Sylvia Pankhurst's Interviews, and Correspondence, with Exiled Emperor Haile Sellassie, 1936-40, Part 2

 By Richard Pankhurst

We began to look last week at the files of my mother, Sylvia Pankhurst's correspondence with the exiled Emperor Haile Sellassie.

Now read on:

Haile Sellassie in Bath: A First Interview

Soon after the Haile Sellassie's arrival in Britain, my mother was  accorded a more official interview for her newspaper. Based on written questions, it was one of the Ethiopian leader's first public utterances in Britain, and appeared in New Times and Ethiopia News on 13 June 1936.

Her first  question was what were “the most important” points for friends of Ethiopia to emphasise in the “struggle to defeat the Fascist aggression and to vindicate international justice and the Covenant of the League”.

"Unanimously Condemned"

Haile Sellassie replied that the invasion of Ethiopia had been  “unanimously condemned”, and that the “violation of international conventions regulating warfare” was “important not to Ethiopia alone but to all the countries of the world."  "World opinion”, he added, “cannot remain indifferent before the use of poison gas, the bombardment of Red Cross Ambulances and of open towns, and the destruction of civilian populations”. 

Asked by Sylvia what he was going to request of the League, he answered, “We shall demand the application of the Covenant  by all the means which are at the disposal of the Member States”.


"The Most Important Achievements"


In reply to a  question as to what he considered “the most important achievements” of his reign, he declared, “The construction of schools, hospitals, roads; financial reforms; the purchase of the Bank of Abyssinia and its transformation into a State bank; the fight against slavery and establishment of schools for freed slaves”.

Asked what he intended to do on returning to Ethiopia  after the defeat of the Italian aggression, he replied, “To continue the above programme in the hope of receiving disinterested international assistance”.

A Compromise Peace, or No Compromise with the Invader?

In one of her early letters, written to the exiled Emperor on 20 July 1936, she passed on a  proposal for a compromise peace between Ethiopia and Italy, at the request of Mr R.C. Hawkin, a then prominent British Liberal politician, who had come to the fore at that time. In her letter she explains that this did this “purely because I wanted Your Majesty to be informed of any ideas being thrown about which were brought to me in case you might find value in them”

     Sylivia Pankhurst and Haile Sellassie in Bath
      (a photograph taken by her son in 1936)

Stating her own views, however,  she emphatically declared:

“I am never for compromise, and wish Ethiopia to have every yard of her territory restored and also to be compensated for what she has suffered [by the Italian invasion]. On the other hand, it is for you to judge, as only you can judge, whether, in the present circumstances, you may have to take less than your rights for a time at least, as other countries have done and afterwards received their territory back. That is for you to judge. I make no comment, but purely pass on to you what comes to me. You may rest assured that from me will never issue any suggestion of compromise, any mention of hauling down the flag. It is a thing I have never done in my life to any movement”.

Two Early Interviews, in 1936

Later that year 1936, my mother obtained, and published, two  interviews with the Emperor, which are interesting in that they throw light on his thinking at  this difficult juncture in his country’s history. In the first interview, conducted in Bath, and published in New Times & Ethiopian News on 22 August 1936, shortly prior to the September meeting of the League of Nations, he outlined Ethiopia’s position in relation to the League, in the most tragic of terms. She declared that he had “a look of sorrow deeper than words”, and quoted him as saying :

“Ethiopia has throughout placed her faith in the League of Nations. Is the League now prepared to permit Ethiopia to perish for her faith? It may be that the League Powers stood aside during the seven months in which we fought to prevent the Italian advance towards Addis Ababa in the belief that we should be able to vindicate our own cause. During those seven months we did not  cease to remind the League of our need for arms and munitions to meet the highly mechanised force of the Italians, equipped with all the most terrible means of destruction modern science had devised. Our appeals for efficient war material being disregarded, the advance of the Italians was inevitable.

“When we came to represent our country at Geneva and to inform the League Powers of the unjust invasion we had suffered, we had to witness the lifting of the sanctions previously imposed. When I asked what the League would do to help the 15,000,000 Ethiopians who had sent me there to represent them, no State member proposed a single measure to assist them in any way, or made any attempt to stop the war in a practical fashion."

“I requested the League to assist Ethiopia by a loan of £10,000,000, but this was denied. I asked, ‘What answer may I take back to my people?’. The League Powers have not given me a single word of reply."

'Will the League... Offer No Hope?

“Will the League at its meeting in September still offer no hope? Must our brave people still struggle and suffer until death? The blood which is being shed is not the blood of a dog .It is the blood of our common humanity, and God will find His way of defending His cause."

“Every effort is being made by the Italians to make it appear that the Ethiopian people are submitting to conquest. They recently announced that in obedience to their order for the disarming of all Ethiopians, thousands of rifles had been handed over, but this is far from the fact."

“It cannot be said with truth that the Italians have effectively occupied Ethiopia. The League cannot base its decision on such false reports."

“Since we a re all of the same descent, being all sons of Adam, and all human, I do not know why the peoples of the world cannot feel the suffering of Ethiopia in her deep trouble."

“Our armies which bravely strove to defend the independence and integrity of our country were destroyed by poison gas. Now that the enemy has entered our land by force, not only men, but also women and children, have been massacred and treated as you have heard”.

A Second Interview

In the second interview, which appeared in her paper on 12 December 1936, shortly before Christmas, the Emperor discussed the wider international situation. Gravely concerned at the possibility of a world war, as well as with  the fate of his own country, he observed:

“Our own tragic situation is bad enough. but when we see the situation in Europe and in Spain we feel that it is even worse."

“What makes us regard it as a worse and stranger case than ours is that each of the contending parties in Spain has powerful backers, while Ethiopia was alone and had no help”.

Then he added, philosophically:

"No Public Justice... but Justice in the Hearts of People"

“Though Ethiopia has received no public justice, she has received justice from the consciences and the hearts of the people. This knowledge is cherished by our people in the parts of the country not occupied by the invader as a consideration which encourages them to continue their struggle."

“Our people who are in our territories unoccupied by the invaders struggle to retain their freedom, and those who are in the occupied territories are also evidently resisting..."

“The Italian occupation is gradually being extended by merciless gas warfare...

“The Christian world now looks forward to a peaceful and happy Christmas which Ethiopia will spend in sorrow and in blood”

And he added:

“In the hearts of the Ethiopian people the news of a meeting of the Council of the League of nations always raises high hopes”.

Next: The Correspondence and Interviews Concluded.