Historian Richard Pankhurst dies, Ethiopia mourns
Richard Pankhurst, the son of the British women’s rights campaigner Sylvia Pankhurst who became one of the world’s leading experts on Ethiopian history and culture, has died aged 89.
He first came into contact with Ethiopia through his mother, a ‘suffragette’ who also campaigned against the invasion of the Horn of Africa nation by Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italian troops in 1935.
He moved to Addis Ababa with her after World War Two and started teaching at Addis Ababa University, going on to write more than 20 books and thousands of articles.
He also inherited an activist streak from his mother and his grandmother, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the suffragette movement, which helped secure the right for British women to vote.
Richard campaigned with his wife Rita for the return of piles of plunder taken from Ethiopia by invading British troops in 1868, and of a giant obelisk taken from the ancient city of Axum by Mussolini’s forces. Both were there in Axum to watch as Italy returned the obelisk in 2005.
Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry called him a “doyen of historians and scholars of Ethiopia”.
“Pankhurst was one of Ethiopia’s greatest friends during his long and productive life, and his scholarship and understanding for Ethiopia will be sorely missed,” it said in a statement.
Author and photographer Maaza Mengiste told BBC Africa: “I’ve discovered things about my country, just sometimes stumbling upon something that he’s written … a whole other window opens for me on how I understand my own history.”
One Ethiopian, Wondwosen Gelan, tweeted simply: “He was our history archive. We miss him so much.”
I have my doubts as to whether or not I could ever make it as a journalist.
I love to interview people, listen to their stories, and ask them the questions that open them up their lives to me like unfolding origami or blooming flowers. I am genuinely interested in what they have to say, but I am often shy about intruding on people’s time for information or interviews.
One person I greatly admired and had wanted to meet with while in Addis was Richard Pankhurst, the eminent Ethiopian historian, the founding director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, a former professor at the University of Addis Ababa, and the son of Sylvia Pankhurst.
So I was beyond excited to receive the following email during my stay: And this had come about – not because I had actually screwed up my courage to contact him – but because I was, at the time, a vegetarian.
Fortunately, the serendipity that seemed to be guiding my adventures in Addis led me one day to the ASNI Art Gallery. Lured by the promise of a tasty vegetarian buffet in the gardens for just 50 birr, I had dragged my new friend Hailu along with me to investigate both the food and the art and act as my interpreter.
It was not at all the art gallery I expected to see – once we finally found it.
Housed at the time in a 1912 villa in a lush, almost hidden woodland oasis near Arat Kilo, the ASNI Art Gallery was founded in 1996 to promote contemporary Ethiopian art by providing a small exhibition space to young emerging artists creating thought-provoking and experimental work.
The “villa” itself seemed to be falling apart, but nobody seemed too bothered by that. I clambered quickly up the rickety stairs with my camera to check it out before it collapsed completely. [Hailu says his family stayed in this house at one point with several other families many years ago, but it wasn’t really clear to me what exactly this meant.]
As luck and serendipity would have it, there was an art exhibition opening happening at the ASNI that afternoon, and there, sitting amongst the assembled visitors listening to the opening remarks by the Ethiopian Minister of Culture…
was Richard Pankhurst (in the pink shirt), and his wife, Rita!
After the speech, I introduced myself to Dr Pankhurst and explained a bit about my book project. He listened with interest, then graciously extended an invitation to have tea with them at their compound the following week.
Feeling emboldened, I took the opportunity to also broach the subject of my book with the Minister of Culture, uncertain of the reaction of the present government to a book that takes place during the Haile Selassie years.
“The Emperor is part of our history,” he said pleasantly, with a shrug of his shoulders. “Go ahead and write. And if you have any questions… ” he handed me his card and email. (The Minister of Culture gave me his email!)
(I could almost feel my little Abyssian Tinkerbell laughing from her invisible perch on my shoulder.)
