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Great Britain, France, and the Ethiopian Tripartite Treaty of 1906

  • Edward C. Keefer

In assessing the events which brought Great Britain and France from the edge of war at Fashoda in 1898 to the alliance of 1914, scholars have paid little attention to the settlement of Anglo-French differences in the independent African empire of Ethiopia. The resolution of Ethiopian problems in 1906 was nonetheless important in forging close Anglo-French relations, especially when viewed within the context of the better-known Entente Cordiale of 1904. By excluding Anglo-French conflicting Ethiopian interests from the already difficult entente negotiations, British and French statesmen removed a potential stumbling block to that important and seminal agreement. In a more positive vein, the subsequent signing of a separate Tripartite Treaty on Ethiopia—the Italians were the third signatory—actively reinforced the Entente Cordiale itself. To the French the Ethiopian agreement was a confirmation of British good faith in implementing the spirit of the entente beyond areas specified in the more important accord of 1904. To the British it was an object lesson that certain imperial interests in Ethiopia should not jeopardize generally improving relations with France. To both countries the Tripartite Treaty of 1906 tidied unfinished business of the entente and eliminated to each nation's general satisfaction a nagging local conflict.

French Foreign Minister Theophile Delcassé had wanted to include Ethiopia in the entente agreement. During the course of the negotiations he suggested to his English counterpart Lord Lansdowne a “comprehensive settlement” of colonial-imperial differences. While individuals in the British Foreign Office considered adding Ethiopia to the larger rapprochement over Egypt and Morocco, the British cabinet decided to postpone Ethiopian matters until after conclusion of the Entente Cordiale. In good part this decision reflected respect for the complexity of strategic, financial, and personal rivalries of the two great imperial powers in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

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1 Only two scholars have published work on the Tripartite Treaty of 1906. Marcus, Harold G., “A Preliminary History of the Tripartite Treaty of Dec. 13, 1906,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 11 (1964): 2141, and The Life and Times of Menelik II, Ethiopia 1844-1913 (Oxford, 1975), assesses the treaty from the African context. Eubank, Keith, Paul Cambon, Master Diplomatist (Norman Oklahoma, 1960) concentrates briefly on the role of French Ambassador to London in the negotiations for the agreement. None of the following standard works mention the Ethiopia treaty: Andrew, Christopher, Theophile Delcassé and the Making of the Entente Cordiale (New York, 1968); Gifford, Prosser and Louis, William Roger eds., France and Britain in Africa (New Haven, 1971); Porter, Charles W., The Career of Theophile Delcassé (Philadelphia, 1936); Monger, George, The End of Isolation (London, 1963); Rolo, P.J.V., Entente Cordiale (London, 1969); and Williamson, Samuel R., The Politics of Grand Strategy (Cambridge, Mass., 1969). Hinsley, F.H., ed., British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey (Cambridge, 1977) makes one brief mention, p. 119.

A careful reading of Documents diplomatiques francais, series 2, vols. 1–9 (Paris, 1929) (hereafter cited as D.D.F.) gives a fair picture of the importance that the French placed on the settlement of the Ethiopian railway and the tripartite treaty as proof of British intentions in light on the Entente Cordiale of 1904, but it is no substitute for research in French Foreign Office Archives. This study has not drawn upon original research in French diplomatic records.

2 Lansdowne to Monson, July 7, 1903, no. 357, in British Documents on the Origins of the War, ed. Gooch, G.P. and Temperley, H.W.V. (London: 1927), vol. 2.

3 Delcassé to Caillaux, July 1, 1901, no. 309, D.D.F., ser. 2, 1, Monson to Lansdowne, May 13, July 27, 1901, FO 1/41, Public Record Office, London. Gilmour, T. Lennox, Abyssinia: The Ethiopian Railway and the Powers (London, 1906), pp. 1218; Marcus, , Menelik II, pp. 201–2.

4 Memorandum on the Somali Coast Railway, enclosed in Harrington to Salisbury, Aug. 31, 1899; Cromer to Salisbury, Mar. 6, 1900, Cromer Papers, Public Record Office, London (hereafter cited as CP.), F.O. 633/8 p. 256; Cromer to Salisbury, Cairo, May 15, 1900, F.O. 403/298. A word of explanation about British Foreign Office documentation on Ethiopia. Documents considered of more than local importance were printed in a confidential print series, FO 403 and FO 401 (after 1905). These series were entitled “Egypt, the Sudan, and the Red Sea” and later “North East Africa.” The prints were distributed in Whitehall on a limited basis; and as they drew upon material relating to the region, they were of broader interest than just Ethiopia. However minutes and comments, especially after 1905, were more prevalent on the original documents in the FO/1 series and FO/371 series (post 1905). I have cited the FO 403 or FO 401 series when these documents on Ethiopia were included in the confidential prints unless important minutes or comments appear only on the originals. The advantage of documents in the FO 403 or FO 401 series is that they are in printed type, while documents in the FO 1 and FO 371 series are primarily hand-written.

