When the British and Italian Ministers at Addis Ababa- according to the instructions which they had received from their respective governments concerning this matter-presented to Us jointly the text of the pact about which the two governments had reached agreement, We were astonished at this and wrote to them as follows:
Tafari Makonnen, Crown Prince of Ethiopia and Regent Plenipotentiary, to H.E. Mr. Charles Bentinck, British Minister Plenipotentiary.
Peace be with you! The letter which you wrote me on 2nd Sane 1918 (= 9th June 1926) has reached me. This letter is wholly identical with the missive which H.E. Count Colli, the Italian Minister, has addressed to me. It informs me of the agreement between the two of you that the Ethiopian Government should grant you concessions, i.e. for the damming of Lake Tana by the British and for the construction of a railway in Ethiopia by Italy. The fact that both of you have reached agreement and that you have considered it proper jointly to inform Us of this agreement in identical notes, raises some disquieting thoughts in Us, and therefore We shall now, first of all, have to take counsel about this. To this end, it is right to place the matter before the League of Nations, as it requires to be carefully examined in the first place.
8th Sane 1918 (= 15th June 1926).
A note in the same vein was written to the Italian Minister.
Subsequently We wrote the following appeal and presented it to the Secretary General of the League of Nations, M. Avenol:
Our Government has recently received identical notes written by both the British and Italian governments informing Us of their agreement for Britain to dam Lake Tana and for Italy to construct a railway traversing Ethiopia.
We are greatly distressed about this agreement being concluded by the two governments among themselves alone, without informing Us, and then simply sending Us joint notifications.
When originally we were granted admission to the League of Nations, we were told that all governments of the world were reckoned as equal, that the independence of all would be respected, and that the ultimate aim of the League was to extend and to strengthen peace among men in accordance with God’s will.
It did not seem to us proper to allow some members of the League of Nations to conclude an agreement among themselves and to force another member to accept their plan, even if it did not affect the national interests of that member.
Secondly, it is the case that on one of the subjects, among those on which they (Britain and Italy) have reached agreement, the Ethiopian and British governments have previously held discussions. No definite answer had been given because the matter under discussion had remained inconclusive and because we were still deliberating about it. Having agreed among themselves to hold discussions about this subject, they informed us in joint notes of this their agreement, but the reason that We did not hurry to carry out what they were demanding of us, without giving it due reflection and without knowing whether it agreed with Our people’s needs, is that We cannot help considering the proposals as highly disturbing.
Our people are desirous to do right; it is Our constant wish to lead them on the road of civilization and improvement. But what they know of their history is that among the foreigners there are few who do not desire to violate their frontiers and to impair their freedom. With God’s goodness and the bravery of our soldiers we have always, whatever the circumstances, been able to remain upon our mountains proud in our independence.
Therefore, when foreigners who wish to establish themselves, allegedly for economic reasons, in our country or in our frontier areas contiguous to their possessions, apply for permission to do so, we have to be very careful that they do not have political aims; and the recent quite unexpected agreement reached by them and the proposals they presented serve, perhaps, as the best proof of all that such caution is justified. Time has not yet permitted us to get accustomed so quickly to entirely new conditions and such like, for, though our past history is glorious, it is not to be forgotten that it is only very recently that We have begun to follow the path of modern civilization. Even creation itself was not created all at once. And where is the country that has changed all its works within one year?
If the countries whose geographical position has enabled them to out-distance us were to give us friendly advice and the necessary time, then-with our genuine eagerness-Ethiopia would go on improving uninterruptedly to attain a higher level in future just as she had always done in the past. But to make undue haste may bring the danger of accidents.
We should wish to know whether members of the League of Nations desire means of coercion to be used against us which they would undoubtedly dislike if applied against themselves.
I have the honour to inform all the honourable governments who are members of the League of Nations of those notifications which We have received, so that they be apprised of the fact that the proposals are incompatible with Our country’s independence, in particular when it is stated that a part of Our possessions is to be given over to the economic influence of a certain great Power.
Since We are aware that economic and political influence are closely bound up together, it is Our duty to present a strong protest, because in Our opinion this agreement is incompatible with the basic idea of the League of Nations.
Addis Ababa, 12th Sane 1918 (= 19th June 1926).
