One of the men who has long fascinated me, because he was a very interesting person with an even more interesting life was Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Click here for the first picture.
Probably the last of the great explorers that the British Empire produced, Thesiger's life is interesting not only for the places he explored and the events he witnessed, but also because of the lessons Thesiger drew. Thesiger understood that there was no stopping the course of history and technological progress. But he never made his peace with modernity; for him motorcar and aeroplane, and even more so poison gas and nuclear weapons, were epithets. He spent most of his life living with "backward" tribes in remote parts of the world; it was not until Parkinson's got the better of him that he left his dwellings in a remote part of Kenya to return to England.
Thesiger was born in one of the thatched-roof huts (click here for a picture) that then constituted the British legation in Addis Ababa, the capital of what was then Abyssinia, where his father, a seasoned diplomat, was the British Consul General. His family was part of the British aristocracy; his uncle was the Viceroy of India and a Viscount, his grandfather had been a general and the second Baron Chelmsford. When Thesiger was born, Ethiopia, then known as Abyssinia, was the only African country to never have been colonized, and far and away the country south of the Sahara with the richest and most interesting history.
Ethiopia's is mentioned in Greek and perhaps Egyptian chronicles; Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian and near contemporary of Christ, mentions that the Queen of Sheba with whom King Solomon enjoyed a friendship, and in the Ethiopian tradition a relationship, was from Ethiopia. Until the 1980s, Ethiopia had a fair sized Jewish community that traced its roots back to King Solomon. The Acts of the Apostles in New Testament tells of a visit by by the an official of the Queen Candace of Ethiopia to the Holy Land, who met Philip the Evangelist. 100 years before Saint Patrick sailed for Ireland, Ethiopia adopted the Coptic form of Christianity. When Islam arose, the Ethiopians sacked Jeddah, and then, when the Muslims counterattacked, lost their cities on the Red Sea. The neighboring countries were overran by Islam, Ethiopia, like Tibet, another country on a plateau, was able to resist the new religion; Somalia, the Sudan, Egypt and to some degree Kenya didn't. Gibbon's memorable summary was: "Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten."
Click here for the next picture.
Click here for the next picture.
One of Thesiger's memories from his time in Ethiopia was of Ethiopian civil war of 1916. Of the three Central Powers, the Ottoman Empire was Muslim, in fact the Ottoman Sultan would intermittently claim to be the Caliph, or highest authority, of Sunni Islam. The Germans adopted the shameful ruse of war of suggesting to the Muslim peoples under British rule that the Kaiser had secretly converted to Islam, and that they ought make common cause with the Germans for this reason. At the time, the British were fighting the Germans and Ottomans in several countries near Ethiopia, among them Kenya, Somalia, Yemen, Palestine, and Syria. Probably under Turkish and German influence, and convinced after the British defeats at Kut and Gallipoli that the Central Powers would probably win, Liy Yasu, the Emperor of Ethiopia all but converted to Islam, and was quickly deposed by the Ethiopian church and nobility, Ras (Prince) Tafari, later known as Haile Selassie, was installed as the new regent, Empress Zaitu remained as the empress.
A civil war erupted, and was quickly put down. At the end of this war, Haile Selassie and his soldiers were accorded a triumph through Addis Abeba which Thesiger described:
Huge tents, open-fronted, had been put up and the Empress came in state with all her ladies, veiled to the eyes, add took her place on the throne. We were presented and Billy and Brian shook hands. All the local army was ranged up on either side and in front, the chiefs a mass of colour, with their gold-embroidered robes and jewelled crowns and shields, the lesser chiefs in lion- or leopard- skins or sheep-skins dyed in brilliant colors. About 10:30 am, the army began to march past. First came the ministrels, yelling war songs, and when they had finished they tore off their mantles and threw them down before the Empress, saying now that they had fought for her such clothes were no longer worthy of them and would she give them new ones? On these occasions every freedom of speech is allowed. The advance guard of men on mules and horses came up in regular lines but as soon as they got near they dashed up at full gallop, shouting and brandishing their weapons, each men shrieking out how many men he had killed; and then they wheeled round to make room for others....
The whole description takes up two pages of his autobiography, which is currently out of print. But that is what used book stores are for. Thesiger concludes his reminiscencing:
"I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovation in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world."
After the First World War ended, and travel once again became safe, Thesiger left for boarding school in England, then for Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he excelled more as a boxer than a scholar. After he graduated from Oxford, he spent a year leading an expedition that explored parts of Ethiopia that no European had yet traversed or mapped. Parts of his expedition took him into the lands inhabited by a tribe then known as a Danakil, amongst whose menfolk, the number of men a man had killed and then emasculated for trophies was the primary indicator of status. Although Emperor Haile Selassie, his life-long friend, (the two are in the picture at this link) had given him permission to embark on his trek, the local governor insisted that Thesiger indemnify him before setting off for the the wilderness. After the trek, he joined the Sudanese colonial service in Darfur.
