British fighter for women’s rights, Sylvia Pankhurst, took up cause of East African nation with a passion she passed on to her son Richard, who has devoted his life to promoting Ethiopia and documenting its history, writes James Jeffrey.

By James Jeffrey |

In the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, just beyond the front door to the home of 88-year-old British historian Richard Pankhurst, hangs a black and white photo of his mother, Sylvia. The famous suffragette is wearing an elaborate Edwardian dress with sleeves to her wrists, beneath a simple heading: “Votes for Women”.

Sylvia and Richard Pankhurst

Sylvia (second from left) and Richard (in background, looking at camera) attend an event in Ethiopia.

On a wall in the sitting room hangs a tapestry that reveals a side to Sylvia Pankhurst – daughter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst – that is less well known than her struggle during the early 1900s to get British women the vote. Based on a photo taken by an eight-year-old Richard with a box-shaped Brownie camera on a trip to the English city of Bath in June 1935, the tapestry depicts his mother walking down a gravel path through an expansive garden accompanied by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who had been exiled in England after his country became subsumed into Africa Orientale Italiana, Benito Mussolini’s African empire.

Before I can ask how his mother came to have such a strong bond with this often overlooked corner of the African continent, Pankhurst interjects, “The most important question is whether you want tea or coffee.”

After fresh, pungent Ethiopian coffee and biscuits, Pankhurst explains how his mother had gone to Italy to study art in Venice. There she witnessed the brutality of the fascist regime – and fell in love and moved in with an Italian anarchist, who would become Richard’s father. The experience led her to become a vocal pacifist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist activist in the 1920s and 1930s. When Italy began increasing its military presence in East Africa, she proved to be one of Ethiopia’s most vocal supporters, writing to newspapers in defence of the nation’s sovereignty.

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