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Series: Sylvia Pankhurst
A Glimpse at My Mother’s Archives
This week, and next, I dip into the records relating to Africa in 1936-40, of my mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, who edited “New Times and Ethiopia News” (here abbreviated as N.T. ; E.N.), a pro-Ethiopian, and Anti-Fascist weekly newspaper, at the time.
I present the following excerpts fom her African correspondence, with a minimum of comment.
Many European Liberals, Socialists and Democrats, and Anti-Fascists generally, were deeply interested in Ethiopia at the time of the Fascist invasion of the country in 1935-6, and shocked by the invaders’ use of poison gas, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, the shooting of prisoners captured in cold blood, etc.
Not a few European Anti-Fascists, however, shifted their international interests, in the 1930’s, from one “Victim Country” to another, from Ethiopia to Spain, from Spain to Czechoslovakia, and from Czechoslovakia to Poland.
African consciousness of Ethiopia and of her plight, in the late 1930s and early 1940s was, by contrast, firmly grounded in issues of race and colonial oppression, as well as admiration, if not veneration, for Ethiopia, the only country on the continent to survive the European Scramble for Africa.
Nationalist and Pan-African Ideas
For many Africans, sympathy for Ethiopia, the victim of unprovoked aggression by a European colonial power, was moreover connected with their own political awakening, and, the emergence and diffusion, through support of Ethiopia, of nationalist and Pan-African ideas. For all these reasons African opinion tended to be more constant than European in its support of the Ethiopian cause.
African awareness of Ethiopia as an independent state struggling to maintain its age-old independence may be said to date back to Emperor Menilek’s historic victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Several persons of African descent, among them the Haitian leader Benito Sylvain, had been profoundly moved by that event. Later, in the Summer of 1935, at the time of Mussolini’s threatened invasion, Jomo Kenyatta, as well as Mr C.L.R. James, of the West Indies, and several other Africans or persons of African decent in Britain had banded together, as we may see on another occasion, to found an International African Friends of Abyssinia Society.
Difficulties of communication with Africa, and the latter’s then low level of literacy and of political consciousness, nevertheless prevented New Times and Ethiopia News from gaining any rapid contact with, or circulation in, the continent. It was not long, however, before the paper began to be read in the West Indies, and by the Spring of 1937 it was known by many Africans in Anglophone Africa, as well as by many persons of African descent all over the New World. Not a few articles on Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Patriots, and Fascist oppression and terror in Ethiopia, which appeared in Sylvia’s paper were moreover regularly reprinted in the Nigerian Comet, the West African Pilot, the Southern Nigerian Defender, and several other African publications.
Access to Sylvia’s paper was of some Africa-wide significance, not only because it helped to articulate the African continent’s support for Ethiopia, but also because it helped to break down parochialism in the different African colonies. This it did by galvanising many readers into support for a distant Victim Motherland, with whom they could, and did, enthusiastically identify.
Some idea of the prevailing African attitude to the Fascist invasion and occupation of Ethiopia, which many Africans regarded, and indeed virtually worshipped, as their continent’s last remaining independent Motherland, can be captured by referring to a few of the innumerable letters that Sylvia received over the years. Some she published at the time in New Times and Ethiopia News [see letters reprinted in issue for 30 January 1954], while others were later republished in her subsequent journal Ethiopia Observer, or are preserved in her files, from which several of the texts here cited are drawn.Taken together they constitute a contribution to the literature of twentieth century emergent African consciousness.
Pretoria, and Accra
Characteristic of the many letters my mother received at this time was one from the Black Opinion Publishers, of Pretoria, South Africa, who felt “the necessity of keeping our folks conversant with the latest developments in Ethiopia”. From Dunkwa, in the Gold Coast (later Ghana), Matt Arkhurst wrote to Sylvia from the Gold Coast Machinery and Trading Company, declaring that “the people of this town show great interest in your paper. They buy copies from the evening passenger train”. From Benin, Nigeria, D.O. Imasgoie asked to be its agent, as he was “one of the Africans who are greatly interested in our poor innocent Abyssinia”. From Lagos, also in Nigeria, a general merchant E.E. Anamyonwu declared that his compatriots were “eagerly in need of papers which give Ethiopian news”. Martin A.K. Adover, of Accra, Gold Coast, wrote of his great desire to obtain “the best news regarding our poor brethren now suffering under the hands of the Italians”, and added, “the crucifixion of Ethiopia came as a great shock to us the coloured races of Africa. We pray to God that He, the most powerful, should stand and deliver His people”.
