A Page From a Century of

Ethiopia-United States Relations*

Professor Negussay Ayele

“…this little ceremony…marks the beginning in our relations which will have some place in history."

(Emperor Menyelek, 27 December 1903-Addis Ababa)



By the close of Calendar Year 2003, diplomatic history will have recorded the centenary of formal relations between the United States of America-- “the First New Nation”-- and Ethiopia, one of the world’s oldest and still extant nations. So, it is both fortuitous and precocious on the part of the Citizens League of Ethiopian Americans (CLEA), to have scheduled this Conference on the Eve of the centennial. I am currently engaged in preparing a volume on the century of relations between Ethiopia and the United States. I am happy to be here and to briefly share with you 'A Page' excerpted from my ongoing work on this important diplomatic milestone.

The most dramatic event that catapulted Ethiopia’s international visibility as an African country or kingdom, was, what Professor Sven Rubenson called, its ‘resounding’ victory over would-be colonial Italy at Adwa in 1896. In the words of British envoy Sir Rennell Rodd, Ethiopia’s military feat at Adwa had made its Emperor, Menyelek II “a power to reckon with.” After Adwa, the collective colonial (British, Italian, French) campaign, or what I characterize as ‘collusion-collision syndrome’ transited -- albeit temporarily-- to a diplomatic containment of a truncated and virtually landlocked but still unbowed Ethiopia. As of that moment and going on through the early decades of the twentieth Century, Ethiopia was referred to as “the last problem in Africa” in European colonialist circles. A year after Adwa, from March to May of 1897, more than a dozen diplomats and well-known personages from France, Turkey, Russia, Britain, Haiti, Sudan and, of course Italy, paid homage to the court of Emperor Menyelek in Addis Ababa. All told, Emperor Menyelek was the most capable and successful Ethiopian monarch who retained his country’s independence at manageable cost, at a time when the whole continent of Africa had succumbed to European colonialism.

It was under such post-Adwa circumstances that the first direct quasi diplomatic contacts with Ethiopia were initiated by Diaspora Africans in the Americas. It is of symbolic significance that the initiative to make contact with Ethiopia, the country which was victorious over Italy in Africa, was by envoy Benito Sylvain of Haiti, a country that defeated Napoleon’s army in the Western hemisphere. The next person to embark on an informal track of private commercial cum diplomatic visit to Ethiopia was a Cuban-Mexican-African American in the person of William H. Ellis (a.k.a. Guillaume Enriques Ellesio) from Texas. He was escorted to Ethiopia and introduced to Emperor Menyelek by Benito Sylvain. Mr Ellis, nicknamed ‘the Moor” by some, was a Wall Street tycoon of sorts who hobnobbed with the likes of steel magnet Andrew Carnegie and gun manufacturer Henry Hotchkiss. He was a dapper, flamboyant bon vivant and a self-made diplomat. He read whatever books he could find (US$3000 dollars worth, he said) on Ethiopia before he embarked on his eventful trip and audience with Emperor Menyelek in the Fall of 1903. Although peppered with generous dashes of hyperbole, Mr. Ellis’s renditions about his stay and accomplishments in Ethiopia provide interesting perspectives on the Emperor and Ethiopia.

In one of his communications, Ellis relates a conversation with Emperor Menyelek on US President Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to keep the country united and, in the process also open the way for the legal manumission of slaves. “Tears came to his eyes,” says Ellis, as Emperor Menyelek heard of “the liberation of slaves…” in America, and he exclaimed, “What a great man!” More importantly, a theme that was to become the basis for relations of amity, trust and mutual respect between the United States and Ethiopia were the slogans, “America for Americans,” “Europe for Europeans,” and “Africa for Africans.” The Emperor loudly acclaimed the last refrain, Africa For Africans, telling Ellis to repeat that for him. Ellis says that he successfully conveyed the idea that whereas “other nations (Europeans) came to Africa to take the land, America was alone without land in Africa and wanted none. She only wanted liberty and trade.” It is not known if Emperor Menyelek and Ellis talked about Liberia, which was a sort of stepchild of America. At any rate, the belief that the United States did not wish to conquer or colonize Africa remained a guiding policy premise of successive Ethiopian rulers for the next three quarters of a century. It was, as we shall see anon, reaffirmed and even sanctified by Emperor Haile Sellassie for over fifty years right down to the end of his era in 1974.


