Adrian Blomfield, nairobi
17 FEBRUARY 2017 • 6:34PMGrieving Ethiopians yesterday called 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 at his home in the capital Addis Ababa on Thursday. He was 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, most notably with the establishment of Ethiopia’s first proper archive.
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 storied past, a history that Ethiopians maintain began with the Queen of Sheba.
“He was our history archive,” read one post on twitter, “Ethiopia’s foremost chronicler,” another. Others 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. This is a real loss for the country.”
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.
A former suffragette and communist, she dedicated most of her later life to Ethiopia and moved there with her son Richard in 1956, dying four years later. Thousands of mourners pressed around her coffin, draped in cloth of gold, when it was laid to rest.
Richard Pankhurst struck a belated blow against Ethiopia’s former occupiers by leading a successful campaign to force Italy to return the Obelisk of Axum, a 1,700-year-old 79-ft stele plundered by Mussolini’stroops. One of Ethiopia’s most sacred relics, it stood in the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome until 2005, when it was finally returned and re-erected in Axum three years later. Pankhurst was decorated by the Ethiopian president in recognition for his work, which did much to restore battered national pride.
He had less success, however, in persuading Britain to return a treasure trove of several hundred sacred manuscripts and tablets seized as war booty during Robert Napier’s campaign against King Theodore of Abyssinia in 1868.
Napier led a strategically brilliant campaign against Theodore’s mountain fortress at Magdala, where the king had taken two British diplomats and scores of protestant missionaries hostage.
Many of the tablets, known as tabots, showed depictions of the Ark of the Covenant, believed by many Ethiopians to be in their country. Much of the Mandala treasure, still highly venerated in Ethiopia, remains in various locations in Britain, including the British Museum and the British Library.
SOURCE : TELEGRAPH