The Prince and the Plunder

A book on how Britain took one boy and piles of treasures from Ethiopia

Two school photographs

Published / by Andrew Heavens / Leave a Comment

Where: Rugby School, England
When: 1876 and 1877

You have to zoom right in on the screen to spot him. There are more than 40 boys, dressed in dark jackets and starched white collars, holding still for the long exposure in a classic school photo line-up. Foliage hangs off diamond-shaped windows and patterned brick walls in the background. A severe Victorian teacher with a severe Victorian beard sits in the middle of the ranks of teenagers. And to the side of the frame there’s a list of who’s who in the class photo, row by row, left to right. It’s a posh private school in central England, Rugby no less. So it’s all surnames, no first names, with just one exception – Cox, Melly, Hannay, Rigby, Drake, Swetenham, Bennett, Dunell, Swann, Sadler, Cook and “Alamayu”.

Rugby School class photo 1876

Even with that handy key, it is difficult to find him in the picture. Top right, three boys stand out. One of them with short blond hair and dark shadows under his staring eyes looks menacing, a bit like Lurch in the original Addams Family TV show. The one next to him is even taller, a bit more rough-cut, perhaps the sportsman of the group. And next to him is a public school boy from central casting – centre parting, cool stare and an easy assured stance. Just behind him, peeking out so only part of his face makes it into the picture, is a fourth pupil, shorter and slighter than the rest. He is the only black boy in the class, which makes his disappearing act in the picture frame all the more striking.

Detail of Rugby School class photo 1876

What can you tell from one moment caught in one class photograph taken some time in 1876? With the harsh light of hindsight – the knowledge of what happened to him just three years later – it is tempting to look closely for portents and omens. He seems timid, cowed, desperate to melt unnoticed into the background. Above all he looks sad.

The class shot first surfaced in a catalogue of vintage photographs offered for sale by London’s Allsworth Rare Books. On the following page was a photo from following year, two years away from his fate. Again, it is just one captured moment, not to be over interpreted. But you have to take educated guesses when following Alemayehu – he did not write a memoir, unlike so many of the people around him, and left only a few short letters. He stands in full view this time, in front of a giant blond boy – is that Lurch after a growth spurt? His hair is wilder, his collar looser and his tie looks askew. Has he resorted to playing the class clown? Are the bags under his eyes are a sign of exhaustion or a trick of the light and the blurry Victorian exposure. There is something about his expression that reminds me of my son and his friends when a crazed and hilarious thought has just zipped through their teenage minds. Or again, maybe it is just a trick of the light.

Detail of Rugby School class photo 1877

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