After this note of appeal of Ours had reached the League of Nations and the subject had been studied, the text of the request was sent to the two governments concerned; and subsequently the British Government replied as follows:
London, 3rd August 1926 (= 27th Hamle 1918)
To the Secretary General of the League of Nations.
On behalf of H.B.M.’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs I have received copy of the note which the Imperial Ethiopian Crown Prince, Tafari Makonnen, addressed to Sir Eric Drummond as well as your own respected letter of 15th Hamle (22nd July) relating to the protest submitted by H.I.H. as regards the agreement between the British and Italian governments of December 1925 (= Tahsas 1918) by which the two governments contracted to assist each other when seeking the permission of the Ethiopian Government for certain kinds of work as specified in those notes.
2. Although the British and Italian Ministers at Addis Ababa had given assurances to the Ethiopian Government when they presented the notes about which Britain and Italy had agreed, H.B.M.’s Government regret that the correct version of these notes appears to have been misinterpreted and that intentions appear to have been attributed to the two governments which they did not, in fact, entertain. According to the text of the Ethiopian protest, it would appear that the British and Italian governments, having put their signatures to a treaty, are intent upon forcing their proposals on a member of the League, although these proposals are incompatible with its interests; they, the Ethiopians, have requested members of the League to state whether it is right that pressure should be exerted upon Ethiopia which they would undoubtedly find unacceptable if applied to themselves.
3. There is nothing at all in the British and Italian notes that might suggest pressure or coercion against the Ethiopian Government. In fact, this agreement as such, Sir Austen Chamberlain has stated in Parliament, was never designed to apply pressure against the Ethiopian Government.
In his opinion the agreement as it stood was in the interests of all three governments, but, he added, the Ethiopian Government were perfectly entitled to be the judge of Ethiopia’s best interests.
His Majesty’s Charge d’Affaires had telegraphic instructions transmitted to him in July to inform the Heir to the Throne, Tafari, of this statement.
4. I refer in the following to the suggestion which has been made that the British and Italian governments desired to force the Ethiopian Government to answer in haste the request made to it, without affording it the time to consider the interests of its people. In fact, however, Emperor Menelik confirmed in writing the following statement which he had made orally a few days earlier and which is embodied in notes exchanged between the British Minister at Addis Ababa and the Ethiopian Government on 18th May 1902 (= 8th Genbot 1894):
‘That there shall not be carried out, without consulting the British and the Sudan governments, any sort of work that may affect the flow of the waters of the Blue Nile and of Lake Tana; but if any work of this kind were planned, all other obligations being equal, preference shall be given to the proposals presented by H.B.M.’s Government and the Sudan Government; H.I.M. Emperor Menelik has no intention of giving any concession with regard to the Blue Nile and Lake Tana to anyone except to H.B.M.’s Government or to a subject of either government.’
Since this undertaking proves that Emperor Menelik II had given permission, 24 years ago, for the British Government to construct a barrage at Lake Tana, it is now possible to examine, with the permission and help of the Ethiopian Government, the specific proposals and their realization as regards this project which had been submitted by the British Government on many suitable occasions; and it has become possible to assess the position properly ever since the engineering experts who had been despatched to Lake Tana have returned with their detailed findings.
It does not, therefore, seem equitable to charge H.B.M.’s Government with acting in undue haste as regards the Lake Tana project.
5. In the concluding part of its protest the Ethiopian Government asks whether the Anglo-Italian note affects Ethiopia’s independence, especially when it is stipulated that a part of Ethiopia shall be surrendered to the economic influence of a great Power. In particular, Sir Austen Chamberlain desires to make it known emphatically that the Anglo-Italian note does not state that we shall retain a part of Ethiopia for Italian economic influence. It is true that H.B.M.’s Government for their own purposes (and Italy under her treaty obligations) recognize Italy’s special economic influence in western Ethiopia and in the entire territory which the aforementioned railway traverses (joining Eritrea and Italian Somaliland). But this undertaking does not impose an obligation on anything affecting the dispositions of the three governments just because the British Government has engaged not to do-or support doing-anything in competition with Italy in the area specified in return for Italian assurances as regards Lake Tana.
Sir Austen Chamberlain
6. Sir Austen Chamberlain will be able to submit once again the assurances and proofs which he has given to Ethiopia, so as to enable the League Council to examine, at its forthcoming session, the note which the Ethiopian Government has sent to you.