Official US-Ethiopia Diplomatic Relations Commences

Ellis had wanted to come to Ethiopia as an accredited United States representative, but he had no official status or mission. However, by the time Ellis went back home, he had blazed the trail and prepared the ground for the official track of American diplomacy, which materialized shortly after he left Addis Ababa. It appears that Mr. Robert P. Skinner, America’s Consul-General in Marseilles, France had for sometime been urging the US State Department to establish an official American presence in Ethiopia. He had argued that business in general and American business in particular was expanding in the regions astride the Red Sea, and that unless America was officially represented in Ethiopia soon, the cabal of France, Italy and Britain in the region will preclude the probability of attaining substantive commercial relations between the US and Ethiopia.

In time, Skinner’s strenuous diplomatic lobbying found a sympathetic ear with President Theodore Roosevelt, of ‘Rough Riders’ fame, who also believed that ‘the business of America was business.’ The President took personal interest in establishing commercial relations with Ethiopia. President Roosevelt is said to have regretted that he himself could not go to Ethiopia then, but gladly appointed Skinner as his Commissioner Plenipotentiary for the commercial/diplomatic mission to the court of Emperor Menyelek. With that, Skinner left Marseilles on 25 October 1903 and arrived in Addis Ababa less than two months later. Envoy Skinner has left behind a remarkable memoir of his mission entitled Abyssinia Today (1906). The book also profiles the country’s history, customs, economy, and its contemporary relations with the outside world and also contains almost daily accounts of the American mission’s sojourn in Ethiopia. Although much of what he wrote about Emperor Menyelek and about Ethiopia had remarkable accuracy, there were also passages reflecting mistaken views prevalent at the time. For example, he characterized Ethiopia or Abyssinia as “Caucasian Cush” and Ethiopians as “Caucasian Semites.” Those knowledgeable about Adwa 1896 and its aftermath, will remember that EuroAmericans had revised the nomenclature for Ethiopia after Adwa. Refusing to admit that an African/black force can defeat a European army they had arbitrarily decided to declare Ethiopians as quasi-Caucasians. Some Ethiopians also bought into that shibboleth.

The most spectacular aspect of the Skinner mission in Ethiopia was the way it was received. Unless one’s readings on the subject so far are incomplete, no other diplomatic mission to Ethiopia then or since, was received with such warmth, enthusiasm, lavish hospitality and colorful pomp and pageantry through the length and breadth of every day of its stay, as was the American mission led by Commissioner Skinner in December 1903. The reception extended all the way for some 275 miles from Dire Dawa/Harar, where the mission was first hosted by Ras Mekonnen, through the month-long caravan route to and from Addis Ababa. Oh, how beautiful diplomatic courtship (as all other forms of courtship) can be! Envoy Skinner could not conceal his elation with the genuine enthusiasm with which the people and government of Ethiopia received his mission. He noted that the Ethiopians appreciated visibly, the development of ‘an alliance of friendship’ with a foreign power that was devoid of “discussion of frontiers and protectorates,” for a change. He added that there was “popular conviction that American friendship had no dangers, and would be a source of moral strength to the nation.” One piece of advice Mr Skinner remembered throughout the duration of the American mission in Ethiopia, was what Mr Yoseph Gelan, Ethiopia’s representative in Jibouti, had proffered to him “The Emperor will be very glad to see you and when you talk to him, as you have to me, you will find in him a friend. Speak simply, speak plainly and be sincere. Do not try to be like us; be yourself.

By 21 December 1903, America’s Old Glory was hoisted for the first time in Addis Ababa at the mission’s temporary residence in the palace compound of Ras Wolde Giorgis, which was promptly nicknamed ‘Camp Roosevelt’ by the mission. Following the welcoming ceremony of 21-gun salute and serenaded by music to the tunes of “Hail, Columbia’ and “Marseillaise” by the Ethiopian honor guard band, the American mission’s audience with Emperor Menyelek commenced in his royal Gibbi or Palace. Both the Emperor and envoy Skinner were eager to meet and do business, and when they finally met, the chemistry was very good. Mr Skinner describes his first impressions of Emperor Menyelek in court.

His Majesty wore the costume familiar to us from photographs. He sat in Oriental fashion, his legs crossed and his arms supported on two cushions. He wore a red velvet mantle, barely disclosing the snowy white under-garments, and around his head a white handkerchief was closely bound. He also wore diamond eardrops, and several rings upon his hands. His face was full of intelligence, and his manners those of a gentleman as well as a king. Distinctly, the first impression was agreeable.