Thesiger was greatly disappointed when the British politicians of the 1930s assented to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia, in the vain and foolish hope that to not condemn the invasion, and the routine use of poison gas, would help keep Mussolini from making common cause with Hitler, and avoid war in Europe. Mussolini's attitude to the war was such that he ordered his soldiers to not only use poison gas and flame-throwers liberally but also to employ "bacteriological warfare," only to be told that the last was impractical. When Addis Abeba fell, the Blackshirts went through the city "liquidating" educated Ethiopians. Thesiger later wrote of his satisfaction when he learned that Mussolini had been put to death by his own people, and "appropriately" hung on a meat hook.
Another reason for the British reticence may have been that the British themselves were using poison gas to quell the rebellious Iraqi tribes at the time. Pots and kettles have their own etiquette. The British ignored their obligations under a treaty to sell Ethiopia weaponry, and even denied, contrary to all evidence, that Italy was using poison gas, and turned a blind eye to a war that was more annihilation than a good war. When all was lost, Haile Selassie went on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia's national shrine, prayed there for two days, and then traveled on to Geneva to give a haunting speech, in Amharic, at the League of Nations, in which he informed the other nations that if they abandoned the Covenant of League of Nations, which required that all disputes be settled by diplomacy rather than war, they, too, would reap the whirlwind. And indeed they did. His eloquence, once the galleries had been cleared of Italian agitators paid to disrupt his speech, was such that he was made Time magazine's Man of the Year. Here's a pathos-filled picture of His Imperial Highness during the speech. And here's the beginning of the speech:
"I, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to it eight months ago, when fifty nations asserted that aggression had been committed in violation of international treaties.
There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor. Also, there has never before been an example of any Government proceeding to the systematic extermination of a nation by barbarous means, in violation of the most solemn promises made by the nations of the earth that there should not be used against innocent human beings the terrible poison of harmful gases. It is to defend a people struggling for its age-old independence that the head of the Ethiopian Empire has come to Geneva to fulfil this supreme duty, after having himself fought at the head of his armies.
I pray to Almighty God that He may spare nations the terrible sufferings that have just been inflicted on my people, and of which the chiefs who accompany me here have been the horrified witnesses.
It is my duty to inform the Governments assembled in Geneva, responsible as they are for the lives of millions of men, women and children, of the deadly peril which threatens them, by describing to them the fate which has been suffered by Ethiopia. It is not only upon warriors that the Italian Government has made war. It has above all attacked populations far removed from hostilities, in order to terrorize and exterminate them.
At the beginning, towards the end of 1935, Italian aircraft hurled upon my armies bombs of tear-gas. Their effects were but slight. The soldiers learned to scatter, waiting until the wind had rapidly dispersed the poisonous gases. The Italian aircraft then resorted to mustard gas. Barrels of liquid were hurled upon armed groups. But this means also was not effective; the liquid affected only a few soldiers, and barrels upon the ground were themselves a warning to troops and to the population of the danger.
It was at the time when the operations for the encircling of Makalle were taking place that the Italian command, fearing a rout, followed the procedure which it is now my duty to denounce to the world. Special sprayers were installed on board aircraft so that they could vaporize, over vast areas of territory, a fine, death-dealing rain. Groups of nine, fifteen, eighteen aircraft followed one another so that the fog issuing from them formed a continuous sheet. It was thus that, as from the end of January, 1936, soldiers, women, children, cattle, rivers, lakes and pastures were drenched continually with this deadly rain. In order to kill off systematically all living creatures, in order to more surely to poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again. That was its chief method of warfare.
Ravage and Terror
The very refinement of barbarism consisted in carrying ravage and terror into the most densely populated parts of the territory, the points farthest removed from the scene of hostilities. The object was to scatter fear and death over a great part of the Ethiopian territory. These fearful tactics succeeded. Men and animals succumbed. The deadly rain that fell from the aircraft made all those whom it touched fly shrieking with pain. All those who drank the poisoned water or ate the infected food also succumbed in dreadful suffering. In tens of thousands, the victims of the Italian mustard gas fell. It is in order to denounce to the civilized world the tortures inflicted upon the Ethiopian people that I resolved to come to Geneva. None other than myself and my brave companions in arms could bring the League of Nations the undeniable proof. The appeals of my delegates addressed to the League of Nations had remained without any answer; my delegates had not been witnesses. That is why I decided to come myself to bear witness against the crime perpetrated against my people and give Europe a warning of the doom that awaits it, if it should bow before the accomplished fact."
When the Second World War was declared, Thesiger fought with the SAS, i.e. as a commando, in North Africa; once when he was on a mission behind enemies lines, he covered himself with sand when he heard German soldiers approach, looking for saboteurs. They came within 50 feet, but didn't see him; when Thesiger read Rommel's diary, it became clear to him that, given the time and location at which he barely escaped the German patrol, it had been Rommel himself who had been looking for saboteurs.
When the time came for the British to liberate Ethiopia from Mussolini's footmen, Thesiger served with valor and distinction, winning a DSO, and helping his life long friend Emperor Haile Selassie, Emperor to the Ethiopians, and god to the Rastafarians (Haile Selassie's pre-emperor name was Ras (prince) Tafari,) regain his throne. He then fought with the Druze in Lebanon. After the war, Thesiger went on to become one of the most noted explorers of our day, traveling to wilds of Afghanistan, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Kenya. But that is for another post.
Wilfred Thesiger's picture collection at Pitt Rivers Museum
Haile Selassie's speech to the League of Nations, asking them why they abandoned his country to Mussolini.