The Reverend Morris Mattavous, and the Graziani Massacre
One of the earliest, and long the most enthusiastic West Indian interested in things Ethiopian was the Reverend Morris Mattavous, of Jamaica. His first published article appeared in N.T. & E.N., on 13 March 1937 ,in the immediate aftermath of the Graziani Massacre. Taking as his title the Biblical phrase “Ethiopia is Stretching Forth unto God”, he wrote, in emotional vein, “I am deeply interested in the Ethiopian trouble”, and added:
“I am a black man, and all black men’s troubles are mine. For as much as the Italians have done these brutal acts to my brothers they have done them also unto me.
“Fellow Africans, this is the day of our gathering, let us arise and answer the call of Ethiopia. How? By rallying to the cause in every way we can possibly help”.
Support for Ethiopia was also voiced by innumerable people in humble walks in
life. Mr Basil Graham, an ex-soldier from Demerara, British Guiana, who had participated in the first World War, wrote on 1 March 1937:
“I am an ex-Soldier of the 2nd British West Indies regiment, and I am desirous of being of some service to my Fatherland [i.e. Ethiopia]. I am one who is thoroughly against the Invasion of Ethiopia, and am praying daily for a chance to meet the Italian army in the field of battle with modern arms… I had vowed never to fight in a war again, but I have changed my mind. My blood boils with rage to know that my strong right hand is laying wasted in Guiana when a nation of no fighting qualities
[i.e. Italy] is taking advantage of my brothers. I pray daily that God will give us that chance, and we are going to have it very soon. England will yet fight Italy, and then it will be our chance. We are thousands in the West Indies and British Guiana who are willing to die for justice… Heaven hear our prayer. I beseech You to give us that chance if it is Thy will”
Addressing Sylvia specifically , he continued. “If I can be of any service to your society for the Ethiopian cause I am ready for the job..
“It grieves us to stand in Guiana and see insults upon insults heaped upon our Mother Country [Ethiopia] which we love… and [are] willing to sacrifice our lives through Hell again to right that wrong”.
Wishing to Fight for Ethiopia
Another African wishing to fight for Ethiopia was Joel Edison McKeanley, of South Africa, who wrote: “we of the coloured races of Africa have followed this Mussolini bully from the kick-off… many of us are prepared to fight for Ethiopia. We want no reward… we want a chance to prove to His Majesty Emperor Haile Sellasssie that he is just as much our Emperor as he is in Abyssinia”.
Support for Ethiopia, and condemnation of Fascist Italy, was likewise voiced by J.A. Moruku, a West African in Britain, who exclaimed: “The young people of African decent feel that Italy has invaded our fatherland… If it were not for your paper the young Africans would not know what is happening in Africa today, as the whole of the press in Europe has no room to publish the Ethiopian case… Mussolini forgets that it is the black soil of Africa that makes the white soil of Europe rich today and the same black soil of Africa will one day cause the downfall of Europe”.
The Graziani Massacre
Many readers, such as Mr J.D. Addison, of Takoradi, in the Gold Coast, were in particular deeply shocked by the Graziani Massacre. Asking Sylvia to pass on his condolences to Dr Martin, who had personally lost two of his sons, Addison wrote: “It seems vain to try and express one’s feelings and intense regret; they are too overwhelming. But he [Dr Martin] may derive some tiny grain of comfort in knowing that there are friends who share his sorrows. Believe me, all of us in the Gold Coast are deeply grieved… I mean far more than I can write”.
An anonymous reader from Uganda, expressing similar sentiments, declared, “Glory and love are due to those martyrs of freedom – sons of Africa – who are ready to die for motherland, whose heroic deeds words do not suffice to describe. Their memory will be for ever green”.