ISBN: 0-413-54830-9
See also: Another Perspective

In 1936, when Italian troops re-entered Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the world assumed that Italy, unable to comprehend its earlier defeat in the hands of Abyssinians in the 1890s, was seeking revenge. The invasion, however, not only turned a crucial page of Abyssinian history, but also fuelled the onset of World War II.
        The history of the African continent is the history of exploitation, slavery, invasion and affliction. The land long served as an uncomplaining playground for political theories like imperialism, and silently accepted scars left by the global gamemasters. On numberless occasions, Africa's resources, dignity and fragile boundaries were assaulted with little or no restraint.
        The spirit of Africa is a wounded one. Evelyn Waugh writes: "No one can doubt that an immense amount of avoidable suffering has been caused, and that the ultimate consequences may be of world-wide effect". The Italian invasion that Waugh in Abyssinia explores is an unforgettable episode in African history. Mr. Waugh presents a unique treat by translating his travel experience in Abyssinia with extraordinary intelligence, warmth and humor.
        When Mr. Waugh set foot in Abyssinia, covering miles of deserts and lowlands, he finds no trace of war. Addis Ababa, the capital, takes in Mr. Waugh like all the other journalists who arrive by the trainload to receive first hand impressions of the invasion. Tracing the tail end of war, Mr. Waugh travels through the hill country and arrives in Jijiga, where among the pool of correspondents he finds, much to his amusement, one from Hearst Organisation, "a Siamian Sudanese, who travelled under a Brazilian passport and worked for a Egyptian paper"; a Latvian colonel, also an ex-ringmaster in a Germany circus; an American "clothed always in dingy black" who "wrote imaginative dispatches of great length and flamboyance". Mr. Waugh comments wryly on the attitudes of press correspondents who, in spite of there being no major occurrence, are busy typing out and cabling carefully enhanced ‘materials’ to demanding editors. ("An exclusive lie was more valuable than a truth which was shared with others.")
        Meanwhile, Mr. Waugh, in search of potential ‘incidents’, idly travels around the town, surveying the living conditions and attending the Emperor’s birthday reception. "Everyone was waiting for Italy at her own convenience to begin the war" and for the airplanes to emerge and strike. Propagandists comprise the only active group Mr. Waugh finds in the country; they are busily involved in anti-Italian campaigns and in issuing news bulletins against the aggression. In essence, they effectively suppress news from Italy.
        An incident of "considerable importance" occurs in Adowa, where a hospital was said to have been destroyed, resulting in heavy casualties. Mr. Waugh observes excited journalists making out eloquent reports on the devastation and fabricating victims' first-hand accounts. The attention of the Western world is attracted. The Times goes on to express the hope that "the noble nurses had not died in vain". Before long, however, it is discovered that no such hospital stands anywhere in the land of Adowa! Interestingly, Mr. Waugh meets an African-American, employed as an aviator by the Ethiopian Government, who was said to be present "at the time of the bombardment", drinking cocoa with a nurse a few minutes before her death. "Mr. Waugh, do you realise, I might have been killed myself?" he asks. Soon after, Mr. Waugh receives cables from London and New York: "Require earliest name life story photograph American nurse upblown Adowa", to which Mr. Waugh enthusiastically replies: "Nurse unupblown"!
        The editors in Europe and America who had invested huge amounts of money on the coverage of invasion are becoming impatient with what little they received in return. The Emperor of Abyssinia has taken flight, surprising the world. Disenchanted press and film crews start packing. Mr. Waugh finds his way out.
        The concluding part of the book narrates Mr. Waugh’s reappearance in Harar and his observations on post-war Abyssinia. Contrary to his expectations, the city greeted the author as though nothing untoward had happened. "It was a revelation to me", Mr. Waugh wonders, "to see how little damage a bomb does". He even recognizes healthy traces of development. The market was going merrily. The roads were being built. In Asmara, he comes across a school, established by Italians. He sights Italian soldiers playing with Abyssinian children. The author writes: "The Italians had accomplished in six months a task which they had expected to take two years. They 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 failure of peace preserving bodies like the League of Nations to end unlawful interruptions in a vulnerable country like Abyssinia reveals the necessity of military power. Mr. Waugh’s reflective analysis of the transformation of the Abyssinians socio-economic and cultural conditions while in alien hands elevates the book from the rank of a travel account to that of a classic with considerable historical significance. Precisely for this reason, like any other works of innovation, the book was received with controversy and criticism at the time of its publication.
        It is indeed a disturbing fact that even in the present era of advanced information technology, we often encounter one-sided news reports; we perceive only shadow images of facts. Waugh in Abyssinia aims to redefine and broaden the role and vision of a correspondent. As such, it highlights some of the fundamental qualities that he or she should possess: an impartial attitude, a commitment to facts, a humane approach and an unbiased understanding of world affairs. Waugh in Abyssinia is an honest reportage that should be celebrated for its brilliant reflections and insights as well as for the author's unique approach.



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 context.
         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.