The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Ethiopia 1943 - 45

J. W. Gardner

published 1998

This short account of what was for me an unusual chapter in my life is offered in the hope that it may prove to be of some interest to any reader who knows something of the recent history of Ethiopia and would like to learn a little more. I wrote it five and a half years ago. There seemed little point in making large-scale changes in the text, even if possibly desirable; but a very few points have been adjusted to the passage of time.

During the course of the Second World War, in 1941 and at the start of 1942, I worked for a few months in the Foreign Office as a Temporary Secretary before being posted to the British Legation in Addis Ababa. Then in March 1944 I moved over to a job for the Emperor of Ethiopia, leaving Addis Ababa for the city of Harar. I returned to peace-time England in the autumn of 1945, and eventually resumed my previous career as a schoolmaster.

John Gardner
Bath. May 1998





It is a good fifty years since I first set foot in the country which was to be my home for three and a half years from February 1942. I can hardly pretend, except whimsically, that my views have matured in the long period after I left Ethiopia in the autumn of 1945; but memories continually return, and I now intend, with the help of copious notes, to try to set down some record of my life in Ethiopia - places seen; people seen; things accomplished; thoughts; ideas; hopes.

I had little notion what to expect, despite some preliminary reading, and I had never flown before. Add to this the uncertainties and complications of a time of war, which made the journey out in itself adventurous.

I was very much the junior member of the party of three Foreign Office representatives who started their journey to Addis Ababa from Waterloo Station at 4.35 p.m. on January 22nd, 1942; my companions were R.G. Howe, British Minister, and E.A. Chapman-Andrews, First Secretary, who were later to become Governor General and British Ambassador in the Sudan. Other members of the staff of the Legation were to be added on the spot. The Mediterranean being more or less in German hands, our route was to be by flying-boat, first from Bournemouth to Foynes in the Shannon estuary of S.W. Ireland, then from Foynes by way of Portugal and the Gambia to Nigeria, and as a third stage by land craft across Africa to Ethiopia. Our second flying-boat was the Berwick, just back from Churchill's second meeting with Roosevelt; the crew had good stories to tell of several of their distinguished passengers.

I was off-loaded in Lagos in Nigeria, and spent two interesting nights there - my first in Africa - accompanied by half a dozen Foreign Office diplomatic bags. I suppose I had had enough training - three months - in 'The Office' in London behind me to support me in crossing Africa with official material of the highest secrecy; they included our codes and cyphers for use in Addis Ababa. Bob Howe and Andrew had gone on ahead of me, and although I eventually caught them up in Khartoum, I then waited for them there while they paid an exploratory visit to Cairo.

Fifty years ago His Excellency the Governor-General of the Sudan was - locally at least - a person of supremely lofty status; and the Palace in Khartoum (Kitchener's, in succession to Gordon's) was a setting appropriately named. All this was new to me, to be enjoyed even when the need, and desire, to get to our true destination pressed upon me. That destination was finally reached, but only after a visit, itself full of interest, to Kenya and Nairobi. The latter seemed entirely western (in contrast to Khartoum); one might have been in Surbiton, except that Woolworths proffered unlikely wares such as biltong.

If I have the name right, it was in a little D.H. Dragon Rapide that we flew from Nairobi to Addis Ababa; a plane of 400 h.p. and about 1,000 lbs. load. A note on our flight reads: '8,000 feet up, 100 m.p.h., climbing slowly, just crossing the Line' - this by Mt. Kenya with its striking cone of glaciers and hard tropical ice. Much of the scenery was typified by the presence of camel-thorn and similar bush, as in the Ogaden and Somaliland. The second of two stops in such a landscape was at Yavello - Ethiopian soil at last. Towards the end of our journey, the scenery changed to one of greenness and mountains, and it was in this context that we landed, at 2.20 p.m. to a guard of honour and General Fowkes, and then to drive the short distance to the Legation compound.

The town at first sight (and indeed thereafter) seemed fairly scattered and rather unlovely; some of the defects - roundabouts of petrol barrels? - might properly be due to the exigencies of war. The Legation compound was by contrast a quiet and lovely park, with wide fields enjoyed by horses, avenues of blue gum, gardens colourful with bougainvillea, hills and mountains beyond. It was something of a Swiss scene, Valois or Vaud; and the 'small rains' had helped to keep it all fresh. Bungalows, with kitchens reached by a short covered path, were scattered over the park. I engaged a personal 'boy', Zelleka, bald and aged from forty to forty-five, who was in possession of a 'warakat' or letter of recommendation from his previous employer. The Minister presented his credentials, assisted by Andrew, Robert Cheesman, Derek Riches, and Maurice Taylor; these were to be my associates and friends for the next few years or months; of course all career men and with varying degrees of experience which I could not match. I was naturally the junior member of staff, which was however soon to be augmented at various levels, including my own.

The War taught us all a good deal of geography (particularly in the U.S.S.R.). I suppose I knew roughly where Ethiopia lay in Africa; the country, however, had played no part in even advanced school attention to Ancient History. I soon experienced the general scene quite thoroughly enough for it to seem purely normal, although it was sensible to remember that many aspects were influenced or developed through the War. Addis Ababa had the familiarity of home. A predominance of European dress was on view, both with natives and with foreigners; but still many Ethiopians stayed with their traditional jodhpur-style trousers - sometimes (though decreasingly, I think) with the toga-style shamma, which was incidentally rarely as clean as it might easily have been. Feet were still often bare; all varieties of hat were worn, or none at all. Hair could be clipped close, or worn very full (as by the patriot warriors). More old-fashioned or more elderly people rode on mules and under brightly coloured umbrellas. Cars were much in use, and very often broke down; an important Amharic word was therefore 'gifa' - 'push'. There were plenty of two-wheeled carts, horse-drawn and with car-tyres for wheels, usually called gharries.

Money to begin with was fairly muddling, and not immediately made much simpler when the Emperor's new coinage was put into circulation. Transactions had to be conducted in Maria Theresa dollars - huge cartwheel things - as well as in lire and centesimi and in East African pounds, shillings and cents; there may even have been some Menelik dollars in use. Barter was of course always a possible method of doing business; and I recall at a later date buying Churchill's 'The World Crisis' by weight in the market in Harar (it had probably been looted from Hargeisa in the brief Italian occupation of British Somaliland). Some commodities were startlingly cheap: one could get a hundred eggs - smallish ones - for three shillings, or a couple of chickens for one. Wages were low, and my first, shared, residence seemed to employ as many as eleven servants: three personal 'boys', cook, cook's boy, maid, odd job man, wood-cutter, cow-man, gardener, night-watchman.

