With a special interest in the lessons we can learn from history, I am always on the lookout for geographical locations of particular historical significance which we cross paths with in our everyday lives.
I found myself feeling extremely happy and thankful whilst journeying through London a few weeks ago when, stuck in traffic at a particular moment i turned to my left and saw a blue house with a blue plaque, the plaque being an indication here in the UK that the property was once residence to someone deemed significant by English Heritage Trust.
Finding blue plaques in London is not unusual but in this one mystic moment i felt as though I had been destined to find this one and it should serve as my motivation to share my deep appreciation for the former occupant. The house, number 120 Cheyne Walk on the River Thames in West London, was once home to the great suffragette Women’s rights campaigner and an Official Honorary Ethiopian, Sylvia Pankhurst.
Sylvia Pankhurst, instrumental in the victory and fight for Women’s right to vote, also became a constant thorn in the side of the British Empire, and was so well known and politically adept in the 20th century that she was attacked by figures such as Lenin and Mussolini who felt the need to denounce her publications and ideology.
Sylvia was born on the 5th of May 1882, daughter of women’s rights and Indian independence campaigner Richard Pankhurst and suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. She trained as an artist and moved to London from Manchester after winning a scholarship at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington. After finishing university she used her artistic skills working full time campaigning for the Women’s social and political union with her mother and sister, writing many articles for the WSPU newspaper and publishing the ” History of the Women’s militant suffrage movement.” in 1911.
In 1914 she left the Women’s social and Political Union, having political disagreements with the direction they were taking and wanting to address and change wider issues affecting society alongside her life work in rights for Women. She set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS), which over the years evolved politically to the Women’s Suffrage Federation and then to the Workers’ Socialist Federation. Here, Sylvia founded the newspaper of the WSF, Women’s Dreadnought, which evolved to become the Workers’ Dreadnought. At this time her main cause was organising and informing the public at the outbreak of the 1st World war.
Although they agreed in principle with regards to women establishing and exercising a right to vote, the differences in ideology of her mother and sister with Sylvia were stark when war was declared as both Emmeline and Christabell Pankhurst suspended campaigning for their Women’s Social and Political Union and embraced nationalism and War recruitment, even handing out “white feathers” to shame the men who had not volunteered to fight in the “Great War”. Sylvia opposed the war.
In September 1914, barely a month after the outbreak of war, Sylvia wrote,
“When first I read in the press that Mrs Pankhurst [her mother Emmeline] and Christabel were returning to England for a recruiting campaign I wept. To me this seemed a tragic betrayal of the great movement to bring the mother-half of the race into the councils of the nations.”
She was imprisoned many times (and beaten / tortured during her food strike protests) over militant action demanding votes for women, her East London Federation of Suffragettes was a small yet genuinely grassroots organisation of working-class women and set up “cost-price” restaurants to feed the hungry without the taint of charity. They also established a toy factory to give work to women who had become unemployed because of the war and campaigned for the rights of soldiers’ wives.
Later from 1917 – 1920, interested in left ”Council” communism Sylvia secretly (in disguise, without a passport) journeyed on foot for long distances across Europe to see revolutionary russia, she reasoned and had disagreements with Lenin and he even published a book denouncing her for leftist idealism. The book was called Left Wing Communism, An Infantile disorder.
As a result of her wide travels and curiosity for social systems affecting others elsewhere, Sylvia developed a greater interest in international affairs than many of her peers. Near the end of the 1st world war she began living with an Italian anarchist and anti fascist Silvio Corio, who she later had a child with, that child being the great academic Richard Pankhurst, former teacher at Addis Ababa University and founder of Ethiopian studies.
With the rise of fascism, Sylvia had observed that the movement in Italy was largely financed by banks and large business in order to operate in their interest. This was at a time when not only the British ruling class but many on the Left saw Mussolini as a positive development. She began to apply her socialism to a broader analysis of fascism and to develop a strong critique of British Imperialism. In 1926 she traveled to India and wrote a book revealing the brutality of the British occupation.
” India and the Earthly Paradise. ”
Her anti-racist, anti-fascist and anti-colonialist stand left Sylvia with few political allies but by 1930 the realities of fascism were beginning to be appreciated and she spearheaded the formation of the Women’s Committee Against War & Fascism, the Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom and the International Peace Crusade.
Sylvia Pankhurst became involved with the cause of Ethiopia in response to the actions of fascist Italy in beginning to invade the country from 1934, she was outraged at plans of a European power to colonize the Independent African Nation and after meeting with H.I.M Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian representative Dr Charles Martin she formally joined the fight on behalf of the ”underdog” .
In 1936 she started the New Times and Ethiopia News and provided an outlet for anti-colonialist and African writers as well as exposing Italian massacres in Ethiopia. She also campaigned against aerial bombing on the grounds that it represented the deliberate targeting of innocent people. Her experience of Ethiopia, and British ‘neutrality’, also enabled her to campaign against the fascists in Spain. She was among the large crowd to greet the Emperor at Waterloo station in June of 1936 as he arrived in London and later went on to live at Fairfield House during the period of Ethiopian distress.
