When Italy began building up its military presence in East Africa, Sylvia Pankhurst proved to be one of Ethiopia’s most vocal supporters, writing to newspapers in defense of its sovereignty

By James Jeffrey |

Just inside the entrance of the Addis Ababa home of British historian Richard Pankhurst hangs a black and white photo of his suffragette mother, Sylvia Pankhurst.

She is pictured wearing a long and elaborate Edwardian dress with sleeves to her wrists, beneath a heading: “Votes for Women.”

She was one of the women whose campaigns, which included going on hunger-strike, led to British women being allowed to vote in the early 20th Century.

In the nearby sitting room, a tapestry hanging on a wall testifies to a less well-known side of his mother.

It depicts Ms Pankhurst in June 1935 walking down a gravel path through a garden in the English city of Bath, accompanied by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

The image comes from a photo taken during his exile in England after Ethiopia was subsumed into the short-lived African empire of fascist Italy, Africa Orientale Italiana.

In previous years, Ms Pankhurst had gone to study art in Venice, where she witnessed the brutality of the fascist regime. Afterwards in the later 1920s and 30s she had become a vocal pacifist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist activist.

So when Italy began building up its military presence in East Africa she proved to be one of Ethiopia’s most vocal supporters, writing to newspapers in defense of its sovereignty.

Surrounded by exiles

The eventual invasion in 1935 and failure of the League of Nations to intercede only spurred her on, as witnessed by her then teenage son.

“I grew up in London surrounded by Ethiopian exiles visiting my mother, who was always busy organizing meetings and fundraising for the Ethiopian cause,” says Richard Pankhurst, now 88.

When Ms Pankhurst felt media and readers were losing interest in Ethiopia’s plight, she took matters into her own hands and founded a newspaper.

The New Times and Ethiopia News was based in Woodford, London, where the family lived and where, following the war and the African country’s liberation, many Ethiopian students found their way to the Pankhurst family home, becoming Richard’s friends.

Continue reading this story on BBC News
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