Official work was to start with small in quantity and gave me time to get used to a strange life. Nights could be disturbed - both by storms and by shooting affrays (vagrants v. guards most often), as well as by Ethiopian chatter. Bird cries abounded; I understood of kites and 'puff' crows.

I recorded at the beginning of March my first official contact with the new Ethiopian government, when a dinner party was given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The members of the Government initially stood round the walls - rather like robots in a school production of Capek's 'R.U.R.' When we were seated, I found myself next to the Vice-Minister of Finance, Yilma Deressa (the Emperor himself should be understood as Minister), my first impressions of whom were to be confirmed as time went on - quiet, sensible, an excellent speaker of English. On the British side were several men whom I was to get to know very well: General Fowkes; 'Padre' Matthew of the English Church; Charles Mathew, the Emperor's Legal Adviser; Sandy Curle, Adviser to Ras Birru; Dan Sandford, Personal Adviser to H.I.M.; Maurice Lush, our Deputy Chief Political Officer. It was all, as might be expected, markedly amateurish; if it at all resembled a school play, one might have specified 'middle school' and 'end-of-term', and Andrew added the suggestion 'in a bad year'.

Life in the Legation compound did not really seem much affected by any of the normal exigencies of war, at least in a material sense. We were well fed (and could buy supplies at the NAAFI): bacon and egg for breakfast; curried buck, lake fish, various cutlets, various omelettes, cheese, bananas (the only fresh fruit), salad. Whisky was plentiful, gin less so (and NAAFI gin not a good version); some Chianti, cheap and reasonable South African cognac. For exercise there was riding, walking, tennis, the last on a good Legation court. I seem to remember that we played once or twice - at 8,000 feet - with special low altitude balls. I found time to read, having taken some books with me, bought others, and sampled others in the Legation library, which was rich in books of special concern for the study of Ethiopian history, peoples, languages, and natural life, as well as miscellanea of many sorts. The gardens of our houses were pleasantly stocked: salvia, petunia, hibiscus, cupressus, carnation.

It was nevertheless a somewhat unnatural life. Many were separated from their wives, and all were separated from their homes, although it was of course in the nature of a diplomatic career. There was little danger of an encounter with enemy activity, but a German entry into Cairo would have brought some consequent special urgency into even the Horn of Africa, and Japanese submarines were to make their way into neighbouring waters.

In the town, streets were being re-named: Viale Mussolini naturally became Churchill Street, and there were streets named for Eden, Wavell, and Weatherall. Story had it that one was named, quite simply, 'George'.

In a sense, there were these rivals for official Ethiopian attention: Legation, Advisers, British Council, B.M.M.E. - our military mission; in practice, few serious oppositions occurred. There were also missionaries and medical personnel, the former being members of the Sudan Interior Mission and the Bible Churchmen's Missionary Society. As a further oddity in this country of oddities, these western Christian organisations could be found committed to attempts to evangelise the inhabitants of a country itself Christian - Christian officially, that is, in a form whose origins could be dated to the mid-fourth century. Fairly soon after our arrival in 1942, there came a proclamation which limited the work of the missionaries for the future to medical and educational activities.

The Ethiopian Church never ceased to interest me. It was headed by a former monk from the Egyptian desert (who spoke no Amharic), as required by the headquarters authorities of the Coptic Church in Egypt, of which it formed a part. Second in seniority and honour came the Etchege, the head of all monks in Ethiopia. As a whole the clergy must be thought of as ignorant, obscurantist, and increasingly out-of-touch. The Imperial family certainly conformed to the inherited traditions of the past in all Church matters; and the Emperor was a man of deep spirituality. Fasts were widely observed; my servant Zelleka seemed markedly weakened by the end of Lent; it was useful to have a Muslim, whose turn would come, in the ranks of one's household.

The Emperors concern for his Church led him to introduce a service-book in Amharic - which was apparently regarded by some opponents of reform or progress as - Islamic! His newly built church of Giorgis in Addis Ababa similarly came in for opposition. On the positive side, through his efforts and diplomacy, the Ethiopian Church gained autocephalous status, and the Etchege of my time, Basilyos, became the first native Abuna of the whole Church. From time to time the Legation found its way officially to Ethiopian Church occasions, notably to the celebration of the Epiphany, when the Emperor and other important members of the congregation were liberally drenched with holy water in an open air ceremony. Ritual dance-like movements before the Ark - by clerical officials called debteras - were a splendid feature of important church services; the music was both vocal and supplied by trumpets, drums, and sistra. It was in the tradition of David's dancing before the Ark as related in the Second Book of Samuel. The iconography of the paintings found everywhere on the walls, or on canvas, in Ethiopian churches has now been extensively researched; one of the pioneers has been a friend, Beatrice Playne, whose determination to achieve results when most encumbered by local hindrance made her a memorable figure all over the country.

Ethiopia was - probably still is - a verminous country. The commonest parasite was the flea, to which one became so accustomed as hardly to notice that one was engaged in the relief of itching. His Imperial Majesty was not immune from attack; I recall that on the occasion of an audience with him in Harar - when we were quite alone - a specimen appeared on my wrist which I had not taken in with me. Bugs and head-lice were also well known, and not necessarily in connection with poverty and squalor. There was equally plenty of serious disease: I regularly saw lepers in Harar, begging in the old city and not in a leprosarium; and a long list could be put together which would include yellow fever, venereal diseases and typhus. Among endemic disorders of a different order may be mentioned intestinal worm; a powerful traditional vermifuge was available - the fruit of the common shrub kosso. The prevalence of this trouble was largely brought about by participation in raw-meat feasts. I fancy these long-established celebrations had become an embarrassment to educated Ethiopians; I was never invited, even when closely associated with the Emperor's son, to attend any such occasion. Nor do I remember any use - at least in my hearing - of the conventional reply to an invitation which it was desired to decline: 'X has taken kosso'.

