Sylvia Pankhurst's Interviews, and Correspondence, with Exiled Emperor Haile Sellassie, 1936-40, Part 3
By Richard Pankhurst
We conclude this week our review of the correspondance of my mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, with the exiled Emperor Haile Sellassie.
Now read on:
Empress Menen, and Princess Tsahai
My mother also obtained an intimate interview the Emperor’s consort Empress Menen, who used her daughter Princess Tsahai as interpreter. In a report of this meeting, which appeared in New Times & Ethiopia News on 31 October 1936, its editor declared that the Empress appeared “thoughtful, mature, capable”, but “wore an air of sorrow, inevitable in the circumstances of tragedy”, which “bore so heavily on her people”.
Outlining some of the Empress’s activities in Ethiopia, my mother observed:
"The Empress has been a notable worker for the advancement of women in her country. She is quite one of ourselves in her zeal for this I may inform my feminist friends."
"The Worst Thing in Africa"
"The worst thing in Africa", she said with feeling, "are the child marriages". She has used her influence to discountenance this in her own country and has induced many parents to postpone the marriage of their daughters to at least eighteen years and to send them to school meanwhile.
"You can see she is against it!" the Princess added with humour aside, "for I am past eighteen, and have no thought of marriage yet."
Sylvia Pankurst' office staff,
in Woodford, Essex
Later in the interview Sylvia noted that the Empress had “interested herself also in the hospitals, and in maternity and infant welfare’, but added that. “premature marriage and lack of skilled assistance” had “accounted for a heavy maternal mortality”.
As for the war, Sylvia reported that, when they spoke of it, “the sadness of the Empress deepened, her eyes were tearful. She never thought it would come so suddenly…”
“The devastating effect of gas warfare had come as a terrible surprise to the women of Ethiopia: they could not conceive it would be so awful”.
Polish Recognition of the Italian “Conquest”
A few months later, on 7 January 1937, Sylvia wrote again to the Emperor: this time about the question of foreign recognition of the Italian “conquest” of Ethiopia. Mentioning that Poland had been the first to grant such recognition, she observed: “I note that Poland is recognising the alleged conquest, but remember, Poland was dismembered and regained her nationhood. The same will happen in the case of Ethiopia if she is determined”.
Mussolini’s Personal Attack
Some weeks later, on 11 February of the same year, my mother drew the Emperor’s attention the attack on New Times and Ethiopia News, which Mussolini, as we have seen, had written in the Popolo d’Italia of 4 February. “I am not displeased with it”, she commented, “because it shows that Mussolini feels that our continued propaganda for Ethiopia is helping to work up a public opinion against the Italian conquest which he finds dangerous”.
The Emperor’s Christmas Message to the United States
Sylvia later, on 1 January 1938, published an English translation of a Message of Christmas Greeting, which the Emperor broadcast in Amharic to the people of America.
After elaborating on the meaning of Christmas, and on the “Mystery of Bethlehem”, warned his listeners that civilisation was in danger of “falling to pieces” , on account of the then apparent “return to the law of the jungle”, a veritable “return to barbarism”. He then proceeded, however, in an optimistic vein suitable for the festive season, to declare:
“In order that the work of evil may not triumph again over this redeemed humanity, all peace-loving people must rally together for the definite re-establishment of right and peace."
"It is not only war that can stop war. Men of goodwill, conscious of their mission, and strengthened by the support of free peoples, can yet save this precious treasure, peace, and stop war. They can reconstruct where war destroys and desolates."
“Happy Christmas, American people, and please remember in your prayers those weak and oppressed peoples who have turned their confident gaze towards the star-spangled banner of the land of Liberty, as if to discern the star announcing redemption and peace”.
British Recognition of the Italian “Conquest” of Ethiopia
My mother subsequently wrote to the Emperor, towards the end of 1938, to condole with him on British recognition of the Italian “conquest” of his country. On hearing that Prime Minister Chamberlain had won the Parliamentary vote of confidence for his Treaty with Italy, she observed, on 5 November: “I wish to express to you my sorrow and sympathy that the House of Commons has been so slavish as to give Mr Chamberlain his vote. With such an enormous majority for his party it could not be otherwise, but this vote does not reflect the opinion of the people”.
Turning to Mr Chamberlain’s Conservative critics, who had merely abstained, but had not voted against the confidence resolution, she disdainfully observed: “Mr Eden, Mr Churchill and others who profess to dislike the policy are much to be condemned because they had not the courage to vote against, but only abstained. What is one to think of men who cannot back their opinions with a mere vote in the House of Commons?”
"The Dictatorships Will Not Ultimately Triumph"
She nevertheless prophesied:
“... the day of those who stand for justice will come, prolonged as the period of inaction may be. The dictatorships will not ultimately triumph. Your policy in refusing to compromise with the aggressor and to bargain away the rights and liberties of your people and your homeland is justified by every subsequent act of aggression. For your noble stand against aggression millions of people will honour you... Although the time of waiting is tedious and heart-breaking in the extreme, we shall triumph in the end”.
The Emperor, apparently moved by these words, had his aide, Blattengatta Heruy, reply briefly, on 7 November: “His Majesty desires me to say he continues to admire with gratitude your tireless effort in keeping before the public the just cause of his people”.
The Emperor's Address to the British People
At the very end of his exile in Britain, the Emperor wrote to my mother, through his secretary Ato Emmanuel Abraham, on 17 July 1940. Thanking her for her “untiring effort to defend and advance the cause of the Ethiopian people”, he sent her an interesting, but today largely forgotten message addressed to the people of Britain. In it, claiming Solomonic descent, he declared in part:
“From the moment I left Ethiopia four years ago, following the predatory and cruel onslaught on my country by Italy, I have never wavered in the belief that sooner or later the time would come when an opportunity would present itself for the avenging of my country."
“By declaring war against the Allied Powers, which were then so friendly to myself and my country, and have so remained, Italy has set the seal on her own doom, and has provided my people with the moment to strike for the re-capture of our country and the establishment once more of our freedom and independence."
“ I can say without hesitation that already every advantage is being taken of this opportunity, and that, like all the indigenous people of Africa, we shall fight with the utmost tenacity until wrong has been vanquished, right has triumphed, and Abyssinia is once more a free and independent nation..."
"God's Time is Now At Hand"
"Despite the months and years that have elapsed since the Italians overcame our effective resistance and established themselves in Abyssinia, my people have never given up the struggle against them. There has been constant fighting between small Abyssinian forces and Italian soldiers; the country has never been really conquered by Italy.
“As for myself, let it be remembered that I have not abdicated and have never renounced my title to my ancient throne. Four years ago I declared: If there is justice in this world, and I know there is, then I shall some day, in God’s own good time, and when He considers it suitable and fitting, sit on the throne of Solomon”.
Prophetically, he added: “God’s time is now at hand”.
This ends the present series of articles