Caribbean Women and the Ethiopian Solidarity Campaign by Kesewa John

As part of our Black History Month celebrations, we commissioned a ‘long read’ from the fabulous Kesewa John. Enjoy!

The sovereignty of Ethiopia was compromised from November 1934, when Italy attempted to claim land inside the border Ethiopia shared with Somalia, then an Italian colony. A diplomatic dispute ensued, culminating in a bloody clash which left 150 dead in early December 1934, known as the Wal Wal ‘incident’. This marked the beginning of a fresh round of Italian claims on Ethiopian soil: the last had ended in a humiliating Italian defeat at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 which instantly became legendary. Ethiopia was proclaimed the only African nation to have successfully resisted European colonisation by force.[i]

Following the US occupation of Haiti from 1915 and the Firestone rubber company’s economic domination of Liberia from 1926, by the early 1930s Ethiopia was widely referred to as ‘the last citadel’; the one place Africans and those of African descent could call their own country, and feel safe from imperialism, white supremacy and the racist aggression that was on an alarming rise alongside fascism in Europe. When the League of Nations refused to acknowledge Italy’s unprovoked encroachment and sanction it accordingly, Caribbean observers watched closely.

As disappointment with the League’s response to Ethiopian pleas for mediation grew, Caribbean people began to organise themselves in support of Ethiopia. A few local newspaper reports in early 1935 rapidly spread into a solidarity campaign across the Caribbean.[ii] By July 1935, Ethiopia’s fight to maintain her sovereignty was regularly front-page news throughout the region’s radical press, and most began publishing a dedicated Ethiopian column.[iii]  It even made headlines in the more conservative publications which did not share the politics of Ethiopian solidarity.

Encouraged and at times instigated by radical newspaper editors, Caribbean pro-Ethiopian activity took several forms and lasted until all foreign troops had exited Ethiopia.[iv] In the English-speaking colonies, most frequent were very large public meetings and rallies, often attended by thousands, typically involving strongly-worded resolutions and passionate speeches, fundraising efforts for medical and military supplies for Ethiopia, and petitions to various authorities; from the Governor, up to the King and the League of Nations. The solidarity campaign peaked with jointly coordinated protests in the centres of global power; marches in Paris, London and New York in August and September in 1935.

Caribbean women were particularly prominent in fundraising drives, even establishing all-female organisations for the sole purpose of financially supporting Ethiopia. In Trinidad and Tobago, the Daughters of Ethiopia, a sub-committee of the UNIA chapter at Penal, were particularly effective. Led by Secretary Elaine Noel, the Daughters of Ethiopia held near-weekly rallies in November and December 1935. The Daughters of Ethiopia were not women who took a back seat: their 1st December fundraiser’s featured speaker was to be an unnamed ‘prominent lady of Port-of-Spain’.[v]  Giving women a political platform was likely the Daughters of Ethiopia’s norm; their advertisement for a mass meeting on 17th November promised that ‘Several ladies from the city have consented to speak, under the chairmanship of Mrs W Woodley.’[vi]

Perhaps most importantly, Caribbean people and ‘their’ newspapers refused to acknowledge Ethiopian defeat.[vii] This became increasingly significant when Italy sought international recognition of its conquest of Ethiopia, including from Britain and France. Caribbean newspapers published pages upon pages of reports about fighting in various parts of the country following the fall of Addis Ababa in 1936, highlighting Italian military defeats in Ethiopia and disputing any idea of a completed conquest. Reports on agitation worldwide in support of the Ethiopians’ continued struggle to maintain their countries’ sovereignty also appeared constantly.

In the French island colonies, radical publications similarly covered the struggle faithfully.  In Guadeloupe, the Le Nouvelliste and La Volonté, and Justice of Martinique made clear their solidarity with the Ethiopian cause, though these newspapers did not play a role in organising the masses around the issue as the radical press did in the English-speaking colonies. Caribbean people, in the imperial centres and in their colonised home countries, were vocal, collaborative and pro-active in their support for Ethiopia.

When Una Brown responded negatively to Marcus Garvey’s criticism of Emperor Haile Selassie in his London-based newspaper The Black Man, the weeks-long exchange between Garvey and Brown that followed was reprinted in St Lucia’s West Indian Crusader in November 1936. Women like Brown are largely forgotten, yet actively contributed to the narrative surrounding Ethiopia’s cause, and boldly challenged the positions of established leaders. While women such as Elma Francois, Paulette Nardal and Amy Ashwood Garvey spoke brilliantly from the front, at the global campaign’s many rallies, and others like Una Marson, Elaine Noel, and the Daughters of Ethiopia coordinated in the background; most Caribbean women, like Una Brown, formed part of the masses, with only their actions sometimes recorded.  An examination of the role of women at this arguable peak of global coordinated pan-African organising,  finds Caribbean women involved with the Ethiopian solidarity campaign at every level in both the colonial Caribbean and imperial Europe.

