Ethiopia, where Christianity had its early roots in Africa, has called recently for a state funeral to be bestowed on Richard Pankhurst, scion of Britain’s celebrated suffragette family and for many decades Ethiopia’s most stalwart Western champion.
Describing him as one of ‘Ethiopia’s greatest friends,’ the country’s foreign ministry announced that Pankhurst had died in the capital Addis Ababa at the age of 89.
Officials, writers, academics and scores of ordinary Ethiopians issued sorrowful tributes to a man whose legacy was so significant and so varied many struggled to encapsulate it.
There was the academic: more than 20 books on Ethiopia including its first ever economic history. There was the cultural, notably with the establishment of Ethiopia’s first proper archives. And perhaps most significantly, there was the diplomatic in the form of a dogged crusade for the return of Ethiopian cultural artefacts taken to Europe as war plunder. Although the campaign was only partially successful it brought international attention to Ethiopia’s past.
‘He was our history archive,’ read one post on Twitter, ‘Ethiopia’s foremost chronicler.’ Another called attention to his service calling him, ‘a patriot of Ethiopia’, ‘a son of Ethiopia’ or simply ‘a hero’.
‘His death is devastating to many of us,’ Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-American author, told the BBC’s Africa Service. ‘We feel like we have lost a significant champion of Ethiopia.’
There were calls for a replication of the state funeral laid on for Pankhurst’s mother Sylvia, the only Westerner to be accorded the honour of being buried outside the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, built to commemorate liberation from Italian Fascist rule.
Sylvia Pankhurst, the estranged daughter of Richard and Emmeline, leaders of the British Suffragette movement, became the foremost Western supporter of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then known, after its emperor, Haile Selassie was toppled by the invading Italians in the 1930s.
She dedicated most of her later life to Ethiopia and moved there with her son in 1956, dying four years later. Richard Pankhurst led a successful campaign to force Italy to return the Obelisk of Axum, a 1,700-year-old 79-foot stele, plundered by Mussolini’s troops. It is one of Ethiopia’s most sacred relics.
He had less success, however, persuading Britain to return several hundred sacred manuscripts and tablets seized as war booty during Robert Napier’s campaign against King Theodore of Abyssinia in 1868, when two British diplomats and scores of Protestant missionaries were taken hostage.
Being a small collector myself of Ethiopian artefacts, including early Christian crosses, I remain fascinated by the variety of Christian art that the country still produces. A visit to Ethiopia is a dream I secretly harbour.