It is easy to underline comic aspects of life in Addis Ababa in these years, as in earlier years. Evelyn Waugh in 1930, the year of the Emperor's coronation and of Waugh's official visit as a newspaper correspondent, was batting on a very easy wicket. There were indeed occasions when incidents in the factual account were funnier than those in 'Black Mischief'. In 1942 the War made life even more uncertain and odd, and even more hilarious. It was of course often a matter of attitude. I was reminded from time to time of 'Oriental Spotlight', by 'Rameses' and 'Roly', which was published at the time of negotiations for an Anglo-Egyptian agreement or treaty; some would say a tactless, or a tactically unwise, arrangement, though the author was none other than a high British official in Cairo, Jarvis Bey, who was prepared to make fun of anything or anyone, including the British Army and the Foreign Office. Smiling, or laughing, at foreigners has long been an enjoyable occupation of the British; compare even Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men on the Bummel'. We all went to the Garrison Theatre, and were entertained by an Italian variety company; even the Emperor and Empress, the latter having I think no Italian but adequate understanding of gesture and emphasis, would grace the occasion. It was inevitable that stories would abound - true, false, and at least ben trovato; even absurd situations, such as the Emperor's telephoning a chemist for supplies of Eno's Fruit Salts for the Empress, would go the rounds. The setting, the personalities involved, and the admixture of solemn and silly, trivial and world-shaking, obviously enhanced the tale. Past and present could also be found alongside one another. I remember with great pleasure hearing one man abuse another with the astonishing condemnation, 'You Aryos!' I had not expected to hear the fourth-century Christian heretic thus commemorated.

Greeks and Armenians formed a sizable portion of the population of Addis Ababa; for the most part engaged in commerce and shop-keeping. With a number we became quite friendly; and several Armenian families entertained us in the prosperous surroundings of their homes and estates. The Vaporidis brothers ran a useful general stores; the brothers Garabedian, one of whom seemed to have gained the nickname of the Philosopher, were involved in the variegated area of Import/Export. The Greek Consul-General was a rather sad figure, not very skilled, and not very happy in his work; but we enjoyed his parties, whether a Fête Onomastique or the visit of a V.I.P., and also those put on by a prosperous soap-king named Zekou, whose pretty daughters provided an extra pleasure for the eye. At a Zekou party I fancy I managed to down twenty Ouzo's, not without some effect on my general consciousness at the time. It was therefore an easy social world: British, Americans, Italians (still of course enemy aliens, at least legally and technically), French, Arabs, Ethiopians of many tribal origins, and a miscellany of other nationalities, generally in a set of connections which did not involve any racial difficulty or complexity. I took much pleasure in relations with the Greeks, for a variety of reasons, including the chances offered to talk modern Greek. I had earlier tried to get into the Intelligence Corps on the strength of a knowledge of Greek; nothing happened at the time - and if I had been taken on my fate would have been very different in one way or another; but when I had had some months of service in Addis Ababa I did receive a message from the War Office to say that it was thought that I might possess a qualification 'useful to the war effort'; and there the matter ended. There will have been many usages of personnel in the various theatres of the War when chance rather than design seemed to be in control; the British officer in charge of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway at Addis Ababa had spent twelve years in insurance in Athens, but I do not think he had much special expertise in railway management.

I found Ethiopians easy to get on with, and in general easy to get to know. I did not expect the Emperor to be a hail-fellow-well-met; he was indeed someone whom one approached with a good deal of awe, or at least of care. When I came to be closely associated with his family at a later date, as will appear, there were signs of friendly interest and an understanding naturalness. I learnt then also that his Sons, the Crown Prince and the Duke of Harar, stood in considerable respect and regard for him. The Court was - outwardly at least - ready for obedience and reverence; after all, there was little doubt where power resided. Endemic plotting and intrigue certainly continued. Many Ethiopians of the Court and administration became my friends. There were traits of character which one noticed and reckoned to be fairly typical and general. Ethiopians muddled through; like the British. Many were hot-headed and liable to some sort of hysteria. Servants were usually faithful, usually conscientious, rarely treacherous. Naturally some were mendacious, lazy, forgetful, stupid. In a broad sense, Ethiopians showed an inborn dignity; and they enjoyed simple forms of humour.

In these early months of the restored independence of Ethiopia, there was much that was uncertain, experimental, tentative, and even ramshackle; and behind everything there was for us the necessity to win a colossal war. By the terms of the first Anglo-Ethiopian Agreement, Great Britain was the single favoured country, and also provided needed monetary assistance. We thus supplied advisers for the Emperor, Ministers, and Provincial Governors; and a military mission was appointed to mould the Ethiopian armed forces. The advisers were obtained for the most part from neighbouring territories - some of them displaying towards the Ethiopians an attitude roundly summed up in the phrase 'the Kenya mind'. Yet the result was on the whole good. It can easily be imagined that there was no immediate fusion of old and new. Ministers of the Crown were hardly used to desks with 'In', 'Out', and 'Pending' trays, nor to the conducting of business - with or without 'Minutes' - between Minister and Adviser. They felt more at home spending their time at the Imperial Palace, waiting to catch the Emperor's eye. Whether the latter failed to institute adequate delegation of work and responsibility in the course of the many years of his reign is necessarily a debatable question; it is certain that the officials and potential leaders were at first fairly reluctant to undertake such responsibility. I noted, soon after my arrival, that it was even the Emperor who was engaged in selecting horses for the remount depot - this in a country where horsemen abounded. I have mentioned intrigue and plotting; all seemed agreed on the sinister figure of Wolde Giorgis, Minister of the Pen, and his eventual fall was greeted with relief. At the same time, relationships between the Legation and Advisers could offer some entertainment. I always felt that Charles Mathew, a close friend, hoped to extract official secrets from me, perhaps with the aid of liberal offerings of Australian whisky - incidentally not a very good version of the drink, and not much use when (to considerable surprise) he recommended applications of it as a cure for sunburn. One might guess that security was imperfect: a telegram in cypher could be sent round on offer to more than one potential recipient, and one such reached us with the pencilled comment, 'not B.M.M.E. Try Squadron Leader Z.' - thus naming the undercover intelligence officer who must in any case have seemed an odd person to find in a context without aircraft to look after; it was someone's happy thought that his oldish tropical uniform must have had sleeves frayed from long hours at the controls.

