Ethiopia and Its Problems
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 10 Oct 1935, p. 42-55
Mercer, Rev. Dr. S.A.B., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
An address in three parts: Ethiopia, her people, her history and civilization; Italy's relations with Ethiopia; present problems in Ethiopia. Clearing up misunderstandings in people's minds about Ethiopia. Clarification of the name Ethiopia. A physical description of the county. Population statistics. The civilization of Ethiopia which is one of the most ancient in the world. History going back to as early as 1,000 B.C. if not earlier. Major historical events and transformations. Correcting another misconception with regard to the present ruler of Ethiopia. A brief review of Italy's history and how she first came into touch with Ethiopia about 1868 or 1869. Treaties between Italy and Ethiopia. Events that led to the current problems between Italy and Ethiopia. Mussolini's intentions and justifications for his actions. What The League of Nations said and did. Interest in the conflict by Great Britain and by France. The question of the control of the Suez Canal and the treaties governing that control. The legal situation as rendered by the French Jurists. Efforts made to avoid war. What the speaker's speculates might happen. The difficulty at the present time to know how or when the present conflict will be ended.
Date of Original
10 Oct 1935
Language of Item
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Thursday, October 10th, 1935

PRESIDENT BRACE: We have been learning something during the past few weeks with respect to a so-called Ethiopian gentleman by the name of Joe Louis, a pugilist residing in Detroit. Likewise, the majority of us have had more than a speaking acquaintance with other gentle-men who at times are referred to as Ethiopians who follow the practice of brushing our shoes at night, brushing our coat with one hand in the morning, with the other hand held out in a rather peculiar manner, but the average citizen has had very little knowledge of the true Ethiopian or of the Ethiopian country. It hasn't been a subject of much concern to us Canadians until the last few months and what little we know of that country and of those people we have read in the press, particularly during the last few weeks. In that country today, events are proceeding which may lead to very serious situations throughout the Western civilized world. Conditions are being carried out, things are being done which we, as Anglo-Saxons feel should not be done. It would seem as though Italy has been going ahead doing those things today that were done by Germany when Germany passed through Belgium in 1914. Naturally, the sympathy of the Anglo-Saxon is with the under dog. We are all anxious for more enlightenment; we all want to know more about this country and about its peoples.

Toronto is indeed fortunate in having as one of its permanent residents, Dr. Mercer, Professor of Egyptology in Trinity College. Dr. Mercer is a world known student of Ethiopia and its people. He is an outstanding scholar and an authority on these matters. I was talking to him a few moments ago with respect to his education. I referred to the fact that he received degrees from Harvard, Wisconsin, Munich and Nashota, and he gave the names of some other colleges that I just didn't grasp, but his whale life has been associated with college work and his life endeavour has been particularly associated with those things which are in the foreign interests of Africa, the country, the things that are found there and its people.

Dr. Mercer has been decorated by France, by Belgium and by Ethiopia. His decoration, received from the King of Kings, entitles him to sit in the Councils of the Ethiopian Government.

I have much pleasure, indeed, in calling on Dr. Mercer. DR. MERCER: Mr. President, Gentlemen: Being neither a diplomat nor an expert in modern history, I want to warn you against taking any deductions or assumptions that I may make today in this address to you too seriously. But, being an Orientalist and knowing somewhat about Ethiopia, ancient and modern, I want to present to you today certain facts and in presenting them, I want to be as objective and as impartial as possibly can be.

Under these circumstances, I am going to do as Caesar did about Gaul; I am going to divide my subject into three parts: The first part will have to do with Ethiopia, her people, her history and civilization. The second part wilt have to do with Italy's relations with Ethiopia; and the third part with the present problem, if I may use problem, instead of problems, as in the announcement of the title.

