Richard Pankhurst

Professor Richard Pankhurst

Few foreigners, if any, can proudly talk about their impact on Ethiopia, her freedom and her international presence, as the Pankhurst family did. Madam Sylvia Pankhurst, Professor Richard Pankhurst’s mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, born in 1882 in Manchester to Dr. Richard Pankhurst and Emmeline Pankhurst, founded a newspaper (New Times and Ethiopia News) in England in 1936, which became the only mouthpiece for the war-torn Ethiopia against the bitter battle with the Italian fascists in 1935. At the time, when it was actually uncustomary to oppose the juggernaut fascists, the young Sylvia, conscious of the suffering of millions of Ethiopians, refused to back down even when seasoned politicians (who felt alliance with Mussolini was worth than any association with Emperor Haile Selassie) in England pleaded with her to discontinue her protest.

As the film Suffragette demonstrates the  struggles of women, Sylvia Pankhurst was one of the most persistent warriors who advocated women’s struggle in Europe long before it became the most important agenda for women’s right.

She was the trailblazer fighting vigorously  against the status quo that deprived women their God given right to vote. Her demonstrations along with her equally bold and courageous allies were loud and clear. As a keen observer and a shrewd spectator of the political directions and motives of the time, she knew, long before anyone else did the coming of maniacal dictators like Hitler and Mussolini. Having lived in Italy during the rise of the Duce, she had made her conclusion that Mussolini was a thug and a bully whose main goal was to conquer and colonize Ethiopia. In the process, she had been threatened, terrorized, intimidated and blackmailed by fascist supporters all over Europe.

At the time, the British politicians, including Chamberlain had discouraged her open affront toward Mussolini, but Chamberlain had underestimated her resolve. She wasn’t the type to be lured easily nor to be appeased. Equipped with adequate energy and filled with passion, she scoffed at her detractors and ignored those who sneered at her mission. This pioneer activist for women’s liberation and equal rights made the anti-fascist struggle in England a new movement. In fact, in the 1930s, she supported the Republican cause in Spain and she also assisted Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany to England. She vilified the pro-Mussolini backers, including the press like The Daily Mall, The Morning Post, and the Observer. As historians bear witness to Sylvia’s testimony,  “in those irresistible eyes burns the quenchless fire of the hero who never fails his cause,” that she said about Emperor Haile Selassie when she first saw him at the Waterloo Station in London.

The doggedness of Sylvia Pankhurst is the direct influence of her father who was himself the selfless supporter of the labor movement from the start. On behalf of the poor, he advocated in his discourse in public squares and lamented the British politicians for their lackadaisical approach to progressive causes. Sylvia, thus, recalls “the misery of the poor, as I heard my father plead for it, and saw it revealed in the pinched faces of his audiences, awoke in me a maddening sense of impotence; and there were moments when I had an impulse to dash my head against the dreary walls of those squalid streets.” It is with this background and psychological makeup that Sylvia committed herself to the women’s cause in England and even wrote a book entitled The History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in 1911. She became active in The Women’s Dreadnought, a weekly paper for working-class women, supporting the Russian Revolution of 1917, even going to Russia and meeting Lenin.

When Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, her grassroots campaign, organized by a few loyal friends, along with George Steer, Sir Sydney Barton, Phillip Noel Baker, Colonel Dan Sanford, and Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, acted vigorously to bring the story of the Ethiopians into the limelight. The New Times and Ethiopia News, she founded, had an Indian reporter named Wazir Bey, reporting from Djibouti and keeping her up-to-date with the latest Ethiopian news.

Historians attest to this day that Emperor Haile Selassie’s quest to free his country from Italian occupation between 1936 and 1941 could not have materialized without the aid of this amazing woman, Madam Sylvia Pankhurst. The indomitable Madam Pankhurst was notorious for her tenacity. Hounding tirelessly the occupants of 10 Downing Street at the time, she emphatically stressed to the civilized world the anguish of the Ethiopian people, their plight and their loss of freedom. The Prime Minister’s office was brutally reminded then, in fact on a daily basis, of the responsibilities of the civilized world against fascism more than it cared to admit. She was deeply moved by Wal Wal incident of 1934. This was the beginning of her love affair with Ethiopia. For 20 years she published New Times & Ethiopian Times to keep the world interested in the Ethiopian cause. In the event of German occupation of Britain, Mussolini asked for the arrest of Sylvia, who he considered was a traitor of her race.

