Richard Keir Pethick Pankhurst OBE, historian and scholar of Ethiopia, passed away on February 16, 2017 at the age of 89 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he made his home with his wife of sixty years, Rita Pankhurst (born Eldon). He was buried on the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa near his mother, Sylvia Pankhurst. She is the only European woman accorded this honor, which recognized her support for Ethiopia during the Italian Fascist occupation of the 1930s. Now her son has been similarly honored for his role as, in the words of Ethiopia's Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu, “one of this country's greatest friends.”1
Richard Pankhurst authored more than twenty books on the history of Ethiopia, edited or compiled numerous others, and wrote many scholarly articles on a range of topics in Ethiopian economic, social, and political history, culture, art, and architecture (Rita Pankhurst 2002, 2007). He also contributed articles early in his career to the Addis Tribune and more recently to Capital, a weekly Ethiopian business newspaper, thus reaching a wide audience in Ethiopia and abroad. Pankhurst was founding director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University and a leader in the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (SOFIES), the Institute's private support organization. Pankhurst is also remembered for his tireless efforts to secure the return of an eighty-foot high, fourth-century granite stele taken as war booty by the Italians in 1937 from the ancient city of Aksum in northern Ethiopia (Richard Pankhurst 1999). The Italians erected the obelisk in the Piazza di Porta Capena near the Circus Maximus in Rome. In 2005, after many years of advocacy by Pankhurst and other members of the Aksum Obelisk Return Committee, they returned it to Aksum, where it was re-erected in 2008 alongside the city's other ancient stele.
Pankhurst was born on December 3, 1927, in Woodford Green, England, to Sylvia Pankhurst, noted feminist and suffragette and later advocate for Ethiopia, and Silvio Corio, an Italian journalist, printer, and typographer with whom she worked. They named the child after Sylvia's father Richard Pankhurst, a barrister who, with his wife Emmeline, was active in the fight for women's suffrage and other progressive social causes. Pankhurst attended Bancroft School in his hometown and then the London School of Economics, where he was awarded a doctorate in economic history in 1956. During his education he assisted his mother in editing the newspaper New Times and Ethiopia News, which she founded in 1936 at the time of the Italian invasion of Ethiopia as a vehicle for advocacy on behalf of Ethiopia. Also during these years he came to know many prominent Ethiopians, including Emperor Haile Selassie's minister to England, Dr. Hakim Werkneh (also known as Dr. Charles Martin) and his children, the playwright and poet Mengistu Lemma and the artist Afewerk Tekle, among others. Having befriended many Ethiopians and visited their country, he chose to accompany his mother to live in Addis Ababa in 1956. She went at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was grateful for Sylvia Pankhurst's unrelenting efforts to win League of Nations and British support for ending the Italian Fascist occupation of Ethiopia (1936–1941). The Emperor also wished to show his appreciation for her work in raising funds and providing support to the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital named in memory of his daughter. Richard Pankhurst assumed a teaching position at University College of Addis Ababa (later Haile Selassie University and now Addis Ababa University). He and his mother founded a journal, Ethiopia Observer, to report on many aspects of Ethiopian life. Initially produced monthly, later the journal was issued quarterly. When Sylvia Pankhurst died in 1960, she was given a state funeral and interred on the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral. Her influence on Richard Pankhurst remained strong throughout his life, so much so that he published two books on his mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, Artist and Crusader in 1979 and Sylvia Pankhurst, Counsel for Ethiopia: A Biographical Essay on Ethiopian Anti-Fascist and Anti-Colonialist History 1934–1960 in 2003.
Pankhurst worked with his friend and colleague Stanislaw Chojnacki, librarian at University College of Addis Ababa, to establish the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) and became its founding director, serving from 1962 to 1972. Chojnacki served as chief librarian and museum curator of IES, while Rita Pankhurst became director of the University Library. As Chojnacki recalled in an article published in the Journal of Ethiopian Studies (2007), the three of them worked together to assemble and develop research and teaching resources and to preserve objects of Ethiopian cultural heritage.2 Today the Institute they established is the world's premier facility for the study of Ethiopian history, cultural heritage, and art. In 1965 Chojnacki established the Society of Friends of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (SOFIES) as a private support arm for the IES. Although it became inactive in 1975 during a time of political upheaval, Richard Pankhurst was able to reactivate SOFIES as an integral part of the IES in the late 1980s.
