Prince Alemayehu: The First Ethiopian Adoptee? [MAUREEN MCCAULEY EVANS]

“Their story, yours and mine — it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” —William Carlos Williams

When he was just seven years old, living in Ethiopia, Alemayehu Tewodros lost both of his parents, his father to suicide and his mother shortly thereafter, probably to tuberculosis. Through an odd twist of history, he was sent to England. He had been accompanied to England by Ethiopians, but they were sent back home. Over the course of about 11 years, he was molded into a Englishman, though he never seemed to fit in. Racism was certainly a factor. He died of pleurisy at only 18 years old, never having returned to Ethiopia.

It’s a tale of what might have been, a tale of a child born into royalty, who witnessed bloodshed and his parents’ deaths, who was transported to a new country, and who then died alone far from home, at far too young an age.

Alemayehu was born in 1861, to the royal Ethiopian family, the House of Solomon. His father was Tewodros II, a ruler who hoped for attention from Europe to help develop Ethiopia. Tewodros wrote to the monarchs of England, France, and elsewhere, asking for their assistance. Apparently his letters were largely ignored, to his great frustration. He imprisoned some British officials in Ethiopia to get the attention of the Empire. What transpired was the Abyssinian Invasion of 1868, in which the literally superior firepower of the British brought the downfall of Tewodros, who shot himself at the end of the battle, rather than become a prisoner of war. His wife, Queen Tiruwork, died soon after, and the little prince found himself an orphan transplanted to England.


Alemayehu attended British schools, including Sandhurst. He became a favorite of Queen Victoria, who made efforts to help him, aware of how lost he may have felt. When Alemayehu died in Leeds, England, in 1879, the queen “mentioned the death of the young prince in her diary, saying what a good and kind boy he had been and how sad it was that he should die so far from his family. She also mentioned how very unhappy the prince had been, and how conscious he was of people staring at him because of his color,” according to Wikipedia.

The 2012 BBC radio show “Great Lives: Prince Alamayu” provides some fascinating commentary. The show features another Ethiopian adoptee, Lemn Sissay, the poet, playwright, and MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), who has experienced some parallels to Alemayehu in his own life. As an adult adopted person, Sissay notes that Alemayehu may well have been more of a little exhibit than a little boy, a child who was trained out of his own language. Sissay says that in the so-called saving of Prince Almayehu, his controversial transport from Ethiopia to England as well as in his “other-ness” due to his race, we may well see some similarities to more current international adoptions.

The other guest on the BBC show is Elizabeth Laird, author of The Prince Who Walked With Lions, a biography of the young prince. On the BBC show, Laird recounts a poignant event that took place near the end of Alemayehu’s life. A traveling menagerie visited England, and young Alemayehu spent a night leaning against the lions’ cage. No doubt he remembered the lions that lived in his father’s palace and were part of his royal life in Ethiopia.

A side note: Elizabeth Laird collected many folktales from all across Ethiopia. They are available here, in English and in Ethiopian languages.

Alemayehu may well have been the first Ethiopian international adoptee, some 150 years ago, though he was never officially adopted.  While he had various guardians, he was essentially a ward of the British government. I doubt at that time that there were laws governing international adoption. A prince in a long line of royalty, Alemayehu was state-less and home-less, in the sense of never having been allowed to return to Ethiopia, and never fully feeling comfortable in England.


Alemayehu was buried at Windsor Castle, in a brick vault near St. George Chapel. According to a BBC news article, in 2007 the Ethiopian government requested that the prince’s remains be returned to Ethiopia. I have not been able to find any information confirming that this happened.

Why should we remember him? On the BBC show, Lemn Sissay says Alemayehu should be remembered because his was a great life that did not have a chance to happen. Alemayehu’s was a greatness waiting to happen, and we ought to celebrate the future that Alemayehu never had.

Source: Light of Day Stories




Filed in: References