The time passed. There were plenty of people to meet, both interesting and dull; some exciting scenery to view from time to time; some good and some very bad meals to deal with. There was indeed entertainment, by the Italian troupe already referred to, or at the 'International Club', where motley officers danced with mother girls. At a Russian night-club I first encountered Ethiopian popular art, of which I was to see a good deal in due course; successive cartoon-type squares, with a great variety of subject matter - man and wife in bed (with children), Saint George and the Dragon, the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (the Queen full face, Solomon in profile, according to the traditional distinction of 'good' and 'bad'). As time passed, there was enough happening to make life quite enjoyable: even single instances remain in mind, such as a brilliant performance, by the Italian orchestra, of the Rhapsody in Blue. We all seemed to suffer in turn from some indisposition or other, not necessarily due to excessive drinking of poor liquor.

The war continued; we had regular news through Foreign Office bags as well as telegrams, and were visited by a fair number of officials. The few hundred Italians officially permitted to remain and work in the city included a number involved in running essential services, which Ethiopians in fact did very little to maintain themselves; to these should be added those Italians illegally retained in the country for a variety of purposes. There was a gradual process of re-emerging contacts with Europe, Africa, and the U.S.A., the last-named of course having an increasingly large share in assistance for Ethiopia. Firms such as Mitchell Cotts made an appearance or re-appearance. Industries began to play a part; for example, a cotton factory, run by an Englishman, near Diredawa. Prospecting for oil, tungsten, mica, gold, and so forth was started or re-started after Italian efforts; much of this had the war effort in view, and was continued as a matter of course for whatever profit to the country could be envisaged. The Italian armed forces and provincial government had not put a 'scorched earth' policy into action, though there was naturally some evidence of the warfare which had taken place; for example, broken bridges between Harar and Addis Ababa. The road system would need constant attention - and would eventually get insufficient care given to it, no doubt a feature of the country's poverty, particularly with regard to the expense involved and the unending drain on a very slender budget.

Social contacts also continued. Some Ethiopians played tennis with us - notably Sirak Heroui, of Brasenose shortly before the War, and even Ras lmru, when he returned from a long imprisonment in Italy. There was a good deal of bridge among the diplomatic staffs and some others, but in this I played no part, probably avoiding a good deal of boredom or ennui. In the fullness of time came the possibility of taking local leave. When my time came, I went off by way of Eritrea and Egypt to stay with a friend, Mary Burn, in Palestine, and had indeed a memorable four weeks away. It was a chance also to see other parts of Ethiopia, notably Gondar, Lake Tana, and the Tisisat Falls; Aksum I was unable to include. I flew first to Asmara, an Italian colonial town with little of the native African scene about it. Having made the rest of my outward journey by air, ending at Lydda in Palestine, I chose to come back by train and Nile steamer, and then in the Ethiopian portion by road, chiefly in a B.M.M.E. convoy. Parts of the north of the country had been troubled by unrest and incipient rebellion. When I met the great patriot leader Ras Abeba Aregai, we were able to talk of the efforts and defeats of numbers of 'shifta', bandits, in the previous weeks. The troubles had not interfered with the Ras's supplies or stocks of Scotch whisky, which he dispensed generously. In the Crown Prince's headquarters at Dessie we were again most hospitably treated. It had been a very impressive route.

In the Legation a literary or cultural society was started in the course of 1942, of which the chief progenitor was a young colleague, like myself a temporary addition to the F.O. personnel. All things considered, it was reasonably successful, and reasonably approved of. Papers were presented, 'Hamlet' was read (I cannot now recall how we found enough copies), and films were viewed. More unusually, songs and war-dances were performed by members of the Legation guard (from Nyasaland), the programme being interrupted, as held out of doors, by a sharp downpour. The guard was in fact an entertaining side-show; I find I noted some of the names borne by individuals, and can only suppose I correctly noted them: Cabbage, Whisky Johannis, Alistair McNaughton, Bison Bicycle. They seemed to do their job adequately, and derived some enjoyment from the sort of life open to them; in this connection, I paid one visit - during the night - to their 'Early Treatment Room', in use after some of them had been found being 'pleasured' by local 'call-girls'. Their English C.O. dealt with the incident expertly.

There were naturally special occasions or days and events not to be forgotten. Two of them concerned deaths and funerals. Princess Tsahai, the Emperor's youngest surviving daughter, herself died when living up-country with her provincial governor husband, Colonel Abbiye. She had of course been very well known, and very much liked, when a nurse at the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London. She died apparently in childbirth. The funeral was in fine weather and sun; the Emperor, not fully recovered from bronchitis, was in sad attendance; the Legation sent telegrams to the King and the Ethiopian Ambassador in London.

The other death-and-funeral, commemorated in Addis Ababa, was that of the young Duke of Kent, for which we held 'a quite remarkable and quite admirable memorial service'. To this - held in the Anglican Church - the Emperor came, accompanied by Prince Makonnen, 'who lay back in good public school sprawl', Colonel Abbiye, half a dozen Cabinet Ministers (including Ras Abeba Aregai, 'looking rather lost', Lorenzo Taezaz, 'in good Italian broadcloth morning-coat', and Makonnen lndalkachew), Ras Kassa, Ras Birru, Greek Bishop Nicolas, Greek Consul-General Niscos, B.M.M.E., Free French, Police, and members of various communities. (Comments above in inverted commas are from notes made by me at the time).

I saw some, but not of course a fully satisfying amount of the countryside near Addis (the abbreviation from Addis Ababa is unscholarly but natural). On one occasion we found a change of scenery in a short car trip down the road westwards towards Addis Alem: bright green fields in a setting rather like an upland valley (which indeed it was), a gorge resembling the Wye Valley at home, some acacias, the mountains getting nearer and changing shape. Small children at the roadside offered wild flowers and wild asparagus. Our knowledge of the hugely extensive fauna of Ethiopia was increased by two lectures given to the Legation cultural society already mentioned (and named the New Flower). Robert Cheesman, who had long known the country and was now Oriental Counsellor on our staff, read an expert paper on the birds of the north-west, and a member of the Menelik hospital staff brought paintings of duck types and skins of blue goose, francolin, and sunbird.

