four huge Armstrong 100-ton guns, two installed in Malta and two in Gibraltar, one of the latter was named the Napier of Magdala battery.

Though the suicide of the emperor seems to be beyond doubt, conspiracy theorists were soon busy at work. Popular legends have him killed by the Oromo warriors of a rival queen. The fable remains strong, but the story has little or no historical substance.

The bewildered boy-prince was taken from Malta to the Isle of Wight, where he lived for some time with Captain Speedy, the red-haired giant, and where he was introduced to Queen Victoria in Osborne House, her residence. She seems to have taken a liking to the gentle child and mentioned him more than once in her private diaries.

When Speedy was posted to India, he took the prince with him, and he stayed there until a political decision was taken that he should pursue his education in England, and Alamayou was enrolled in Cheltenham College. In 1875 he was moved to Rugby school, his unhappiest days. Three years later, now 17 years old, he registered at Sandhurst Royal Military College, where he did not stay long, moving college again to Far Headingley, Leeds.

Within a week of his arrival the doctors diagnosed him with pleurisy, probably due to tuberculosis, and six weeks later, on November 14, 1879, 18 years old, he was dead.

His life in England had been one unrelenting pilgrimage of dejection. His orphaned solitude, the unbearable baggage of anguish and defeat, not least the jeering outrage of contempt for the nigger-boy of the vanquished tropics, marked his spirit with the doom of death. His death was his fortune and his release.

Queen Victoria mourned “the good and kind boy” in her secret diary. How sad, she remarked, that the young prince should die so far away from his family! How unhappy the prince had been! How conscious he was of people making fun of his colour! She ordered that he be buried in Windsor Castle, and the chief mourners at his funeral were Captain Speedy and General Napier. It is not recorded if duplicity too was buried there with Alamayou.

A brass plaque in the nave of St George’s Chapel, in Windsor Castle, is, presumably, meant to commemorate the prince. It says “I was a stranger and you took me in”, again interchanging the role of villains and benefactors. A second memorial brass plaque was later placed in the chapel on the initiative of Emperor Haile Selaisse of Ethiopia, who visited his grave.

The Ethiopian government in 2007 officially requested the return of the remains of the tragic prince for reburial with his ancestors in Africa, but to no avail. There’s a corner in some foreign land that is, for ever, Ethiop.

The story of Alamayou has been told, lovingly and with the right imagination, by Elizabeth Laird in The Prince who Walked with Lions. The author does not seem to have been aware of the prince’s stay in Malta. For further insights about Theodore II, I also recommend Philip Marsden’s The Barefoot Emperor: an Ethiopian Tragedy.

My thanks to Lisa Attard, Maroma Camilleri and Leonard Callus for assisting my research.


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