There are certain misunderstandings in people's minds about Ethiopia. I shall want to clear up some of these as I go along and to begin with, I want to take the first and most fundamental, though not very important, misunderstanding about Ethiopia„ that is, her name. We English-speaking people speak of that country as Abyssinia. All English-speaking people speak of Abyssinia. So do the Germans, so do some other nations on the European Continent. The official name is Ethiopia, the name always used by France, Italy and other European nations. The original name of the country was Cush. That is found in the Egyptian inscriptions and in the Old Testament. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the Greeks used the word (Aithiopia.) The term, Abyssinia, did not come into use until the Middle Ages when Ethiopia was harassed by the Mahommedans and the Mahommedans looking down upon them, called the mixed people the Habesh or Habeshim. Hence, the English name, Abyssinia. But the official name is Ethiopia. I may use the name Abyssinia, I am so accustomed to it, although the official name is Ethiopia. Ethiopia is in the eastern part of Africa, about 150 miles north of the Equator, a country covering about 350,000 square miles. Ethiopia is about as large as France and Germany put together. It is surrounded on all sides by foreign territory. On the north by Eritrea; on the east by French Somaliland and by British Somaliland; on the south by Italian Somaliland, and by Kenya Colony; and on the west and northwest by the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

One might divide the country into three kinds of strata. In the north, mountainous country, in the south mostly desert country, and in the centre, a great strip of volcanic country that stretches from one side of the country to the other and ranges about forty-five miles wide from north to south.

The population of Ethiopia has never been estimated scientifically. We think of the population as somewhere between about 10 and 15 millions, of which about 80 percent are Christian, the bulk of the population and the ruling class being not Negroid - that is another misconception - but being Semetic, coming originally from South Arabia. The language is a South Arabian language, the script is South Arabian script, and the culture is a South Arabian culture. But beside the ruling class and the body of the people there are millions of African tribes belonging to Ethiopia, such as the Gallas, Gouraghi, Dankali, Somali, etc.

The Ethiopian is one of the most ancient civilizations in the world. It is the oldest Empire extant today. It has a civilization going back to as early as 1,000 B.C. if not earlier. According to later traditions, the Queen of Sheba, who married Solomon, had a son by him called Menelik. Menelik was the first king of Ethiopia, but that tradition doesn't tell us how the South Arabians got across the Red Sea into Africa. But they got across there and we know that by 700 B.C. they were already there, which was about 300 years after, and which indicates that they might have been in Africa before 1,000 B.C. By 700 B.C. they were powerful enough and strong enough with sufficient energy to conquer the mighty Empire of Egypt and there in Egypt to set up a special dynasty of their own, a dynasty which lasted over fifty years.

After the fall of Jerusalem when the Hebrews or the Jews were scattered into different parts of the world, some of these Jews, for they were called Jews then, made their way up into Egypt. Some settled on the Isle of Elephantine. Others went further south into Africa and settled in the country we now know as Ethiopia and for many years were very important and very numerous. Until about the seventh century, A.D. very little was known of them. They dwindled in numbers until about eighty years ago a German scholar travelling in Ethiopia discovered the black Jews, the Jews in the north-west part of Abyssinia, and they thought they were the only Jews left in the world. They didn't know about the Jews in New York and in Toronto.

Abyssinia, in the third century, had become Christian and it seemed to have taken to it very rapidly because before very long the bulk of the population was Christian. At the present time, about eighty per cent of the population is Christian.

Their greatest trial came in the Middle Ages in conflict with the other Christians who looked upon the Ethiopians as heretics because of their emphasis on the divine nature of our Lord, and because of the fact that they were shut in from the rest of the world about the end of the eleventh century, A.D. Up to then they marched shoulder to shoulder with European civilization At that time, being cut off from the rest of the world, their civilization stopped in its development, so that the civilization we meet with in Ethiopia is not a negroid civilization. It is similar to European civilizaton of about the eleventh century A.D., the form of government being Feudalism.