5 Hicks-Beach to Sanderson, Jan. 7, 1899, FO 1/36; Treasury to Foreign Office, July 10, 1900, FO 403/299; and Salisbury minute to letter from Cromer to Sanderson, Mar. 6, 1900, FO 1/41.

6 Harrington to Boyle, Apr. 5, 1902; and to Lansdowne, May 10, 1902, FO 403/322; and Gilmour, , Ethiopian Railway, pp. 3537.

7 Monson to Lansdowne, Feb. 24 and Mar. 11, 1903, FO 1/43.

8 In addition to the Emperor, Menelik's wife, Empress Taitu, was a confirmed opponent of the railway and Europeanization of Ethiopia in general. Italian minister Ciccodicola also counselled the Emperor to oppose the French. Harrington to Boyle, Apr. 5, 1902 and to Lansdowne, May 10, 1902, FO 403/322.

9 Harrington's private letters to Cromer and Lansdowne are mentioned in their correspondence, yet are not in the F.O. archives at the Public Record Office nor in the private papers of the two men. One can get a good feeling for their content from Lansdowne's private message to Cromer of March 17, 1903, FO 1/43. For Lansdowne's advice to Balfour, see minute by Lansdowne for Balfour, Mar. 14, 1903, FO 1/43. Harrington wrote later to Cromer that he had only advised Menelik “as a private individual” as opposed to the British representative. Cromer feared that Harrington was too inexperienced to use the ancien jeu diplomatique of the “private individual” safely. Harrington to Cromer, Mar. 23, 1903 and Cromer to Sanderson, Cairo, Apr. 23, 1903, FO 1/43.

10 Cromer to Sanderson, Apr. 15, 1903, with minutes by Sanderson and Lansdowne.

11 No minutes were kept of cabinet meetings prior to 1916. A summarizing memorandum by Sanderson entitled “French Railway From Jibouti to Harar, and a project for a British Railway from Berbera,” June 28, 1903, F.O. 1/43, was printed for cabinet use on Nov. 28, 1903. Further confirmation of the cabinet decision can be found in a reflection by French Foreign Minister Rouvier “that the Cabinet in London refused to include the Ethiopian affair in the 8 April 1904 arrangement. …” Rouvier to Cambon, Nov. 21, 1905, no. 146, D.D.F. ser. 2, vol. 8.

12 Harrington to Sanderson, Dec. 12, 1903, with minutes by Sanderson and Cromer, FO 1/43. Both Cromer and Military Intelligence feared that the railway would ascend to the plateau on which Addis Ababa was located only very near the Ethiopian capital thus greatly limiting the portion of the railway under joint control.

13 Bertie to Lansdowne, May 25; Memo by Morin, Aug. 29; and Rodd to Lansdowne, Sept. 6, 1903, FO 403/334. According to the foreign secretary, the Italians were “not … desirable partners” in a mutual guarantee of respective possessions in East Africa. Lansdowne minute to Italian memo, of May 23, 1903, FO 1/43; Lansdowne to Bertie, Oct. 8, 1903, FO 403/334. “Memo, by Harrington and Rodd on the preliminary Anglo-Italian agreement, enclosed in Bertie to Lansdowne, Dec. 10, 1903, FO 403/334.

15 Cromer to Sanderson, Jan. 14, 1904, FO 1/50 and Cromer to Sanderson, Jan. 8, 1904, Sanderson Papers, FO 800/2.

16 Lagarde to Delcassé, Feb. 24, 1904, no. 318, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 4.

17 Clerk to Lansdowne, Apr. 2, 1904, FO 403/346.

18 Bertie to Lansdowne, Dec. 19, 1903, FO 403/334 and Cromer to Lansdowne, Jan. 8, 1904, FO 403/346.

19 Harrington to Lansdowne via Cromer, May 6, 1904, FO 1/50.

20 Cambon to Delcassé, May 18, 1904, n. 148 and footnote no. 1, p. 169, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 5.

21 Lansdowne to Monson, May 16, 1904, FO 403/346.

22 Cromer to Gorst, Mar. 15, 1904 and Lansdowne to Cromer, May 10, 1904, CP., FO 633/8, pp. 393-94 and FO 633/7, no. 192 respectively.

23 Harrington to Cromer, n.d., relayed in Cromer to Lansdowne, May 26, 1904, with a minute by Lansdowne, FO 1/50; Lansdowne to Harrington, May 28, 1904, FO 403/346.

24 Cromer to Lansdowne, May 13, July 4, 1904, FO 403/346.

25 Cromer to Gorst. Nov. 12, 1904, with minutes by Gorst and Lansdowne and Lansdowne to Rodd, Oct. 8, 1904, FO 403/346; Clarke (for the Committee of Imperial Defence) to Lansdowne, London, Jan. 25, 1905, with a memo by Lansdowne, Jan. 26, 1905, London, FO 1/56.

26 Cambon to Delcassé, Nov. 8, 1904, no. 436, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 5; Cambon to Lansdowne, Jan. 9, 1905, annex to Cambon to Delcassé, Jan. 10, 1905, no. 18, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 6; Lansdowne to Cambon, Dec. 16, 1904, FO 403/346.

