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Interview with Dr. Richard Pankhurst

Sylivia Pankhurst [1882--1960]

Close and Personal

Senamirmir: The history of your family is fully highlighted by the twentieth century of Ethiopian history and continued to do so to date. Would you share with us briefly about yourself and your family?

Dr. Pankhurst: My mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, the former British Suffragette (for whom a statue in London is now being planned), was by conviction a socialist, libertarian and feminist. She had studied art in Italy, early in the twentieth century, on a scholarship from the Royal College of Art in London. She spent her time in Italy mainly in Venice, where she copied the mosaics in the famous church of St Mark She also learnt Italian, and acquired many Italian friends, and an interest in Italy and its art, history and culture.

Almost two decades afterwards, in 1919, she paid a further visit to Italy, where, in Bologna, she saw the Fascists brutally beating up the citizens of the town. This turned her into an Anti-Fascist virtually overnight.

After Mussolini seized power in Italy three years later, in 1922, she watched his career, and suppression of Italian democratic rights, and saw that his movement was in every way hostile to everything in which she believed. Fascism, as she saw it, was militaristic, dictatorial, and chauvinistic , and opposed to democracy, the rights of women, free thought, and the rights of the workers. She founded three organizations to help rally international opposition against Fascism, as well as to assist refugees from Mussolini's rule. Already in the early 1920s she regarded Fascism as expansionistic, and a threat to world peace.

She considered Italy the first victim of Fascism, but was convinced that, if Mussolini was not overthrown, there would be more! When the Wal Wal incident, on the Ethiopian border with Italian Somaliland, took place in 1934, she realized that Mussolini was planning to use the incident as a pretext for the invasion of Ethiopia, and that Ethiopia, as she argued, was slated to be the second victim of Fascism. She began to give her support to the far-off African state, and to espouse its cause. She held, and addressed, many public meetings in support of the League of Nations and Ethiopia's defense against aggression. She also wrote numerous letters on the subject to the British and world press.

When she realized that the League of Nations was failing to stop Mussolini's aggression, which was carried out with the use of poison-gas (in defiance of international convention), and the deliberate bombing of international Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, she founded a weekly newspaper in London, "New Times and Ethiopia News", in support of Ethiopian independence and resistance to the invader. Her paper published news of the Graziani Massacre of March 1937, and other Italian Fascist atrocities, as well as news of the resistance of the Ethiopian Patriots, who never surrendered. She agitated against the British Government's recognition of the Italian "conquest" in 1938, for she argued that the Ethiopian Patriots were still in the field, and that a victory of Fascist Italy in Ethiopia would inevitably encourage, and be followed by, further acts of aggression by Mussolini and/or his Nazi ally Adolf Hitler. Her newspaper, though concentrating on Ethiopia, was a generally Anti-Fascist one. For example it supported the Spanish Republican government in its struggle against General Franco, and opposed the Japanese invasion of China, the German annexation of Czechoslovakia,the Italian seizure of Albania, etc. She also published several special editions of her paper in Amharic, which were smuggled into Italian-occupied Ethiopia. She and her paper were more than once personally attacked by Mussolini and the Italian Fascist press, and she was on the Nazi list of persons to be arrested in the event of a German occupation of Britain.

During those years my mother read extensively on Ethiopian history, and as a former artist, took an abiding interest in Ethiopian art, and culture. You can read more about her artistic interests in my book "Sylvia Pankhurst, Artist and Crusader" (New York, 1979)

After Ethiopia's Liberation from Italian rule in 1941, she fought, in her paper and in her other writings, against attempts by the British to establish something approximating to a Protectorate over Ethiopia. She felt it wrong that the British Government, which had helped liberate Ethiopia only after Mussolini's attack on Britain, should for example be attempting to deprive Ethiopia of the Ogaden - the very area in which the Wal Wal incident had taken place a decade or so earlier. She also supported the "reunion" of Eritrea with Ethiopia. She believed in the general integration of the entire Horn of Africa (which we may one day come to!), as well as the decolonization of the whole of Africa - and Asia (which is now achieved). She had the support, and enjoyed the friendship, of the early Pan-Africans in London, among them Jomo Kenyatta, who on several occasions visited her house, and spoke at her meetings, and she was in contact with Nehru's Indian National Congress.

