Antonin Besse and the Ethiopian Resistance

The assistance planned for Ethiopia from the outside world was made of more than pious intentions. It is not easy to imagine now that some thirty-five years ago no plane could fly to Addis Ababa from Aden without having to refuel on the way and at its destination. Fuel supplies had to be positioned suitably so that they could be used when needed, in friendly places in the Gulf of Aden. Preparations of this nature were going on in Aden, and many officers on the British warships in the harbour were heard wishing openly for an order from London to proceed with this deliberate and shameless aggression.

During the Years 1935 to 1940

By Maurice L. Weerts

However, all this came to nothing in the end and invasion of Ethiopia started in earnest as soon as the Maskal celebrations had taken place in late September. Mr. Besse then decided to transfer me from Djibouti to the management of his business in Addis Ababa, where I arrived at the beginning of December 1935. Ethiopia had scarcely any weapon other than courage with which to drive the invaders back, but news arriving from the battlefields was not too depressing. Graziani was forced to mark time in the south, and DeBono was blocked at Maqalle, while Ras Imru bad actually invaded part of Eritrea. Mustard gas had not been used so far or, if used, its presence had not been detected and reported. However, this encouraging aspect of the war did not last for long, and very soon it was clear that we could only hope that the fast approaching defeat would prove to be of a temporary nature only.

Even in these difficult times, the reliability of the Ethiopian employees was as good as ever. Most of our business was transacted in silver coins, the Maria Theresa dollars, each weighing 28 grams. Transfers to and from the Bank had to be made by bearers, each man transporting 2000 dollars, 56 kilos, on his head, and it was an astonishing sight for western eyes to look at the meandering line of coolies, each one with his load on his head, with only an old supervisor with a stick in his hand keeping close watch on the procedure. Motorization in town had not yet reached such a degree that these coins could be unloaded from a van on the Bank premises and, in any case, one had never heard of any coins-bearer disappearing from the line into the crowded streets.

The same reliability was found with the Neggadras or Abban, the head of the caravans. Great amounts of goods and important sums of money were entrusted to their care, and if a camel or a mule had bolted with its load, the leader of the caravan would foot the bill without discussion. This form of transport was so normal that when I sent a caravan to Dessie, not knowing at the tine that the enemy lines would be in the normal path of the caravan, I entrusted it with bags containing 10,000 MT dollars, in addition to an important load of cotton goods, sugar and kerosene in tins. Soon after the departure of the caravan, I came to know about Dessie being occupied by the enemy, and I expected to hear soon about the loss of our property and possibly even the death of the caravaneers. Much to my surprise and to my relief, not only were the people safe but the goods were delivered intact, although the head of the caravan could very easily have concocted a story of looting and got away with it.

In those days, when trading in the provinces meant using caravans with no other means of transport available, a trip to Dessie would take between two and three weeks, a trip to Jimma or to Dilla one full month, and the trip to Gore at least fifty days. Goatskins and sheepskins were exported from Dessie via Bati to Tajurah by caravan, taking forty days of travel through the Awassa deserts and around lake Assal.

His Imperial Majesty had then to leave Ethiopia. Addis Ababa was in a turmoil and the permission given by the Emperor to his servants to take away what he had to leave in the Palace was followed by some looting in town. Dajazmac Abebe, later on to be made earas, had taken the police force with him into the Ancober mountains in order to start a guerilla war which was to last five years. The town fell prey to disorderly elements and it looked as if the Besse depository was to be looted like so many other premises.

Fortunately for us, the Gurage daily workers brought their own families to our premises, under the advice of their respected leader, Ato Rahmato Muktar, one of the noblest persons I have ever met in my life. These workers soon numbered more than one hundred and they found a way to secure some firearms and ammunition. Our premises did not attract the predators, and some time later I could report the fact to Mr. Besse, praising the co-operation of the labour force under conditions unheard of so far.

In February 1937, Ato Rahmato was trapped in the Palace when the Patriots tried to kill Graziani and his entourage. Together with very many others, he was transferred to an open area near Giyorgis Cathedral. His son, Mohamed, came to tell me about it and after having examined the site, we managed with the help of some money to arrange for his escape from captivity and almost certain death. It was a repayment for the help he had given me in May, at the time of the looting of the town.

I remember that at the time of the attempt against Graziani by the Patriots, I saw Cortese, Secretary of the Fascist Party in Addis Ababa, standing in an open car, in the street now known as Cunningham Street, with blood on his face, screaming at the top of his voice that Ethiopians had tried to kill the Viceroy and ordering the Italians around him to kill everyone within sight. There was actually a very considerable amount of slaughter, and we offered shelter and food to all our neighbours whose huts were going up in flames night after night for days to come.