(signed) John Murray.
Four days after the British Government had sent the above statement to the League of Nations the Italian Government wrote as follows:
Rome, 7th August 1926 (= 1st Nahase 1918)
I am instructed by the Head of the Government and Minister for Foreign Affairs to inform you of the receipt of your letter of 15th Hamle (= 22nd July) last together with the copy, and enclosures, of the protest addressed to you by Ras Tafari Makonnen, Heir to the Throne of Ethiopia, as regards the agreement reached by the British and Italian governments in December 1925 (= Tahsas 1918) to render assistance to each other in requesting the Ethiopian Government to carry out certain works in Ethiopia.
The Royal (Italian) Government greatly regrets to observe that the Ethiopian Government has not properly understood the thinking embodied in the Anglo-Italian agreement-as is indeed shown by the substance of the note which Tafari Makonnen, Heir to the Throne of Ethiopia, sent to the members of the League of Nations. Moreover, what has caused surprise to the Royal (Italian) Government is the fact that only a short time ago the Italian representative at Addis Ababa had fully explained to the Ethiopian Government the scope of the matter in question, pointing out the limited object of the discussions between the two governments with a view to co-ordinating some of the economic interests of Britain and Italy; the Italian envoy also made it clear that the realization of the project depended on the wishes of the Ethiopian Government, whether it contributed to the economic development of the country and whether it was in conformity with Ethiopia’s best interests.
Following these explanations, the Heir to the Throne of Ethiopia, Tafari Makonnen, wrote a letter, dated 12th Sane (= 19th June), to the Italian minister at Addis Ababa; in this letter he thanked the Head of the Italian Government for the assurances given to him and said he did not doubt Italy’s sentiments of friendship and her willingness to honour Ethiopia’s independence. The Italian Government considers that there is nothing at all that could justify the fears of the Ethiopian Government that the British and Italian governments are planning, in the note of agreement in question, any acts of coercion or precipitate pressure against Ethiopia. Furthermore, the friendly and explicit assurances previously given to the Ethiopian Government by Italy should have sufficed to convince Ethiopia that there is nothing to bring about such apprehensions.
The treaty in question as regards the cession of economic influence to Italy in certain regions of Ethiopia, having been undertaken specifically by the British Government, is binding solely on the British and Italian governments but does not affect the powers of Ethiopia nor does it limit any future action of disposition by the three governments.
This agreement is a kind of economic guarantee that the work initiated by Italian young men shall be well accomplished and that the resources found in Ethiopia be developed and exploited without competition with British enterprises.
After We had seen the text of the replies, which these two governments had made to the enquiries, transmitted to Us through the League of Nations, We wrote once more as follows:
To the Secretary General of the League of Nations.
Peace be with you!
In a letter which I wrote to you on 12th Sane (= 19th June) I had requested you to communicate, on our behalf, to the members of the League of Nations the protest which it had seemed proper to the Imperial Ethiopian Government to submit as regards the agreement which the British and Italian governments had reached on 5th and 11th of Tahsas 1918 (= 14th and 20th December 1925) with a view to exploiting their interests in Ethiopia.
The Imperial Ethiopian Government was very properly distressed upon learning of the agreement, which these two great Powers had reached, to act as they desired towards a friendly government which, like them, is a member of the League of Nations, without first requesting the permission of that country.
If the Ethiopian Government were to fail to accept, after due examination, that this convention was in the best interests of Ethiopia, it considers that these two Powers would certainly exert pressure to obtain the economic conditions they had requested.
This being so, it was possible to assert with regard to present events that the Anglo-Italian accord was not compatible, at any rate indirectly, with the covenant of the League of Nations, since the British and Italian governments-like all the remaining members of the League-had undertaken not to touch the age-old independence of Ethiopia or to violate her territorial integrity.
According to our opinion, under article 20 of the covenant, it was incumbent upon them not to enter into such an accord. But as it seemed to us that they planned to violate that article, the object of their agreement could have no validity with regard to us and must, therefore, be reckoned null and void. If the two great Powers, on their part, had not officially notified us on the same day, they would not have aroused our anxiety. This joint notification which they presented appeared to us to reveal the first sign of coercion. From then onwards, while the two great Powers were exhibiting their friendly intentions when replying to our protest, they began to strive hard to allay apprehensions over the Ethiopian appeal. Furthermore, the British Government took the opportunity with regard to this matter of informing us of the explanatory statement which H.E. Sir Austen Chamberlain had made in Parliament. He announced clearly: ‘The two governments have no intention of making economic demands upon the country, and there is nothing in their agreement that could be binding upon the Ethiopian Government; there is no plan to coerce the Ethiopian Government, and it is indeed the Government of Ethiopia that must be the judge of Ethiopia’s best interests.’ The Italian Government notified us in a similar vein.
