Emperor Haile Selassie I, walking with a group of people.
When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, the Black World rallied in support and solidarity. Marcus Garvey argued that the Black World was misguided and mistaken -- and asserted that Haile Selassie was a fraud.
Ethiopia, or Abyssinia, has long held an exalted place within the history of the modern Black world and in the political imagination of Pan-Africanism. With Haiti and Liberia, Ethiopia was one of a holy trinity of sovereign Black countries during the nineteenth century. It was a territory onto which the African diaspora projected hopes and aspirations for Black freedom, self-determination, and nationality. Ethiopia’s near-mythical status was ordained in the Bible. “Princes shall come forth out of Egypt,” read Psalm 68:31, “Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.” What was dubbed the “Ethiopian prophesy” was interpreted as a promise for deliverance from slavery, the redemptive return to greatness of African civilization, and the vindication of the Black race. Prophesy appeared to be fulfilled when Abysssinian Emperor Menelek II defeated an Italian invasion on March 1, 1896 during the Battle of Adwa. The circle of history seemed to be closing. Ethiopia’s outstretched hand was closer to God.
Yet mythological states are also achingly real. The symbolic renderings of a place rarely align with the hard-facts of material existence. And in the case of Ethiopia, prophecy often collides with real-world politics. The pan-African Ethiopian defense campaigns of the 1930s offer a case in point. On October 3, 1935, Italy again attacked Ethiopia, launching an invasion of 200,000 troops from the Italian colony of Eritrea. This time Adwa was conquered and by 1937, Ethiopia fell under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini. Black activists worldwide rallied around the throne of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. The International African Friends of Abyssinia, also known as the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE), was founded in London in 1935 in response to the invasion. Counting CLR James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Chris Brathwaite, and George Padmore as members, the organization called on the African diaspora to defend Ethiopia and staged rallies, passed resolutions, and protested the invasion to the League of Nations. For many IAFE members, Black people had to defend Black countries against white imperialism at all costs and without question.
Marcus Garvey disagreed. In January, 1937, Garvey distributed an editorial to US newspapers arguing that the African Diaspora, and in particular Black Americans, should not rally to the Ethiopian cause. Garvey asserted that until recently, Selassie had not only considered the “American Negro” to be of “no consequence,” but that Ethiopia’s Amharic elite did not actually consider themselves to be Black. Moreover, for Garvey, the fall of Abyssinia was a direct consequence of Selassie’s lack of diplomatic nous, especially against Mussolini’s populist cunning. While Selassie, according to Garvey, quickly and selfishly abandoned the country to save his family and his fortunes, he actually had no concern for the masses of the Ethiopian population, many of whom suffered as serfs and slaves in a rigidly caste-bound, hierarchical society. For Garvey, Black solidarity and support should be conditional, and grounded on a thorough understanding of the history and politics of a given Black country.
Garvey was attacked and pilloried in the Black press for his statements on Ethiopia and Selassie. Some claimed that he was still bitter over Selassie’s refusal to send a diplomatic representative to the August, 1920 UNIA convention. Others argued that he was providing a thinly-veiled justification for the Italian fascist intervention. Still others suggested that, given the past controversies of the UNIA, Garvey was in no position to lecture anyone on the “failures” of political movements and the missteps of political leaders. Today, Garvey’s editorial remains a provocative intervention into debates on Pan-Africanism and the politics of solidarity. It challenges those who would claim both Garvey and Selassie as part of a pantheon of Black messiahs, and forces us to rethink our symbolic demands of Abyssinia.
It is difficult, and often dangerous, to presume a historical parallel of the past with the present. It is difficult to collapse our interpretations of the colonial worlds of the 1930s into the neocolonial and neoliberal worlds of now, to compare a hereditary monarchy with a democratically elected government. Nonetheless, Garvey provides us with an unsentimental, critical, and discerning example of how to support the Black masses -- especially against the contemporary Black proxies for imperialism.
Abyssinia’s War and What Comes Next
This special article is sent to you to be used for publication if you desire it, being written for the purpose of helping the American Negro to understand the real political situation existing in Abyssinia and to enable him better to understand why the Abyssinains lost the War, and at the same time to give him suffcient information leading to the prevention of his being misled and incidentally exploited for something from which he can reap no benefit, except by his fist properly realizing the truth of what is.
The American Negro is willing always to support good causes. He should not be misled into supporting a “racket” for a reality. Appeals made to him at this time for money, to support a war in Abyssinia, does not lead to a reality, but support given to the patriotic natives who are on the spot to organize with the hopes of gaining an advantage in the future, should be considered worthy. It is doubtful whether appeals not made to him have such a basis, but are inspired by individuals who were once connected to the original Abysinnian Government who today have no status and no programme.
The American Negro is the most loyal, self-conscious and expressive member of the racial group. He is never wanting in his response to racial appeals that stir him to the possibility of real science, religious, politically and otherwise. He has never failed those who appeal to him. Most of the time, however, he allows his enthusiasm for racial causes to get the better of his judgement, and then, when the truth is brought home to him, he becomes disappointed and disgusted. Efforts should be made not to spoil his good disposition and character in this respect, for it is he who is leading the world of other Negroes in their true responsibility to the Race in the hope of solving a problem that calls for the most serious application.
The Italo-Abyssinian War had an immediate appeal to the American Negro, like negroes in all other parts of the world, and his response was immediate and most enthusiastic.
Unfortunately when Ethiopia entered upon the war before, there was no organized intelligence about its true position among Negroes anywhere. It was difficult, therefore, for Abyssinia to get the right kind of support that was absolutely necessary at the very start of things.
The lack of information among Negroes of the world about Abyssinan was due to the fault of the Abyssinian Government, which up to that time took no diplomatic pains of creating contact with the Negro peples of the world and particularly those of America so as to create among them an interest that was most necessary and vital for a successful resistance of an Italian or European offensive.