 Solidarity and Ethiopia: Caribbean Women and Sylvia Pankhurst

Members of France’s Defence League of the Negro Race at a summer meeting in 1935 instructed their organisation to create Le Comité de Défense d’Ethiopie, or Ethiopia Defence Committee. Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté, a Malian communist and France’s leading black radical, was named the committee’s president. Paulette Nardal, a progressive from Martinique was the organisation’s secretary.[viii]

The Comité was mandated to act as a focal point for all black organisations in France and her colonies, and to demand, centralise, harmonise, and promote their efforts for active solidarity with Ethiopia. As secretary, Nardal petitioned the League of Nations on behalf of ‘all the negroes of France’[ix], published articles in both the French and foreign press, and regularly spoke in defence of Ethiopian sovereignty at public meetings, eventually embarking on a speaking tour through France and Belgium, sponsored by a feminist organisation with which she was personally involved.[x] A bilingual journalist by trade, Nardal also handled the communications between the London and Paris-based organisations. Kouyaté, in a newspaper report on the Comité’s work, described her simply as ‘the courageous Miss Paulette Nardal’.[xi]

In London, an organisation with very similar objectives was almost simultaneously established: The International African Friends of Abyssinia[xii] (IAFA), co-founded by Amy Ashwood Garvey and CLR James, representing Britain’s similarly inflamed small black population and reinforcing Caribbean-based efforts. Prominent Caribbean activist-intellectuals George Padmore, Amy Jacques Garvey, Marcus Garvey, Una Marson, CLR James and Amy Ashwood Garvey had all settled in England in the three years prior to the start of pro-Ethiopia campaigning, and dedicated their considerable talents and energies to highlighting the need to protect Ethiopian sovereignty.[xiii]

At IAFA, Amy Ashwood Garvey worked tirelessly in an organisation dominated by men, who in their recollections of the same moment would make only passing references to her. She nevertheless played a prominent part in organising the IAFA’s affairs, organising and speaking at events to inform the British public about the injustice Ethiopians were experiencing, much like Paulette Nardal was doing in France. In an interview about her, James admitted Ashwood Garvey was by far one of the most active members of the small executive committee, and her West End restaurant, the International Afro Restaurant at 62 New Oxford Street, was IAFA’s meeting place and headquarters. Indeed, according to James, her restaurant was ‘the centre of a good deal of West Indian [political] agitation’.  Describing her as a ‘militant anti-imperialist’, James credited Ashwood Garvey as the primary coordinator of the August 1935 Trafalgar Square rally, arguably the most famous of the IAFA’s public meetings and London’s contribution to the simultaneous international protests for Ethiopia.[xiv]

Una Marson spent three weeks in September 1935 working at the League’s headquarters at Geneva, a posting offered after successfully representing her native Jamaica at an international feminist conference in June.  Having offered the delegation at Geneva her services in Ethiopia, instead she returned to London, where she immediately began work as a secretary for Ethiopia’s representative in Britain, Dr Charles Martin. Arriving the day before Italy invaded Ethiopia, Una worked night and day.  In the office she dealt with the entirety of the written correspondence as well as journalists’ calls for information.  Her evenings were filled with meetings, lectures, discussions and resolutions.  According to her biographer ‘Abyssinia took over Una’s life.’[xv]  She was a valued member of staff and in June 1936, when the exiled Emperor went to Geneva to plead his country’s case before the League of Nations, Marson accompanied him. Her valuable work extracted a heavy toll: a month later, Marson’s doctor warned her she was approaching a nervous breakdown.

Sylvia Pankhurst, the legendary leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, also accompanied the Emperor to Geneva.  She had become a key ally of the pro-Ethiopia campaign. Her articles appeared in Jamaica’s radical newspaper Plain Talk from 1935 onwards. Copies of the Barbados Observer and The People in Trinidad carried adverts for the New Times and Ethiopian News, the newspaper Pankhurst established to enable readers to follow Ethiopian developments. Equally, adverts for those publications were frequently found within the pages of New Times and Ethiopian News.

Sylvia’s pro-Ethiopia solidarity work, although connected to the activities of the African-led International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), was primarily directed to a different field of influence.  Pankhurst coordinated the Abyssinia Association, an organisation of mainly white British people outraged by the injustice they beheld in the League’s apathy towards Ethiopia. The Abyssinia Association worked constantly to raise awareness of the issue among the British public, using their connections with high-profile sympathisers to meet fundraising goals and gain influence amongst both decision-makers and opinion-formers. The Abyssinia Association shared many of the goals of the IAFA and the global Ethiopia Solidarity movement, but used its proximity to European power brokers and structures to support both Ethiopia and black-led activism in support of Ethiopia.

