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.")
Waugh, in search of potential incidents, idly travels
around the town, surveying the living conditions and attending
the Emperors 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.
part of the book narrates Mr. Waughs 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
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. Waughs 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.
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
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 reliedjust as Mussolini's
generals did lateron 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
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."
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."
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
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
journalismor portrayals of war-like Africans who need the
benefit of European civilization.