But, Sylvia wouldn’t relent.  Her passion and love for this ancient biblical land was so deep that after Ethiopia gained her freedom, she came and lived in Ethiopia between 1956 to 1960. She died in Addis Ababa of natural causes at the age of 78, and buried in great honor and pomp among the Ethiopian royalties. Haile Selassie was devastated and wept openly, a rare display of grief for a monarch known for his austere countenance. Most Ethiopians of that generation felt a national loss when she passed away as the emperor’s lugubrious face fully told the nation’s huge loss of the true and loyal friend.

Her son, Professor Richard Pankhurst grew up loving and appreciating the Ethiopians. When she started living in Ethiopia, she wrote a book entitled, The Cultural History of Ethiopia. Following in the footsteps of his great mother, Professor Pankhurst wrote himself several books and made Ethiopia the object of his love and study. His many remarkable books and articles reflect his unmitigated passion for Ethiopia, uninterrupted for over ninety years. His son, Professor Alula, who bears the name of a mighty Ethiopian general, followed in the footsteps of his father and his grandmother, and is now a remarkable Ethiopianist by his own right.

Professor Pankhurst earned his Ph.D. in economic history in 1956 and he began teaching the same year at the University College of Addis Ababa (later Haile Selassie University and now Addis Ababa University) that was founded and chartered six years earlier. In 1962, Professor Pankhurst founded the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and served as its director from 1962 to 1972. Following the eruption of the Ethiopian revolution in 1974, he went back to England, the country of his ancestors, but after a decade of hiatus, in 1986, he returned to Ethiopia, his adopted home country. In the ensuing years,  he authored 22 books, edited additional 17 books, and wrote 400 scholarly articles that have appeared in numerous academic journals, magazines and newspapers throughout the world. Equally brave and tireless like his mother, he has worked hard to bring back the looted obelisk to Ethiopia, and other confiscated treasures now in the hands of the Italians. As an educator and historian, he has also traveled and lectured all over the world, creating a formidable bridge between Ethiopia and the rest of the world. Professor Pankhurst’s vision of guild, not often advertised, shows his unselfish expression of his love for his adopted country and its people.

One of Professor Richard’s enduring legacy, as mentioned, is the formation of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (INS). Ethiopia which prides on its 3000 years of history did not have a national archive until he started single handedly the formation of the INS. The archive provides manuscript sources, published documents, contemporary accounts, sometimes impossible-to-get-materials in Ethiopia. People no longer go to the library at the British legation or to the French Mission Extraordinaire for permission to use the library for rare books on Ethiopia. The Institute has been the intellectual home of scholars all over the world. In the later years after his arrival in 1956, he also established the Anglo-Ethiopian Community in Addis Ababa.

It is impossible to give adequate summary of Pankhurst’s work, nor should one really try

Professor Pankhurst’s magnum opus, An Introduction to Economic History of Ethiopia from Early times to 1800, published in 1961, is a voluminous historical compilation of 454 pages. The book succinctly and cogently discusses the ‘geography and frontiers of the realm’, ‘government administration and justice’, ‘the seclusion of the royal family’, ‘Aksum, Lalibela, and Gondar’ etc.

Of the many important observations Pankhurst makes in this book with respect to land entitlement in the socio-cultural Ethiopian context, the following gives us a gist of how land played as the mainstay of the feudal economy:

“The most unifying factor in land tenure was the granting of land by the sovereign on the basis of service. Such grants had their roots in economic and social conditions and were essential to the whole system of government. The existence of a large and highly developed hierarchy necessitated an extensive system of tribute, taxation, and rent, which in view of the primary subsistence character of the economy and the absence of agriculture slavery, could be met only by payments in kind and certain types of services. The granting of land was similarly almost the only way in which rulers could remunerate or reward their followers, servants and favorites or provide for monasteries, churches, and persons in need.”1

One other small book, but nonetheless very important, edited and compiled by Richard Pankhurst, is The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles. The book begins with Emperors Ezana (4th century) and Lalibela (13th century) and documents of the following Ethiopian emperors: Amda Tseyon (1314-1344), Zara Yacob (1434-1468), Baeda Mariam (1468-1478), Lebne Dengel (1508-1540), Galawdewos (1540-1559), Sartsa Dengel (1563-1632), Susneyos (1607-1632), Yohannes I (1667-1682), Iyasu I (1682-1706), Bakaffa (1721-1730), Iyasu II (1730-1755), Iyoas I (1755-1769); the Era of the Mesafint or Princes (1750? – 1855); Tewodros II (1855-1868), Yohannes IV (1871-1889), and Menelik II (1889-1913). Despite the significance of the above chronology, however, the book unwittingly omits a very important emperor by the name Fasil or Fasiledas, the son of Susenyos, who reigned after 1632 and who is renowned for the construction of the castles still standing in Gonder.