Apart from this, the British Government announced that the two great Powers intended to deposit the terms of their accord with the secretariat of the League of Nations, and the Imperial Ethiopian Government has learnt that registration has since taken place.
As we are aware that registration in accordance with article 18 of the covenant is for information only, the Imperial Government does not consider it necessary to submit a protest about the implementation of this requirement. But since the Imperial Government intended to fulfil the obligations embodied in the covenant and to establish relations with the nations of the world based on justice and honour, it seemed to us proper and in accordance with the rules to request your assistance in the publication of this letter, together with the said notes, as well as of the reassuring replies to our protests, so that everybody may be aware of the position taken by the Imperial Government.
This being so, the members of the League of Nations will not then entertain any doubt that the Ethiopian Government has any treaty obligation whatever towards the two governments which have earlier declared an interest in the matter and that it possesses full powers-as indeed the British and Italian governments themselves have stated-either to accept or to reject any requests made to it and that, finally, the Imperial Government is the sole judge of what is in Ethiopia’s best interests.
Addis Ababa, 30th Nahase 1918 (= 4th September 1926).
As We thought that this affair of the two governments reaching agreement by themselves (without any information being proffered to the Ethiopian Government) had been disposed of by the League of Nations, We did not consider that the discussions We had held with Mr. MacDonald in 1916 (= 1924) should remain unconcluded; We therefore despatched, in 1920 (= 1928), Azaj Warqnah, whom We had now appointed as Ethiopian Minister in London, as special envoy to the U.S.A. We arranged that he should return after discussions with the internationally renowned White Engineering Company about the damming of Lake Tana. We also arranged that he should discuss this at meetings in Addis Ababa with representatives of the British Government. After they had departed following these negotiations, the White Engineering Company on their part sent, in 1923 (= 1930), a number of engineers who surveyed Lake Tana and then returned.
Later, engineers of the British Sudan and Egyptian governments came together to Addis Ababa, and after we had held extensive discussions about the matter, they made an appointment to meet once more at Addis Ababa in 1927 (= 1935), to draft the details of the contract; they then went back. But when at the time of the appointment We were preparing to transmit a telegram to summon the representatives of the White Engineering Company, the British Minister and the Egyptian Consul at Addis Ababa let Us know that their representatives had deferred their visit to Addis Ababa for the time being. They did not for the moment reveal to Us the reason for this action. But the Walwal disturbances had started, and We reckoned that this was the reason. We notified the White Engineering Company not to send their representatives to Addis Ababa. But the Ethiopian Government had earlier given an undertaking to the effect that it would not cut off the flow of the small rivers entering the Blue Nile, nor that of the river Sobat, without the agreement of the British-Sudan Government, and therefore the British-Sudan Government was to pay to the Ethiopian Government an annual sum of ten thousand guineas. When We noticed in Our records the non-payment to the Ethiopian Government of this money by the British-Sudan Government ever since the said treaty had been signed and letters were exchanged, from 1895 (= 1902) until 1924 (= 1931), We wrote to the British Minister at Addis Ababa asking that the money be paid in accordance with the terms of the letter. He claimed that this money was to be paid when permission to dam Lake Tana had been granted, and while he brought up various other excuses and We were engaged in protracted correspondence, Italy meanwhile unleashed a war of aggression against us, and that matter therefore remained in abeyance.
Furthermore, We had not neglected the interests of the Italian Government by possibly using as a pretext the direct negotiations with the British Government concerning the damming of Lake Tana, and when the former asked for permission to build a motor road from Assab to Dessie and to expand trade, We raised no difficulties whatsoever but accorded them permission in a spirit of friendship.
Details of all this will be found presently in connexion with the ceremonial welcome which We prepared when H.H. the Duke of Abruzzi came to Addis Ababa to return Our visit.
Our African Heritage Online