1980-1989 | Backing Apartheid | South Africa



Italian artillery in Ethiopia in 1936. Public domain via Wikimedia.

On 15 July 1935, the Daily Mail made it crystal clear which side it felt the British public would and should support, if fascist Italy decided to invade Ethiopia, declaring that ‘in this war which now seems inevitable, their sympathy is wholly with the cause of the white races, which Italy is so firmly upholding.’1 The ’cause of the white races’ for Mussolini meant annexing another colony, one of only two remaining independent countries in Africa or to cite former prime minister David Lloyd George ‘the last plum on the African tree’, so he could fashion himself as a Roman emperor and plunder Ethiopia’s resources just as Britain and France were ravaging their African colonies, while purporting to be ‘teaching the natives civilised values.’2

The Italians resorted to incendiary bombs, mustard and phosgene gas, the burning of villages and mass executions, killing hundreds of thousands during an eighteen month conflict. In contrast, however, to what the Daily Mail predicted, a large section of the British public felt outraged by the fascist onslaught and atrocities. One newspaper, reflecting on the Mail’s editorial, observed: ‘If that is their true opinion, the writer of the article and the press lord who was responsible for it, merely show that they do not know the British public.’ However, like many liberal commentators, the journalist appeared more concerned with the consequences of war for European victims than for Ethiopians, declaring that ‘British sympathies’ were not with ‘the bragging adventurer at the head of the Italian government,’ but rather with ‘the Italian soldiers, whose lives are being heartlessly flung away on the sun-baked shores of the Red Sea.’3

Other newspapers opposed the war due to its possible encouragement to rebellion within the British Empire, should Ethiopian forces be more successful than expected. ‘If Italy were drawn into a long struggle or suffered defeat,’ The Scotsman warned, ‘the prestige of the white races would be considerably lowered.’4 Similarly, Hannen Swaffer writing in the Daily Herald cautioned that ‘if Abyssinia loses in war, it will cause unrest among Negroes all over the world. If she wins – who can foresee what may happen in those sun parched waterless desert wastes ? White imperialism will suffer a great blow.’5

Even the most sympathetic portraits of the country by more liberal sections of the press reflected an arrogant conviction that Ethiopians were not truly worthy of independence. The Northern Whig, reviewing a book entitled The Real Abyssinia, reported that the people ‘object to the imposition upon them of the ideals and ideas of civilised nations,’ adding that ‘though incorrigibly wasteful they make admirable servants, and Mr. Rey (the author) and his wife found them scrupulously honest.’6 The Sunday Pictorial was even more damning, describing them as ‘a virile race of fearless fighters,’ but adding that they possessed ‘an evil reputation for cruelty to men and animals,’ while the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who travelled to Ethiopia to report on the war for the Daily Mail, considered it ‘a barbarous country’ and ‘a savage place which Mussolini was doing well to tame.’7

Given the deeply racist views of the British media and intellectuals, it’s not surprising that efforts to restrain the Italian invasion were at best half-hearted. Foreign Secretary Sir Samuel Hoare went as far as to encourage the Italians, stating publicly in July that ‘we admit the need for Italian expansion.’ On 25 July, as public concern mounted, the government sanctimoniously imposed an arms embargo, but as this was enforced on exports to both Italy and Ethiopia it merely succeeded in maintaining the vast superiority in weapons which the Italians enjoyed. Nor did British forces in the Mediterranean or Egypt take any action to deter the planned invasion. Italian warships were allowed to pass through the Suez canal and Italian aircraft to transit across Egypt, and when the League of Nations belatedly introduced sanctions after the war had already started, Britain ensured that oil continued to be excluded from the list of prohibited exports. Finally, in April 1938, even while the last Ethiopian resistance forces were still fighting, London petitioned the League of Nations to formally recognise Italy’s annexation of the country.8


  1. The Daily Mail cited in ‘It has happened,’ The Norfolk and Suffolk Journal and Diss Express, 19 July 1935, p. 6. See also Tim Bouverie, Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, The Bodley Head, London, 2019, p. 77.
  2. David Lloyd George, ‘Will Mussolini Annex Abyssinia,’ The Sunday Pictorial, 23 June 1935, p. 10.
  3. ‘It Has Happened,’ The Norfolk and Suffolk Journal and Diss Express, 19 July 1935, p. 6.
  4. ‘Britain and the Dispute,’ The Scotsman, 31 July 1935, p. 10.
  5. Hannen Swaffer, ‘I Heard Yesterday,’ The Daily Herald, 30 July 1935, p. 11.
  6. ‘Abyssinia Today: A Favourable Judgement,’ The Northern Whig, 12 October 1935, p. 10.
  7. ‘Abyssinians a Virile Race of Fearless Fighters,’ The Sunday Pictorial, 6 October 1935, p. 5, Tim Bouverie, op. cit. and W. F. Deedes, ‘At War with Waugh: The Real Story of Scoop,’ Pan Books, Basingstoke and Oxford, 2004, p. 14.
  8. ‘Britain Makes Another Move to Please Italy,’ The Daily Mirror, 12 April 1938, p. 13.


Bust of Trevor Huddleston in Bedford (Simon Speed via Wikimedia) and statue of Margaret Thatcher at London’s Guildhall (The Wub – CC BY-SA 4.0 – via Wikimedia) 

[ 15 July 1988 ]

Today in 1988, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher replied to Bishop Trevor Huddleston, who was asking her to pressure the South African government to free Nelson Mandela from prison.  He had requested that she might meet himself and 25 activists who were marching 600 miles from Glasgow to London to raise public consciousness about the murderous apartheid regime.  Her response was blunt: ‘I am afraid that I shall not be able to meet the marchers and you to discuss Mr. Mandela’s release.’1


  1. Margaret Thatcher cited in Elizabeth M. Williams, The Politics of Race in Britain and South Africa: Black British Solidarity and the Anti-Apartheid Struggle, I.B. Tauris, London and New York, 2015, p. 71.

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