On the appointed day for tea at the Pankhursts, I looked for a taxi amongst the motley assortment hovering outside the Addis Hilton, the hotel I pretended was my office while in Addis. I felt lucky when I spotted an old Mercedes, but the driver frowned when I handed him the address.
“That’s almost an hour away…” he said with an air of dismay.
Is it really? I wondered. I had absolutely no idea where we were going.
A quick check with others confirmed the taxi driver’s assessment. If he took me there, he said, would then have to drive almost an hour back to town, and likely with no fare – a big waste of time and precious gas.
His unhappiness explained, I suggested he wait for me while I have tea, then bring me back to Addis. We negotiated a price and his mood lifted slightly.
An hour later, the Pankhursts welcomed me enthusiastically into their home, a delightful and spacious Ethiopian-style, vine-covered, yellow bungalow set amidst vibrant gardens.
As tea was being served, and before I could ask them about my research, Rita was distracted about the naming of some plant. Showing me a book, she asked my opinion on which variety of flower she had in her gardens as she wanted to enter it in an upcoming flower show. Unfortunately, this wasn’t something I could help with. But I was completely charmed by the very Britishness of this endearing couple and their discussions of flower genus and species over tea.
Eventually, they settled in and listened to a reading of my grandmother’s letter about the night of the red moon and the Italian invasion. It took Richard by surprise, and he was very interested in it, as in all his many years of research on Ethiopia, he had never before heard talk of any native superstitions about the ominous red moon.
We spent the balance of our time together enthusiastically exchanging ideas and stories before I felt it was time to return to my patient driver and to Addis.
The last time I saw Richard and Rita was a few days later at a concert at Haile Selassie’s old palace, which I attended at their suggestion. I have a mental photograph of watching Richard and Rita thoroughly enjoying a performance by “Orchestra Ethiopia” – which took place in the very same room where Gladys was presented to the Emperor.
The message on Facebook took me completely by surprise last week…
My grandfather Perry painted for pleasure most of his life, but he was perhaps most productive during the years he worked for the Emperor. Gladys’ letters back home were often filled with requests for paints and canvases, along with tales of sharing his paintings with friends and neighbors in Ethiopia.
Several of the young women in the neighborhood are expecting babies soon and I am scratching my head to know how to find anything that I can give for a baby gift. This crowd gave a party for one of the new mothers who is soon to leave Ethiopia and they asked Perry to paint a picture as a going-away present.
He did not have time to paint a new one, so we gave them the one he’d done of the hills and the Blue Nile, as she had been there. Perry has done some nice pictures lately even though he works so hard he has little time for painting. He certainly has an enthusiastic audience here.
Thinking it was a good antidote for the stress of his job, Gladys encouraged his artistic endeavors, but always with her wry sense of humor.
Last Monday was a holiday from work for Perry so he took me out to the airport and to see a neighbor of ours who works there. According to everyone at the airport, Sutton is one of the best radiomen to be found and has done some very fine things here in Ethiopia under very difficult circumstances. Sutton insisted on taking me all through the radio division, and then had me talk with and listen to the planes calling in for landing information. I saw more filter condensers than I thought were in existence.
Sutton had recently built an airport beacon that he was so proud of, he brought Perry out to see it once it was done. A while back Sutton had asked if he could buy one of Perry’s paintings before he went back home. After we came back from that trip to the airport, Perry painted a canvas for Sutton of the beacon with a mountain and an Ethiopian tukol in it. And if you ever saw a happy man, Sutton was the one. Another fellow from the airport told us he didn’t think there was enough money in Ethiopia to buy that picture from him.
Perry also did a painting recently for another friend, the scene from her veranda. She told me she would not take 1000 dollars cash for it. I said I would hate to offer that and she said, “I am serious!”
Well, it is really nice to have your work so greatly appreciated.
