Obituary: Professor Richard Pankhurst

Professor Richard Pankhurst died on 16 February 2017 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

He was the founder and first Director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of Addis Ababa University, and for 10 years the Librarian of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. He had lived, together with his wife Rita, in Ethiopia for five decades. Professor Pankhurst devoted the greater part of his life to the study of Ethiopian history and culture, and wrote extensively on the subject (29 books and countless articles). When Richard Pankhurst was awarded the OBE ‘for services to Ethiopian studies’, he wrote to the Queen urging the repatriation to Ethiopia of six Ethiopian manuscripts looted by British troops from Emperor Theodore’s fortress of Magdala in Ethiopia in 1868. They are currently held in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle.

Unsurprisingly there has been an outpouring of grief in his adopted country resulting in widespread calls in Ethiopia for Richard to be accorded a State funeral. Only one other westerner has been given such an honour; namely his mother Sylvia Pankhurst. Both she and Richard gave invaluable support and solidarity to Ethiopia. Richard Pankhurst was a founder patron of the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee – a committee formed to campaign for a public memorial in the form of a statue to be erected in honour of his mother, Sylvia, who had campaigned since 1935 against the Italian fascist invasion of Ethiopia and edited the New Times and Ethiopia News for 20 years. Richard was unstinting in his support and enthusiasm for a memorial to his mother that is also intended to mark her many other crusades: for the suffrage, against World War One, for working class women, against racism, imperialism and fascism. Richard too supported these causes as is clearly shown in the seminal book he wrote about his mother Sylvia Pankhurst, Artist and Crusader: An Intimate Portrait.

We know he would be pleased to learn that we now have the support of Islington Council and the Corporation of London to raise the statue of Sylvia on Clerkenwell Green, London. We are sure he would agree that Clerkenwell Green is a very fitting place given its long standing radical traditions. London’s first May Day march, organised by the London Trades Councils, set off from the Green in 1890 and still does. It was the site of Chartist gatherings, rallies supporting Irish freedom and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Clerkenwell Green is also home to the Marx Memorial Library, a meeting place for many progressive causes in the nineteenth century. In 1933 it was established as a library and Workers’ School against the background of the barbarism of fascists burning books in Germany in 1933. It houses the archives of the International Brigade and the Bernal Peace collection. This is where the book of donors to the statue will be kept.

Written by Professor Mary Davis on behalf of the Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee

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