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A Different Kind of Hero by Richard Seltzer

 

A Review of Slaves and Ivory Continued: Letters of R.C.R. Whalley, British Consul, Maji, SW Ethiopia 1930-1935, introduced and annotated by Cynthia Salvadori.  (Published by Shama Books, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The book is only available directly from the publisher: Shama PLC, PO Box 57, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, email addresses: shama@ethionet.et, oumou_kn@yahoo.com, gbagersh@shamaethiopia.com)

 

Imagine a land where slavery is officially illegal, but average citizens and soldiers (who presumably should enforce the law) take it for granted; a land where even governors and judges appointed to try cases of slave trading openly own slaves; a land where raiders surround entire villages, slaughter the old and weak, and sell the rest as slaves; a land where a child or a young woman can be bought for a rifle and a couple dozen cartridges. Imagine a land where destitute villagers needing cash to pay taxes or needing a rifle for self-defense and hunting will sell a wife or a child into slavery. 

 

Imagine such conditions persisting until the mid-1930s.

 

Welcome to Ethiopia, in particular welcome to the southwest region of Ethiopia around Maji.

 

You work for the British foreign service and you've just been assigned as consul to Maji, with the prospect of living at this isolated outpost for years, with a native translator but no one else who speaks your language for hundreds of miles around.  In the prevailing conditions it would take weeks to travel those miles on foot or by donkey, if you were lucky enough that you and your donkeys survive the deadly diseases endemic in the low-lying country all around.

 

Your job -- with no authority, no leverage, only the vaguest of instructions and a communication system such that it typically takes weeks to get a message to or from your superiors -- is to put an end to slavery and also to poaching, particularly when that involves raids across the border into British-controlled Sudan and Kenya.  You should also resolve international border disputes in territories where members of the same tribe live on both sides of the border and commonly graze their animals wherever water and food can be found, migrating freely in times of drought.

 

What are your tools?  You can talk (through your translator) and you can send letters to your superiors in hopes that they will be able to influence the central government.  So you write lots of letters.  And for years you don't even know if your superiors care a whit for what you are doing.  But you do it anyway, not just because it's your job, but because you know it's the right thing to do.  And day after day you express your shock, your indignation, your determination to deal with the evils of slavery at the most basic level -- identifying slaves and slave owners, trying to coax slaves to leave their owners, trying to bring cases to court even though the judge will be a slave owner, trying to get slaves freed even though the local official who is "freeing" them will probably sell them to someone else or take them himself. 

 

And you'll keep banging your head against the wall.  You won't give up.  You won't grow numb to what you know is evil.  You will be shocked and indignant again and again.  You will never take evil for granted.  You will never accept slavery as business-as-usual, as an integral part of the local economy and culture.  It must end.

 

The book "Slaves and Ivory Continued" consists of a collection of letters by R.C.R. Whalley, the British consul in Maji 1930-1935.  The letters are put into context by means of an introduction and detailed annotation, but hte letters themselves are not edited -- they are transcribed verbatim. This isn't a modern interpretation of events.  This isn't an academic treatise about the depopulating effects of slavery.  This book is a primary resource about a little-known time and place, giving insight into aspects of human nature that I had never imagined.

 

In a little more than 30 years from the time when the armies of Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia, conquered the southwest territories, the population of the native tribes declined by 80-90%, and in many cases their cultures were obliterated.  The population was wiped out by massacre and slavery.  And the same practices continued into the 1930s.

 

The devastation, the extinction of entire tribes and cultures was business-as-usual.  The ruling Amharic people considered the native peoples of this region as less than human, and carried out what amounted to genocide, without any plan or coordination, with no orders from above, simply as a side-effect of their accustomed way of life.

 

And despite the odds, Whalley did make a difference.  His voice crying in the wilderness was heard.  No, there was no public outcry, no international movement. But his superiors used the information and evidence he provided as leverage with Emperor Haile Selassie.  And after the Italians conquered and then lost Ethiopia, slavery was ended, with no fanfare and no credit to Whalley.  One kind of business-as-usual was replaced with another, and life went on.

 

Thanks very much to Cynthia Salvadori for bringing to light this unusual tale -- not a tale of romantic adventure; but rather the everyday life of a British official, stuck in the middle of nowhere and persistently battling everyday business-as-usual slavery and genocide -- and for making known the fate of the lost tribes of southwest Ethiopia.

 

__________

 

The reviewer, Richard Seltzer, is the translator of "With the Armies of Menelik II" by Alexander Bulatovich (Red Sea Press: 2000), a first-hand account by the young Russian cavalry officer who accompanied Menelik's warlord on his conquest of what is now southwestern Ethiopia in 1897 -- the beginning of the grim story of slavery in the area.




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