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Ignored: The iconoclasm that didn’t fit the narrative


WHEN the mobs were tearing down the statues of slavers and imperialists earlier this summer, the destruction of one London statue received barely a flicker of media interest.

The attackers, mainly African refugees, were protesting against historic oppression by an imperialist power. An aggressive slave-holding empire which achieved its greatest reach at the time of the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’ when competing conquering powers divided up the continent. The statue was of its most famous ruler, whom the iconoclasts saw as a wicked and brutal autocrat. 

Along with Edward Colston’s ducking in Bristol and the attempts to unseat Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, this attack might have been expected to create a stir. But not fitting the narrative, it didn’t. This statue was of an African, Ethiopia’s last emperor, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, ‘Conquering Lion of Judah, King of Kings, Elect of God’. Somehow, the history police and Black Lives Matter didn’t find the toppling of this symbol of a vicious, racist, slave-raiding empire particularly interesting.

You cannot excuse European atrocities by pointing to those committed by Africans. That ‘what-aboutery’ point is worth a double underlining. But although Europeans did many wicked things in Africa, it is nonsense to imagine that Africans were not capable of the same cruelty and rapacity as anyone else, as Philip Vander Elst recently dispassionately reported in these pages. The record of independent Ethiopia (and for that matter of many other pre-colonial African polities) illustrates this well.

Except Liberia, with its own sometimes dubious history (founded under American sponsorship as a homeland for freed slaves), Ethiopia was the only patch of Africa left uncolonised by Europe. It suffered Italian occupation following Mussolini’s invasion in 1935, but this was short-lived. British-led forces liberated it in 1941, re-instating as ruler Haile Selassie who had spent the intervening years exiled, perhaps rather oddly, in Bath whence he regularly visited Weston-super-Mare to swim in its open-air pool. 

Mussolini wanted revenge for Italy’s historic defeat by Ethiopia at the battle of Adwa in 1896. But he also wanted to build a new ‘Roman Empire’ and used savage methods including poison gas and the bombing of civilians to achieve it. His justificatory propaganda not only made great play of bringing ‘civilisation’ to Ethiopia, but also of ending slavery.

Guardian op-ed writers might find this a difficult truth but Africa’s last independent nation, whose civilisation reached into antiquity and where Christianity was established in the fourth century, was cheerfully a country of slavery. It says something that invasion by Mussolini’s fascist legions could actually be seen by some of its inhabitants as a liberation.

It is sometimes claimed that Ethiopia’s slavery was an almost benign institution, but such claims are unconvincing. The Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, a hero of early black nationalism, wrote in 1935 that Selassie was nothing but a ‘slave-master’. As historian Seid Mohammed describes, slaves were at their master’s complete disposal with no right to refuse their master’s wishes. Human beings had a status barely above a farm animal’s. 

Although Ethiopia is ancient, its expansion to ‘empire’, through the expedient of stealing the lands of smaller weaker neighbours, really took off under the rule of Emperor Menelik II between 1889 and 1913. Armed with modern rifles and artillery, purchased with the profits of slave trading, Ethiopia more than doubled in size in a generation – coincidentally, just as the Europeans were grabbing their own colonies. Ethiopia’s new ‘provinces’ were gained through vicious warfare involving massacres and atrocities. As the academic Awol Allo states, the empire was born in the ‘frictions of war, burning villages, plundered communities, and ravaged fields’, its unity ‘forged by violence, battles and conquest’.

The Oromo, a major ethnic minority of modern Ethiopia, have bitter memories of Menelik: mass murder and the practices of Harma Muraa and Harka Mura, respectively the hacking off the breasts and arms of captives.  

It’s not just the Oromo who remember the empire’s consolidation as a time of terror. The network of small nations on Ethiopia’s borders suffered dreadful genocidal attacks as it expanded. Torture, rape and the mass mutilation of prisoners were all common.

One attack on the small kingdom of Walaita in 1894 was described by French observer Gaston Vanderheym as ‘some kind of infernal hunting where humans rather than animals were game’. Other ethnic groups suffered catastrophic losses. The Maji, Dizi and Gamira peoples all lost at least 80 per cent of their populations.

When they finally departed, the European empires left behind much valuable institutional, cultural and physical infrastructure. And although it is unfashionable to point out, their rule would have been impossible without active and enthusiastic support from millions of indigenous Africans. But we should not forget the accompanying evils.

Europeans seized almost a whole continent through force and often caused tremendous suffering. The German genocide against Namibia’s Herero and Nama peoples stand out. As do the depravities of King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, made famous by Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. And, of course, we rightly have a whole literature on European involvement in the Atlantic slave trade.

But there was little that Europeans did in Africa that Africans hadn’t long been doing to one another. Not just the Ethiopians, including Haile Selassie; the long list of defunct African empires that existed before the Europeans arrived were each established through violence and rested on force, as empires normally do.

Before the radical Left and those they influence tear up any more history, it might be good idea if they actually read a reasonable amount of it first.

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Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright
Ollie Wright is an ex-Labour Party man with a life long interest in politics and history.

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