After the outbreak of the Ethiopian Revolution and the overthrow of the Emperor in 1974, Richard and Rita Pankhurst decided to leave their adoptive homeland and return to England, departing in 1976 and remaining in London for a decade. During that time he had appointments as a research fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the London School of Economics, then worked as a librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society. After occasional trips to Ethiopia by Richard beginning in 1986, the couple moved back there in 1989 and resumed their work as researchers and archivists at Addis Ababa University against a backdrop of continuing political tension. Then in 1991, the long-time leader of the communist government of Ethiopia, Mengistu Haile Mariam, was overthrown and a federal parliamentary republic established. Having handed over their family compound to Mengistu's government, known as the Derg, when they left Ethiopia, the Pankhursts were able to reclaim the bungalow and once again develop the beautiful garden of the home where they had lived with Sylvia Pankhurst. Always warmly hospitable and helpful to researchers visiting Addis Ababa to work at the IES, the Pankhursts welcomed many colleagues to their home for refreshments and conversation, often in their garden gazebo. They were quiet and sympathetic listeners, always ready and willing to help younger colleagues in any way they could. My colleague Achamyeleh Debela and I benefited from this experience on our trips to Ethiopia to work on the exhibition “Continuity and Change: Three Generations of Ethiopian Artists” (2007), for which Richard Pankhurst was a valuable consultant.
Among his numerous books and articles on Ethiopian history and culture often referenced by his colleagues, of particular note is An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early Times to 1800 (1961). Other scholars would mention additional publications that held the greatest meaning and significance to their work, but in my research as an art museum curator and director, I have been especially appreciative of his modestly titled “Some Notes for a History of Ethiopian Secular Art,” published in Ethiopian Observer (1966). This lengthy and informative article has been helpful to me as we build the Harn Museum of Art's collection of Ethiopian art and when we receive inquiries from collectors and others who have acquired Ethiopian paintings on their travels or through inheritance. Richard and Rita Pankhurst also contributed articles to African Arts. Together they wrote “Ethiopian Figurines from Mugar Monastery in Shawa” (2004), and he published “An Ethiopian Painting of King Takla Haymanot's War with the Dervishes” (2006) after studying the painting while at the Harn Museum of Art for a meeting of consultants for “Continuity and Change.”3 As a frequent traveler on Ethiopian Airlines, I shared an experience known to many who enjoyed Pankhurst's work as a public historian through his articles on Ethiopian history, architecture, and art contributed to Selamta, the airline's richly illustrated in-flight magazine.
Richard Pankhurst served for many years as an editor and frequent contributor to the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies. Established in 2002, the journal is dedicated to the research and study of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa and publishes two issues a year, with articles in English and Amharic. Pankhurst also played a leading role in organizing the triennial International Conference of Ethiopian Studies beginning in 1966, when he organized the third conference in the series, held in Addis Ababa. He convened the first International Conference on the History of Ethiopian Art and Architecture at the Warburg Institute in London in 1986 and edited the publication of the proceedings, thereafter remaining active in organizing other conferences in this series.
In Ethiopia, Pankhurst is especially remembered and honored for his passionate commitment to securing the repatriation of the Aksum stele. In addition, he worked with the same energy and enthusiasm, albeit with limited success, to secure the return of sacred manuscripts and other objects looted by the British Expeditionary Force under Richard Napier, sent to free British prisoners held by King Tewodros at Maqdala in 1868. Although a handful of objects have been returned to Ethiopia from the time of Emperor Menelik (r. 1889–1913) to the present, primarily from private collections, the majority of the several hundred manuscripts and artifacts taken to Britain remain there in various locations, including the British Museum and British Library. This was a source of frustration and disappointment for Pankhurst, but he never abandoned either hope or the battle, commenting that “Ethiopia's on-going struggle for the return of its cultural heritage, though far from complete, has thus established interesting precedents of relevance to the African continent as a whole” (1999:229). Despite this disagreement with the British government about the repatriation of the Maqdala materials, Pankhurst was appointed Officer of the British Empire at the Queen's Birthday Honors in 2004 in recognition of his service to Ethiopian studies.
Pankhurst is survived by his wife Rita Pankhurst, children Helen and Alula, and four grandchildren, Laura and Alex, Henok and Heleena. He is remembered with affection and gratitude by many friends and colleagues in Ethiopia and around the world for his lifetime of dedication to Ethiopia and its history and cultural heritage.
My sincere thanks go to Richard and Rita Pankhurst's daughter Helen Pankhurst and son Alula Pankhurst for reviewing this tribute and for their thoughtful additions and corrections to improve the text, and also to my colleague Professor Peter Garretson of Florida State University for his careful review and comments.
Volume 40 of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies is a double issue titled Festschrift Dedicated in Honor of Prof. Richard Pankhurst & Mrs. Rita Pankhurst. The Festschrift is guest edited by Dr. Heran Sereke-Brhan with co-editors Prof. Baye Yimam and Dr. Gebre Yntiso.
For an alternative interpretation of the mural painting proposed by historian Girma Y. Getahun, see Cooksey 2016.