For a brief moment, Victorian Britain was preoccupied with Ethiopia, or as it was known, Abyssinia. In July 1868 Prime Minister Disraeli addressed the Commons to praise “one of the most remarkable military enterprises of this century”. That Easter, an Anglo-Indian force led by Sir Robert Napier was victorious, with “St George’s positions … mounted on the Rasselas mountains”. Disraeli wanted to have a positive effect on reality, and when he spoke of the fictional Rasselas, born of his reading of Dr Johnson’s fiction of the last century, it it would have correctly referred to Maqdala, the hilltop fortress of the King of Kings, Tewodoros II, who had built a kingdom for himself, uniting Ethiopia by force, before being defeated by the great power of the former emperors that.
Tewodoros shot himself in the face of defeat, while his young wife, Tinaresh, would die of illness a short time later. This left their seven-year-old son, Alamayu, the subject of Andrew Heavens worthy if ultimately unsatisfactory. It starts well, with an interesting – and gratefully written – story of Britain’s early engagement with Ethiopia, which was once a repository of dreams inspired by the stories of the Queen of Sheba and Prester John.
The story of John Bell and Walter Plowden is like a cross between Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and the volume of the Flashman Papers (in other words, Kipling and George Macdonald Fraser have a solid take on the nature of government than the Heavens, eager to judge those “brought up in the deep prejudices of their times” – it is possible that our prejudices are of a shallow nature). Bell, a British explorer who had come out of his travels, joined Plowden, the Consular Agent for British Trade Protection in the region, and became allies of the anglophile Tewodoros, who declared that “By for the love of Christ I want friendship.”, he wrote to Victoria.
The dream came true in 1860 when Plowden was captured by rebels opposing Tewodoros and died of his wounds. In a revenge attack, Bell was also killed. Relations between Britain and Tewodoros worsened so that eventually Napier’s army was sent to capture Maqdala. In agreeing to the conquest of Tenochtitlan by the Conquistador Cortés, Napier was aided, or at least not hindered, by local princes who hated the aggressive Tewodoros. Much of the material, bought in large part by Richard Rivington Holmes of the British Museum, who accompanied the expedition – and is helpfully listed in an appendix – was returned to Britain. Much of the loot is still scattered through the British Museum, the V&A, and other collections, as well as being “set up in fancy, not-so-nice houses”.
Alamayu – a robbery, so to speak – was taken into the care of Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy, a six-foot-tall Amharic speaker, who became his “superior guardian”, as the Heavens call him. . He took Alamayu with him when he left his country for good on 11 June 1868. Queen Victoria, seeking a respite from the troubles in Ireland and the Reform Act of 1867, sought out the boy – “I so he came back,” he wrote in his diary – placing him on the Isle of Wight, and insisting that he should live with Speedy and his new wife. Alamayu, who was a minor celebrity, met another famous resident of the Isle, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, whom he noticed deeply: “There is something one I don’t like in England. We Abyssinians look angry at a man when we hate him, but you Englishmen smile at people while you hate them. You don’t tell the truth with your faces.”