On top of the chronicles of the successive emperors mentioned above, the book also has a ‘note on the Ethiopian calendar’ and a bibliography of other published chronicles. According to Professor Pankhurst,  “the period after the restoration of the Solomonic dynasty is significant…in that it witnessed the production, as far as is known, of the first royal chronicles. These historical writings, which from the basis of the present book, were written at the command of most of the rulers since the thirteenth century, and were the work of learned men or scribes specially appointed for this task and whose identity is often recorded in the text. The chronicles were thus the work of court historians and as such are mainly concerned with court life. Their attention is centered on the sovereign’s official life: his education, preparation for his high office, marriage and coronation, his wars and expeditions, appointments and dismissals of provincial governors and other officials, the issue of proclamations and decrees, the founding of towns and the building and endowment of churches, and the settlement of religious and other disputes and controversies, as well as various problems connected with the succession. Despite such emphasis on activities at court, the chronicles contain many passages of wider economic and social interest, affording us, for example, interesting descriptions of families and epidemics, systems of taxation and the utilization of foreign craftsmen.”2

In 1999, Pankhurst presented a very important paper entitled “Italian Fascist War Crimes in Ethiopia: A History of Their Discussion, from the League of Nations to the United Nations (1936-1949)”. This comprehensive paper was presented to the Northeast African Studies of Michigan State University and thoroughly examined themes such as ‘the League of Nations: Initial Reports’, ‘The European War: Growing Interest in War Crimes’, ‘Changing Allied Positions: Mussolini and Badoglio’, ‘Mussolini’s Fall and Badoglio’s Appointment’, ‘Italy’s Surrender and Proposed Allied Demand for War’, ‘Criminals’, ‘House of Commons Questions on Bodoglio and Mussolini’, ‘The UN War Crimes Commission’, ‘The Fall of Bodoglio’, ‘The Ethiopian War Crimes Commission’, ‘The 1947 Italian Peace Treaty’ etc.

In the introduction to this paper, Pankhurst states, “in 1935-36 Italian fascist invasion and subsequent occupation of Ethiopia were accompanied by numerous atrocities: the use of mustard gas, the bombing of Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, the execution of captured prisoners without trial, the Graziani massacre, the killings of the Dabra Libanos monastery, and the shooting of “witch-doctors” accused of prophesying the end of fascist rule. These acts are historically interesting, not only in themselves, but also in that they were brought to the international community’s attention on two separate occasions: to the League of Nations, when they were committed, and later, to the United Nations.”3  

With respect to initial reports to the League of Nations, Pankhurst states, “the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs supplied the League of Nations with irrefutable information on Fascist war crimes, including the use of poison gas and the bombing of the Red Cross hospitals and ambulances, from a few hours of the Italian invasion on 3 October 1935 to 10 April of the following year. Further charges were made by Emperor Haile Sellasie, to the League’s General Assembly on 30 June. Later, on 17 March 1937, he requested the League’s Secretary-General to appoint an Inquiry Commission to investigate crimes committed in Ethiopia. Such appeals made a deep public impression, but the League took no official action on the matter.”4

Even when the whole world knew about the war crimes and atrocities the Italian fascists committed on Ethiopians, the Allied Forces were reluctant to acknowledge the extent of the crimes and bring charges against the fascists accordingly: “Allied thinking on war crimes underwent an important shift, in the summer of 1943. After the Anglo-American landings in Sicily on 10 July, it became apparent that Italy might soon fall. This led the Allies to reconsider their attitude on Mussolini, and the leaders who might succeed him. The American and British leaders took the view that the veteran Italian commander, Martial Pietro Bodoglio, was a man with whom they should collaborate. Though he had used poison gas in Ethiopia, they did not consider him a war criminal, but as a force for European stability. One of those supporting him was Carlton-Hayes, the American ambassador in Spain, who told his British counterpart, Sir Samuel Hoare on 20 July, that he favoured a regency in Italy, with Bodoglio as ‘the strong man’”

