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  • Richard Pankhurst 1927–2017
  • Rebecca M. Nagy (bio)

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.

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Richard Pankhurst in 2003. Photo: Achamyeleh Debela

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Achamyeleh Debela and Rebecca Nagy with Richard Pankurst in his garden in Addis Ababa, 2001.

Photo: courtesy Rebecca M. Nagy

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...


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