The Legation of the United States of America was at that time sited in a vast property in the vicinity of the Habte Giyorgis Bridge and there truly thousands of refugees took shelter, protected by the US flag until the fascist authorities might recover their self-control. The firm attitude of the US Minister, Mr. Eggerth, prevented the arrest and the death of many Ethiopians at that time.

All these events forged a brotherhood with Ato Rahmato Muktar which we both turned to good account for underground work. Radio sets at that time were still of poor quality, and above all very scarce. There was no organised distribution of electricity in town, but some foreign residents operated small engines to provide electricity for their own use, and these managed to listen to outside broadcasts of news which Ato Rahmato would circulate amongst his friends. We were all hoping for a victory of the Republicans in Spain so that Mussolini would be forced to leave Ethiopia, following the defeat of his own armies in Europe. There was a joyful day when we heard about the rout inflicted by the International Militia on the Black shirts in Guadalajara, but one of us was over-enthusiastic and; by spreading the news too loudly, he attracted trouble for all of us, and we had to disband.

Some years before the aggression against Ethiopia, Mr. Besse had been in trouble with the fascist authorities in Somalia. The colony was ruled at that time by one of the Quadrumvirs, the four leaders of the fascist march on Rome at the beginning of the fascist era in Italy. The protests voiced by Mr. Besse against the high-handed methods of this man drew persecution against Mr. Besse's manager in Mogadishu, to the point that finally a trumped-up case of smuggling was produced in Court, resulting in Mr. Besse being sentenced in absentia to a heavy fine. Such methods could not tame Mr. Besse -far from it- and he opposed the regime with increased vigour.

He was therefore labelled as undesirable in Ethiopia, and on the first Sunday of January 1937 I received a visit from the carabinieri to deliver the text of an expulsion decree originating from the ìCapo del Governoî, in which, with no reason given, the elimination of the firm was odered in final terms. Armed guards were placed permanently in our premises and we were ordered to proceed as fast as possible with the liquidation of our assets in Ethiopia. Effeciency was not characteristic of the fascist administration, however, and Mr. Besse agreed that I should proceed with utmost slowness. As explained earlier, our hope for a Republican victory in Spain was the idea under-lying such a policy.

During the occupation of Addis Ababa, a number of foreign residents, myself included, were not permitted beyond the widebelt of barbed wire which completely surrounded the city as a defence against attacks from the patriots. Trips abroad had to be given permission beforehand and were usually denied to foreign residents. I was very anxious to have a meeting with Mr. Besse in Aden and, although I know that I was spied upon by the security men, I made a pretext of the need to get some instructions for the liquidation of our business to obtain the required permission. It was granted in due course, but I was not surprised to find someone on the train extremely anxious to get acquainted and anxious also for a sudden friendship. I could not shake off this unwelcome company until we reached the first railway station in French Somali land. There, I was neatly whisked off to a small plane, where Lady Besse was waiting for me to go with her to Aden. It was not a comfortable journey; I was flying for the first time, but I laughed all the way, thinking of the infuriated face of the man when I left him.

During our meeting in Aden, Mr. Besse explained how he had arranged with the Djibouti authorities for a regular mail service between us. I was instructed to write weekly reports, not merely on business generally, but above all on political events and decrees, and in particular on the activities of the Resistance. When told of this scheme on my return, Ato Rahmato Muktar was highly enthusiastic about it and he set himself immediately to contact the negadis visiting the town in order to collect facts. This enabled him to provide me with precise and valuable information on the attacks made by the Freedom Fighters on the occupying armies. I typed these reports personally and took my letters to the French Consulate General, formerly the French Legation, where another friend, Ato Wolde Emanuel Takala Haymanot, would quietly slip my envelope into the diplomatic bag for Djibouti. Ato Wolde Emanuel was a secretary at the Legation who had been granted asylum by the French Authorities when he had been sentenced to death by the invaders.

The mails smuggled out of Ethiopia to Djibouti were delivered to the eldest son of Mr Besse, Mr Andre Besse, who was managing Mr. Besse's business in French Somaliland. The mails were then sent to Aden, where Mr. Besse handed them over to the highest military authorities for despatch to London and communication to Bath. Years later, I came across a mention of this flow of information to the British government and to His imperial Majesty, in a book written by Miss Freya Stark about her travels in South Arabia. She mentioned in the book that Mr. Besse regularly provided highly valuable information about conditions in Ethiopia, information which was usually confirmed by subsequent despatches from the British Consulate General in Addis Ababa, but after a lapse of three weeks.

