The Prince and the Plunder

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

Category: Royal regalia

The Bonhams drinking horn ‘taken from Magdala’

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What: Horn, said to belong to Tewodros, later mounted in silver, engraved and turned into a pitcher

Where: Last in the hands of an unnamed buyer who paid £2,125 for it at Bonhams,in London in January 2017

According to the sale details, which include two photos:

the horn has a cover inscribed: “THE DRINKING HORN OF KING THEODORE’S WAS TAKEN FROM MAGDALA by Lieut C M Davidson ADJUTANT 4TH KINGS OWN ROYAL REGIMENT 13th April 1868”. There is a shied on the front inscribed: “TO Lieut Colonel Edmond A Shuldham OF COOLKELURE FROM HIS FRIEND Capt C M Davidson”.

There is a footnote saying Christopher Middlemass Davidson and Edmond Anderson Shuldham are linked through the South Cork Militia. It adds:

“Christopher Middlemass Davidson was born June 5th 1843 and became Ensign by purchase in the 4th Foot in Feb 1862. As Lieut. and Adjutant of the 1st Battalion, 4th Foot, he participated in the Abyssinian Campaign. He saw action at Arogee and was in the forefront in the Capture of Magdala. In 1869 he became Regimental Instructor of Musketry and with promotion to Captain in 1875 transferred to the 104th Foot. He served as Adjutant of the South Cork Militia from 1878 to 1881. In 1881 he was promoted to Major and retired from the Royal Munster Fusiliers as Lieut. Colonel in 1882. In 1889 Lt. Col. Davidson became a Gentleman at Arms. He served in the sovereign’s bodyguard under Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V. He was awarded the 4th Class MVO in 1921 and died April 6th 1922.”

Lot 72
Maker’s mark: WH, London 1879
Height 26.7cm
Sold for £ 2,125 inc. premium
The Gentleman’s Library Sale
19 Jan 2017, 10:00 GMT


The Christies horn cup ‘taken at the storming of Magdala’

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What: Horn cup, said to belong to Emperor Tewodros, taken by Captain Thomson during the storming of Magdala, sold via Christies in April 2014

Where: Last in the hands of an unnamed buyer

The auction page has a picture of the cup and describes it as “a white metal mounted buffalo horn cup”. It is unclear who added the metal mounting.


Lot 284
Sale 5953
Robert Kime, David Bedale, Piers von Westenholz and Christopher Gibbs – The English Home, 30 April 2014, London, South Kensington
Sold for £812
Estimate £600 – £900
13 in. (33 cm.) high; 6 in. (15.2 cm.) diameter

A piece of the emperor’s coat

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What: A 12cm-long piece of cloth cut from the Emperor’s coat on the day he died

Where: The Cameronians Regimental Museum (Scottish Rifles), Mote Hill, off Muir Street, Hamilton, Lanarkshire, ML3 6BY, UK

According to many accounts, British soldiers swarmed around the body of Emperor Tewodros on Magdala and cut off pieces of his clothes for souvenirs.

The museum entry, which has two pictures, describes: a “small scrap of material with handwritten note” on a piece of paper.

A note on the paper reads: “A piece of the coat King Theodore had on the day he was killed. A piece of the coat was given to one of the 26th Cameronians by a French Colonel who took it off his coat – He [?] cut this off their piece”.

Accession No:

The 26th Foot (The Cameronians) were a Scottish regiment which arrived too late to take part in either of the main battles in the Abyssinian Campaign.

Queen Tirunesh’s Book of Psalms

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What: A book of Psalms, belonged to Queen Tirunesh, the wife of King of Kings Tewodros II and mother of Prince Alamayu

Where: The British Museum, Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG

Photo: There is no picture in the British Museum catalogue entry –

With this book, a fable comes to life on a museum shelf. There was one story that everyone knew about Alamayu’s mother: the story about the time Tewodros interrupted her as she was reading the Bible’s Book of Psalms.

The queen turned to him coldly and told him to go away, saying she was conversing with a greater king than him. The story was repeated so often, and made its point so clearly, that it must have been a parable. But again, there it is, her actual copy of King David’s hymns and laments, in the British Museum.

Someone who visited Alamayu on the Isle of Wight described how the queen’s wood-covered Psalter was one of the boy’s most prized possessions. Here is the article in the Oct. 29, 1869 issue of The Star newspaper:

The Star, Oct. 29, 1869, Page 4

The British Museum doesn’t make a lot of the book. There’s no picture on its website and, like Alamayu’s necklace, it is not on display. That is hardly surprising. Ethiopian Books of Psalms are relatively common, one of the best-represented classes of sacred literature in collections of Ethiopic manuscripts. Most of them aren’t meant to be rarefied treasures. They are books for regular readings, daily devotions and prayers. Many, like this one, come with a leather carrying case and shoulder strap so people can lug them around with their baggage.

This one’s real value is in the story and in the details that must have reminded Alamayu of his mother – the small motifs next to the black and red text, the ‘square of red damask silk with floral designs in yellow and green’ set into the back. A small square mirror set in the inside cover would have caught the reflections of his mother’s face. It was not there for cosmetic reasons. Mirrors, which appear on a number of Ethiopian manuscripts, can be symbols of transcendence, of looking through something to something else or somewhere else.

‘It shows the importance of a prayer book,’ the Rev. Belete Assefa, a London-based priest from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, told me. ‘It’s a reflection of the Kingdom of God, a reflection of heaven.’


