AFRICANGLOBE – For me, one of the most haunting of all the images captured by Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron is of an Ethiopian prince and his captor.
The picture illustrates the paradoxes of Britain’s 19th century imperial adventure.
By 1900, the British Empire controlled a quarter of the planet. Although ultimately enforced by the death-rattle of the Gatling machine gun, this imperial edifice was justified by what the French called ‘the civilising mission’.
Julia Margaret Cameron herself was a product of the empire. She was born in Calcutta in 1815, when it was ruled by the East India Company and she died on her family estates in Sri Lanka in 1879.
These pictures were taken at her studio at Dimbola in Freshwater Bay, where she lived from 1860 to 1875.
In her room, she captured a series of Victorian celebrities for posterity by photography when it was still a difficult technical process.
Tristram Speedy, the man in the pictures, was also born in India — in the army barracks at Meerut in 1836. He was an imperial adventurer, who served on the Indian North-West Frontier and in New Zealand.
While hunting in the Horn of Africa, he was employed by King Tewdros II of Ethiopia to train troops in the modern style and learned Amharic. Later, he served as a consul in nearby Masala on the Red Sea coast.
Prince Alamayu was born in 1861 to rule the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, then known as the Abyssinian Empire.
His father was King Tewdros and his mother, Queen Woyzaro Terunesh.
Their dynasty was the House of Soloman. Their ancient mountain kingdom had been a lone African Christian civilisation since the third century when Britain was a distant colony of Rome.
By the mid-19th century, most of Africa formed part of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ of trade and diplomatic relations. King Tewdros was no fan of the Europeans. However, he felt the problem he faced from Egyptian expansion was not being recognised.
Egyptian forces of the Ottoman Khedive Muham-med Ali invaded Sudan in the 1820s and their European-drilled forces were forever pressing south.
In 1864, Tewdros II responded by taking European hostages. Queen Victoria sent a letter to Tewdros seeking their release but her envoy was also captured.
The British government responded by authorising the Indian government to finance and launch an invasion of Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian invasion was one of the greatest military adventures ever planned at that time. To reach Ethiopia’s capital involved projecting a modern army 400 miles up into a mountain massif. It was a logistics challenge for the British — 13,000 men and 30,000 animals were disembarked, with a ten-mile railway constructed as well as a network of supply roads.
Naturally Capt Tristram Speedy was used by the commander as he knew some of the lie of the land and could act as an interpreter.
In April 1868, the British-Indian army reached the capital, Magdala. Tewdros released the captives but refused unconditional surrender.
The next day his medieval Abyssinian army was quickly defeated and Tewdros shot himself with a revolver given to him by Queen Victoria.
British troops stormed the citadel, ransacking the imperial treasury and the Church of the Saviour of the World.
Among the stolen objects were the golden crown and chalice commissioned by Empress Mentewwab in 1740, ‘alloyed with silver and copper with filigree work, glass beads, pigment and gilded copper’ (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum).
Tewdros’s body was sketched and the image of his face was reproduced in the press and on visiting cards.
On April 19, the British blew up the fortress and set fire to the city. They returned to the coast loaded with official loot that required a caravan of 200 mules and 15 elephants.
The Queen and Alamayu set off for her home province under British escort but on May 15 she was murdered.
Alamayu watched the funeral. “The women of her household beat their breasts, tore their hair and scratched their cheeks, shedding tears of real grief as they bewailed her death,” said the Illustrated London News.
The queen’s clothes and personal jewellery were stolen by the British and sent to London and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The seven-year-old Prince Alamayu was made ward of Capt Speedy, apparently against his mother’s express wishes.
When the party arrived in Alexandria en-route to England, Speedy ‘dismissed the entire Ethiopian entourage of the Prince, much to their distress’.
Speedy brought Alamayu to stay at Afton Manor, Freshwater, when they were photographed by Cameron.
They also visited Queen Victoria at Osborne House.
In 1869, Speedy returned with his new wife and Alamayu to India as a district superintendent of a provincial police force.
Alamayu was sent back to receive an education at Cheltenham, Rugby and Sandhurst.
Speedy went on to serve in Malaya and, in 1897, helped to define the border of Abyssinia with Sudan. He died in 1911, a much celebrated man.
One can only begin to imagine what is going on behind the eyes of the captive prince in the photos — violently orphaned, exiled, stripped of family possessions, his country invaded and its treasures ransacked, increasingly stripped of his own identity.
No wonder Queen Victoria described him as sad. She also noted he was stared at because of his dark skin colour. His life was defined by being ‘other’ however much he might try to play his role as grateful benefactor of a British ruling class education.
Alamayu died of pleurisy in Yorkshire in November 1879. He was 18. He was interred at Windsor Castle.
Queen Victoria noted in her diary that he died ‘so far from his family’.
In a final irony, the brass plaque in the nave of St George’s chapel declared: “I was a stranger and ye took me in.”
But Alamayu’s body is buried in a brick vault outside the chapel. He was, it seems, never was quite ‘one of them’.
Abyssinia remained independent until 1935 when it was invaded by Italy. The Emperor Haile Selassi would follow Prince Alamayu to the Island as another sad royal Ethiopian exile, staying at Ventnor in 1938, until the Ethiopians managed to defeat the better equipped army of the Italian fascists.
By: John Medland