Very little was heard about Ethiopia with the exception of the Portuguese missions, until Europeans began to search for the source of the Nile and among the most important of these was an Englishman by the name of James Bruce who in the beginning of the seventeenth century went to Africa to search for the source of the Nile. He made his way up the Nile to Lake Tsana and there came in touch with Ethiopian civilization; but the event which really opened up Ethiopia to Egypt was the Battle of Magdala, the result of a dispute between England and Ethiopia in. 1868, in which the Ethiopians were defeated and the English brought home to the British museum thousands of manuscripts which is important to me and which I always connect with the Battle of Magdala as being the most important aspect of that event.

At any rate, in other respects, the most important event in connection with that battle was that it opened up Ethiopia to Europe. From 1868 until the present day events went pretty rapidly in Ethiopia, the most important ruler during that period being the great Menelik, the Second, who succeeded in unifying his people and in creating a real empire.

I want to correct another misconception in connection with the history of Ethiopia and that has to do with the present ruler. I read in places and people ask me about the present Emperor of Abyssinia insinuating that he is a usurper. When Menelik died he had two daughters. Before his death, knowing that he had but two daughters and no sons, he advised that his successor should be his grandson, the son of one of his daughters. In 1903, Lej Yasu, Menelik's grandson came to the throne and for three years led such a life of debauchery, left the religion of his fathers and the majority of his people, joined the Mahommedan religion, demonstrated such a character of uselessness in his country, that the nation demanded his deposition and in 1916 he was deposed.

Now when Lej Yasu was deposed, it was decided that one of the daughters of the old Menelik reign, and that Ras Tafari Makonnen, Governor of Harrer, should be made Regent and heir apparent.

Now, he came legitimately to his position. He was Regent in 1916. He continued to bring Ethiopia before the world and to carry out reforms and by 1928 he had been so successful in his own country that the people of Ethiopia demanded that he be crowned king. So, in 1928 he was crowned king while the daughter of Menelik, Zauditu, was still sitting on the throne as Empress. In 1930 she died and Ras Tafari Makonnen became Haile Selassie, the First, founding a new dynasty but at the same time the great nephew of Menelik, the Second. There is nothing in the nature of usurpership in connection with Haile Selassie, the First. He is the legitimate Emperor of Ethiopia.

There is no need of telling you anything about Italy. The history of Italy and its contribution to civilization are too well known. Italy, the heir of the great Roman Empire, the last of the empires of the ancient world is know to all men as the home of art and science and music and literature and everything that is fine. And she kept her place among the nations of the world pretty well until about a hundred years before the Great War, when on account of conditions not controllable by herself she was relegated to, I suppose, a second rate power. Then came the Great War and Italy's magnificent contribution to that struggle and the way she manfully in 1915 took her part.

Then came years of confusion, especially political confusion, after the war. Two great parties were arising in Italy, the Communists and the Facists fighting one against the other until finally in 1922, the march on Rome and the establishment of the leader of the Facists, Mussolini in Rome as the dictator of that country.

Now, if there is one argument for dictatorship which is almost unanswerable, it is what Mussolini has done for Italy. We all remember (who went to Italy before the Great War) and know what Italy was. Italy was a land of art, a land of music, a land of dirt, and of beggars, and in a few years after Mussolini came into power there were no more beggars and dirt in Italy. Anyone who has travelled in Italy in the last few years can see what a wonderful transformation he has made in, that wonderful country, how efficient, how up to date, how clean, how magnificent is that country of the Caesars.

And so his work went on until today. Now, Italy came first into touch with Ethiopia about 1868 or '69, right after the Battle of Magdala. In 1870, a group of Italian merchants bought some land on the southern end of the western side of the Red Sea and there established a trading post. By 1888 that post had become so important and they had added so much land to it that the Italian Government bought it and so began the establishment of the Colony of Eritrea. Shortly after that the great Menelik came to the throne and in his attempt to unify Ethiopia and the Italian attempt to penetrate further and further into this country, friction arose between the two parties until the Treaty of Uccialli was formed in 1889 in which the Italians believed that Menelik gave them a protectorate over their country.