When I began this project, I had hoped to use Perry’s paintings to illustrate Gladys’ letters. Unfortunately, I discovered that most of Perry’s paintings – the ones that made it back from Ethiopia – had been damaged or destroyed in a flood. As many as 80-100 canvases were irretrievably ruined.
Some time ago, Perry painted a big canvas for our living room of the falls at the mouth of the Blue Nile and it is very pretty. I wish I had a better frame for it. We got a local carpenter to make one but I can’t say that it does much for the painting.
Imagine my surprise, then, when the message above popped up on this blog! Here was someone who had two of Perry’s paintings!
Better yet, the communication brought a new connection to a part of the family I had not even been aware of.
May 9, 1948 … Today marked a celebration in honor of May 5th – the Anniversary of day the Emperor and Empress returned to Ethiopia from England after the Italian campaign – and it was a most impressive occasion! Perry and I were invited to the Palace and I was officially presented for the first time to the Emperor and Empress.
When the invitation came, it had a note attached that said formal dress and all decorations must be worn. Until this evening, I had never seen Perry wear his decorations, so that was something new for me. He has one for his lapel and one that he wears on a ribbon around his neck, which he received from the Emperor for his service to Ethiopia when he was here in ’44 with the Technical Mission. (I understand they are rarely given – at least that’s what Perry has told me.) He also has the very impressive Star of Ethiopia, which he wears in his buttonhole.
Our houseboys, Imam and Dimberu, were here and we all had a lot of laughs while they helped us to get ready with Imam fastening on Perry’s decorations and Dimberu was trying to button the tiny buttons on my long white gloves. His stubby little fingers just could not work the mean things but he persisted until he finally succeeded. I wore my raspberry evening gown with velvet trimming, one of two new gowns I purchased before coming here.
We arrived at the Palace gates and gave our names. The many steps up into the Palace were all covered with rich oriental rugs. It seemed almost a sacrilege to have them outside and I would have given my eyeteeth for any one of them!
At the top we were ushered into a reception room where we left our wraps. This was elegant and also covered with gorgeous rugs. When our names were called, we took our place in line for the presentations. The Diplomatic people went in first, then Perry and I followed. As we reached the door of the throne room I had to curtsey and Perry bowed. We then proceeded together down a long aisle to the center of the room where we were introduced and we had to curtsey and bow again. We continued down the rest of the aisle to the throne where we bowed and curtsied in front of the Emperor and then to the Empress, then to the right to the Princes, and then to the left to the Princesses.
I felt very self-conscious with all of the Ethiopian Ministers lined up on one side of the Hall and the Diplomats on the other side but somehow I managed all five times without stubbing my toe or losing my balance.
The Throne was draped with lovely thick red velvet hangings, richly embroidered in gold. The Empress had a lovely brocaded dress and a gorgeous cape. The oriental rugs here were also beautiful. I counted thirty-two of them.
Altogether, it was a very impressive and interesting sight. Many of the Diplomatic Corps had very beautiful uniforms of one kind or another. The Englishman who is Judge of the High Court wore his gown and a white wig. Many of the Ministers had some decorations from other countries. Perry was the only American with a decoration and the only man there who had the one worn around the neck. He also has the very impressive Star of Ethiopia.
After the line had gone through, their Majesties and all of the Royal family marched down the aisle and out onto the veranda. We followed and from there we saw some wonderful fireworks and the saluting of the cannons. As soon as that was over, we were ushered into the dining room where we found the most bounteous repast.
The tables ran from one side of that large room to the other, underneath a large framework completely covered with flowers. The dinner was wonderful and I could not even begin to taste all the many dishes.
After the dinner was over, we returned to the Throne Room and visited. Later in the evening we were served drinks, ice cream (a great treat here) and frozen fruits. We could not leave until after their Majesties had left and after our own Minister departed. By then it was almost eleven-thirty.
It was a truly magnificent evening, one of the greatest events of my life.
And once my knees stopped shaking, thoroughly enjoyable.