She later also raised funds, in Britain and elsewhere, to establish Ethiopia's first teaching hospital: the Princess Tsahai Memorial Hospital, and wrote her great book on Ethiopian culture: "Ethiopia, A Cultural History".

Turning now to myself: Through my mother's activities I came in contact, as a child, with the Ethiopian refugees in Britain; the then Ethiopian Minister in London, Haqim Workneh; and later with the first Ethiopian students who came to study in Britain after the war, among them Mikael Imru, Menghestu Lemma, Afewerk Tekle, Habteab Bairu, Bereket-ab H. Sellassie; Asrat Waldayes, and others. These contacts gave me my first love of Ethiopia.

I studied meanwhile for my first degree at the London School of Economics, where I later also took my doctorate. I chose to study Economic History, which, I then fondly imagined, would help me understand the world in which we lived. In my reading I was also much fascinated by Karl Polanyi's then little-known book "The Origin of Our Times". A greater inspiration was, however, the Socialist Professor Harold Laski, whose lectures my friends and I loved, and who was adviser for my thesis, until his untimely death. He was a great teacher, who did everything possible to encourage his students. As a graduate student I began teaching in the London University Extra-Mural Department, and also at Toynbee Hall, an adult education evening school in the (deprived) East End of London, where I met my future wife, Rita Eldon.

My interest in Ethiopia - and Africa (we were all Pan-Africanists in those days!) led me in 1956 to travel to Addis Ababa, to teach at the then new University College of Addis Ababa, which became the nucleus of Haile Sellassie I (later Addis Ababa) University. I subsequently became the founder and Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, where I collaborated most closely with my friend Professor Stanislaw Chojnacki, whom I met, if my memory does not fail me, on my first morning at the College. At the Institute, I devoted my efforts largely to research and publication. You can find my Bibliography here.

I left Ethiopia in 1976, and, returning to London, became a Research Fellow at both the School of Oriental and African Studies and the London School of Economics, but was soon afterwards appointed the Librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society, a learned society specializing in Egypt, Ethiopia and North Africa, as well as Asia. I nevertheless continued to work and write in Ethiopian history and culture - and had a large traditional painting of the Battle of Adwa in my office (I subsequently made a video film of such Adwa paintings).

I returned to Ethiopia in 1978, to re-join the Institute of Ethiopian Studies to which I am currently attached. I thus live in Ethiopia for some ten months a year, but spend a month or so in England every year.

Senamirmir: You have written extensively and you are at the forefront of a movement for the return of Ethiopia's stolen obelisk, books, artifacts, and other national treasures. Are fellow citizens doing enough to support the cause?

Dr. Pankhurst: Ethiopia, as I see it, has suffered excessively from foreign aggression, and resultant looting. It is of course impossible to bring back what was stolen or destroyed in earlier wars, but the loot taken by the British expedition to Maqdala in 1857-8 can easily be identified, and should be restored to Ethiopia. It is my belief that the British Expedition had, in international law, no justification whatsoever for looting Tewodros's citadel, and that the looting of the church of Medhane Alem was in fact an act of sacrilege.

I became a founder member of the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee because I felt that this historic artifact, which symbolizes the beginnings of Ethiopia's tangible history, should have been returned to Ethiopia in 1947, in accordance with the Italian Peace Treaty with the United Nations, signed in 1947. I first learnt that the Ethiopian Parliament was agitating on this issue, when I was told about this by my old Ethiopian Parliamentary friend Ato Berhanu Tessema, and I wrote an article on the matter at the time. We should not think the Obelisk Return movement is in any way "anti-Italian". It was in fact started in recent years by the Imperiali brothers, Professor Francaviglia and others Italian scholars in Rome, who wrote to the Italian newspaper "L'Unita" about the need for the obelisk's restitution. See the University of Pavia thesis written by Georgia Gregorini on the subject (2000).

We in the Obelisk Return movement consider the restitution of the stele from different angles. We believe that when (or if?) it returns, its arrival will be an important manifestation of the importance of Ethiopia' historic culture, and of Ethiopia's right to its cultural heritage. A block of stone that has traveled twice, from Aksum to Rome, in 1937, and back again from Rome to Aksum, in 200??, will moreover be a great tourist attraction for Ethiopia!