Now, the difference arises in the wording between the two versions of the treaty, one in Amharic, and one in Italian. I have never seen the one in Italian but with a friend I examined the one in Amharic about two months ago. So far as we could see there is no word in the Amharic version which indicated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Menelik gave Italy a protectorate over his country and Menelik, the Second, wasn't the kind of man to do that. So, four years after, in 1892, he repudiated that treaty. Then the differences multiplied between these two hands until in 1896 when things got so bad that the two powers found themselves at war at Aduwa (that you have been reading and hearing about) in the northeastern, part of the country and there were gathered together 14,500 Italians and 100,000 Ethiopians and of course the Italians were defeated. The Italians never forgot Aduwa and the other day they are supposed to have avenged themselves in the taking of that town.

The next important event after that which has to do with Italy and Ethiopia was in 1902 when Italy, Ethiopia, France and Great Britain, the next interested powers, got together in order to establish the frontiers. There were a series of treaties, ten of them, culminating in 1902 in the establishment of the boundary line between these different countries. In 1906 the same three European countries came together and established spheres of influence in Ethiopia with the consent of the Ethiopian Government.

In 1923, Ethiopia was accepted as a member of the League of Nations - I will have a word to say about that League of Nations business in a few minutes time - and in 1928 Italy and Ethiopia made an agreement, signed a treaty of perpetual friendship in which one of the important clauses was that in the future all matters of dispute should be settled by arbitration. That was in 1928.

Now we come to the issue. Mussolini was successful in Italy. No man has been more successful in any great undertaking than he, and with the passage of time Mussolini had developed what, I suppose, we might call, not unfriendly at all, really a Caesar complex. All, his phraseology, all the symbols used in his regime look back to the Roman Empire and in his own words, what he wanted, to establish again, bring to life again, was a great Roman Empire. That was his purpose.

Now, he looks about to see where or how that Empire could be established, and believing that at one time Italy had a protectorate over Ethiopia, Ethiopia was a natural country to look to. The question of moral right or wrong didn't concern Mussolini. Of course, he had no moral right at all. Ethiopia was a member of the League of Nations, an independent country, but Mussolini wanted to establish a Roman Empire.

Now, here is another misconception. There was a certain; amount of dissatisfaction on the part of Italy after the War, that she didn't get her share of the spoils of the Great War. That is entirely a misconception because there is a little state paper here which contains information that proves - I haven't time to read it - that since the War, Italy received from the Allied Nations in Africa, Great Britain and France especially, areas to the extent of about 200,000' square kilometers. The whole land of Jubaland was given by Great Britain to Italy. In the south of Libya and the east of Libya, regions there were signed to Italy by France and Great Britain. Great Britain; signed other portions of Eastern Libya on the border of Egypt to France and a section between Eritrea and French Somaliland was ceded to Italy by France. So Italy received, in contradiction to the general opinion that she received nothing after the War, land to the extent of about 200,000 square kilometers.

Now, in order to justify himself, Mussolini said, "What we need in order to build up this Roman Empire is a place to expand in, a place to colonize in, some place where the Italians can have work," and people seem to forget that already Italy has in Africa about a million square miles of territory, nine times as large as Italy itself and three times as large as Abyssinia, undeveloped, unexploited, with practically no Italians in it. It is not all sand land. It is the same kind of territory as Abyssinia. It is on the south and on the north of mineral wealth. There is oil and places where cotton can be grown, etc., etc. So the argument that they needed a place to expand in was rather an excuse. If Germany said that today they would have some reason. Italy has really no reason.

So he saw that the world didn't take that seriously. The next point was that Ethiopia was committing acts of aggression. Well, there are acts of aggression going on all the time on the borders of such countries as the countries in Africa where people do not know exactly where the border lies and the point Mussolini now emphasized was the trouble that arose last December in Wal Wal. He said, "At Wal Wal, Ethiopia committed an act of aggression on us."