For September 10th in my first year I noted: 'all Abyssinians (today) wash their clothes. They have to be clean just once a year - at its start'. In Ethiopian terms this was Maskaram 1, Zamana Luqas, and 1935. The day passed off quietly, with holidays for servants, whip-cracking, children's unselfconscious singing accompanied by clapping of hands. Many wore celebratory fillets round the head.

Was Ethiopia a strange backwater in a time of universal war? It was strange anyway; but not entirely cut off from the rest of the world; and the need to maintain British influence and power in the Horn of Africa has already been implied. The Legation staff, small as it was, seemed to my eye to be adequate for the job; indeed sensible and efficient. Addis Ababa had certainly earlier seen some oddities in Legation ranks. The British Minister told of a Second Secretary who had gone to the Palace fancy-dress ball 'dressed' in a leopard skin and with a blackened face. Another diplomat, with a friend, had somehow engaged in a golf match played from Addis Ababa to Nairobi. A new head of Chancery who arrived in 1942 at least struck an unusual note; he rather resembled the old King Leopold of Belgium, or a René Claire-ish French deputy, and was somewhat forbidding.

At about this time a 'hunt' was formed, at the instigation of Loveday Howe, the Minister's wife; we had indeed a couple of hounds, and chased, but did not kill, available jackal.

At about this time also the new Ethiopian parliament was opened, of course by the Emperor. The question of its powers, authority, or independence must be left unanswered here. Christopher Clapham's book of 1969, Haile Selassie's Government, is a first-class survey of this and much besides; in the words of Margery Perham's foreword: 'a fascinating analysis of the ways in which a great ruler, with an immense historical inheritance, has tried, with much success, to bring his state and people into active relationship with the modem world'. What, one may ask, went wrong? There is no single or simple answer. I remember often making the comparison, or rather contrast, of the Emperor with King Amanullah of Afghanistan. The folly of the latter's westernisation, superficial as it was, was not repeated in Ethiopia. But in 1974 came the end. No doubt the Emperor's age had a part to play.

We saw the New Year in (1943) with a typical unmemorable party which might have been occurring anywhere. Broadly speaking, the British community managed a reasonable life in time of war; work was attended to, duties were done, quarrels and feuds were few. To some extent we all at times seemed to feel the effect of an altitude of eight thousand feet. Such a malaise could be exacerbated when some of us, myself included, took day-long walks towards and on the mountains. The most punishing of these for me was on and to the top of Mt. Ierer, undertaken a few days later in January 1943. Nine hours of walking, and about twenty-five miles, including two hours each way on the flat from the village of Dukam and back to it, with three hours on the way up the mountain and two down; the climb was of about 4,000 feet from the 6,000 of Dukam. The reward, beyond that of climbing and gaining the summit, was a fine panoramic view - plain and peaks, chasms, a needle like rock on one face, expanse of ski-able slopes. The effect of altitude was listlessness - I even fell asleep when resting a hundred feet from the top - and a hurrying heart. The going was often very rough. At the foot of Ierer on our return we enjoyed simple hospitality from the owners of a country tukul (or round hut-dwelling): injera on its usual table, with 'a quite severe wat', washed down by Rod Sarell and myself with some three pints each of t'alla - that day the world's finest nectar. In Dukam as 'friends of the Emperor' we were given excellent coffee by the shum or local head-man, who also filled our car with apples and guavas.

As time went on, I accumulated a good deal of evidence of the less admirable side of those in power or striving to achieve power; as also of our own areas of official activity: jealousy, deceit, selfishness and incompetence were not unknown. If anything could be assigned to an area of 'high life', it was often pretty sordid. But we all carried on. My refuge from disappointments elsewhere was often the British Council. The arrival of a Representative of the Council also brought fresh contacts as his staff turned up in the following months. Henry Littler himself was to prove an important figure on the Ethiopian scene, for he developed a close relationship with the Emperor and thus provided a further source of British influence, in these early days hardly rivalled by any other country. As a result of my being officially assigned to Legation care for British Council affairs, I found here an enjoyable new territory, even to the extent of teaching English in evening classes to a mixed Ethiopian and Arab group. Henry's devoted work earned him a deserved O.B.E.; and we kept in touch until his death some twenty years later. His staff were understandably a mixture, as it was bound to be in time of war. It included Lydia Joss, of English and Swiss parentage, who became a close friend until a sadly early death; her help in Harar will be recorded later in my story. The Council's Anglo-Ethiopian Club was officially opened before an imposing gathering which included the Emperor and the Duke of Harar, as well as both the Abuna and the Etchege. There was a general desire to learn; my own students ranged from schoolboys from the Tafari Makonnen School to members of the Imperial Guard. It was said, perhaps rather improbably, that youngsters could be met begging not for money but for books. Henry Littler was the right man for this job, not easily deterred or dismayed. When a shortage of chalk was reported, his response was to speak directly to the Minister of Education in person. Ethiopian music provided the content of one weekly lecture and demonstration, with violin, guitar and flute or instruments closely resembling them. From its repeated performance, we came to know 'Anchi lij' extremely well. As a contrast, or complement, Greek music could be heard, for example at a ball given by Constantine Niscos, where the entertainment included Greek dances in costume - Cretan, Peloponnesian, a replica of Queen Amelia's. This occasion was marked by oratory rantingly delivered by the Consul-General, who in reminding his audience that Greece was like granite seemed to declare that she was fighting 'contre le Narcissisme'. (I was reminded of another occasion, when the Consul-General's 'Fête Onomastique' was neatly emended by one of our number).

An opportunity - in fact two - occurred to see more distant parts of Ethiopia, when I accompanied the visiting British Council Middle East representative, Professor Ifor Evans, and our own Henry Littler to Jimma in the south-west and Harar in the east. The journey to Jimma, diversified by breakdowns and repeated tyre troubles - which it was best to regard as very fair entertainment - took us through the Omo gorge, a splendid area of canyons and mountain faces, with an imposing Italian-made bridge at the foot, where the heat was considerable. In the environs of Jimma we found many new sights: instead of eucalyptus, the commonest trees were acacia, fig, and (in thickets) musa ansete. In the Abalti region, there were volcanic forms resembling giant earthen thimbles. Jimma itself was delightfully green. After a meeting with the provincial Governor-General, Ras Birru, and abundant hosting by his Adviser, Sandy Curle, we returned to base with as chancy a journey as had been our way out; even the spare wheel left its side-moorings and could not be traced. Full moonlight, past friendly, known mountains, saw us home.

