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THE Abyssinian representatives in Geneva had proclaimed their intention of making a formal speech of protest at the autumn session of the Assembly of the League of Nations against the recent Anglo-Italian agreement which, despite reassuring statements in London, was regarded in many quarters -- particularly in Paris -- as a prelude to the division of Abyssinia into spheres of economic interest between Great Britain and Italy. London and Rome at the last moment induced Abyssinia to adopt a different course.
The Empire of Abyssinia -- or, as it is now officially styled, Ethiopia -- has an area of about 350,000 square miles and a population of something like 10,000,000. Of these only about 3,500,000 belong to the Abyssinian ruling race. The rest are of Galla or other Hamitic stock or, in the conquered equatorial regions, are negroes. Though the Abyssinians proper are one of the oldest of Christian nations, at least half the total population are Mohammedans: indeed, a few years ago, after the death of the late King Menelek, it looked as if the Mohammedans might get the upper hand.
The fact that the country is highly mountainous was Abyssinia's protection during the many centuries in which it was lost to the European world and was threatened from all sides by hostile Mohammedan neighbors. In the nineteenth century, it first came into general view with the English punitive expedition against King Theodore in 1868, who after generations of confusion united the scattered tribes once more into something like a real state but who by his ill treatment of foreigners in the country provoked English intervention. After his overthrow the English retired, but later in the century all the natural seacoast of Abyssinia was taken over from Egypt or otherwise occupied by England, Italy and France; since that time these have been the three states most interested in Abyssinian affairs. In 1889 a treaty was signed between Italy and King Menelek which seemed to put Abyssinia under an Italian protectorate. Menelek, however, denied this, and in the war that finally ensued the Italians after being defeated at the battle of Adua in 1896 gave up their claims and signed a treaty of peace. The boundaries of Abyssinia were settled by a number of conventions with the neighbors. In the one with England in 1902 it was agreed that no obstruction should be placed in Lake Tana or the Blue Nile to the outflow of water necessary for the irrigation of the Sudan and of Egypt. The chief interest of France has come from the fact that the French own the port of Jibuti, the best on the coast, and the railway from there to Addis Ababa, the present capital of the country.
By an agreement signed in 1906 Great Britain, France and Italy undertook to respect and to endeavor to preserve the integrity of Abyssinia and to act in such a manner that industrial concessions granted in the interest of one of them should not injure the others. They also agreed to abstain from intervention in Abyssinian internal affairs and in general to concert together in Abyssinian questions, as well as to guarantee equal treatment in trade and transit for their nationals. In some respects this treaty reminds one of the Anglo-French Convention of 1904 in regard to Siam and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 in regard to Persia, in both of which cases the countries were divided into spheres of influence for the treaty powers. To the outside world this seemed only a first step towards ultimate partition. But the partition has never taken place, and in the case of Abyssinia there was no such sharp delimitation of spheres, though there was a recognition of English interests in regard to the region of Lake Tana and the Nile, of Italian in the western region which has Italian territory to the north and south of it, and of French in the vicinity of the railway. Another object of the treaty undoubtedly was to keep the Germans out.
In December, 1925, notes were exchanged between the British and Italian Governments by which it was provided that Italy would support an English request to the Abyssinian Government for a concession to construct a barrage at Lake Tana together with a right to build and maintain a motor road from the Sudan frontier to the barrage. In return the British Government was to support an Italian application for the concession of a railway across Abyssinia which should connect the Italian territories north and south of the country. England would also be willing "to recognize an exclusive Italian economic influence in the west of Abyssinia," and would promise to support all Italian requests for economic concessions in that zone. Such recognition and undertakings would be, however, subject to the proviso that the Italian Government, "recognizing the prior hydraulic rights of Egypt and the Sudan" would engage not to construct on the headwaters of the Blue or White Niles, or their tributaries or affluents, "any works which might sensibly modify their flow into the main river."
This looked a good deal like a division of Abyssinia into spheres of influence, and without consultation with France. At any rate, the French asked for explanations, and also -- it is asserted in Italy -- stirred up the Abyssinians to protest. This the latter did in a note dated June 19, 1926, addressed to states members of the League of Nations, accompanied by a covering letter to the Secretary-General. As a consequence, the Italian press attacked the French with much acrimony. The British Government found it necessary in answer to questions in Parliament to give assurances that the Abyssinian complaints were quite ill founded, that both Italy and England had acted in the friendliest spirit, merely undertaking not to get in each other's way, and that they had no intentions against the independence or integrity of Abyssinia. At the meeting of the League of Nations, in September, there was considerable curiosity as to whether Abyssinia might not make a formal protest in the Assembly, thus placing England and Italy in an uncomfortable position.
Instead, the Regent of Abyssinia merely addressed to the Secretary-General a letter, dated September 4, in which he recalled to mind the protest formulated by his government in June, and the subsequent efforts of Great Britain and Italy to make plain their purely friendly intentions. The two Powers, continued the Regent, had announced that they intended to deposit with the League Secretariat the two notes which they had interchanged on the subject of Abyssinia, and to this the Abyssinian Government had no objection, as the step was merely designed to give publicity to their protestations of friendship and did not infringe Abyssinia's sovereignty. However, the Regent felt bound to request that his letter be registered and published by the League, together with the British and Italian notes in question, so that all the members of the League might know that, far from having given any undertaking in the matter, the Abyssinian Government retained full and complete freedom to decide as to any political or economic request that might be made to it. In acknowledging receipt of this letter on October 11, the Secretary-General expressed regret that as it was a unilateral declaration it could not be regarded as an international engagement and registered in the treaty series, but that he would make a suitable reference to it in the treaty series at the end of the notes exchanged between London and Rome.
While the record was thus being put straight, the interested parties were settling details by private negotiation. England and Italy appear to have obtained their concessions in the matter of the barrage and the railway in return for a considerable foreign loan. France also has had to profess herself satisfied. But though relegated to the background, the incident is probably not yet entirely closed.