”Although she was no fan of any system of monarchy, this did not seem to matter as far as the Ethiopian King of Kings was concerned, she supposedly told him straight away that, as a republican, she supported him not because he was an Emperor, but because she believed in his cause, the cause of Ethiopia.”
She spoke of him as ”a special man of destiny, elect of God, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Zion, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, chevalier sans peur et reproche (a knight without fear and reproach) and the epitome of true nobility and the soul resistance to Mussolini.”
(Speaking of H.I.M Emperor Haile Selassie I )
”In his eyes burned the quenchless fire of a hero that never failed his cause, One sees in his build and bearing those features full of meaning, the worker who toils unceasingly for the public weal, untouched by personal ambition or material desire for wealth or safety. ”
”Above all, to her (Sylvia Pankhurst) he (Haile Selassie) was a living symbol of international justice.”
Quotations from the book, Imperial Exile – Keith Bowers
In 1956, encouraged by Emperor Haile Selassie to aid with Women’s development, Sylvia and her son Richard went to live in Ethiopia. During the Second World War Sylvia had campaigned to expose war crimes in Ethiopia and when she visited in 1944 she observed that although ‘liberated’ by the British they now were revealing desires of colonial occupation.
On one visit to Ethiopia, ”She went by way of Asmara, in Eritrea, then under British Military Occupation, where she was warmly welcomed by members of the Unionist Party, then struggling for union with Ethiopia. She also spoke from the floor at a public meeting in Asmara – where her support for the cause won considerable applause from Eritreans in the audience – but some opprobrium from members of the British administration.
On finally reaching Ethiopia she met many Ethiopians whom she had known during their exile in Britain, and broadcast on Addis Ababa Radio. She also visited schools and historic sites which she later described in New Times and Ethiopia News. During a second visit to Ethiopia in 1950-51, she inspected many more institutions and antiquities, and collected material which she later included in Ethiopia: A Cultural History. Returning by way of Asmara she saw, and later described, the slums of its so-called ‘native quarter‘, a creation of the strict Fascist policy of racial segregation. At this time she also learnt that the British administration had been dismantling many port installations – causing her to denounce this in a pamphlet entitled ‘Why are we destroying the Eritrean ports?’ This work incensed British officialdom, already nettled by her unwavering support for Ethiopian independence, and caused one prominent British Foreign Office official to recommend that she should in future be discouraged from travelling to Ethiopia by way of Eritrea – which was later federated with Ethiopia by the United Nations in 1952. ”
Quotation from SylviaPankhurst.com – Rita Pankhurst
Sylvia campaigned for liberation throughout Africa, prompting a Foreign Office official to comment in 1947 that ‘we agree with you in your evident wish that this horrible old harridan should be choked to death with her own pamphlets’. It was also reported that in 1948 the British Government considered strategies for “muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst”.
Whilst in Africa she raised funds for Ethiopia’s first teaching hospital and turned her attentions once again to improving conditions for mothers and babies, helped to open a specialist women’s hospital and wrote extensively on Ethiopian art and culture, carrying out research that was published in her book Ethiopia: A Cultural History (London: Lalibela House, 1955).
After the post-war liberation of Ethiopia she became a strong supporter of union between Ethiopia and the former Italian Somaliland.
” As an anti-colonialist, and anti-racist, she was keenly interested in the African struggle for independence then being waged in many parts of the Continent, and had already published pro-independence articles in New Times and Ethiopia News. She visited Kenya in 1958, when the then Ethiopian Consul, Berhanu Tessema (a former Ethiopian refugee with whom she had corresponded during the Italian occupation), arranged for her to meet the African Trade Union leader, Tom Mboya and the African and Asian members of the Legislative Council. Jomo Kenyatta, who had spoken at her pro-Ethiopian meetings in London, was then in detention. The Mau Mau rebellion had only recently been crushed, and the Council members told her of the restrictions under which they were then labouring. She later devoted an issue of Ethiopia Observer to Kenyan affairs.
Sylvia also made contact with students from other parts of Africa who were studying at Ethiopian higher education institutions on special scholarships from the Emperor, and, once again combining wider political issues with consideration of the needs of individuals, on several occasions, introduced to him African refugees in difficulties. ”
Quotation from SylviaPankhurst.com – Rita Pankhurst
On her death in 1960 age 78, she was given an Ethiopian state funeral during the Celebration of Feast of Meskel (finding of the true cross) and was buried in the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa, a place reserved for national heroes, it is said the Emperor stood for the many of hours of her funeral service, paying respect for his great friend ”Honorary Ethiopian”, Wonderful human being – Sylvia Pankhurst.
In a world where young people especially are force fed a multitude of meaningless role models such as Beyonce and Kim Kardashian etc, we must not forget to draw inspiration and shine light on the now unsung heroes of yesterday, Real Revolutionaries , time and history is revealing their unshakable and unparalleled greatness more and more each day.
With the spirit of protest and the power of an unrelenting voice, always proud to speak truth and rights against injustice, Long may we all remember, Sylvia Pankhurst : Soul Rebel : Freedom Fighter.
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Ras Benji 2017
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