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.

The feeling remained that Italy deserved a colonial empire and that Ethiopia was the place where she could expect to find one. So long as countries like Britain and France felt no inhibition about parcelling out spheres of influence. Italy could be promised that in due time she would have her share. In 1906 a tripartite treaty agreed that, if the Ethiopian Empire fell to pieces, each should have a part, but that Italy should have much the largest part. Three decades later, by the time Italy under Mussolini felt able to enforce these claims, different criteria ruled. For this, most of the responsibility was Mussolini’s own. In 1923 his Government backed the application by Ras Tafari, the Ethiopian Regent, for his country’s membership of the League of Nations against Britain’s objections to ‘this barbarous country’ with its toleration of the slave trade and its uncertain control over its undeveloped and for the most part autonomous provinces. It was largely because Ethiopia’s League membership gave her a claim to sovereign equality with the European powers that the Italian aggression of 1935 created such a stir. The first major use which Tafari made of his new status was to lodge a complaint against Britain and Italy in 1926 for agreeing to back each other’s demands for economic concessions in their respective spheres of influence, and to make joint representations in Addis Ababa. Tafari laid the notes he had received before the League and inquired ‘whether that correspondence is compatible with the independence of our country, inasmuch as it includes the stipulation that part of our Empire is to be allotted to the economic Influence of a given Power.’ Britain and Italy had to withdraw in some confusion. In 1928 Italy and Ethiopia signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship, under whose terms Italy undoubtedly expected to take the lead in supplying the aid without which Tafari could not modernise his country.

Already in 1925, however, Mussolini was making preparations for a full-scale military invasion of Ethiopia whenever the European political situation would allow. The word ‘military’ was underlined three times in his papers to make it quite plain he was not talking of an economic protectorate. Tafari, who was crowned Emperor with the title of Haile Selassie (‘Power of the Trinity’) in 1930, was also being disingenuous. Waugh is in general too favourable to the Italians for many tastes, but the book is still well worth reading. He points out in detail how, despite the Treaty of Friendship, when it came to the granting of concessions and influential appointments to foreigners, the Italians invariably found themselves at the end of the queue. They, after all, were the white nation that had been defeated. The incident which led directly to the Italian Invasion took place on 5 December 1934 at Walwal in the Ogaden, that dry, flat expanse which provided a battleground for Ethiopians and Somalis a half a century later. The boundaries were ill-defined but not so ill-defined that anyone seriously supposed that Walwal, the place of a thousand water-holes, was not well within Ethiopia. Yet when it was visited by the Anglo-Ethiopian Boundary Commission and their armed Ethiopian escort it was found to be occupied by Italian-commanded Somalis. Mockler describes in detail what followed. The two armed forces glared at each other for six weeks and then fought: the Ethiopians came off second best with 107 of their men killed. The question that has not been finally resolved is whether Mussolini had it firmly in mind to conquer Ethiopia before Walwal, or whether, given his braggart personality, he was only set on that course by Haille Selassie’s decision to go once more to Geneva and indict Italy before the civilised world. On the answer to this rests the judgment to be made about the wisdom of the Emperor’s diplomatic move. Interestingly enough. Anthony Mockler, with his detailed work on Italian sources, is inclined to endorse Evelyn Waugh’s emphatically held opinion that Haile Selassie was very ill-advised to go public over Walwal since it was this that drove the Duce to go over the top. On the other hand, Denis Mack Smith. In his biography of Mussolini (which is not cited in Mockler’s bibliography), lists a number of occasions from 1925 onwards when the Duce showed every Intention or using force. At the end of 1932 he had approved an outline plan which assumed that war would begin after the rainy season in 1935. In August 1934, four months before Walwal, he had said that war was not far off. But how much reliance can be put on anything Mussolini said, and how much a military plan of action might be thought to indicate an intention to attack, it is still hard to determine.