The indefatigable Pankhurst continues to write to this day, and on March 2007 he writes “A Chapter in the History of the Italian Fascist Occupation of Ethiopia,” in which he discusses “racism in the service of fascism, empire-building and war” as reflected in the Italian Fascist magazine “La Difesa della Razza.” In this piece, Pankhurst systematically reveals the silent ghosts of Italian racism and policy of segregation, including the implementation of this policy in Asmara in 1916. Furthermore, Pankhurst discusses, the ‘Declaration of the Fascist Grand Council, of 6 October 1938’: “The Fascist lurch to racism, for which La Difesa della Razza had been established, found expression in a much-publicized meeting, at the beginning of October 1938, of the fascist grand council: the Gran Conciglio del Fascismo. Its member, after some deliberation master-minded by Mussolini, issued a virulently racist “declaration”, on 6 October, which was dutifully reproduced on the opening page of the magazine’s issue of 20 October. It stated that: ‘Fascism for sixteen years has developed and formulated a positive attitude, directed to the quantitative and qualitative amelioration of the Italian race, an amelioration which could be gravely compromised, with incalculable political consequences, by inter-breeding and mongolism.’ The “declaration” further proclaimed: ‘the prohibition of marriage of Italian men and women with “elements” belonging to the Hamitic, Semitic and other non-Aryan races.’”6

Professor Pankhurst is a champion of human rights. He understands deeply the entangled webs of the Third World inexplicable problems. Many agree that his erudite wisdom earned from lifetime experience could be that much-needed conduit between the West and Africa. Having lectured at Oxford, Cambridge, other renowned universities around the globe, not to mention the life-time career at Addis Ababa University, the man, even at 82, is still vibrant, still on the go, still vigorously sought for instruction and scholarly mentoring around the world.

In my eyes, Professor Pankurst deserves the Nobel Prize for an outstanding lifetime contribution to a nation and to her people by an outsider who gave it his all. I am very proud to pay homage and tribute to this distinguished educator whose inexorable writings of the past five decades have presented Ethiopian history, culture, and tradition to a wide spectrum of readers all over the world. I invite others to supplement my efforts in giving a well deserved tribute to this incredible, irreplaceable and invaluable man.

And may he live a thousand years!


(In 2009, after finishing the first draft of The Story of the White Man, I asked a few colleagues to collaborate with me in writing a tribute to Professor Pankhurst. The contributors are: Dr.  Ghelawdewos Araia, Ato  Paulos Asefa, Dr. Afework Kassu, and Dr. Fikre Tolossa.




Here are a few sample responses I received after the publication of the article, some among renowned Ethiopian scholars honoring Dr. Pankhurst:


Dear Mr Daniel Gizaw,


You and your highly esteemed team did a great job in writing a wonderful tribute to the well-known scholar, Prof Richard Pankhurst. I hope many others will also do the same so that the man finally gets a well-deserved THANK YOU.

My name is Mikeyas. I work with Mr. Girma Zegeye (publisher and editor of NAFKOT magazine) as public relation worker. Our magazine covers various issues from history to politics, daily life to news, beauty to business. When I read the tribute to Prof Richard, I thought we may publish it in our magazine – if that is ok with you. I also work as reporter for voice of Ethiopia radio program.


I learned from Dr Afework Kassu that you are amongst the few senior Ethiopians in USA. He told me about your books – FIKRE KIDUS and THE PRINCE OF AFRICA. If you would kindly give us time, I would be glad to interview you and publish the story on our NAFKOT magazine. Ethiopians should learn from senior people like you.


Please send me your telephone number so that we can make arrangements for the interview.


Best regards,







Mark as junk
Sent: Thu 2/26/09 7:17 AM

Prof. Richard Panchurst and his family as a whole are real friends of the Ethiopian people. He is a man who gave us the entire document of our history and culture. I truly feel that Prof. Panchurst is the most dedicated friend Ethiopia has ever had. I hope he gets not only the Noble Prize but all other prizes in the world. I wish him the absolute immortality!  Thank you Prof. Richard Punchurst and to your family as well!!!
With deep respect!!
Banchiamlak Demisie( Dr.)






From: Berhanu Melak (
|Mark as junk
Sent: Thu 2/26/09 6:00 AM

I am very privileged to express my gratitude and admiration to   Professor R. Pankhurst for his lifetime contribution to Ethiopian History and his industrious work in different research papers. He and his family have been fully devoted for Ethiopia and Ethiopians in particular and to our planet in general. We are very blessed to have him and consider him as our own.


May God bless him and his family.


Long Live!






Thank you‏

From: temesgen jemaneh (
Mark as safe
Sent: Wed 2/25/09 1:31 PM



Thanks a lot for your unforgettable work in Ethiopia.


Temesgen Abebe    

Meyrick road              

M6 5HE                  
Greater Manchester

United Kingdom    











Thank you‏




Sent: Wed 2/25/09 11:10 AM
Dear Sirs:

I have read the articles about an Ethiopian legend, Professor Richard Pankhurst and his family who contributed the valuable cultural, historical and religious knowledge found in Ethiopia to the rest of the world.