Pankhurst and the Abyssinia Association passionately fought to defend Ethiopia’s sovereignty, ceaselessly denouncing fascism and its evils, and chronicling the plight and fight of the Ethiopians through the pages of the New Times and Ethiopian News. Her tireless efforts leave no doubts about the sincerity of her commitment to the Ethiopian cause.  Caribbean activists held her in high esteem and with particular affection as she effectively avoided patronising attitudes unlike the paternalism some Caribbean activists encountered when collaborating with European comrades.  It appears that the feeling was mutual: Sylvia’s son later recalled that among his mother’s treasured possessions was a Benin bronze later given to her by Amy Ashwood Garvey.[xvi]

Considering Sylvia Pankhurst’s work in conjunction with black women involved in pro-Ethiopia campaigning challenges historiographies of black radicalism that often obscure this connection: instead either highlighting white women’s or black women’s work with black male organisers.  The pitting of women’s work against each other can be considered at best an unhelpful denial of women’s political agency, and at worst a misogynistic approach to histories of African liberation work which serves only to elevate male political actors, who appear to be the only constants. It is noteworthy that both Una Marson and Paulette Nardal were involved in explicitly feminist networks which they were able to draw upon to support their work for Ethiopian solidarity. The strategic collaboration that Sylvia Pankhurst modelled when participating in the pro-Ethiopia solidarity campaign offers another answer to contemporary questions about what allyship among social justice activists can and perhaps should look like.

Kesewa John has taught for several years in the History and Foreign Languages departments at the Université des Antilles in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Interested in Caribbean people’s intellectual and political histories, her doctoral research focuses on collaborations between French and English-speaking Caribbean activists in the decades prior to the Windrush docking; in particular their articulations of freedom, and the place of Caribbean women in Caribbean historical narratives. She is currently a Dissertation Fellow at the Université des Antilles and a PhD student in History at the University of Chichester.

[i]     The most recent publications which treat black responses to the invasion of Ethiopia are Priyamvada Gopal, Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (London:Verso, 2019) and Robbie Shilliam’s journal articles published together at RobbieShilliam.wordpress.com. Also valuable are works by Hakim Adi, SKB Asante, Jennifer Boittin, Philippe DeWitte, Fikru Gebrekidan, Ayodele Langley, James Spiegler (unpublished: Aspects of nationalist thought among French-speaking West Africans 1921-1939. University of Oxford, 1968), Susan Pennybacker, and Robert G Weisbord.

[ii]    The Voice of St Lucia and West Indian Gazette (of Grenada) published reports about the diplomatic dispute in January and February 1935.

[iii]   The Barbados Observer, Le Nouvelliste (Guadeloupe), The People (Trinidad and Tobago), Plain Talk (Jamaica), and The Voice of St Lucia all published an ‘Update on Ethiopia’-styled column from July 1935.

[iv]   In St. Lucia alone, rival newspaper editors George Gordon of the The Voice of St Lucia and John Pilgrim of the West Indian Crusader created a small campaigning committee which coordinated resolutions and public meetings which they promoted, published and reported on in their respective newspapers most intensively in July-September 1935. This degree of involvement on the part of newspaper editors was not uncommon in the English-speaking Caribbean.

[v]    ‘UNIA News’, The People, 30th November 1935, p.12

[vi]   ‘UNIA News’, The People, 16th November 1935, p.12

[vii]  During the 1930s in the Caribbean, centuries-old societal norms were terminally challenged. Newspapers tended to represent the views and interests of the black majority ‘the people’ or the extremely powerful white minority known as ‘the planters’. The different priorities are evident in the conflicting coverage of the Italo-Ethiopian story.

[viii] ‘A la ligue’, La Race Nègre, Juillet 1935, p.2 and Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté, ‘Activité du Comité de Défense d’Ethiopie’, Africa, Decembre 1935, p.4

[ix]   ‘On Nous Prie d’Inserer’, Le Cri des Nègres, June 1935, p.1

[x]    Robbie Shilliam’s treatment of Paulette Nardal’s’s work on the Ethiopian campaign is readily available online:  Robbie Shilliam “Fanon: from Martinque to Algeria via Ethiopia” last modified April 13, 2019

Fanon: from Martinque to Algeria via Ethiopia

[xi]   Kouyaté, ‘Activité’, p.4

[xii]  One outcome of the solidarity campaigning was the replacement of the name Abyssinia, which had been widely used in Europe, with Ethiopia, the name used by Ethiopians to describe their country. Initially, Abyssinia was the principal nomenclature hence IAFE, but Ethiopia grew increasingly common and IAFA had become IAFE by 1937.

[xiii] Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism (London: Africa World Press, 2013), Kenneth King, ed., Ras Makonnen: Pan Africanism from Within (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1973), Susan Pennybacker, From Scottsboro to Munich : Race and Political Culture in 1930s Britain (Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009), Barbara Ransby, Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson (London: Yale University Press, 2014).

[xiv] Tony Martin, Amy Ashwood Garvey: Pan-Africanist, Feminist, and Wife No. 1, (Dover: The Majority Press, 2007)

[xv]  Delia Jarett-Macaulay, The Life of Una Marson 1905-1965 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010)

[xvi] Richard Pankhurst, Sylvia Pankhurst: Counsel for Ethiopia. (London: Global Publishing, 2003)

Image 1 – The Crusade, the newspaper which published Una Brown’s response to Marcus Garvey

Image 2 – Paulette Nardal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulette_Nardal#/media/File:Paulette_Nardal.jpg

Image – Una Marson https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Una_Marson#/media/File:Una_Marson.jpg

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