SYLVIA PANKHURST AND ETHIOPIA
(Continued from page 3)
Going to the Palace
Sylvia, and the two of us with her, were expected to attend at the Palace on many state occasions, which the Emperor opened punctually. Most of these were gala evening affairs, but the Opening of Parliament, and some other events took place in the morning. At first, because we were neither on the Diplomatic List nor on that of government officials, printed invitations often reached us late or not at all. Etiquette was strict, and Sylvia and I had to wear long dresses and gloves. Richard was at first unsure what dress was expected, and on one occasion, his was conspicuously different from that of the other gentlemen. Furthermore, because, unlike the diplomats, we arrived in a small FIAT car, the bodyguards might relegate our driver to a distant corner of the car park, so that we were sometimes late. All this, at first, created some anxiety before we set out.
Sylvia seldom saw the Emperor, though he made time for her on the few occasions when there was a particular issue she wished to raise with him. In several letters to him, aware of the need for further reforms, she proposed the establishment of producers’ cooperatives, and advocated free trade unions and democracy – with little success. She also had indirect contact with him through his youngest son, Prince Sahle Selassie, an artist by inclination, who had been educated in England, and with several of the Emperor’s granddaughters, all of whom had likewise attended school in Britain.
Sylvia had great admiration for the Emperor: as the country’s pre-war moderniser; as a symbol of Ethiopian resistance to the Fascist invasion; as a leader who had out-manoeuvred British attempts to dominate the country – and as a unifying force. She saw him, in a sense, as a benevolent ruler in the context of Ethiopian monarchy. She felt that Haile Selassie could carry the country forward. Though not blind to the deficiencies of his Government, she was reluctant to join in the criticism by other foreigners, having, as she said, experienced so much inefficiency in the East End, under a longer established bureaucracy.
However, it is clear with hindsight that she, like so many other observers, friendly or hostile, was unaware of changing Ethiopian realities. She had no inkling that only three months after her death there would be a coup against the Emperor, staged by his trusted bodyguard, followed fourteen or so years later, by a major famine, a Revolution, an invasion from Somalia, and civil war. It would have pained her to know that Eritrea, which she had been happy to see federated to Ethiopia, had broken off from it.
In the Summer – the rainy season – of 1960 Sylvia had not been feeling well, but in the latter part of September, as the skies cleared, her health seemed to improve and we proposed taking her with us for a much-needed holiday week-end at one of the Rift Valley lakes. At the last moment, however, she changed her mind, as she wanted to finish some work. On the evening before our return she had a massive heart attack and lost consciousness. She was visited by Princess Tenagne and Dr Catherine Nicholson of the Princess Tsehai Hospital, and died in the afternoon of the next day, shortly before we arrived.
The funeral took place on 27 September, the Feast of Meskel, or Finding of the True Cross – an important day in the Ethiopian Christian calendar, and the day, two years later, when her first grandchild, Alula, was born. A long cortege of cars accompanied the hearse as it slowly wound its way from our house to the country’s principal cathedral, Selassie, i.e. Holy Trinity. Although Sylvia was not a believer, she was given the Christian name of Wallata Kristos, or Daughter of Christ, and was accorded an Ethiopian Christian Orthodox burial service, perhaps through the intervention of the Emperor. She was interred in front of the Church, in the area designated for patriots of the Ethiopian resistance – the only foreigner so honoured – in the presence of the Emperor, the Patriarch and a large number of mourners. The funeral address was delivered by Princess Tenagne’s husband, Andargachew Massai, who, as Ethiopian Consul in Jibuti, had been one of her newspaper’s sources of information during the Italian occupation. The gravestone took the form of an open book below the inscription bearing her birth and death dates, with seating on either side. Shortly after the funeral Richard and I took over the editorship of Ethiopia Observer, making it a quarterly and dedicating the first issue to Sylvia’s activities and aspirations.
In her lifetime Sylvia was admired and appreciated, both by the Ethiopian Government and by many ordinary citizens. It was significant that, when it came to founding Ethiopia’s post-Liberation press, one of the foremost newspapers was named Addis Zaman – the Amharic for 'New Times' – a reference to New Times & Ethiopia News.
Not long after the Liberation of the country in 1941, the Ethiopian Government recognised Sylvia’s services by naming a street in Addis Ababa after her. During her second visit, she was awarded the Queen of Sheba Medal, created to honour women, as well as the Ethiopian Patriots medal. Hers was noteworthy in that it embodied five palms – one for each of the five years of her struggle during the Fascist occupation.
In seeking to understand Sylvia Pankhurst one has, I believe, to recognise the underlying unity of her thought and action. There were threads that wove in and out of all her varied activities. Her love affair with Ethiopia, the last of her great enthusiasms and struggles, was not, as we have seen, a deviation from her previous interests and activities. Her espousal of the Ethiopian cause followed logically from her deeply-rooted opposition to Fascism. Her sympathy for the underdog, seen in her advocacy of the emancipation of women, her support for the poor of London’s East End, and for Jewish and other victims of Fascism and Nazism, found expression in her opposition to colonialism and racism. In the Ethiopian context, this meant opposition first to Mussolini’s invasion and later to British proposals to curtail Ethiopian independence.
In Ethiopia, as in the East End, and in the Women’s International Matteotti Committee, she operated in two spheres. In the political sphere she fought with her pen – her paramount weapon – for the country’s survival. In the humanitarian sphere, she mobilised supporters to improve the lot of individuals through the Hospital, the Social Service Society, and her letters to the Emperor on the plight of certain African refugees. Seeing someone suffer often impelled her also to act on her own. While most of us drove past the begging arms of the disabled, she would stop, as already mentioned, to take them to hospital.
She had absorbed in her childhood, and especially from her father, a recognition of the importance of devoting ones whole life to the public good. Many Ethiopians, like earlier beneficiaries of her work, admired her for this attitude to life. In Ethiopia, as in England, not all her endeavours succeeded, but nothing deterred her from carrying on. I leave the last word to Ethiopian students when she visited the Jimma Agricultural Secondary School. They presented her with a plaster medallion bearing the single word 'OTHERS'.
RITA PANKHURST is an academic librarian by profession, and married to Dr Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia's son. Born in Romania but educated in England, she joined Richard (and Sylvia) to live in Ethiopia from 1956. Rita was chief librarian at Haile Selassie I University until 1976, when the couple came back to London for a period. Then as chief librarian for what is now the London Metropolitan University, she helped acquire the Fawcett Library for them (now the Women's Library) and worked there until she and Richard moved back to Ethiopia in 1987.