Orders of Empire

Keith Kyle

  • Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh
    Methuen, 253 pp, £9.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 413 54830 9
  • Remote People by Evelyn Waugh
    Penguin, 208 pp, £2.50, January 1985, ISBN 0 14 009542 X
  • Haile Selassie’s War by Anthony Mockler
    Oxford, 453 pp, £17.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 215867 8

‘There is racial discrimination in Ethiopia,’ a Kenya Luo friend working for the United Nations told me when I arrived in Addis Ababa for the first time some twenty years ago. ‘The Ethiopians are while: everyone else is black, except that a few Europeans and Americans are honorary whites.’ Evelyn Waugh had the same experience. He went to the imperial coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930 and wrote the country up in fiction (Black Mischief) and non-fiction (Remote People). In 1935, he was sent back by the Daily Mail to record the coming Italian invasion (Scoop in fiction and Waugh in Abyssinia in non-fiction). ‘The Abyssinians,’ he writes in Waugh in Abyssinia, ‘in spite of being by any possible standard an inferior race, persisted in behaving as superiors; it was not that they were hostile, but contemptuous.’ They had something to be superior about. At the end of an age of imperialism in which Europeans had made it apparent that an African society was to be judged by whether it had a recognisable government and was ripe for conversion to Christianity. Ethiopia presented the picture of an established ruler and an indigenous Christian tradition of great antiquity.

The British had bad an opportunity to become familiar with Ethiopia’s sense of itself in the 1860s when, as a result of the Foreign Office’s carelessness in losing a letter that the Emperor Theodore had written to Queen Victoria with a view to an alliance against the Muslims, the Emperor imprisoned both the British consul and his small staff and, subsequently, the envoys sent to negotiate their release. It was Britain’s version of the American diplomatic hostage problem in Teheran, and her method of resolving it was to assemble a (largely India) army at great expense off the Eritrean coast, land it not far from Massawa, and march it into the precipitous Ethiopian highlands. Acquisition did not, however, find favour with the British. The Ethiopians were defeated at Magdala, the diplomats and some other Europeans were rescued: whereupon the whole expedition solemnly marched back down to the coast again and the armada sailed off. The Emperor having shot himself, the Ethiopians were left to sort out their politics. It was the British who Later suggested that the area might do as a colony for the newly-united Italians. In 1885 they encouraged them to acquire the fiendishly hot Red Sea port of Massawa, the basis of the colony of Eritrea, ‘pointing out,’ Waugh writes, ‘that though the town itself was far from desirable it offered a fine starting-point for the exploitation of the interior.’

The Italian presence on the coast soon led to clashes with the Ethiopians, with the result that in 1895, following an Anglo-Italian protocol in which the British recognised most of Ethiopia as an Italian sphere of influence, the Italians in their turn marched inland to the mountain redoubt of Magdala. But the expedition was not as well-organised as the British one had been, and the Italians were compelled to surrender. It was to wipe out the memory of this disaster that an army of twenty thousand Italians again invaded Ethiopia in early 1896, to be utterly smashed at the battle of Adowa. Still, the Italians were able to keep Eritrea, the victorious Emperor Menelik acknowledging the colony’s boundaries by an agreement of October 1896.

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