Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu’s Legacy and the Impact of Artefact Restitution on Historical Justice

In a historic event, a lock of hair belonging to Ethiopian Prince Alemayehu, who died over 140 years ago, has been returned to representatives from his home country, Ethiopia. This artifact, along with other items looted from Emperor Tewodros II’s Maqdala fortress, was handed over to Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK, Teferi Melesse, during a ceremony in London. The return of these items symbolizes more than just a ceremonial gesture; it holds the potential to pave the way for the future repatriation of the prince’s body.

The lock of hair and the looted artifacts found their way to the UK after British soldiers invaded Emperor Tewodros II’s fortress in 1868. The crown prince, Prince Alemayehu, was taken as a young child to London and faced an unhappy upbringing. He died at the age of 18 in 1879 and was buried at Windsor Castle. Recent requests to repatriate his body to Ethiopia have been denied, citing concerns about disturbing the remains of others buried in the catacombs of St George’s Chapel.

While the return of Prince Alemayehu’s hair signifies a step toward historical justice, there is a larger call for the repatriation of Ethiopian artifacts looted during the 1868 British expedition to Magdala. Alula Pankhurst, a member of Ethiopia’s Heritages Restitution National Committee, stresses the importance of restorative justice and the potential for improved relations and collaborations between British and Ethiopian institutions.

The Scheherazade Foundation played a crucial role in facilitating the return of the lock of hair. It was discovered among the family heirlooms of Leonie Turner, a descendant of Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy, who had accompanied Prince Alemayehu from Ethiopia and served as his guardian in the UK. Turner expressed her sentiment that the lock of hair belonged with its rightful lineage, acknowledging that it was far from home.

While this historic event is a cause for celebration, it also highlights the need for caution. The delicate process of repatriating cultural artifacts raises questions about ownership, preservation, and the ethical responsibility of museums and institutions that currently hold these treasures. The UK’s rejection of the request to return Prince Alemayehu’s body underscores the complexities surrounding such repatriations.

In terms of impact, the return of the lock of hair and the ongoing discussions for further repatriation shed light on the shared histories between countries and the unresolved legacies of colonialism. It encourages dialogue and reflection on the long-lasting effects of colonial exploitation and the importance of preserving and honoring cultural heritage.

The repatriation of artifacts serves not only as a symbolic act but also as an opportunity for healing and reconciliation. It allows future generations to reconnect with their history, fostering a stronger sense of cultural identity and pride. Additionally, it serves as a reminder of the importance of restorative justice and the value of international collaboration in addressing historical injustices.

Moving forward, it is crucial to approach repatriation efforts with sensitivity, respect, and thorough research. The balance between preserving cultural heritage and returning stolen artifacts must be carefully navigated, taking into account the wishes of communities and the collective responsibility of the international community.

The return of Prince Alemayehu’s lock of hair may be seen as a significant step towards righting historical wrongs. However, acknowledging that this is just the beginning, efforts must continue to ensure comprehensive restitution for looted Ethiopian artifacts. The repatriation of cultural treasures holds immense potential to strengthen relations, deepen cultural understanding, and bring about long-overdue justice on a global scale.