Our second trip to Harar made by railway Littorina diesel, cramped, smelly, and hot, but travelling well. Semi-desert soon appeared with camel thorn, acacia, and euphorbia. Camels, goats, cattle had to be hooted off the line; again the heat became powerful, at a maximum near Awash, where we descended from the Littorina to have lunch at an appointed hotel. The Awash was crossed on a bridge built by the South Africans during the War, its back-broken predecessor visible a little higher up. From the station at Diredawa to Harar was excitingly upwards onto the plateau and a ring of mountains; not the 'forestie imbalsamate' of 'Aida' but with something of its suggestion of a paradisal goal after the unattractive heat below. The Governor-General was the still schoolboyish Duke of Harar, on whom, as on the Vice-Governor, we paid official calls. The former 'lolled, scratched, smoked and mumbled', and did not appear to have much use for our formally presented letter from his father's Private Secretary, Tafarra Worq. We then visited the remarkable old city, known of course to Richard Burton and to Rimbaud. It seemed just possible that someone, elderly but still extant, might remember the latter; he had left Harar in 1891 - a matter of fifty years before. But we had no luck in some desultory questioning. Old Harar, which, like its modern outcrop, I was to come to know much more intimately, remained memorable; five gates, closed at dusk; steep, narrow streets; an absence of smells or filth but a presence of lepers; dark doorways; the Gibbi of Ras Makonnen, the Emperor's father, who had lived in this Palace as the Governor, the representative of the Emperor Menelik.

Our return from Diredawa to Addis took twenty-two hours; this time not by Littorina but by steam train (using wood for fuel) - to which I had been able to get attached a 'lit-coupé' to promote some periods of no doubt uneasy sleep. This remarkable item, which would have looked entirely in place in a railway museum, contained vast fauteuil-like fixed chairs, dusty and verminous, but comfortable enough when converted into a semblance of divans for the night. Inevitably there were several incidents in the course of an uneasy night. A camel astonishingly wedged itself under the locomotive in a cutting and was itself cut into two. The front coach caught fire. The rear bogie of our own coach leapt the rails - but was most efficiently replaced by an Italian and a native repair gang, this in a sandstorm, in less than two hours, with six languages in use, and by the light of two hurricane lamps. At Addis Ababa station I was able to deflect our luggage from customs inspection; we had of course not even left the country.

From time to time, Ethiopia in earlier, but still recent, days was brought to my notice - often when visitors from those times turned up in Addis, or when one or another of our 'permanent' residents recalled moments of earlier history. Colonel Drew was able to give us a first-hand account of Mission 101, which (under Dan Sandford) had brought the Emperor secretly back into his own country from the Sudan, and of which he had been Medical Officer; he also enlarged on common versions of odd behaviour by Orde Wingate, going some way beyond his well-known reluctance to wash. An entertaining visit from Lady Barton and her daughter Esmé (alleged to be, at least in part, the model for Evelyn Waugh's Prue in 'Black Mischief') took us back to the nineteen thirties. Incidents related from the present war included a day on which the Emperor's troops had been bombed and bombarded with propaganda leaflets urging them to join Imperial forces. The return of the Emperor had been welcomed enthusiastically and loyally - certainly accepted. In the course of time there were instances of revolt, or of preparations for revolt; but they were usually dealt with without much difficulty. I heard of one country-dweller's remark on hearing of one such move: 'what are those madmen in Addis Ababa up to? The Emperor is our father'. To some extent 'foreign' support for H.I.M. resulted from natural optimism. In any case, no-one would have cared to forecast the eventual future of the Horn of Africa, or of - the world?

In the Autumn of 1943, as mentioned, I went on leave to Egypt and Palestine. I returned towards the end of the year, when a new chapter of my Ethiopian story was destined soon to begin.


On March 1st, 1944, I became an Ethiopian Government official, though of an unusual kind - as Private Instructor and Personal Counsellor of the Duke of Harar. Discussions and negotiations had gone on for a long time, and I had for some of that been a somewhat reluctant participant. My candidature had been supported by the British Council, and by the Emperor's Educational Adviser; there was Foreign Office approval, and it seemed that after a first audience (in which Ato Tafarra Worq acted as interpreter) my suitability and the expression of my views on subjects to be studied, games, and the importance of religion, adequately satisfied His Majesty. There were to be further delays, during which I had plenty of time to study a suggested programme and timetable produced by the Emperor, of which I fear we found ourselves largely unable to make much use; the day was to start something like this: 9.30 - 10.30 interviews with chieftains; 10.30 - 11 French dictation; and so on. Hoping I should not find myself in some unwelcome prison somewhere, I decided to set this aside and formulate a new programme which would both be feasible and better suit our needs and goals. I first met my charge on my arrival in Harar. It was Lent, and at tea to which the young man's guardian and private secretary had been summoned the potential oddities of the job began to reveal themselves. When the Prince indicated that some butter on the table had been sent down to Harar by the Empress, his guardian showed some uneasiness; and the young man was required to swear on the death of his father ('Haile Selassie yemut') that this was a vegetable and not an animal product. Although there could hardly have been anyone more devout or more observant of Coptic Church requirements than the Empress, one just had to be on the safe side; the details of the Lenten fast had to be observed.

Prince Makonnen was now aged eighteen. He had been at S. Christopher's prep. school in Bath, and then at Wellington; his English was racy rather than idiomatic, and a situation might be encountered by him with the comment 'crikey'. According to story, he had met his father's call from London on the eve of their secret return to Ethiopia with the response, 'I can't - I've got the School Certificate next week'. He was hardly an academically inclined student, however. He did his best with me; we met to investigate and discuss such subjects as World History, theory of government, French. To some extent, our meeting and talking, whatever the topic or topics, was part of the process if not of the programme. As will emerge, other lines of activity came to fill our days; not, I think, to the detriment of my pupil, who had many ideas for the improvement of his province and even country. My job had always been thought of as excluding political matters; in the event, this proved rather beyond practicality. It was (I presume) never thought originally likely that the world of commerce would be involved; but the young man had a marked interest in things mercantile.