But there is another, no less important, aspect to the restitution question: to educate the Italian public. At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies, for purposes of their own, held show trials of German and Japanese war criminals. Ethiopia wanted to try Italian war criminals, but that would have involved the trial of Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who was responsible for the use of poison-gas in Ethiopia, in 1935-6. His trial was therefore blocked by the British and Americans, who preferred having Badoglio as Prime Minister of post-war Italy. The result was that not one Italian was ever tried for war crimes committed in Ethiopia!

The Italians were thus deprived of War Crimes trials: and missed an education which would have been valuable in Italy as it was, as generally agreed, in Germany!

The return of the obelisk, we argue, is perhaps the next best thing: a way to bring home to the Italian people that the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia was not a Civilizing Mission, but a Pillaging Mission; the return of the obelisk, kept in Italy for so long in violation of the Italian Peace Treaty, and its return to its rightful owners, the Ethiopian people, can thus have an educating role in Italy as well as in Italy!

To be frank I must, however, add that most of our Italian Anti-Fascist friends, including the venerable Professor Angelo Del Boca, author of so many works on Italian and Ethiopian history, believe, as of February 2001, that the obelisk will not in fact be returned, and that the victory of the Italian Right in the forthcoming Italian General Elections, will lead to the almost permanent blocking of the obelisk restoration issue.

I would also note that the obelisk is not the only piece of loot still in Italy: There is also Emperor Haile Sellassie's first pre-war aeroplane Tsehai, called after his daughter, the Princess of that name, which has not been returned, and is in the Italian Aviation Museum.

I have also recently published information which shows that at least part of the pre-war Ethiopian Ministry of the Pen archives (i.e. those of the imperial secretariat) were looted in Addis Ababa in 1936, and incorporated into the archives of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs - and have not as of today not been returned. The Italian Embassy in Addis Ababa has intimated to me that it is not prepared to discuss this issue with the general public: so much for "transparency" of Government in the Italian section of the European Union!

As far as the loot from Maqdala is concerned, we have founded AFROMET, the Association for the Return of Maqdala Ethiopian Treasures. This, like the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee, is interested in justice, and is not "anti"- anybody: So far from being anti-British, one of its recent meetings was hosted by the British Council in Addis Ababa, and its supporters include none other than the Mayor of London, the renowned Mr Ken Livingstone.

AFROMET believes that even if we fail (which we won't!) our efforts will have been valuable in educating the Ethiopian public to the importance of the country's historic culture, and the need to look after it much better than is being done at present.

You ask if Ethiopians are doing enough in the struggle for their cultural heritage? Of course they are not! In any great or historic struggle for justice not enough is ever done, but this does not prevent the ultimate victory of the cause of Justice.

You all have the opportunity to sign the AFROMET petition at:

Also to write to the press, and pass resolutions, for the immediate return of the Aksum obelisk and the aeroplane Tsehai, as well as investigation of Ethiopia's looted archives, now still in Rome.

The restoration struggle, I must add, is of course part of a wider African struggle. The people of Africa, in Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, who have won back their freedom, are now seeking to win back their cultural heritage, looted so extensively during the colonial era.

Senamirmir: If you can share with your current research interest.

Dr. Pankhurst: I am currently engaged in various projects connected with Ethiopian history:
  1. I have just finished a detailed study of my mother's life in relation to Ethiopia.
  2. I am trying to write a sequel to my "Social History of Ethiopia" (Addis Ababa, 1990) which ends with the reign of Tewodros.
  3. I have been editing a new English translation of the chronicle of Ahmed ibn Ibraham, better known as Gragn, which has been translated by my friend Dr Paul Stenhouse, in Australia.
  4. I have begun editing the Diary of William Simpson, the British artist who joined the Napier expedition to Maqdala, on behalf of the "Illustrated London News". And several other things! I have also been writing a weekly piece for Addis Tribune

Senamirmir: If you don't mind to get a bit personal, what is your favorite Ethiopian dish?

Dr. Pankhurst: Dulet, without any doubt!
Senamirmir Project, 2001