Ellis and Ethiopia

What brought W.H. Ellis to suddenly switch his focus from Mexico to Ethiopia in the early 1900s?

On one level, the answer is obvious: Ethiopia (also known at the time as Abyssinia) leapt to prominence after its 1896 defeat of Italy at the Battle of Adwa.  This rare victory of African forces over European imperialists spoke volumes to Americans, white and black, alike.  If whites, who liked to imagine themselves as heirs to their own anti-colonialist rebellion of the American Revolution, saw a certain kinship between their history and recent events in Ethiopia, this impulse was all the stronger for blacks in the U.S.  There already was a prominent Ethiopianist strain to African-American thought, based in large part on Ethiopia’s import in the Bible.  But following 1896, the African-American identification with Ethiopia became all the more significant.  Even though W.H. Ellis attempted to conceal his African-American ancestry by claiming to be Cuban or Mexican, he does not seem to have been immune to the larger currents swirling through the black community of the late 1890s.  Rather than simply expressing an interest in affairs in Ethiopia, however, he decided to journey there instead.

On the other hand, though, Ellis’s enthusiasm Ethiopia–he would visit the kingdom twice in the early 1900s, becoming the first African American to set foot there–seems most peculiar.  He possessed a deep familiarity with the Spanish language and Mexican culture, having grown up along the Texas-Mexico border.  He had no similar fluency with Ethiopia’s language (Amharic) and, obviously, no prior exposure to the kingdom at all.  One hesitates to make hasty judgments as to character, but there seems to be a certain boldness (or should one say recklessness?) to Ellis’s decision to journey halfway across the globe to what was at the time one of the most remote corners of the world.

Ellis’s return journey in 1904 would be marked by an abiding mystery.  Ellis was traveling with Kent Loomis, the younger brother of the then-Assistant Secretary of State.  Kent was charged with delivering a treaty to King Menelik of Ethiopia.  Somehow, however, Kent fell overboard from the steam ship that was carrying him and Ellis to France on the first leg of their journey.  A later autopsy revealed a large wound behind one of Loomis’s ears.  Did he hit his head as he fell overboard?  Or was he struck from behind and then pushed overboard by someone?  Could that someone have been Ellis, who harbored hopes of his own of delivering the treaty to King Menelik? One more unanswerable mystery about a most mysterious figure. . . .


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