I had a pleasant, clean, quiet bungalow to live in, and six servants, 'headed' by the faithful Zelleka, to run it. A series of cooks worked for me, one of whom was an excellent performer, but had the misfortune to succumb to V.D. Probably the best of the series of kitchen boys appeared to be suffering from malaria, dysentery, bilharzia, and a strained heart. The gardener, I noted, was Adam Lambsbreath to the life. The Prince came to me for tutorials, leaving in the garden his venerable guardian, Dejazmach Latibalu, who would return with him at the end of the morning to the Palace. On one occasion I was astonished to receive a visit late in the evening from this and the other Harar Dejazmach (roughly Lieutenant-General), the Vice-Governor of the Province, the purpose of which turned out to be to hand over to me a spelling list on which the Prince had been working.

There were plenty of interruptions to a steady uneventful work routine. The most important, and also the most time-consuming (apart from the numerous occasions on which my pupil was summoned to Addis Ababa for a variety of 'Imperial' reasons), was the visit of the Court. During these visits I had intimate audiences with the Emperor, with no third party present, and talked tête-a-tête with him (in French) about his favourite son. One such conversation was largely concerned with the Duke's proposal to create and maintain an independent army in his province - costing a vast sum and involving a good range of political problems. My version of this plan, couched in (I hope) passable French, may have entertained His Majesty - who may well have considered it of educational value - but was gently put on one side in due course.

Prince Makonnen was a slight, fairly immature figure. He always appeared before me in the uniform of a Major-General in his country's army, a wartime arrangement to which I easily grew accustomed. On one occasion, the Dejazmach not having re-appeared, he decided to walk back, a matter of fifteen minutes, to the Palace, and I decided I should accompany him; his casual appearance thus, an improbable Major-General with text-books under his arm, but still the Emperor's son, thoroughly alarmed the Palace guards - even when he was attended by his 'P.I. and P.C.' He was invariably courteous to me, often generous or thoughtful, and treated me with special deference on official occasions. However, his gift to me of a 'flock' of pigeons (originally a gift to him) for the bird-house in my garden may have had an element of parti pris about it, for from an original total of five they had risen to more than a hundred when I left. As already indicated, our association included, or developed into, concern for much besides tutorials. There were visits to us, and visits by us. We paid interesting calls on local schools and other institutions. Makonnen's own interest in education (other perhaps than his own) will be referred to again later. On one visit, incidentally, the son of Haile Selassie chanced to meet the son of the deposed Emperor Lij Iasu; were meaningful glances exchanged? We made a reconnaissance of a mica mine, the official or professional advice on which was that it was not likely to produce mica which would seriously rival that from India. This did not surprise me, as the Italians had done a sizable amount of prospecting and testing during their five years' occupation of the country. There came to us the delegation headed by Earl De La Warr, concerned with the renewal of the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty. Among others who visited us was the Soviet Ambassador, who presented the Duke with a volume of Pushkin, a natural choice in view of his distant Ethiopian forebears. In the presence of the Russians, the Prince and I - somewhat rashly - discussed in Amharic the question of expenses in connection with the visit; our talk was sotto voce but probably audible. On another occasion money was raised under the banner of 'Wings for Victory' as a contribution to the War effort. I also entertained, to a rather splendid tea (almost Ritz-like), and in the absence of the Duke, the Commander-in-Chief of our forces in East Africa, Sir Kenneth Anderson, together with his wife and a small military entourage. I recall too the pleasure gained from meeting Archbishop David Mathew (later to become Co-adjutor at Westminster) who preached (in French) to his Catholic flock in the local Church; we walked in the Old City of Harar, the Bishop acknowledging numbers of his co-religionists with expert professional blessings.

The two brothers, Crown Prince and Duke of Harar, seemed to be on excellent terms, though they met infrequently. There was certainly no sense of rivalry; it was of course, well known, or firmly believed, that Makonnen was very much his father's favourite. To my surprise, they had personal names of which I knew nothing before I joined the latter - respectively David and John. In fact the Duke always signed his letter to me in Western fashion: J. Makonnen. They admired and were in awe of their father. Their movements were, I have no doubt, well monitored on his Majesty's behalf. On at least one occasion they climbed out of the Palace in Addis Ababa, and returned without discovery. Of the third son, Sahle Selassie, I heard little or nothing; he was of course much younger - born in 1931.

Two ideas of Prince Makonnen came to actual and visible fruition. The Harar and Province Club was started to provide social and recreational facilities for any who chose to join. A library, small to begin with - with some thirteen hundred volumes - was intended to be an important element. Makonnen showed a certain adeptness at table-tennis.

A more ambitious - because more complex and 'personal' plan - was the founding of a girls' school. For much of the professional detail necessary to get this started, and for which my advice was sought, I secured the assistance, and counsel, of Lydia Joss from Addis Ababa. Two joint Headmistresses were decided upon and chosen. They were hardly an obvious team; one, of considerable ability and serious intent, described herself as a Norfolk dumpling; the other, also reasonably efficient, was an Irish woman with some modest addiction to the bottle. Initial optimism was justified even when it seemed likely that we should open without desks, and even when, a little later on, the possibility of a spread of an epidemic of head-lice occasioned a ducal edict that all the girls should have their head shaved. The general success of the School - Yeshimabet Tamaribet - was such that the Duke decided that he would like to follow it with a boys' school, on similar English-derived lines. It seemed sensible to let this project remain for a while an idea and ideal. After some months, the Girls' School was handed over to the Ministry of Education.