The British Museum catalogue entry reads: “Book of Psalms previously belonging to Emperor Tewodros II’s wife. The pages are made of vellum and the text is hand written in black and red ink with occasional decorative panels of floral motifs. The book is bound in red leather covered wooden boards. The front and back covers are finely tooled with borders of diamonds, circles and interlacing designs. A central panel contains a finely tooled hand cross inlaid with five metal (?) studs at the base and and eighteen silver (?) studs around the cross. The inside front cover of tooled red leather is inlaid with a small square mirror with a border of silver (?) decorated with punched designs. The back inside cover of tooled red leather is inset with a square of red damask silk with floral designs in yellow and green with some metalic threads.”

Museum number: Af1912,0410.37.
Acquisition name: Donated by: Mrs Cornelia Mary Speedy
Field Collection by: Capt Tristram C S Speedy
Acquisition date: 1912

Alamayu’s necklace

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What: A necklace of silver and glass beads threaded onto blue silk cord, worn by Prince Alamayu. He was photographed and painted many times wearing it.

Where: The British Museum, Great Russell St, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 3DG

Photo: The British Museum charges people to reproduce images of things in its collection, even plundered things. My budget won’t stretch that far, so you’ll have to go to the museum website to see the necklace as it looks today –

Here are some of the photos and pictures of Alamayu wearing it – two in Ethiopia soon after the Battle of Maqdala, one on Malta and the rest soon after his arrival in Britain in 1868.

There it is on the British Museum website, that necklace, the one Alamayu wore in the first photograph the Royal Engineers took of him when he was still reeling from the shock of war. You can see him wearing it again and again in the black-and-white engravings and the staged studio photographs on his rush out of Ethiopia and his first years in Britain.

It is still a jolt to see it today, in three dimensions, in colour, like the jolt when the colour floods into the old First World War footage in Peter Jackson’s documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old, something
out of distant history shifting into present reality.

Twenty-three teardrop or shell-shaped silver pendants, separated by bright red and white glass beads and threaded onto a blue silk cord. What had once been an emblem of rank for Dejazmatch Alamayu must have become something much more personal, something of home to hold on to as the world kept shifting from Ethiopia, to Britain, to India, back to Britain. He may have got a bit more tired of it as photographers kept insisting on him wearing it, even over his Western clothes.

It became a prop, a shorthand for the exotic, and disappeared from his portraits as he got older. The necklace ended up with Speedy – something of Alamayu for him to hold on to.


The British Museum catalogue entry describes a “necklace of silver and glass beads threaded onto blue silk cord, previously owned by Prince Alamayu , Son of Emperor Tewodros of Ethiopia”.

Museum number: Af1912,0410.7
Donated by: Mrs Cornelia Mary Speedy
Field Collection by: Capt Tristram C S Speedy

Acquisition date: 1912

Queen Tirunesh’s dress

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What: The dress of Queen Tirunesh, Alamayu’s mother

Where: The Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL

Overview: Part of a collection of the queen’s clothes, jewellery and other personal possessions. It was kept aside after she died on the march back from Maqdala and given to the museum by the Secretary of State for India.

The dress of Queen Tirunesh, Alamayu’s mother, in the Victoria & Albert Museum
Image © The Victoria & Albert Museum

On one hand, it’s tragic how little we know about Queen Tirunesh, beyond her family line and the fragments of myth. On the other, there are few great figures from history that we can get to know so intimately, if we take the time to look through her possessions. Take this dress.

All the accounts agree she was young when she married Emperor Tewodros, very young indeed, maybe 12. She would have grown into her role from young girl to young woman and you can see her do it in real time through the adjustments and tweaks in her gown as she got bigger and taller. The dress is 49in long, including a whole extra panel extension sewn in at the bottom. I can hardly imagine it fitting an average 12-year-old now, so Tirunesh must have been tiny when she first put it on.

The V&A, which suggests the dress was part of the queen’s dowry, was kind enough to let me have a closer look a few years back when it was in storage. The first thing that stood out were the cuffs, so narrow that no one but a child could have got their hands through the holes.

There are lots of details to admire, particularly the beautiful silk embroidery on the cotton that loops down the torso like a giant neck-lace. (Silk wasn’t produced in Ethiopia so there is a good chance the thread came from an imported piece of cloth that was painstakingly unravelled, according to academic Nicola Stylianou in her paper ‘The Empress’s Old Clothes’.) But it is the overall form that lingers. Even when the dress is laid out on a table, you can get a very real idea of the young woman who wore it and the life that she lived.

It may have been a luxurious garment when she got it. Over the years though, as Tirunesh waited neglected at the top of her mountain fortress, it got more than its fair share of regular use, down to the stains and marks of wear and earth and the ragged hem. Tirunesh was very much an empress who had to walk on the ground.


Accession number 399-1869

More images and detail on the museum’s website –

Further reading:

Dress in Detail From Around the World. By Rosemary Crill, Jennifer Wearden and Verity Wilson. V&A, 2002

The Empress’s Old Clothes: Biographies of African Dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By Nicola Stylianou. From the book Dress History : New Directions in Theory and Practice. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, pp. 81-96

Ethiopian Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum. By Alexandra Jones. African Research & Documentation, no. 135 (2019): 8-24. Read the full text here.

‘Set of Articles of Deceased Queen of Abyssinia’ and related correspondence in British Library collections at IOR R/20/AIA/503.

Silk: Fibre, Fabric and Fashion. Edited by Lesley Ellis Miller and Ana Cabrera Lafuente with Claire Allen-Johnstone, Thames and Hudson Ltd. in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom, 2021, p. 446-447