|Reviewed by G. Marudhan|
Jeff Pearce is a freelance journalist and writer based in London who has worked for magazines, radio and television. He has won two awards for his fiction, and his short story, "Trenches of Light," is archived in Dark Planet. He is currently completing a novel on the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Black Shirts, Black Lions, and is at work on a nonfiction book on the subject.
Despite our age's so-called enlightened
attitudes on race, despite Live-Aid and Nelson Mandela, publishers still
reprint a nasty little volume that causes mischief with historical memory.
While Evelyn Waugh's stylistic brilliance is acknowledged today for such
novels as Brideshead Revisited, he also churned out racist satires
and "reportage" on Ethiopia in the 1930s. He did his worst damage in
Waugh in Abyssinia, a book that inexplicably is still reprinted by
publishers often with no introduction that puts the work in historical
In the 1930s, Ethiopia fascinated many as an independent country that had fended off all the colonial powers. Abyssinia is actually a Latin corruption of a Muslim pejorative label, "Habasha", one the Ethiopians don't use. A battle at Adwa in 1896 sent Italians scurrying back to Rome and prompted a crisis that toppled a prime minister. It is still celebrated in Ethiopia today. The dominating Amharic people, who in 1935 didn't consider themselves black, had succeeded in getting the West to respect Ethiopia as a unique country apart from the rest of Africa. Ethiopia had joined the League of Nations. Emperor Haile Selassie was trying to modernize his country when Mussolini decided it was time for payback and that Italy was entitled to its "place in the sun" with Britain, France and other colonial powers.
The resulting diplomatic crisis prompted Britain to send its fleet into the Mediterranean and Mussolini to threaten another world war. In a betrayal as important as the one of Czechoslovakia later, Britain and France sat on their hands as Fiat tanks rolled into the Ethiopian hills. The Great Powers even offered Mussolini a deal to take half the country (plus the means to gobble up the rest). Italian planes used mustard gas on barefoot soldiers and bombed Red Cross hospitals. Thousands of black Americans were ready to fight in a spirit of Pan-Africanism, but the US State Department refused to grant them passports. And, amazingly, most of us never learn about this war in school. Few histories of the conflict in English remain in print.
What is still around, unfortunately, is Waugh's account, which grew out of his time as a war correspondent for the right-wing Daily Mail of London. From the beginning, the modern reader knows he's in trouble. Waugh offers an apologist essay defending imperialism and a distorted version of Ethiopian history. For him, the Italian soldiers at Adwa were a courageous lot. In Thomas Pakenham's The Scramble for Africa, however, reveals the Italian general in charge as an arrogant incompetent who relied—just as Mussolini's generals did later—on black Eritrean soldiers. Waugh calls Ethiopia "barbarous and xenophobic" and claims "slavery and slave-holding were universal." In fact, Haile Selassie was legally phasing out slavery at the time.
Some modern readers consider the book a witty commentary on the practices of journalists, for Waugh paints his fellow reporters as a bunch of liars and scoundrels. The facts demonstrate Waugh as one of those liars. He argues in his book that the bombing of a Red Cross hospital at Adwa on the eve of the war never happened. But there are eyewitness accounts of people fleeing into the hospital, and the attack prompted Haile Selassie to protest to the League. Since the bombing of other Red Cross installations throughout the war is not in dispute, Waugh's account is suspect. In a time when objective journalism was growing as a standard practice, Waugh gave Italy an affidavit suggesting Ethiopians were abusing the use of the Red Cross sign when he had no proof and the Red Cross itself never made this claim.
A reader would get an altogether different picture of our journalism critic if they knew him better. Waugh wrote to a friend that "I have got to hate the ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & I hope the organmen gas them to buggery." Waugh infuriated the actor David Niven only a few years later by referring to the actor's black housekeeper in her presence as "your native bearer."
The Ethiopians eventually lost, and Haile Selassie came to Geneva to shame the League of Nations in a powerful speech. Waugh concludes his account with idyllic scenes of road-building and Italian soldiers greeted by Ethiopian children. The Italians "now found themselves faced with opportunities and responsibilities vastly greater than their ambitions at the beginning of the war... It was a severe test of morale and they stood up to it in a way which should dispel any doubts which still survive of the character of the new Italy."
The character of the new Italy was shown by Mussolini in May 1936 when he ordered that Selassie's administrators and foreign-educated class be summarily shot by troops entering the capital. It was shown again in 1937 after an attempt to kill the Italian viceroy when Black Shirts went on a rampage of murder and arson through Addis Ababa, slaughtering thousands.
Waugh in Abyssinia remains a curious artifact of a bygone age, and perhaps when we consider today's reportage on Africa, we shouldn't be at all surprised it has somehow stayed in print. In my brief time at an American TV network in London, I wrote a story on how Sierra Leone's fighting was about diamonds, not tribal conflicts, which was the knee-jerk initial theme of Western coverage. My producer scolded me because the young video editor didn't bother to read the piece and simply slapped in stock shots of fighting. I was somehow expected to anticipate how he would match the copy. The producer told me in so many words he didn't care why the Africans were fighting, pictures were king, and I should just write that they were fighting. We haven't come too far after all from Waugh's slanderous journalism—or portrayals of war-like Africans who need the benefit of European civilization.