LONDON — The body of a teenage prince captured by British troops will not be returned to his remaining family in east Africa, the British royal family has said, in the latest high-profile feud over the legacy of its brutal colonial past.
Buckingham Palace has refused a repeated request to repatriate the remains of Prince Dejatch Alemayehu of Abyssinia — which includes modern-day Ethiopia — who was taken from his home at age 6 in 1868 and died just over a decade later in England.
His body is buried at Windsor Castle, one of King Charles III's official residences and the traditional site of British royal funerals and weddings.
Alemayehu was taken from Africa after British forces defeated his father and looted his imperial capital, in one of the most notorious military operations of Britain's colonial era. Ethiopia has been asking for the prince's remains and other treasures to be returned for the last 150 years.
Fasil Minas, a descendent of the Abyssinian royal family and a relative of Alemayehu, told the BBC: “We want his remains back as a family and as Ethiopians because that is not the country he was born in.”
But the palace said this week that this wasn't possible as it would disturb other human remains buried nearby.
"The Dean and Canons of Windsor are very sensitive to the need to honour the memory of Prince Alemayehu," Buckingham Palace said in a statement sent to NBC News on Tuesday.
"However, they have been advised that 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," the statement said.
The Ethiopian Embassy in London is welcome to keep visiting the grave to pay respects, the statement added — but historians said the palace should do more to take responsibility for its past.
"This is such an emotional issue because it reminds everyone of Alemayehu’s plight — a child stuck in a foreign land, never allowed to go home," Andrew Heavens, author of a new book on Alemayehu and the British raid on Abyssinia titled "The Prince and the Plunder," told NBC News.
"Emotionally, most people who get to know Alemayehu’s story feel his remains should be returned. He made it so clear before he died that he wanted to go back," Heavens said.
The palace could do more to show Ethiopia exactly why the prince's body can't be removed, Heavens added.
Alemayehu was the son of the emperor of Abyssinia, Tewodros II, a Coptic Christian ruler who had taken missionaries and British government officials captive after Britain refused to assist him in wars with mostly Muslim neighboring countries.
In December 1867, Britain launched an expedition of 13,000 soldiers and 40,000 animals, including 44 elephants trained to pull huge artillery guns, according to the National Army Museum in London, to free the hostages.
It took until April for them to reach the Abyssinian capital, Maqdala. More than 500 Abyssinians were killed and thousands injured in a 90-minute battle — some estimates are much higher and no complete contemporary record exists.
British forces sustained two deaths, with 18 soldiers injured. Tewodros subsequently killed himself with a pistol that had been a gift from Queen Victoria.
It took 15 elephants and around 200 mules to carry all the wealth the British looted from Maqdala. Alemayehu's mother, Empress Tiruwork Wube, intended to travel to England with her son but died on the journey.
Queen Victoria took an interest in Alemayehu and arranged for him to study at elite schools, before he was sent to the military training academy at Sandhurst. He left after less than a year for the English city of Leeds, where he died of pleurisy — inflammation of the lining surrounding the lungs — at age 18 in 1879.
Victoria wrote 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."
He was buried in the catacombs of St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.
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For Jeremiah Garsha, an expert in the looting of human remains at University College Dublin, originally from California, there is no doubt that Alemayehu was stolen.
"He was, he was kidnapped," he said. "You have a minor coming to another country as an orphan after his mother dies and then he himself dies at 18 — something should feel wrong about that. He's looted as well, like all the other curios and treasures that were taken."
The British obsession with Africa at the time created a huge market for stolen goods. This curiosity extended from ceremonial shields and religious items to living Black African people.
"You wouldn't kidnap a white child; Victoria's not going to end up with a child from [London suburb] Camden Town — there has to be a racial element, the foreignness for this prince to come and be at the palace," Garsha said.
Many of the treasures that were taken remain in the British Museum, which has been discussing the possible return of certain items with Ethiopian officials since 2019.
Several other countries, including Benin and Greece, have long petitioned the British government for the return of items that they consider stolen during the colonial era.