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Articles in this series:
Series: The Ethiopian Aeroplane 'Tsehai'
Matter of Unreturned Loot, in Italy
While awaiting the return of the Aksum obelisk, looted from Ethiopia in 1937 on the personal orders of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, and not yet returned in accordance with international agreements, we have perhaps time to look at another interesting question of loot, also still in Italy.
This is the question of the Ethiopian aeroplane Tsehai, which was named after Emperor Haile Sellassie’s daughter Princess Tsehai – who later travelled with her father to England, and became a trained nurse.
A Story Never Yet Told – in Ethiopia
The story of this aeroplane, which is now in the Italian Aviation Museum, has never been told, at least, not in Ethiopia. Yet it is a story that deserves to be told.
This plane, which is not mentioned in Professor Bahru Zewde’s otherwise very comprehensive, and important, Ethiopian Airlines book “Bringing Africa Together”, is of particular interest in Ethiopian history, in that it was the first ever to be constructed in Ethiopia. It therefore deserves an honoured place in any future Ethiopian aviation museum!
The plane, which was originally called Aethiopien I, i.e. Ethiopia I, was assembled early in 1935, that is to say a few months prior to the Italian Fascist invasion, which began on 3 October 1935.
Emperor Haile Sellassie’s Pilot Ludwig Weber
The plane was the handiwork of Emperor Haile Sellassie’s German pilot Ludwig Weber. A native of Freiburg, he had come to Addis Ababa in 1933, as a representative of the German firm of Junkers, and had been commissioned to assist in the establishment of Ethiopian aviation. On his life see Adrien Zervos’s “L’Empire d’Ethiopie”, page 220.
A Time of Ethiopian Modernisation
This was a time, it will be perceived, when the ancient Ethiopian state was beginning to modernise itself, and when an Ethiopian air fleet -despite its immense cost – was fast coming into existence.
This is noted by Professor Bahru, who in the above-cited work observes:
“By 1935, through gifts and purchases, the country had acquired a sizable fleet of aircraft, with the Potez 25 A-2 in the leading position. There were five of these; a sixth had crashed in January 1934. There were also, or had been – in addition to the Junkers W.33c – two Farman 192, a Breda 15, three Fokkers, a DH-60M, a Fiat AS1 and a Beech B-17L. The ‘airport’ at Jan Meda”, Bahru adds, “had acquired hangers and workshops. There were also airports outside Addis Ababa – at Dessie, Dire Dawa, Jijiga, Debra Markos, Soddo and Bale. An airfield was also built near Akaki, some 30 kilometres south of Addis Ababa, with two hangers (the larger of them 30 by 38 metres) and offices and rest rooms for the pilots”.
Work on Three Aeroplanes Begun, but Only One Completed
Weber based the design for his aeroplane on a German model which had been built in Freiburg a year or so earlier. He actually began construction work in Addis Ababa on no less than three aircraft, but only one, on account of the Fascist invasion, was ever completed. (So much we learn from an article by Bernardo Sclerandi, entitled “L’aeroplano del Negus”, i.e. “The aeroplane of the Negus”, which appeared in the Italian aviation magazine “Aerei”, No. 12, for 1978, pages 45-6).
The aircraft was a monoplane, with a seven cylinder Walter Venus I 115 horsepower engine, and a Schwartz propeller. Its fuselage was made of steel, its wings largely of wood, and its windscreen of plastic.
Green, Yellow, and Red
This historic plane was duly painted in the Ethiopian national colours, green, yellow and red. It was then christened “Tsehai” by the Emperor, who called her after his beloved daughter Princess Tsehai.
The First Flight
The plane’s first flight, a memorable event on any showing, took place either at the very end of 1935, or the beginning of 1936, when “Tsehai” was flown by Herr Weber in person.
The history of “Tsehai” was, unfortunately, but a short one. The plane had only flown a total of thirty hours when the advance of the invaders obliged Weber and his staff to leave Ethiopia. Their departure took place at the very beginning of May 1936, i.e. only a few days prior to the entry into the city of Pietro Badoglio’s Fascist army.
The plane was then abandoned.
It was, however, shortly afterwards appropriated by the Italian authorities, who despatched it to Italy. By 1941, it had been acquired by the Aeronautical Museum in Caserta, before being later transferred to the Italian Aviation Museum outside Rome, where it is currently in the store.
The Italian Peace Treaty
As a result of the Paris Peace Conference, held in 1946, World War II, the Italian Government signed a Peace Treaty, in 1947, with the United Nations. Article 37 stated that “within eighteen months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, Italy shall restore all works of art, religious objects, archives and objects of historical value belonging to Ethiopia or its nationals and removed from Ethiopia to Italy since October 3, 1935”.
In the somewhat tardy implemention of the treaty the question of “Tsehai”, the “aeroplane of the Negus”, as the Italians call it, was somehow forgotten. As the first plane to be made in Ethiopia it would seem, however, to be an “object of historical value”, as specified in the Treaty. This view would seem corroborated by the fact that the plane is currently in the Italian Aviation Museum store: Such museums do not hold items which are not of “historical value”.
The fact the aircraft was made under Ethiopian Government auspices, by the Emperor’s pilot, and is generally referred to in Italy as “the aeroplane of the Negus”, leaves us furthermore in no doubt as to where the machine belongs.
The fact that it was flown up to the beginning May 1936 shows likewise that it must have been taken to Italy within the period covered by the Treaty.
A Future Ethiopian Museum
The plane “Tsehai”, or “Ethiopia I” to give it its alternative name, would seem eminently suited for inclusion, as one of the most important exhibits, in Ethiopia’s Aviation, or such-like Museum, of the future. One could indeed argue that Ethiopia’s consciousness of her past would be seriously distorted without this memorable pre-war green, yellow and red ’plane. The presence of this aircraft would provide visual evidence of the heroic efforts of pre-war Ethiopia to modernise herself. The plane would, in its way, be comparable to the locally-made cannon of Emperor Tewodros, which graces the latter’s mountain fortress of Maqdala.
An Act of Justice -and Statesmanship
The return of “Tsehai”, in accordance with Article 37 of the Italian Peace Treaty, would seem an elementary act of just, albeit tardy.
The aircraft’s return could, moreover, be a catalyst, leading to the long overdue establishment, perhaps by Ethiopian Airlines, of the proposed Ethiopian Aviation Museum.
Restitution by the Italian Government of “the aeroplane of the Negus” would moreover be a wise act of statesmanship, symbolising the historic friendship between the two peoples concerned. The return of “Tsehai”, at this particular movement, would be the more welcome at a time when the return of the Aksum obelisk has unfortunately been so much delayed.