“This country is honoured by the emperor having taken up his residence here. The righteous men would have saved Sodom; I feel the emperor is one of the comparatively few who may save Britain”: these are the sentiments of one anonymous letter writer to Sylvia Pankhurst’s New Times and Ethiopian News in 1937, on the seventh anniversary of Haile Selassie I’s coronation as emperor of Ethiopia, spent in exile in Bath.
The sentiments are, on the face of it, surprising. At the height of British imperial power, and on the eve of war with Germany, an African king is presented as the force that might save the British Empire from disgrace. Fascist Italy had violently invaded Ethiopia, a member of the League of Nations, in October 1935 and the British government had done nothing substantial to support the principles of international justice embodied in the League. Indeed, Italy’s aggression and the righteousness of Ethiopia’s cause intimately tested Englishness and Britishness, entangled cultural categories of belonging that had for a long time been inflected through the imperial project.
Both categories of belonging posited a culture of impartiality, fair play and restraint, which were seen as attributes of an idealised imperial governance. And an Ethiopian orientation became a palliative to the marring of Englishness and Britishness for white and black subjects of the empire alike, albeit with different degrees of commitment to anti-colonial self-determination.
This talk will draw out the relationship and tensions between two commitments to Ethiopia evident across the British empire: a Euri-centric and an Afri-centric Ethiopianism.
Dr. Robbie Shilliam is Reader in International Relations at Queen Mary University of London.
The Anglo-Ethiopian Society is affiliated to the University of London’s Centre of African Studies (CAS) and all of our events at SOAS are co-hosted with CAS.