The British suffragette who was crowned an “honorary” Ethiopian

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By Abdi Latif Dahir in Addis Ababa

History and religion converge at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.

Initially established by Emperor Menelik II in 1891, the current grand and ornate church wasn’t built until 1942 during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. With its copper dome, pinnacles, modern statues, murals, and colorful interior, the cathedral serves not just as a tourist attraction but one of the most important places of worship in the entire Horn of Africa nation.

The church also serves as a burial ground for the citizens who died fighting the Italian invasion in the 1930s, along with Haile Selassie and his consort, Empress Menen Asfaw. It’s also the final resting place for the leaders killed by the Derg military junta that controlled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1987, besides ex-prime minister Meles Zenawi who led the country until his death in 2012.

Buried among these prominent Ethiopians is Sylvia Pankhurst, the British suffragette, writer, artist, and anti-colonial crusader. Born in Manchester, England in 1882, Sylvia was the daughter of the prominent activist Emmeline Pankhurst who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 to campaign for the rights of women to vote in the United Kingdom. Sylvia joined her mother and sister Christabel in the movement, designing leaflets and banners including the famed Holloway Prison brooch given to WSPU members who had been jailed.

REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
The Holy Trinity Cathedral Church.
REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
Inside the Holy Trinity Cathedral church.
Yet the tension between Sylvia and her family deepened particularly around World War I, which she opposed and they supported. As she became a vocal pacifist and socialist feminist, she also agitated against fascism and colonialism especially in Ethiopia where Benito Mussolini was ramping up his imperialist and military campaign in the 1930s.

In 1936, she went to Geneva to request the League of Nations to intervene and stop Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia—but in vain. She also started publishing The New Times and Ethiopia News to bring attention to horrors of the fascist occupation. Sylvia also befriended Haile Selassie who was forced into a five-year in exile in Bath, England after Italy occupied Ethiopia.

Even after Ethiopia was liberated and the monarch reinstalled in 1941, Pankhurst’s advocacy didn’t wane. Officials at the British foreign office labeled her a “busybody,” a “crashing bore,” and a “mischievous” campaigner who “only wants to be tiresome.”

AP PHOTO
Sylvia Pankhurst in 1942 after Ethiopia’s liberation.
Given her relentless activism, Haile Selassie invited her to come and live in Ethiopia where she eventually moved and settled in 1956. There, she published the popular monthly Ethiopia Observer; raised funds for Ethiopia’s first modern teaching hospital, the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital; and founded the Social Service Society voluntary welfare organization. In recognition of her work, Haile Selassie awarded her the Queen of Sheba medal.

Her deep affection for Ethiopia was also carried on by her son Richard, an academic who wrote dozens of books about the country and founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. Sylvia, who was opposed to marriage, had Richard with her Italian partner Silvio Corio—an issue that irrevocably ended her relationship with her mother Emmeline who couldn’t fathom a child born out of marriage.

QUARTZ/ABDI LATIF DAHIR
The tombs of Sylvia Pankhurst and her son Richard.
Through her subversiveness and her anti-imperialist activism, Sylvia Pankhurst led a profound life much of it in service to Ethiopia. When she died in 1960 at age 78, Haile Selassie decorated her an “honorary Ethiopian.” She also became the first foreigner buried among the “patriots” in the Holy Trinity grounds. She, along with Richard who died in 2017, are buried in adjacent tombs facing the cathedral’s grand façade.

Following her death, tributes poured in from African leaders and political parties including Kwame Nkrumah and the South Africa’s African National Congress.

But one of the most poignant remembrances that captured her life as a fearless gadfly came from American scholar and civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois who said that “the great work of Sylvia Pankhurst was to introduce black Ethiopia to white England … and to make the British people realize that black folks had more and more to be recognized as human beings with the rights of women and men.”

2 Responses to The British suffragette who was crowned an “honorary” Ethiopian

  1. A very long time ago I saw a FERENJ guy on TV making a speech in fluent Amharic. I later learned that guy was grand son of Sylvia Pankhurst, the most revered FERENJ lady. His name was Alula, named after one of the all time greatest war heroes of Ethiopia who defeated white colonial army unit in Dogali before the historic Adwa battle of 1896. Richard, his father, too was a life long friend of Ethiopia and very well known among the readers and writers; and I heard professor Alula’s mother, the pioneer librarian of Ethiopia has passed away recently.

    I had no idea the late professor Richard Pankhurst was half Italian or the fact that lady Sylvia was honorary citizen of Ethiopia. But I’ve read somewhere that Richard got married in Ethiopia and his best men at the wedding were laureate Artist and the writer poet Mengistu Lemma and they knew each other back in their college days back in U.K.

    In recent years, some Ethiopians have translated books written by friends of Ethiopia into Amharic and among those two were widely read in Ethiopia. The Cuban and the Czhecozlovakian officers who volunteered to fight in Haile Selassie’s army against Mussolini had written things other writers didn’t mention. I read those two books because Teddy Afro spoke of both books in his speech at his award ceremony somewhere in the U.S.A.

    Ethiopia is very lucky and grateful for having such good friends like the great lady Sylvia Pankhurst. Bob Marley, Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Jomo Kenyata, W.E. DuBois and other fellow black people and other black and brown nations who adopted the Ethiopian colors of Green, Yellow and Red had the obvious reason to like Ethiopia. The African soldiers at the end of the five year resistance against Italian fascism and the unforgettable Cuban soldiers who sacrificed their lives and limbs for Ethiopia and for other African nations were about freedom and independence to fellow human beings. Some day I hope they’ll get the proper recognition they deserve in Ethiopia.

    As the saying goes: A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed.

    Thank you Abdi for writing this great article.

    Ibro
    June 28, 2019 at 7:08 am
    Reply

  2. It’s well known that Sylvia Pankhurst spent over 20 years of her life in support of the cause of justice for Ethiopia including its liberation from Fascist Italy and subsequent attempts at colonization by UK.

    She, therefore, fully deserves to be not a mere honorary Ethiopian but rather an Ethiopian patriot. This has been declared by Mr. Kidane Alemayehu who also recommended in the most fervent manner the establishment of a statue for Sylvia Pankhurst in Ethiopia. He also had a strong role in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of her death.

    It’s time that the Ethiopian Government accords her the fullest recognition she deserves.

    Hibret
    June 30, 2019 at 4:46 pm
    Reply

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