After Walwal, however, it became increasingly clear that Mussolini was going to attack and that in his own view he was merely joining the ranks of the neighbouring imperialists, notably Britain and France. That they got there a few decades before, at a time when there was no League of Nations, did not seem to him to warrant attention. Waugh, who had arrived in Addis Ababa with other journalists in the middle of August, found the situation perfectly dear. ‘Everyone was waiting for Italy at her own convenience to begin the war.’ On 3 October the attack began. For reasons that were hardly his fault, Waugh’s career as a war correspondent was a fiasco. At first he was not allowed by the Ethiopians to go anywhere near the front and as soon as he could move up to Dessye with the Emperor he was fired by his paper and came home. The one scoop that was available at Addis, about a genial speculator called Rickett who was operating on behalf of American financiers, passed him by although he had had the advantage of travelling up with Rickett from the coast in the same railway coach.

Waugh’s book begins with a short ‘Guide to the Ethiopian Question’, his astringencies at the expense of the Ethiopians being nicely balanced by his perspective on the avarice, treachery, hypocrisy and brutality’ involved in the European partition of the African continent. He knows that although there had been Christian kings and emperors since Antiquity, the Ethiopian empire as we now think of it is only a thing of the late 19th century. There were black colonialists at work in Africa at the same time as there were white ones. The Emperor Menelik was subduing the southern territories of Galla. Sidomo, the Somali grazing grounds in the Ogaden and the Muslim Sultanate of Harar when the British were establishing themselves in Kenya. Uganda and the Sudan. The greater part of Waugh in Abyssinia is an account of the author’s predicament as a ‘war correspondent’ and of the character and behaviour of the very odd collection of resident and transient Europeans. It ends with his return to the country when it has become an Italian colony, where white men could be seen hard at work on the simple manual labour of building a road.

Anthony Mockler’s account of Italy’s military encounters in Ethiopia starts with the Adowa campaign of 1896, continues with the invasion of 1935-6, goes on to describe the continuing resistance to Italian rule during the next five years and ends with the campaign of 1941 in the course of which the Italian factor in Ethiopia was eliminated and the Emperor restored. The book is well researched and written with verve, but it has had a strange publishing history. It was originally three times as long as it is at present, and while some pruning was no doubt in order the scale of the reduction would seem to be unfortunate. The Italians have already published a cut-down version twice the length of this book. We are told by the author that the account of the battle of Adowa, with which the book starts, has been drastically cut, and that descriptions of Ethiopia’s pre-invasion politics and of the five-year resistance from 1936-41 have been reduced to less than a quarter of their original length. Especially near the front of the book the narrative moves Jerkily, like one of those old film epics that have been severely cut before release and have only latterly been lovingly restored. On the other hand, Mockler is inclined to multiply the number of unfamiliar Ethiopian names and titles beyond what would serve the strict requirements of the narrative, as if this were an Ethiopian regimental history. For the Italian invasion of 1935-6, for example, it is easier to learn from Colonel A.J. Barker’s The Civilising Mission what exactly, from a military point of view, was going on. Still, the attention paid to the Ethiopian personalities and background gives Mockler’s descriptions of the campaigns a dimension that Barker’s book lacks. He also gives a very vivid account of the pessimistic atmosphere in the Sudan in 1940 when Italy came into the war. Fortunately unenterprising Italian leadership in Ethiopia prevented the Italians from making any use of their initial military superiority, except in the one instance of picking up British Somaliland. Even so, it required the full force of Churchill’s insistence for the Emperor Haile Selassie to be received and accommodated at Khartoum, and it required the genius of Orde Wingate’s leadership to produce a guerrilla campaign that re-established the Emperor in Gojjam Province and made it seem as if he were returning in triumph rather than in the British baggage train. Mockler describes this brilliant but local achievement – which contrasted dramatically with the ignominious collapse of a conventional British attack led by the future Field-Marshal Slim on the same front – without belying the title of his book. Haile Selassie, aptly called by Waugh ‘the still hub of all the turmoil ... a small, elegant figure. Oriental rather than African, formal, circumspect, inscrutable, [moving] like a vested statue carried in a religious procession’, is the central and unifying figure. It is true he wasn’t there at Adowa, with which Mockler’s book starts (though his father was), and was not In any real sense a general, but as an absolute monarch he can be said to have embodied the struggle of his countrymen against the Italians. However, the spotlight leaves the little Emperor in the wings for the better part of five chapters as the author describes with great skill the campaigns that brought about the elimination of the Italians from Ethiopia, first under General Platt, who won the hard-fought battle of Keren in mountainous Eritrea, then under General Cunningham, who did not have to fight hard at all but, on crossing from Kenya into Somaliland, was made to appear a greater general than he subsequently proved to be by leaping forward as the Italians collapsed and marching by way of Harar to Addis Ababa. Mockler is better at describing the campaign than he is at analysing it. Admittedly, the Italians had more formidable natural defences in Eritrea but the contrast between their performance in the two battles calls for more explanation. It is disappointing that Mockler’s researches in Italy evidently did not enable him to uncover any.

