Richard Pankhurst, whose name became synonymous with the study of Ethiopian history during a long and prodigiously productive life, died on February 16, 2017, at his home in Addis Abeba. He was 90.
“He was a serious man, but kind,” said an attendee at his funeral. “He was so passionate about what he did. You could tell he really loved this country.”
Born on Dec. 3, 1927, Pankhurst grew up in an era when the world was recovering from the devastation of World War I and sights were being set increasingly outwards by some in Europe, looking to take advantage of the time to expand their empires.
Richard’s mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, was the daughter of a liberal and forward-thinking family, that spawned not one, but three renowned suffragettes, who eventually went on to make their mark in all corners of the globe.
During her post-suffragette days, Sylvia became interested in the rise of fascism, convinced that, as it has in Italy, it would spread across the globe. She became a champion of the Abyssinian cause. Richard Pankhurst was seven when Italy officially invaded Ethiopia. It was an act that would shape the rest of his life. And when Sylvia moved to Ethiopia in 1956, she brought along her son, and his then fiancée, Rita.
Pankhurst already had experience working for his mother’s various publications, including the Ethiopian Observer, and its predecessor the New Times and Ethiopian News. His time spent writing about and studying Ethiopian culture, politics and history eventually sparked in him a passion for activism. Much of his time until the end of his life was dedicated to campaigning for the return of artifacts looted from Ethiopia during various invasions, or being sold in market stalls to tourists.
Although he unsuccessfully campaigned for the return of treasures taken back to Britain after the battle of Meqdela (“The soldiers were able to pick the best of the best that Ethiopia had to offer,” he said in an interview with the BBC), one of his greatest triumphs was the return of one of obelisks of Axum 68 years after it had been taken by Italian troops. Pankhurst was so overwhelmed at this culmination of years of campaigning and hard work that he became tearful.
“He didn’t have much time, or desire, for relaxation,” said his son, Alula Pankhurst (PhD), during his eulogy. “He was a hardworking man, but always optimistic. He thought the best of everything and everyone.”
It was this optimism about the future of his adopted homeland that led him to keep coming back, even after the overthrow of the Imperial government in 1974. It was also during this time that Pankhurst dared to make a request of the transitional military government that surprised most people of his acquaintance.
During one of their visits back to the country, Pankhurst and his wife made the daring move of applying to see their good friend, the late Taffara Deguefé, who had been arrested by the military regime.
“[It was] a daring act at a time when even relatives were beginning to shun their own family members who were in trouble,” wrote Taffara in 2014. “Their very attempt, though, gave me moral support that I was not being forgotten.”
As for Pankhurst himself, his academic work brought him the most pride.
“I am most proud of the books and articles I have written about Ethiopia,” he told the BBC in 2016, having authored or co-authored 20 books on the country. “When I came here there was no economic history of the country.”
He remedied the situation by publishing the aptly named Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935 in 1968, a book that is still widely read today.
Pankhurst was given a state funeral on February 21, 2017, at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis, where he was buried next to his mother, Sylvia Pankhurst, in accordance with his last wishes. The monument over their graves holds only Sylvia’s name although that will soon be changed.
He is survived by his wife Rita, his two children, Alula and Helen, and his grandchildren.