SYLVIA PANKHURST AND ETHIOPIA
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In 1934, Sylvia was one of those who realised that the concentration of troops in Eritrea and Somalia, the Italian colonies bordering Ethiopia, meant that Mussolini was intent on invading Africa’s last independent state, then internationally known as Abyssinia. Sylvia proceeded to visit the Ethiopian Legation in London, where she met the Minister, Dr W.C. Martin, an Ethiopian who had been taken to Britain as a child and had studied medicine there – hence his English name and title. She and Martin became close friends, but she found the Legation hopelessly understaffed, and in no position to rebut the extensive Italian Fascist propaganda then being widely disseminated. This propaganda made great play with the existence of slavery in Ethiopia, ignoring the fact that legislation for a gradual freeing of all slaves had been already enacted prior to the invasion, and that Mussolini’s intention was, as Sylvia put it, 'to impose on the "natives" the new slavery of Fascism'. Ethiopia was likewise presented as a country of barbarism, by the very invader, who was then producing poison-gas, later used as part of its 'civilizing mission'.
In the months that followed, she wrote many letters to the national and international press to alert them to Italy’s intentions, and many more, when the invasion actually took place in October 1935. She denounced the use of poison gas, and demanded more effective sanctions against the aggressor.
She had earlier erected a monument in Woodford Green, Essex, on land belonging to her. Fully visible from the road to London, it was dedicated ironically to the British delegation to the League of Nations, which had opposed the banning of aerial warfare on the ground that it was necessary to bomb the tribesmen in north-west India to keep them in order. This monument was subsequently re-dedicated by a representative of the Ethiopian Legation in London at a time when Ethiopia was subjected to aerial bombardment and spraying of poison gas from the air. This monument can still be seen.
As interest in Ethiopia waned, Sylvia reinforced her press campaign by founding a newspaper of her own, entitled New Times and Ethiopia News. It described itself as Britain’s Anti-Fascist weekly, and bore on its masthead Carlo Rosselli’s logo of a flaming sword of justice. The paper published news about the resistance of Ethiopian patriots, obtained from correspondents in neighbouring Jibuti, Kenya and Sudan. Several editions in Amharic, the Ethiopian national language, were smuggled into Italian-occupied Ethiopia.
New Times and Ethiopia News also featured many articles on the resistance of the Spanish Republic to the Falagist rebellion, the Japanese invasion of China, the plight of the Jews, and the general repressive conditions in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Sylvia herself wrote a weekly editorial as well as many other articles, including two long serialised pieces on how Mussolini and Hitler came to power. Not surprisingly, she was placed on the list of people to be arrested after the envisaged Nazi occupation of Britain.
Mussolini’s declaration of war on Britain and France, which took place in 1940, on the anniversary of the assassinations of both Matteotti and Rosselli, was a turning point in Sylvia’s involvement in Ethiopia. The British Government cancelled the recognition of the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, granted two years earlier, and gave the Ethiopian patriots limited (and to Sylvia’s mind inadequate) military support. At the same time the Government refused to recognise Ethiopia as an independent ally or to accord it the status granted to European countries occupied by Nazi Germany. Seeing that the BBC failed to include the Ethiopian National Anthem in its weekly broadcast of the anthems of the Allies, she campaigned on the issue for many months. She discovered that the ban had been imposed by the Foreign Office, but the ban was eventually lifted.
Sylvia continued her struggle for recognition of Ethiopia as a sovereign state, and opposed proposals for the annexation of some of her provinces to neighbouring British territories, or the establishment of some form of British protectorate in Ethiopia. She also agitated against the return to Italy of her former colonies – and advocated the overthrow of the Italian monarchy on the ground of its complicity in Mussolini’s seizure of power.
Ethiopia was liberated from Italian rule in the course of 1941, and, on 5 May, Emperor Haile Selassie re-entered his capital. His youngest daughter, Princess Tsehai, who had qualified as a nurse in Britain, and had served as such during the London Blitz, returned to Ethiopia, married, and tragically died in pregnancy. Her ambition had been to establish the first teaching hospital in her country – and Sylvia dedicated herself to the realisation of that humanitarian dream. She established the Princess Tsehai Memorial Committee, serving as its Honorary Secretary, with Lord Horder, King George VI’s physician, as Honorary Treasurer. The Committee, largely due to her tireless fundraising efforts, collected almost three quarters of a million pounds – a considerable sum for those days, making it possible to open the hospital is 1950.
Though Sylvia had been interested in Ethiopia – and had been reading and writing about it since 1934 – she was unable to visit the country until 1944, first because of the Italian occupation and later because of the on-going Second World War, Although at that time Britain was still at war, she was given permission to travel to Ethiopia by boat and aeroplane, to select a site for the Tsehai Hospital. She went by way of Asmara, in Eritrea, then under British Military Occupation, where she was warmly welcomed by members of the Unionist Party, then struggling for union with Ethiopia. She also spoke from the floor at a public meeting in Asmara – where her support for the cause won considerable applause from Eritreans in the audience – but some opprobrium from members of the British administration. On finally reaching Ethiopia she met many Ethiopians whom she had known during their exile in Britain, and broadcast on Addis Ababa Radio. She also visited schools and historic sites which she later described in New Times and Ethiopia News. During a second visit to Ethiopia in 1950-51, she inspected many more institutions and antiquities, and collected material which she later included in Ethiopia: A Cultural History. Returning by way of Asmara she saw, and later described, the slums of its so-called 'native quarter', a creation of the strict Fascist policy of racial segregation. At this time she also learnt that the British administration had been dismantling many port installations – causing her to denounce this in a pamphlet entitled 'Why are we destroying the Eritrean ports?' This work incensed British officialdom, already nettled by her unwavering support for Ethiopian independence, and caused one prominent British Foreign Office official to recommend that she should in future be discouraged from travelling to Ethiopia by way of Eritrea – which was later federated with Ethiopia by the United Nations in 1952.