The book ends with the triumphant re-entry of Haile Selassie into Addis Ababa and does not therefore deal with the problem of Eritrea and Ethiopia’s acquisition of it; the post-war performance of Haile Selassie’s government; the emergence of the Emperor as the patron of anti-imperialism and of Addis Ababa as the permanent seat of the Organisation of African Unity; the long struggle against the Eritreans and the Somalis; the Emperor’s overthrow and his replacement by Mengistu Haile Marriam; and the appalling story of the Ethiopian famines of a decade ago and of today. But the epic nature of Mockler’s tale of warrior chieftains, their bloody deeds through several generations, their record of loyalty and betrayal, is a reminder of the changing perspective of British attitudes to Ethiopia. She was a ‘barbarous country’ In 1923; she was the gallant, picturesque, betrayed victim of aggression in 1935-6; she was a victorious ally in 1941, when Britain felt that she had made some amends for her inability to make sanctions work against Italy five years before. The acquisition of Eritrea after the war was, on the one hand, just, since Haile Selassie’s Empire notoriously lacked access to the sea and it was right that this should be made good at the expense of Italy. On the other hand, there was the awkward fact that the Eritreans did not see themselves as part of a black empire. As the long-sustained Eritrean liberation struggle gained publicity, more of the shortcomings of the black imperialists, as advertised not only by Waugh but by such scholars as Dame Margery Perham in The Government of Ethiopia, came to the fore. Somali claims to the Ogaden appeared more attractive as they were found to have a validity of their own based on ethnic considerations independent of Italian ambitions. Jonathan Dimbleby and other visiting Journalists revealed the horrific extent of the previous Ethiopian famine and the total in adequacies of the imperial response to it. In 1935 the contrast between the modern-mindedness of the ruler and the realities of life away from the capital could always be explained by the need to give Haile Selassie time to bring modernising influences to bear over so backward a country. But things did not seem to have progressed very much further in the thirty years that followed the Emperor’s restoration in 1941, and, as Ryszard Kapuściński illustrates so vividly in his book of interviews with courtiers of the overthrown ruler. The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, the vocabulary of development and progress, which was the vocabulary of the court, came less and less to correspond to events in the country. At first it seemed that the revolution might do good; that with feudalism swept away, the social basis of real development might be created; the mysterious new rulers might, it was thought, come to better terms with the Eritreans and Tigreans. Their savagery, however, has recalled early images of an essentially barbarous country. Many of Mockler’s Ethiopian informants have now been killed – an indication, incidentally, of the length of time that the book has been germinating. Mengistu Haile Marriam, who emerged as Haile Selassie’s successor, has tried to maintain an equally centralised government, though this time with the help of the Russians and the Cubans instead of the West. The war with the Eritreans and with the Tigreans continues, and famine, which finally exposed the ineffectiveness of Haile Selassie’s method of government, is now performing the same grim function for his successors.