From our knowledge and experience, we are able to say that the Abyssinian Government headed by Emperor Haile Selassie felt that its existence was possible without any catering to and contact with Negroes. In fact, they held themselves to be a separate and distinct race from the Negro race, and the entire administrative policy was to treat the blacks as an inferior people in whom they were not politically interested, except for their enslavement and exploitation. The Amharic rulers felt that they had descended from a superior race and even in Abyssinia the darker races of the country were regarded as inferiors only fit to be feudal serfs and in many instances overburdened slaves.
Unfortunately, the Emperor's Government was not an enlightened one, in the sense that it could not understand and appreciate European diplomacy and the methods of European statements in preserving the political independence of their respective peoples.
The Abyssinian policy was based on the absolute elevation of the ruling classes and the positive lack of national interest in the native masses. This is contrary to the policy of enlightened and civilized governments where the Rulers, whether they be Kings, Emperors, Dictoras or Presidents, hold office only as executive trustees for the people whom they must serve, the wishes of the said people being supreme will and law. With them, the people dictate the politics of the Government and demand services from Government in their interest. With Abyssinia, it was the Emperor who dictated the policy of the Government and he used the Government, people and country for his own divine and personal purposes. Naturally, such a condition in Abyssinia would make it rather difficult for the Government to rally the real patriotic support of the people in a crisis such as was brought about by Mussolini.
Mussolini, being an astute diplomat and expert statesman, pandered to the weakness of the Abyssinian oppressed and neglected masses. While the Emperor failed to feed them, equip them and to properly train and educate them, Mussolini stepped in after his invasion and supplied their necessary human needs particularly in feeding and caring for them. The result was a stampede of the Abyssinians from the Emperor to the invader. This, more than anything else, assisted Mussolin to conquer the country.
As bad a historian and psychologist as Haile Selassie was, he overlooked the necessary human elements -- human aspirations which were common to people of all races. He, instead of providing for the Abysinnian masses as stated, only provided for himself; hence, when the fight reached its crucial point, he had no one to stand alongside of him and so he had to flee, leaving the people to the mercy of Mussolini and the Italian hordes.
Much news has been published after Mussolini’s conquest of Abyssinia, about the Abyssians still fighting successfully against the Italians. This must be taken with a grain of salt. There is really no organized opposition to Italy in Abyssinia. The incompetent rulers who opened Abyssinia to invasion are still making the effort to hold on to Abyssinia, hence a lot of misrreprenstaive statements which seem to be affecting the American public.
Every Negro desires the freedom of Abyssinia, but that freedom is now suspended, in that Italy is fully established in the country. There is no well recognized Government in the country among the Abyssinians. The few men, who have been holding out, have been doing so on their own account, but not because they have been supported by the exiled Emperor or his defunct Government.
Any appeal therefore, to the American public on behalf of Haile Selassie’s Government, suggesting that the war is still going on for the re-conquest of the country should not be accepted as a truth, but should be explained so that the American public might use proper judgement in the matter.
Haile Selassie, until his defeat and exile, only considered Negroes as being of no consequence, but his viewpoint must not be considered as the viewpoint of the Abyssinian masses who are as unfortunate as the oppressed Negroes everywhere. The American Negro should, through his own agency, establish contact with the Abyssinan Negroes for better understanding, that they may work with them for the future redemption of the country in common with the redemption of Africa. An independence course should be taken and no one should allow himself to be deceived into believing that much more can be accomplished through Haile selassie himself.
His exile from the country will be as permanent as Mussolini decides. The hope of Abyssinia, therefore, rises with other forces than Haile Selassie. Primarily, it rests with the loyal Abyssinians who remained in abyssinian and who must work out a diplomatic scheme of surprising the Italians. This may come through civil war, when they are ready, or through Italy becoming involved in a European war to render her incapable of protecting her interests in Abyssinia.
To accomplish any good this way, the Abyssinans and their Negro friends must work quietly and diplmatically and not in the way the Emperor and his agents have been working by making statements which are unfounded and which tend to expose the Abyssinian natives to the retaliation and revenge of the ever watchful Italian forces which are gathering information internationally on the Abyssinaian situation.
When the Emperor went to Geneva and stated that he had a Government in Gore [a town in south-western Ethiopia] which he knew he hadn’t at the time, he was only focussing Italian military activities against the few remaining patriots at Gore, who were endeavoring to hold on. If left alone without any interference from the Emperor, they might have been able to strike a bargain with the League of Nations. The British and French Government’s or with Italy herself to remain independent in the western section of Abyssinia.
The Emperor knows nothing about history and European diplomacy and he seems to be interested in no one else but himself and his family. Everything is lost to the Abyssinians, the poor Abyssinans who remained at home -- while everything has been taken by the Emperor who sought immediate and voluntary exile, when the situation became too warm for him to remain on the spot.
The American Negro should be careful how he continues to support a lost cause. He is advised not to give away his money foolishly to something that will never be fully realized, but if he has to support the cause of Abyssinia or the cause of any Negro Government, he should first have a proper understanding and agreeement with that Government to share in the benefits to accrue from the assistance given. This is the only business way to help. This is the way for peoples and Governments to act. The Negroes should be no different. A government cannot be built up on sympathy and charity, but on a sound business basis. Any assistance therefore, to Negro Governments should be given only when there is a proper understanding to result in those offering assistance being considered as being entitled to certain rights which they would not be able to demand without a proper understanding before their assistance was given.
Marcus Garvey, “Abyssinia’s War and What Comes Next,” Washington Tribune, January 22, 1937.
Thanks to S.O. for alerting The Black Agenda Review to this article.