The only embarrassment Skinner felt was he could not complement in kind the never-ending gifts showered upon him and his entourage of four civilian medics/adjutants and twenty-four Marines, by the Emperor and other Ethiopians in all walks of life during the mission’s stay in the country. Skinner characterized Emperor Menyelek as “the creator of the USA-the United States of Abyssinia.” He went on to say that the Emperor was “endowed by nature with the constructive intelligence of a Bismarck and the faculty for handling men by sheer amiability of a McKinley.”

After the perfunctory gun salutes and the proverbial ‘90% alcohol, 10% protocol’ diplomatic rituals, Skinner handed the Emperor a draft of a proposed commercial treaty between Ethiopia and the United States, including one written in Amharic by Professor Enno Littmann of Princeton University. The Emperor’s national and foreign advisors were to pore over it and scrutinize both what was on the lines and between the lines to determine what was “gold” and what was “wax” in it. The Emperor was impressed and pleased to see the text of the treaty in his own language, which enhanced the likely success of the Skinner mission. The fateful fraud committed by the Italian colonialists in the 1889 Wuchalie Treaty where Article 17 which read “the Emperor can ‘Yichalachewal’ if he wishes” to the Italian “he agrees to Italian representation”-meaning protectorate status-had spawned the 1896 Adwa war. Subsequently, Emperor Menyelek and others after him have been cautious of treaty terminologies and versions. So, it was decided that henceforth, treaties to which Ethiopia is a party should be drafted (i) in Ethiopic (Amharic) (ii) the language of the other party to the treaty and , for good measure (iii) in a third language as well. In some cases involving treaties with Italy, the Emperor even stipulated that if any discrepancies appeared between the Amharic (Ethiopic) and the Italian versions of a given treaty (e.g. the 10 July 1900 one on borders) Emperor Menyelek made it crystal clear that he would be bound only by the Ethiopic version of the treaty.

And so, in the course of examining the otherwise impeccably even-handed US-Ethiopia Treaty “To Regulate the Commercial Relations of the Two Countries,” the Ethiopian side demurred on Article vii which in the English version began with the conventional phrase “The present treaty shall remain in force…” because the literal translation of “shall remain in force” would be “Begidd Yitsenal” and such language recalled the odious memories of Wuchalie. So, an undesirable diplomatic faux pas was avoided by rewording the English phraseology of the said Article to read instead “the present treaty shall take effect…” It is relevant here to fast forward history and wonder about the cavalier way “colonial treaties” were handled during the recent (2000-2002 Algiers/Hague/NewYork/Asmera/Addis Ababa) joint determinations on Ethiopia-Eritrea borders. In the event, Emperor Menyelek and Envoy Skinner signed the United States-Ethiopia Treaty on 27 December 1903. It was ratified by the United States Senate and duly signed by President Roosevelt in 1904. By a strange quirk of circumstances, the ratified Treaty was then brought back and presented to Emperor Menyelek in August 1904 by none other than the indomitable Mr William H. Ellis.

Mr. Skinner’s analysis of the condition of Ethiopia’s trade in the contemporary period was thorough and informative. He noted that American cotton, referred to as Mericani, was very popular in Ethiopia and the region as a whole. Of total Ethiopian import-export trade amounting to nearly US$ 2.5 millions, the American share was about US$1.4 million of which cotton imports comprises 40% of Ethiopian imports. The United States was also buying coffee from Ethiopia, where, as Skinner also confirms, it originates. Ethiopian coffee is given the name arabica, due to the fact that it was purveyed elsewhere by Arab merchants. He notes that at that early period America also bought hides and skins from Ethiopia. What Skinner wanted to do was to stabilize and expand such trade between the two countries through a legal and political sanction assured by a mutually beneficial binding treaty. And, that he did admirably.

As to the customary exchange of gifts between the parties, the American side received lions, zebras, embroidered attires, crosses, portraits and the likes while the Ethiopian side was given portraits (of Presidents) guns and typewriter. The Emperor was very appreciative of the typewriter and wondered why there was no Amharic typewriter. But he, as always, was amused by the guns and especially by blank cartridges. He scared the wits out of his nationals when he fired the gun with those cartridges right then and there. Skinner was to observe later in his memoir: “The opulent Abyssinian is not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a gun in his hand.”

Such in brief were the baby steps of formal Ethiopia-United States relations. The task ahead is to trace and make sense of how relations that began this way have reached where they are today.


*This excerpt was presented on 31 August 2002 at a conference called by CLEA at Stanford University.

Copyright © 2002-2003. Negussay Ayele. Posted on MediaETHIOPIA on December 27, 2002.
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