27 Lansdowne to de Bunsen, Jan. 4, 1905, to Bertie, Jan. 11, 1905, and to Cambon, Jan. 13, 1905, FO 1/56; Cambon to Delcassé, Jan. 13, 21, 1905, nos. 26 and 42, and Delcassé to Barrere, Jan. 28, 1905, no. 59, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 6.

28 Harrington to Lansdowne, Feb. 28, 1905, with a minute by Lansdowne, FO 1/53; Lansdowne to Bertie, Jan. 13, 1905 [ab/05/1], Bertie Papers A, FO 800/160.

29 Harrington to Lansdowne, n.d., relayed in Cromer to Lansdowne, Mar. 15, 1905 and Lansdowne to Harrington, Mar. 17, 1905, FO 1/53; Lansdowne to Cromer, Apr. 3, 1905, CP., FO 633/7/no. 194.

30 Delcassé to Cambon, Mar. 20, 1905, no. 165, and Cambon to Delcassé, Mar. 27, 1905, no. 196, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 6; Lansdowne to Harrington, Mar. 22, 1905, FO 1/53.

31 Harrington to Lansdowne, Apr. 11, 1905, relayed in Cromer to F.O., Apr. 13, 1905, FO 1/53; Ochs to F.O., May 16, 1905, FO 401/8.

32 Lord Percy to Lansdowne, Apr. 18, 1905, FO 1/53; Cambon to Delcassé, May 3, 1905, no. 389, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 6.

33 Lansdowne to Bertie, Apr. 26, 1905 [ab/05/4], and Bertie to Mallet, Apr. 12, 1905 [ab/05/3], Bertie Papers A, FO 800/160.

34 Memo, by Geoffray, Apr. 25, 1905, FO 1/56.

35 Cambon to Delcassé, May 18, 1905, in Paul Cambon, Correspondence, 1870-1924 (Paris, 1940), pp. 195–96; Cambon to Rouvier, London, June 7, 1905, no. 3, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 7; and Eubank, , Paul Cambon, p. 119. Rouvier was among those French politicians who were less enthusiastic about entente with Great Britain and who saw equal merit in imperial accommodation with Germany. Hamilton, K.A., “Great Britain and France,” Hinsley, F.H., ed., British Foreign Policy Under Sir Edward Grey, p. 121.

36 Rouvier to Barrere, Nov. 10, 1905, no. 120 and Cambon to Rouvier, Dec. 5, 1905, no. 192, D.D.F., ser. 2, 8.

37 Williamson, , Politics of Grand Strategy, pp. 5960; Steiner, Zara, The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy (Cambridge, 1969), p. 70.

38 Viscount Grey of Falloden, Twenty Five Years, 18921916, vol. 1 (London, 1925), pp. 6990.

39 Cambon to Rouvier, Feb. 28 and Mar. 8, 1906, nos. 322 and 398 respectively, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 9; Eubank, , Cambon, p. 119.

40 Grey to Bertie, May 21, 22, and 23, 1906; Grey to Egerton, May 23, and June 6, FO 371/1; Cambon to Bourgeois, Apr. 16,1906, no. 13, D.D.F., ser. 2, vol. 10; Marcus, , “A Preliminary History of the Tripartite Treaty,” Journal of Ethiopian Studies 11 (1964): 3536.

41 Grey to Bertie, June 1, 1906 [ab/06/3], Bertie Papers A, FO 800/160; Egerton to Grey, June 19, 1906; Grey to Bertie, June 19, 1906; Bertie to Grey, June 21, 1906, with a minute by Gorst, and Grey to Bertie, June 22, 1906, FO 371/1.

42 Minute by Grey to Egerton to Grey, June 19, 1906, FO 371/1.

43 Ethiopia was indignant over the treaty. Under orders to obtain Menelik's view of the treaty, the best that Harrington could produce was the statement that the Ethiopian monarch would make no formal objection. At Harrington's suggestion, Menelik cooly acknowledged receipt of the treaty, but stated “that this arrangement in no way limits what we consider our sovereign rights.” After Menelik's communication was received, the three powers signed the tripartite treaty on December 13, 1906. Harrington to Grey, Oct. 12 and Dec. 1 and 5, 1906 and Grey to Clerk, Dec. 13, 1906, FO 371/1. Subsequently, the French negotiated a new concession for continuation of the railway to the Ethiopian capital, but much more on Ethiopia's terms. The line was finally completed during the First World War and has remained the sole railway in Ethiopia.

44 A provision of the 1902 Ethio-British treaty defining the Sudanese-Ethiopian boundary obligated Ethiopia to guarantee the security of the sources of the Blue Nile and granted England first rights to use Lake Tana as a Nile reservoir. Harrington to Lansdowne, May 16, 1902, Ethio-Sudanese Frontier Treaty enclosed, FO 1/46.

45 Tittoni, Tommaso, Italy's Foreign and Colonial Policy, trans. Severino, Baron di San (London, 1914), p. 77.

46 Tripartite Treaty, Dec. 13, 1906, FO 371/1.

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