- Richard Pankhurst (1927–2017)
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It was with deep sorrow that I learned of the passing on February 16 of Professor Richard Pankhurst, at age 89. He was my teacher, mentor and role model, an eminent historian, a foremost economist, and a celebrated educator who listened to the voices of various generations of Ethiopians on whose world views he left an indelible mark.
Indeed, we have lost a scholarly giant, a proud citizen of the world, a patron of Ethiopian history, economics, art and culture. Like his mother Sylvia, who was a celebrated feminist of the suffragette movement, Richard Pankhurst dedicated his whole life to the cause of our country, Ethiopia. His prodigious intellectual contribution to Ethiopia is unmatched by any other Western scholar whether medieval or contemporary.
Professor Pankhurst is not only remembered for the more than thirty books and hundreds of scholarly articles that he authored, mostly on Ethiopia, and for establishing the Institute of Ethiopian Studies and the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, but also for his indefatigable crusade to restore to Ethiopia the historical relics looted from her during periods of wars [End Page 166] from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. His campaign forced Italy to return Ethiopia’s most sacred Axum Obelisk, (circa first century AD), which was plundered by Mussolini’s troops during the Fascist occupation of 1936–41. The historical relic stood in the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome from 1937 until its return to Ethiopia in 2005, thanks to Prof. Pankhurst’s dogged struggle. His concerted campaign for the return of Ethiopia artifacts looted by British troops during the 1868 Magdala war—sacred parchments, books, crosses and icons held in the British Museum, the Buckingham palace, and in private collections—was only partially successful. Nevertheless, he did succeed in retrieving and returning to Ethiopia a number of the country’s national treasures, most notably the sword and shield of Emperor Tewodros and the Tabot (replica of the Ark of the Covenant) named in honour of the Saviour of the World.
I was lucky enough to be his student during my teen age years at the University College of Addis Ababa and remember the time with fondness and nostalgia. When he intended to impart an important piece of knowledge, Richard always interjected it with a pungent humour that we, his early students, still reminisce about decades later. Only a few of us who took his introduction to economics course know that it was Richard Pankhurst who helped sew the seeds of progressive ideas among the burgeoning revolutionary youth of the 1960s with his deliberate, persuasive, and dialectical pedagogical approach. We used to comment outside class that to take Richard’s course was a virtual guarantee that we would come out with a robust commitment to social justice.
Much more will be written about this great scholar and humanist in the coming months. To speak not only for myself but also for my Ethiopian compatriots who have benefitted from his gargantuan intellectual contributions, I can only say now how fortunate all of us have been to have shared our lives with Richard Pankhurst. Though today is a day of sadness, in reality, we should be savouring the glory of our good fortune that he touched our lives in the first place.
Richard Pankhurst’s life was a blessing, and his memory, a treasure. He is loved beyond words and is missed beyond measure by the post war generation of Ethiopians. May he rest in peace. [End Page 167]