They Lived in Headingley

PRINCE ALAMAYU  (1861-1879)

The most unlikely resident of Headingley was Prince Alamayu, the heir to the throne of Abyssinia. He lived at 2, Hollin Lane where he was to die on 14th November 1879. To understand how a young man who claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, came to live in a Leeds suburb, we need to revisit an a long-forgotten episode in British imperialist history.

In October 1863 Alamayu’s father, King Theodore II seeking to defend his Christian kingdom from Muslim incursions from Egypt, wrote to Queen Victoria asking for help. For three years the British Government chose not to reply to the letter and only seemed to take the matter seriously when the British consul and his staff were seized as hostages and imprisoned in the fortress at Magdala. After failed attempts at negotiation, General Napier and an expeditionary force of 12,000 troops were despatched to Abyssinia. Following the Battle of Magdala in April 1868, the prisoners were rescued and rather than face the humiliation of defeat, Theodore shot himself.

The widowed Queen informed Napier that it was her husband’s wish that in the event of his death, his son should be educated in Britain. Queen Tenunesh elected to travel with her son but died before leaving Abyssinia. Now an orphan amongst total strangers, on the voyage to Britain Alamayu formed a close relationship with a Captain Speedy, a colourful adventurer who at least was able to speak Amharic. For the next few years Alamayu was to live with Speedy in his house on the Isle of Wight. Immediately following their arrival  Queen Victoria asked to meet the Prince at Osborne house and recorded in her journal, ‘he is a very pretty, slight and graceful boy of about seven with beautiful eyes and a nice nose and mouth. He can only say one or two words of English’. The Queen thereafter was to maintain a special interest in his welfare. Prince Alamayu’s presence also came to the notice of another resident of the Isle of Wight, the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron who took a number of photographs of the Prince and Captain Speedy dressed in Abyssinian costume that are now in the collections of the Bradford Museum of Photography.

When Captain Speedy was posted to India, Alamayu accompanied him but in 1871 against Alamayu’s wishes and those of the Queen, the Treasury who were paying his bills, insisted he return to England to be brought up as an English gentleman attending Cheltenham College and later Rugby School. Alamayu had little aptitude for study and whilst at Rugby, Cyril Ransome (the father of Arthur Ransome) was appointed as his private tutor.  Ransome later was to become Professor of History and Literature at the Yorkshire College in Leeds.

In the meantime  Prince Alamayu was sent to Sandhurst with the idea that he might eventually receive a commission in the Indian Army. Although The Queen wrote specifically to the college authorities that he was to be treated sensitively, after a year Victoria was informed that ‘he is doing no good here, and is unhappy’ and would not be returning to Sandhurst. Clearly the authorities were now in a quandary about what to do with a young black prince who could not safely be returned to Abyssinia (for one thing he no longer remembered any Amharic) but who perhaps unsurprisingly had failed to adapt to the upper class British culture. Finally it was decided that he should continue his education by returning to Cyril Ransome for private tuition. After negotiations between the Treasury and Ransome, it was agreed that the Prince come to Leeds for at least six months and that Ransome be paid the not inconsiderable sum of £250.

It was at the beginning of October 1879 that the Prince arrived at Cyril Ransome’s home in Hollin Lane. According to Ransome’s unpublished autobiography, after a few weeks ‘by a foolish act (he went to sleep in the w.c. in the middle of a cold night), he caught a violent cold which developed into pneumonia’. Although attended by the most prestigious doctors in Leeds, Alamayu’s condition worsened and the Queen asked for regular telegrams to be sent to her at Balmoral. Interestingly what neither Ransome’s autobiography or contemporary obituaries mention, is that Alamayu believed he was being poisoned and refused all food or medicine. On the evening of his death, Victoria wrote in her diary:

Was grieved and shocked to hear by telegram that good Alamayu had passed away this morning. It is too sad. All alone in a strange country, without seeing a person or relative belonging to him , so young and so good, but for him one cannot repine. His was no happy life, full of difficulties of every kind, and he was so sensitive, thinking people stared at him because of his colour, that I fear he would never have been happy.

By the Queen’s wish, he was buried in St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.       

Janet Douglas