It is not just looted diamonds and valuable artefacts that former colonial powers want to hold on to; they can also be possessive about old bones and mortal dust. Evidence: Buckingham Palace has recently rejected demands for the return of the remains of Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia from the catacombs of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
Alemayehu’s is a typical Victorian tale of colonial depredation dressed up in royal kindness. In the 1860s, his father, Emperor Tewodros II, had been given the royal ignore by Queen Victoria when he sought alliance with the British. Angered, he took some Britons hostage. A quick reprisal from a huge British military expedition, which incidentally included Indian soldiers, followed. Tewodros preferred suicide to capture and the British were free to plunder countless historical artefacts and untold wealth. For good measure, they also took away Alemayehu and his mother, who unfortunately died during the journey to Britain.
Queen Victoria, never short on the maternal instinct, felt for the orphan prince. She appointed a certain Captain Speedy as his guardian and supported him financially. But Alemayehu was unhappy; bullied and badgered at Rugby and Sandhurst, he yearned for home. Unfortunately, he fell ill and died when just eighteen. The queen, while allowing his burial at Windsor, mourned—as if it was not the doing of her own colonial officials—that the prince had been “all alone, in a strange country, without a single person or relative, belonging to him”.
There are strong resonances here with the tragic tale of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last king of Punjab. After Lord Dalhousie had duplicitously annexed the once mighty kingdom of Ranjit Singh, young Duleep was put under the guardianship of a surgeon-missionary, John Login. Subtly converted to Christianity, he sailed to England in 1854 to what would prove to be a lifelong exile. Initially, he, too, was feted by Queen Victoria as a handsome, English-speaking Oriental prince who had handed over not just his kingdom but also his heathen soul. Unlike Alemayehu, he lived long enough to rebel against the Crown and return to the faith of his ancestors. However, his endeavours to return to India at the head of an army proved fruitless and he died a lonely death in a small Parisian hotel. He still lies buried in a grave in the churchyard of Elveden, his Norfolk country seat. Barring some initial spadework, no serious attempt has yet been made towards bringing his remains back to Punjab.
Revolutionaries have fared better than royals. The mortal remains of Udham Singh, who served cold revenge on Michael O’Dwyer, 21 years after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, were brought back to India in 1974 as were those of student-revolutionary Madan Lal Dhingra two years later, both from the small burial patch at Pentonville prison where they had been hanged. Incidentally, the remains of Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist hanged for the 1916 Irish Uprising, were also exhumed after 49 years from the same patch.
In Prince Alemayehu’s case, the argument cited against exhumation, that it would disturb “the resting place of a substantial number of others in the vicinity”, seems specious. The British are immaculate record keepers and well know where the bodies are buried. They are also used to moving them around: Prince Philip has been moved to rest closer to the late Queen; Queen Maria of Yugoslavia was returned to Serbia in 2013 and Prince Philip’s mother sent to her final resting place in Jerusalem. The Ethiopians would be well advised to push: this is the time to ride the woke moment.
Navtej Sarna is former high commissioner to the UK and author, most recently, of the novel Crimson Spring.