April 10, 2005
Pankhurst on the obelisk
Here is an interview my wife Amber did with Richard Pankhurst - son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and leading campaigner for the return of the Axum Obelisk. It has got all the background on the obelisk - how it was stolen and why people think it should come back. It appeared first in the Sub Saharan Informer (still no website). The pic shows Richard with one of his many models of the obelisk in his study in Addis Ababa. He will be up here as a guest of honour on Wednesday.
Could you give us some background about how the obelisk ended up in Italy?
Mussolini in the early 30s was trying to establish what he considered a new Roman Empire. He knew that the emperors of ancient Rome had taken obelisks from Egypt. He wanted to do the same. And he gave orders that one of the famous historic Axum obelisks dating back to the early Christian era should be taken to Rome and it was arranged that it should be inaugurated on the 15th anniversary of his march on Rome, that is ti say his seizure of power in Italy. And it was placed in front of what was to be the Ministry of Italian Africa.
Your mother Sylvia Pankhurst brought the theft of the obelisk to the public's attention in the 1930s. Can you tell me how she first got involved with Ethiopia and its obelisk?
She had studied art in Italy and in 1919 she saw the Fascists fighting their way to power. She saw them beating up the public and became almost overnight an anti-fascist. She felt that Italy was the first victim of Fascism and there would be others. When the invasion of Ethiopia started in 1935 she founded a newspaper in defense of Ethiopia, a weekly newspaper in London called the New Times and the Ethiopia News. In that paper she published a picture of the obelisk and a statement by Emperor Haile Selassie that the taking away of the obelisk was one of many crimes carried out by Fascist Italy in Ethiopia.
When did you first get involved in campaigning for the obelisk's return?
Coming to Ethiopia to teach Ethiopian history, I was studying the period of the Italian occupation and wrote an article for the French journal Presence Africaine on the loot from Ethiopia, telling my old friend a former Senator Berhanu Tessema about this, he told me that the parliament was protesting the non-return of the obelisk. I published the resolution of the Parliament. However, not much could be done at that time. It was really not until 1991, which was the 50th anniversary of the Fascist collapse in East Africa, that the Italian left wing newspaper L'Unita asked me to write an article in May 1991 which was the first exposition for the case of the return of the obelisk. Several Italian thinkers then became involved writing a letter asking for the return in the Italian journal La Republica and immediately after that three Italian scholars wrote a petition asking for the obelisk to be sent back to Ethiopia. I happened to be in Italy at that time. I brought the news of this petition to Addis Ababa and somew 500 prominent Ethiopians signed a petition asking for the return of the obelisk and following on from the request by the three Italian scholars.
Why do you think it is so important for the obelisk to be returned to Ethiopia?
I think really for three reasons. Firstly, it brings us back to the origins of Ethiopian civilization. It is important in terms of Ethiopian history. Secondly because it is for the first time a recognition by Italy that it should honour its treaty obligations and not treat Ethiopia as a second class country. For example, when the invasion of Ethiopia took place in 1935, it took place without any declaration of war. In other words Fascist Italy did not consider Ethiopia worth dealing with. And then thirdly, it means that as far as Italy is concerned, what was in effect a Fascist symbol as it was put up to commemorate Mussolini's seizure of power, is removed.
What does it mean to you personally for the obelisk to be returned after all these years of campaigning?
Well, it gives one a certain degree of satisfaction to see that justice has at last triumphed. On the other hand, it is an incomplete return because other artifacts have not been returned. Most notably in Rome you still have part of Ethiopia's national archives - the so-called Ministry of the Pen archives. And the airplane Sahai (**), called after Emperor Haile Selassie's daughter during his time. That is wanted as part of the decoration of the new Addis Ababa airport. And Italy has so far refused to return it. So it is satisfaction marred by the fact that Italy has failed to return all that it should return.
Do you think that the return of the obelisk will help strengthen Ethiopia's case to get other stolen treasures returned by countries like the UK?
I think you can't return a piece of stone weighing more than 100 tons without it having implications. I think it will have implications for the return of Ethiopian loot taken by the British as well as by the Italians. But also for the return of loot taken by colonial powers from other parts of the world.
What do you thing this return will mean for "ordinary" Ethiopians?
I think it will be a source of satisfaction that the international community in the shape of Italy has at last honored an obligation. And that Ethiopia receives an important piece of its heritage. And after all it is a recognition of Ethiopia's status. If Italy had madfe an agreement with France or Britain to return something in 1947, I can't believe that they would have kept a European power waiting for almost 70 years.
Posted by aheavens at April 10, 2005 12:55 PM