Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

The Secret of Abyssinia and its Lesson

 

The fate of Abyssinia is now in the melting-pot. The outlook for her is exceedingly gloomy. But whatever happens in that part of Africa, the lesson of Abyssinia will remain as a legacy for humanity.

What is that Lesson?

It is this that in the 20th century a nation can hope to be free only if it is strong, from a physical and military point of view, and is able to acquire all the knowledge which modern science can impart. The Orient has succumbed bit by bit to the physical encroach-ment of the Occident, because it has wrapped itself up in self-complacency and lived in divine (?) contentment for some centuries and because it has refused to keep abreast of the march of human and scientific progress, especially in the art of warfare. India and Burma, along with other Oriental countries, have suffered for this reason. Countries like Japan, Turkey and Persia are still alive because they were able to modernize themselves in time.
Like the rest of the Orient, Japan too, at one time, wanted to live in peaceful isolation. But the booming of American cannon burst upon her ears as a mighty challenge. She would either have to enter the arena of world-economics and world-politics as a strong and modernized nation or go down before the West. She chose the former alternative, bestirred herself in time and during the space of 50 years, emerged as a strong and modernized nation. By the time that a serious challenge to her independent existence came from a Western power, she was prepared. And her timely preparation saved her. In this hard world, only the fittest can survive.

Abyssinia is not a new problem. During the latter half of the 19th century, the imperialist nations of Europe-Britain, France and Italy-began to cast their eyes on her. All of them tried to grab that potentially rich country-but were baffled not only by the brave and warlike inhabitants but also by the mountainous and impassable nature of the country. One cannot forget the abortive military exploits of Lord Napier of Magdala in Abyssinia (Magdala is situated in the heart of Abyssinia) or the overthrow of Emperor Theodore by the British in 1868. Failing to partition Abyssinia among themselves-as the rest of Africa had been partitioned-they took possession of all the surrounding tracts, cutting off Abyssinia from the sea. Thus a reference to the map will show that Abyssinia is surrounded by Sudan (British), Kenya (British), Italian Somali-land, British Somaliland, French Somaliland and Eritrea (Italian). The liberation and unification of Italy took place in 1861- rather late in the day-while the unification of Germany took place in 1870. By that time the available colonial world had been practically divided up by the other imperialist European powers. Hence we find that among the imperialist have-nots, are Italy and Germany. Germany, under Bismarck, looked forward to some ter-ritories in south-west Africa-while Italy cast her eyes on Abyssinia and her surroundings.
Italian penetration of Africa began in the eighties of the last century, when Abyssinia was not unified. The Northern part was ruled over by Emperor John and the Southern part by Emperor Menelik, while some other parts were virtually independent. The population of Abyssinia at that time was anything but homogeneous, either from the ethnic or from the religious point of view. The death of Emperor John in 1889 during a war with the Dervish rebels, paved the way for the unification of Abyssinia under Emperor Menelik. Menelik who was crowned as 'Negus Nagast' (King of Kings) was great as a soldier and as a statesman. Under his leadership the great fight with the Italians took place, culminating in the complete annihilation of the Italian forces at Adowa in 1896. Since then Adowa has been remembered by the Italians as a defeat which has to be avenged.
Since 1896, Abyssinia has had a respite for nearly 40 years. If she had been able to strengthen and modernize her people within this period-as the Japanese did-then she would probably have survived. But she has unfortunately failed to do so and hence she o is doomed. The fault does not lie with the supreme rulers of Abyssinia, who have been patriotic, able and statesmanlike, but with the population. The present Emperor, for example, has shown proofs of wonderful diplomacy and statesmanship throughout the present crisis-such as one would expect in a first-class British politician. But dynastic and tribal jealousies unfortunately exist (the desertion of the Emperor's son-in-law, who is a descendant of Emperor John, to the Italians which was announced in the press on the 12th October, is an example of dynastic jealousy). The people are mostly illiterate and slavery still exists as an institution. Last but not least, the glorious victory of Adowa has lulled the brave Abyssinians into a false sense of security. This sense of security will prove to be their ruin on the field of battle where they will realize only too late that the Italians of 1935 are not the Italians of 1896 and that the art of warfare has advanced with rapid strides since they overthrew the Italians at Adowa.

Having failed to subjugate Abyssinia by force of arms, the imperialist powers commenced diplomatic intrigue from the beginning of this century. The story is told by New Leader of London in its issue of the 23rd August, 1935. (To annotate this story I shall only add that Abyssinia was admitted into the League of Nations in September, 1923, in spite of the objection of the British Government).

Partition Planned

'Before this Britain had recognized Abyssinia as an Italian "sphere of influence," but the defeat of Italy was seized by Britain as an opportunity to stake her own claim. In 1906, the three Imperialist Powers-Britain, France and Italy-signed a Treaty which fore-shadowed die partition of Abyssinia between them. The Treaty contained the usual hypocritical formula about guaranteeing the integrity of Abyssinia, but, in fact, gave Britain the right to regulate the head waters of the Nile, made Italy paramount in Western Abyssinia, and put France in authority over her railway zone.'

Buying out Italy

The next stage in this story of Imperialist robbery came with the beginning of the World War. By Treaty Italy was allied with Germany and Austria, but France and Britain bought her off. They signed a secret Treaty under which Italian Imperialism was promised that the frontiers of her East African colonies should be extended at the expense of Abyssinia.
After the war Britain wanted to make sure of her control of the Nile by building a barrage in Lake Tsana. Italy offered to support this claim if Britain in return would recognize Italy's exclusive economic influence in Western Abyssinia. But Britain turned the offer down. She was afraid of antagonizing France and believed that she was powerful enough to win through without Italian support. She self-righteously told Italy that the claim to exclusive Italian influence would be a violation of die Treaty of 1906 which had acknowledged the integrity of Abyssinia!

Six years later the position changed. The Abyssinian Government had resisted Britain's demands, and die British Government wanted Italian support. Britain forgot all about the promise to
maintain the integrity of Abyssinia in the Treaty of 1906. She forgot all about her righteous indignation in 1919. She agreed to recognize Italy's claim to the whole of Western Abyssinia as a 'sphere of influence'!
Then an unexpected rebuff took place. The Abyssinian Government rejected the arrangement between Britain and Italy, and threatened to expose this Imperialist design before the League . . .
Baffled, Britain tried new tactics. It offered Abyssinia the bribe of a corridor of 600 square miles of territory through British Somaliland to the coast. The British Government was so sure that this offer would be accepted that maps were published in 1926 marking the Port of Zelia as in Abyssinian territory! To the surprise of the British Imperialists the Abyssinians rejected the offer. They were not to be bribed out of their independence.

To continue the story, in 1928, Italy and Abyssinia entered into a treaty of friendship providing for arbitration in all disputes for a period of 20 years. A further agreement was signed at the same time whereby Abyssinia was granted a free zone at the port of Assab in Italian Eritrea. It is clear that up to this time the two countries were friendly to each other. Thereafter, a sudden change took place in the foreign policy of Abyssinia. As technical experts, political advisers and military officers, nationals of other European countries, like Belgium, France, Britain and Sweden were brought in and Italians were carefully excluded. When the year 1934 opened, Italian influence on the Abyssinian Government was practically nothing while British influence was in the ascendant. Moreover, it was talked about that the British government had come to a separate and secret understanding with the Abyssinian Government with regard to the waters of Lake Tsana, without the knowledge or support of Italy. As a countermove, Mussolini came to an understanding with the Abyssinian Government with Laval and the Franco-Italian Pact was signed which gave Italy a free hand in Abyssinia.

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