Surely, history will award the prize to Professor Richard Pankhurst and his family for their marvelous work.


Thanks for dear Sylvia’s family and God bless them.









(No Subject)‏

From: beneyam berehanu (



Thank You very much for your dedication!!‏


From: serkalem tadesse (
Mark as junk
Sent: Tue 2/24/09 5:14 PM
Dear Prof Pankhurst,
You might not know many of us but we know you and your mother for your incredible work. Your mother has enabled many of successive generations of women to know what it means to be a professional women. She took the first brunt of struggle for equality of all human kind by taking side for those people who are pushed aside by those with huge power and weapons at the time. It takes lots of courage and guts to step out of cocoon that women were limited to but she did it.
You, Prof Pankhurst, took Ethiopian History to whole different level. You structured it in a way that it can be documented, can be given to schools, colleges and universities. We can even tell it to our children so that they will be able to embrace their identity. I am working in a totally different field but I remember listening to your lecture given at the former Armauer Hansen Research Instititue about the history of Medicine in Ethiopia and how you were mentioning some of the names my grandparents and parents used to mention when I was a child. Most of us are now serving abroad at various levels of the academia but the one thing I am always confident to mention is you and your work to everyone around me asking me about the history of my country. I wasnot born during the Emperor time but when other people mention something of Ethiopian history, I always refer them to your work.
I would like to to say once again thank you for your extreme dedication to all humanity and to the academia and for the cause that you and your mother stood for all these years. You have been the bench mark and the living “brana” of Ethiopia’s history.

Serkalem Tadesse (DVM, Ph.D.)



From: Tecola W. Hagos (
You may not know this sender.Mark as safe|Mark as junk
Sent: Tue 2/24/09 12:27 PM

By Tecola W. Hagos (Ph.D)

As a student at Haile Selassie I University and Law School from 1965 to 1971, I had the great privilege of knowing Professor Richard Pankhurst and Mrs. Rita Pankhurst quite well.  Other than having numerous conversations at their respective offices on issues dealing with education, art, culture, Ethiopian history, et cetera, I had also the unique privilege of having been invited over for lunch to their spacious home several times during my student days. During such visits, I also met their children Alula and Helen.  As I remember the children, from such a long time, that Alula was a typical vigorous little boy and Helen was a rather shy beautiful rose cheeked little girl.

I do not exactly remember what was on the menu during those lunches, for I was usually overwhelmed just being a guest at the home of two of Addis Ababa’s distinguished citizens not to mention great personalities at the University. What I remember the most was the welcome I received from the entire family including their huge dog. I also remember the stack of paper on the desk of Professor Pankhurst in his study and the pragmatism of their furnishings, worn out leather comfortable sofas, huge dinning table, et cetera. However, the most memorable and to a great extent disconcerting to me was the fact of their villa-home having no fences at all. I used to mention that fact every time I was a guest for lunch; I simply could not comprehend such open vulnerability in a city where people of their stature live in homes with a military like fortification with stone walls, barbed wire and jugged broken glass on tope of such high walls surrounding their homes. In time I learned from the Pankhursts that they were keeping their home fenceless in respect to the way Mrs. Sylvia Pankhurst, the mother of Professor Pankhurst, had maintained the place until here death in 1960.


I think such openness and vulnerability is the physical manifestation of the very humane qualities of the entire Pankhurst family including their parents.  It will be very shallow for me even to attempt to list the great contribution this family of Pankhursts to Ethiopia and Ethiopians. As a scholar, Professor Pankhurst is at the pinnacle of great scholars of Ethiopian history and culture.  As a fellow Ethiopian, I simply cannot think of this family otherwise, he has endured much and has done to help his beloved Ethiopia more than anyone I can think of. And the generosity and dedication of the Pankhursts to Ethiopia and to the well being of Ethiopians has no equal.


Personally, both Professor Pankhurst and Mrs. Rita Pankhurst have been very kind to me. They encouraged me to paint as well as study my profession at the law school. Professor Pankhurst even wrote a vigorous recommendation letter in 1972 on my behalf to Oxford University, where I was accepted to do graduate studies. (I regret that I did not pursue that venue.) They were truly great people in every way that truly matters. The Nobel Prize will only be too small for a man of such monumental legacy. I fully support awarding the Nobel to Professor Richard Pankhurst of Ethiopia.

Tecola W. Hagos

February 24, 2009 -WashingtonDC












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