Now, in that conflict last December, 70 Italians were killed and 300 Abyssinians were killed. Now, one would have thought that Italy might have been satisfied with that. Only 70 Italians and 300 Abyssinians. But they were not. Mussolini wanted to use that as a good point. He said, "Now, we will. prove that Abyssinia is the aggressor." The League of Nations said, "All right. We will try that," and they appointed a committee, after three or four months had gone by. In June they appointed a Committee and that Committee said, "Naturally, the first thing we have to do is to establish where Wal Wal is. If Wal Wal is in Ethiopia, the Italian soldiers had no business over there. If Wal Wal is in Italian Somaliland, then the Ethiopians had no business there."

Do you know what Mussolini did? He said, "We won't discuss that question," and everybody knows that Wal Wal is at least sixty miles within the Abyssinian boundary. Well, the League, as always, was easy and nice. The League says, "We can't do anything but be nice to you, so as not to drive you out of the League.

We will discuss the question of the aggressor. Who was the aggressor at Wal Wal?" They appointed an extra man, a wily Greek and he came to the conclusion that no one was the aggressor, so of course there was and argument there at all.

Now, Mussolini said, "All right. Abyssinia is a savage country and shouldn't belong to the League of Nations anyhow." That was the next argument. Now, how foolish is that, because Italy was the very country that insisted that Abyssinia be accepted as a member of the League of Nations and England headed the other party in the League of Nations against Ethiopia being accepted as a member of the League of Nations. He said, "Will you please sanction war with Ethiopia?" But that is against the agreement of the Kellog Pact, that one member of the League of Nations should not make war on another member of the League of Nations.

So that is the way he stood. Now, really what Mussolini counted upon was the League. He counted upon the League being the League, as it always had been the League-talking and doing nothing. He thought by the time the League finished talking he would be through with Ethiopia, but he counted without taking into consideration others interested in the situation at this time. The other nation interested in this problem is Great Britain. Now, undoubtedly, Great Britain had selfish reasons. No doubt she did. All nations are selfish, as individuals are selfish and always will be selfish. Great Britain was interested naturally in the sources of the Nile. She was interested in the way to India. She was interested in the question of Egypt and many other questions, but it was so evident to England that here was a clear cut question of right and wrong, of moral right and wrong, of Ethiopia having done no offence, not desiring war and the other country desiring to conquer this country, that she began to do her best to get Italy to try to consider this thing with reason and see what they could give to pacify Mussolini. She was willing to give him another strip of British Somaliland. Mussolini turned that down. He said, "I am not collecting deserts." So nothing was done there.

Well, now Great Britain began to talk about sanctions. She said if we can't do anything we may have to apply sanctions and immediately you remember the storm of protest and abuse of England in the Italian press, "If England wants war she can have it." So things looked rather serious for Great Britain. Not only was there a storm of protest, but Mussolini being a man of action as well as words sent 30,000 troops to Eastern Libya on the border of Egypt. Well, immediately Great Britain sent the fleet out to the Mediterranean. That rather worried Mussolini for a short time. He began immediately to enquire, "Why is the fleet there?" Great Britain said, "The fleet is here not to impose or enforce any sanctions; the fleet is here for defensive purposes and there will be no enforcement of sanctions by Great Britain alone. Such enforcement of sanctions must be collective by all members of the League," Mussolini was assured. Mussolini's position was that if military sanctions weren't applied he could get along with the other things.

Now, the next country interested in this problem is France and one has the greatest sympathy for France. France was certainly in a very difficult position. She was, I suppose, between "Scylla and Charybdis," or, as we would say, "between the devil and the great deep, blue sea." I am not going to indicate which I think was one or the other. At any rate, there she is, and she signed a treaty of friendship with Italy in January of this year. She is particularly frightened of what may happen in Central Europe, not knowing what to do, undecided as to whether she can back up Great Britain or not.