My relations with Prince Makonnen had quite quickly become natural and free. I cannot say how closely my life and work were observed and reported upon. It must have been obvious that I had a number of contacts with British officialdom in one form or another. I formed the habit of spending one evening a week in Diredawa with David Daniels, the C.O. of British troops in the area; as far as I could tell, this occasioned no perturbation in official Ethiopian ranks, though I have no doubt it was known of and assessed. There was a sense in which life had a certain dream-like quality about it, enhanced perhaps by the Duke's frequent absences. When he was in residence, we were naturally always in touch, and my advice was sought for many official acts or responses. Thus at the death of President Roosevelt, the Prince at my promoting brought the Palace flag to half-mast and closed all public offices. Even this sort of 'interference' on my part did not seem to upset either the Vice-Governor or Director General, or the town Mayor. With the Vice-Governor indeed, in the absence of the Prince, I planned our programme for V.E. Day; and I often helped by interpreting at interviews with British officers or officials, again in the absence of the Prince. I came to know and like the Vice-Governor, with whom I conversed only in Amharic; with him and with a good friend in the B.M.M.E., Colonel Laurence Athill, I celebrated the Ethiopian Easter of 1945, kissing Cross and Book in the course of the midnight Mass which lasted from 11.15 p.m. to 2.15 a.m.

Soon after V.E. Day, as I recall, the Prince was back in Harar. Quite simple things are yet worth mentioning; some at least were of value, and appreciated, in this unusual city - at the time (before the addition of Eritrea and therefore of Asmara to the total imperial territory) the second city of the Empire. One such occasion was the showing to schoolchildren of a number of educational or entertaining films by the Duke. One film at least was presented with only fair success by the amateur projectionist, for it ended with what should have been its first reel, upside down; none the less, I was met the next day by a half-Ethiopian priest - who had been at the show - with the remark, 'C'était une merveille, j'y pense encore!' The days were not without some more unusual happenings; visits from the 'hyena man' who certainly showed an extraordinary control over his attendant pack; a meeting with a lugubrious Director-General, my near neighbour, whose little dog had been eaten - by a leopard or lion. Very soon after my arrival, the Duke had decided to send a convoy into Italian Somaliland for miscellaneous supplies - despite my warning that entering what was for Britain Occupied Enemy Territory could only be done with safety if due attention was paid to proper authorisation. The personnel, headed by his own Major-domo, were of course detained on entry; a warakat, as official as I could make it, which they took with them, helped to secure their early release. On a later occasion, we ourselves went, in full panoply, by way of Jigjiga to Fik in the Ethiopian Ogaden and near the Italian Somaliland border. I thus saw more of the countryside and scenery of this extraordinary country, this time including those areas of desert and semi desert, with camel-thorn and water-holes, which have long been the homeland, or home stretches, of the nomadic Somalis and their herds and flocks. We returned in good order past a number of guard-posts and road blocks, where the guards had been unable to salute the Prince as they missed seeing that he passed them at the wheel of a vast quattrocento lorry.

It would be inexact to suggest, by omission, that my relations with Makonnen were invariably perfect; but friction or disagreement was never lasting. Some of his activities were indeed to my mind less admirable. I rather deplored his friendship with Monsieur and Madame Idot in Diredawa, though even here he owed this well-known French couple - he was a general 'entrepreneur' - many kind acts and much generosity. Readers of Evelyn Waugh will recall his description of the Idots a few years before: the phrase 'a small cad Frenchman' comes to mind.

There were very few British in Harar; I think six to ten, including myself, at my time of residence. A police officer, whom I came to know well; two White Fathers at a Catholic seminary; our two Headmistresses; to these were added in due course the staff of a British Council 'mission'; who - with my help - surmounted a fair number of problems (some of them self-induced). The British Consulate was eventually re-opened. There were one or two missionaries, British and Swedish. To the general foreign total should be added larger numbers of Italians, Greeks, and Armenians.

There were times when my position and status proved useful. An English nurse, caring for a sick grandson of the Emperor vainly seeking recovery in Harar, was visited by her boy-friend (a member of our F.A.U.), who drove his car without any authorisation into the grounds of the Palace; a guard thrust his bayonet through the radiator, and the two young people spent the night in prison - from which I was able to rescue them the next day.

The time came when my future needed to be considered, with the likelihood that some continuation of the Ethiopian job would be suggested. As in many other connections, there were delays and postponements. In the end, it was clear that His Majesty wanted me to continue; and this was very much the desire of his son. I had however by now come to feel that for all its possible importance, and despite its obvious satisfaction, it was not likely to lead to a continued career or to adequate employment of such abilities, experience, and interests as I had accumulated over past years.

(In fact, I was after my return to the U.K. invited to consider a tutorial job with the young King Feisal of Iraq, then aged twelve. But after that? I could think only of the two-year old King Simeon of Bulgaria; and the idea came to an end).

I had a last, somewhat saddening, talk with Prince Makonnen. Before saying goodbye, he gave me a leaving present of natural Ethiopian gold, which he produced from his pocket. Almost his last remark was a request: 'Please ask Mr. Attlee to let us have back the reserved areas.' I suppose I promised to do my best.


I have visited Ethiopia twice since my departure in 1945; first, in 1947, as the Prince's guest, when my return to employment there was once again sought. I was saddened to have to decline the invitation. On the second occasion, after Makonnen's death in a car accident in 1957, I attended an International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, during which I had a brief but poignant meeting with the Emperor. We had also met when he and Makonnen had come to England for the former's State Visit; I then saw him in Buckingham Palace just before the State Banquet, radiantly happy and wearing the sash of the Garter, which I knew meant very much to him. The Duke had been appointed G.C.V.O.; perhaps without occasioning much surprise, he asked me to vet a speech which he was due to make at Guildhall the next day. I am not sure if he ever made the speech.

The Emperor's Garter banner was laid up in 1975 in Saint George's Chapel, Windsor; he had died, or been murdered, the previous year. I there met Prince Philip, Makonnen's third son, who had been at Kingswood in my time, and therefore partly in my care. He now lives in Canada. The Crown Prince, who moved house a few years ago from London to the U.S.A., has now died.

Throughout this Ethiopian story of mine, the person of the Emperor has never been out of mind. No-one is perfect, and those fated to govern countries and people cannot do so in secret and unseen. Haile Selassie had limitations which were not concealed. But I regard him as having been one of the world's great men; certainly in his own sphere and in a most poor country, held back from proper development by five years of colonial rule by Italy. He came to a sad end; no doubt he should have given up some time before the revolution of 1974; but to whom? In history he has a secure place; and my memories of his country, his family, and the man himself I shall always value and treasure.

John Gardner,
September, 1992.

First published as an Occasional Paper in 1998

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