Sydney Parfitt

Image (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Object: Battle of Adwa
Location: The British Museum Corridor Level 2

This object is an oil painting, from the 1940s (artist unknown), on cotton cloth, depicting the Battle of Adwa which took place between invading Italian forces and the Ethiopian imperial army, led by Emperor Menelik II, on 2 March 1896. It was the culminating battle of what is known as the ‘First Italo-Ethiopian War’ which, to Europe’s shock, Ethiopia won. The painting offers a succinct illustration of the argument I make in a forthcoming book, The Process of International Legal Reproduction: Subjectivity, Historiography, Law, Violence (manuscript currently under review at CUP). Drawing on the example of the Ethiopian Empire’s birth as an international person and subsequent (though temporary) ‘death’ during its period as a fascist Italian colony (1936-45), the book argues that the process of obtaining subjectivity under international law is always a conditional one, meaning that international personality is always hybrid. International law’s subjects are both sovereign and less than sovereign at the same time, in other words.

In this painting, this hybridity is clear if one looks carefully. The artist has employed a very traditional style of quasi-religious painting to depict a very modern battle. The Empress Taitu, for instance, wearing traditional dress, is holding a revolver. The full cheeks of the Ethiopians reflect the longstanding (if fraught) connection between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Europe – the Venetian painter Niccolò Brancaleone having arrived in Ethiopia in around 1480, bringing with him Renaissance techniques which transformed the previously two-dimensional style of Ethiopian religious painting.

In the late-nineteenth century, however, the Ethiopian Empire’s hybridity was reinterpreted by Europeans as indicating a confusing, indeed degenerative mix between modern aspirations and backwardness. The Ethiopian Empire was depicted as an empire des nègres blancs (the title of a book by Alexandre Liaño, published in 1929). This hybridity came to be reflected, in the legal context, in the explicitly conditional form of sovereignty which Ethiopia came to obtain, particularly after 1923 when it became a member of the League of Nations. This conditionality was ruthless exploited by fascist Italy in 1935 as it sought to provide a legal justification for its impending invasion and brutal annexation of the country by insisting that Ethiopia had not kept its promise to abolish the institution slavery, and was therefore undeserving of the rights associated with the Covenant.

Paintings, and objects in general, are not merely illustrative, though that is of course part of their function. The physicality of the painting itself – the cotton on which it is made; the painting techniques employed; the nature of its journey into the British Museum, and so on – also contains within it traces of the profoundly unequal international legal order into which the Ethiopian Empire was drawn when it was forced to make the choice between transforming itself into a ‘sovereign equal’ or being transformed into a colony.