Now, at that stage of the game Mussolini said, "All right." He changed his whole reason. He said, "We are defending our African colonies. We would never think of aggression. We have only 400,000 men in our army. They have 800,000 in theirs. We would never think of committing an act of aggression out there." He said that in so many words. So he said, "All right. We are attacked. We are oppressed out there and we must defend our colonies. Now, so far as economic and financial sanctions are concerned, we are not worrying about them at the present time and unless more than one member of the League of Nations applies military sanctions, then we shan't worry about that because military sanctions by one member of the League (and of course he had one particular member in mind) means war with Italy." So the thing went.

There is another question I ought to refer to before stopping. That is the question of the control of the Suez Canal. There are two treaties that have governed the control of the Suez Canal, the one of 1888 and the other of 1904. According to these treaties the Suez Canal is open to vessels of all kinds, merchant or warships during times of war or peace, with one exception and that is not brought out clearly, and the exception is when there is no danger of aggression on the nation through whose territory the Suez Canal goes.

Now, then, because of that the Suez Canal has been closed three times in its history. Once was during the Great War when on account of the British fleet at both ends of the Suez Canal, no one could get through without her permission.

Now, the legal situation, as you saw by the papers the other day, rendered by the French jurists is that the canal is to be open always during peace or war, but that nation which controls the entrance outside the limits that would be taken into consideration in a legal blockade is the nation who will close the canal and in case of war - I hope it doesn't come-between Great Britain and Italy, Great Britain would control or would try to control the entrance to both ends of the canal.

Now, what efforts have been made to avoid war? We know the efforts that have been made to avoid the outbreak of war and we know the thesis that was France's from the beginning. One of the reasons why France didn't enthuse more than she did about the different methods suggested for bringing about a cessation of hostilities was that she believed the best thing to do was to allow the war to begin and then let the nations get together and talk. Now, I suppose there probably would be two or three ways in which the war may be brought to an end, now it has started. One of those had to do with the French thesis. That is, as soon as Mussolini thinks his victories are important enough and numerous enough to justify his expense and to satisfy Italy's pride, he will undoubtedly be willing to talk terms of peace. Otherwise the war will go on until Abyssinia is undoubtedly conquered.

In the third place, if two or more members of the League consent to apply military sanctions, Italy could be stopped, but it is very questionable as to whether any more than one member of the League of Nations would be willing to apply military sanctions, so it is hard to tell at the present time in which way or when the present conflict will be ended. (Applause.)

PRESIDENT BRACE: In a period of forty minutes, I think most of us have learned more about Ethiopia and the peoples of that country that we have learned during the previous period of our lifetime. Dr. Mercer has given to us today a story which we all, I am sure, are glad to have. He has dealt with a subject that is very live and I am sure I am expressing on your behalf our hearty appreciation for his message to us today.

Powered by / Alimenté par VITA Toolkit

My favourites lets you save items you like, tag them and group them into collections for your own personal use. Viewing "My favourites" will open in a new tab. Login here or start a My favourites account.


Ethiopia and Its Problems

An address in three parts: Ethiopia, her people, her history and civilization; Italy's relations with Ethiopia; present problems in Ethiopia. Clearing up misunderstandings in people's minds about Ethiopia. Clarification of the name Ethiopia. A physical description of the county. Population statistics. The civilization of Ethiopia which is one of the most ancient in the world. History going back to as early as 1,000 B.C. if not earlier. Major historical events and transformations. Correcting another misconception with regard to the present ruler of Ethiopia. A brief review of Italy's history and how she first came into touch with Ethiopia about 1868 or 1869. Treaties between Italy and Ethiopia. Events that led to the current problems between Italy and Ethiopia. Mussolini's intentions and justifications for his actions. What The League of Nations said and did. Interest in the conflict by Great Britain and by France. The question of the control of the Suez Canal and the treaties governing that control. The legal situation as rendered by the French Jurists. Efforts made to avoid war. What the speaker's speculates might happen. The difficulty at the present time to know how or when the present conflict will be ended.