This went on for more than a year, during which I was ostensibly proceeding with the liquidation of our assets. This comedy could not go on for much longer, however, and although the fascist authorities for some unknown reason seemed not to want to use force against us, they tried to buy off Mr. Besse by sending two of the owners of the biggest Italian firms in Brazil, Matterazzo, with extremely attractive proposals, in which a good consideration was reserved for my own benefit. This offer was dryly turned clown, and then a much more subtle scheme was put a foot. One evening I was called to the office of the director of one of the Italian banks in town. There I met a former Italian diplomat in Addis Ababa who had friendly relations with Mr.Besse some fifteen years earlier and whose name was very well known to me. This man said that he had met Mr. Besse in France a short time ago and that Mr. Besse had requested him to help towards an improvement of our relations with the authorities, with instructions for me to place myself under this man's control without question. Ultimately it appeared that I was requested to issue a full power of attorney in favour of a certain Italian lawyer, in order to permit to this lawyer to take legally valid decisions about the liquidation of our assets. This of course I refused to do, and I was thrown out unceremoniously. I reported it all to Mr. Besse, who replied that he had not seen the man for many years.

The strain was now growing to the point of being unendurable. In addition, prospects of a favourable outcome to the Spanish War, on which we had pinned our hopes, were fast deteriorating. Mr. Besse then recalled me, saying that the Ethiopian business would be settled together with the European war bound to start soon. I was allowed three months of comparative rest in Belgium, interrupted by visits to the Quai d'Orsay in Paris, where I had to explain the form taken by Ethiopian resistance as I had seen it.

On my return to Aden, I became acquainted with Mr. Besse's attacks on Mussolini's reserves of foreign currencies through a steady flow of MT Dollars from the European mints to Aden, for exchange against smuggled liras which the Italian Treasury had to buy back for vital reasons of prestige. But this was not enough for this extraordinarily active man. He had been in touch with Bajerond Takla Hawariat and Kanazmac Fassil Shifaraw, both refugees in Aden, and he gave them all sorts of support in their struggle for freedom of their country. He had paid a sum of 20,000 MT dollars to the Bajerond for use in guerilla warfare in Ethiopia by harassing military post, blowing up bridges and cutting communication lies, and he had promised much more money to follow if results from the first payment justified it.

The Bajerond was supposed to send this money by carefully selected messengers to officials in the Awassa province, and in particular to one Ato Nagash, a former official of the Ethiopian government, who was living there with relatives of his mother. This money was ultimately intended for the patriots fighting around Ankober and Debre Sina. Ato Nagash confirmed later, when we met in the liberated Addis Ababa, that most of the messengers fell victim to Italian intelligence services in Djibouti, and very little of the money reached him.

Events, however, were speeding up and very soon World War II started. As far back as 1936, Mr. Besse had set up the Arabian Airways Company, with three small passenger planes, pilots, a maintenance engineer and other staff, for the establishment of a regular service from Addis Ababa to Mulkalla, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf. The success of the Italians in the war had forced him to close down this truly pioneering enterprise, but he had kept a plane which he used in the Aden heat for week-end trips to Mukhaires, in the mountains of the Yemen border. Returning from such a trip, the plane failed to take off properly, and in the resultant crash Mr. Besse had some vertebrae badly crushed. Half paralysed, he had to be transported to France for skilled medical treatment, and he recovered only partly after many months. By that time France had been invaded and preparations for the liberation of Ethiopia were just about to begin. Mr. Besse managed to journey towards Aden by way of Portugal, the USA, and India, where he was when our Aden Office told him that we had been able to reoccupy our premises when Addis Ababa was liberated. All he could do was to reply telegraphically by one word: 'Congratulations'. I, for one, knew well the amount of feeling included in that single word. There were no telegraph lines or wireless contacts between Addis Ababa and the outside world, apart from military traffic of course, and it was some time before an incapacitated Mr. Besse would again see the Ethiopia for the freedom of which he had fought for so long.

My own reward, apart from this telegraphic message which was long delayed en route, was the friendly welcome of the Ethiopians rushing to our premises in that last week of April 1941, saying, "Now that you are back with us, we know we are free and that our Emperor will soon be back".

We dedicated all our strength to the reconstruction of our business as part of the reconstruction of Ethiopia, while waiting for reports on the progress of the liberation of our kinsmen in Western Europe, who were still suffering a fate similar to that from which we had so recently emerged.