The tenderest mother

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After the death of his father, the Emperor Tewodros, at the battle of Magdala, seven-year-old Prince Alemayehu was brought to England under the guardianship of the eccentric Captain Speedy. This story is republished from Perspectives: Ethiopia & Britain (2007) is a book about relations between Ethiopia and Britain, published by the British Council and written by Lucy Eyre, printed by United Printers Plc, Addis Ababa.
In 1862, Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia sent a letter, to be delivered by hand a British diplomat, to Queen Victoria in Britain. The letter addressed itself to the ‘Great Christian Queen, who loves all Christians’ seeking friendship and wishing to exchange embassies. When the Queen failed to respond to this letter- the most common theory is that it got lost in the Foreign Office system-Tewdros was enraged. It was the latest in string of real and imagined slights from the country’s tiny community of foreign missionaries, diplomats and adventurers. In response, Tewdros imprisoned the British consul and several others (eventually 60 people in all).
Captain Cameron, the British consul, managed to get a pencil written note out, detailing his captivity and suggesting that the Queen reply to Tewodros’ letter. A diplomatic solution was almost reached when a conciliatory letter eventually arrived in 1866: the hostages were released, but immediately were re-arrested and moved to Magdala. In 1868, British forces (with the help of many Indian troops) defeated Tewodros at Magdala. Rather than surrender, Tewodros killed himself, reputedly with a pistol which had been a present from Queen Victoria. (She had indeed sent him a gift of two pistols- engraved ‘Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, to Theodorus, Emperor of Abyssinia’-as present for punishing the men who had killed the previous British consul.)
After the defeat-and suicide- of emperor Tewodros, Empress Tiruwork said that it was the dying wish of her husband that their son, Alemayehu, should be given refuge in Britain. It fell to Captain Tristam Speedy to escort the prince to Britain (though other British officers later disputed his claim for guardianship of the boy).
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Captain Speedy had served as the British Consul in Massawa in the 1860s, where he learned Amharic. After serving in Massawa, Speedy had moved to New Zealand but-when the Magdala expedition was being formed-he was called back to interpret.
Prince Alemayehu was taken to Britain where he was looked after by Queen Victoria and educated at Rugby School (a private school in Britain). This is an extract from a letter written by Queen Victoria to the Crown Princess of Prussia in 1868, just a few months after the battle of Magdala.
“I find I am quite forgetting to tell you about Theodor’s son-whom I saw on Thursday last and again on Friday morning. He is under the charge of the gigantic but most kind officer Captain Speedy, who has been long in Abyssinia and knows the child’s father and mother and speaks all those languages. The poor little boy, a dear, gentle, pretty, intelligent little darling of seven years old, clings to him like an infant clings to its mother or nurse-can’t bear him out of sight, sleeps near him and sometimes even in his bed-as he is very nervous, and seems to have dreadful recollections of the murder of those people his father killed. Captain Speedy is really like the tenderest mother to him and it is quite touching to see this great man of six foot six inches leading about this little child! The poor mother asked him to be a father to her child when she was dying.’
Sadly, Prince Alemayehu died in 1897-perhaps from homesickness-aged just 18. He was buried in the St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle.
(photos Costume Cocktail).

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