Sept. 7, 2023

From Apathetic to Amiable:The British Empire and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, 1916-1974

Quentin Holbert's PhD thesis is the first comprehensive history of British relations with Imperial Ethiopia during the twentieth century.

Congratulations to Quentin Holbert for successfully defending his PhD thesis, “From Apathetic to Amiable: The British Empire and Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, 1916-1974” on August 15, 2023. His committee members were Dr. Timothy Stapleton (Supervisor), Dr. Warren Elofson (Secondary Field Supervisor), Dr. Rowland Apentiik (PhD Committee Member), Dr. Robert Huebert (Internal Examiners), and Dr. Charles Thomas (External Examiner).

We asked Quentin to provide us with some insight into his thesis and his graduate studies experience in the Department of History at the University of Calgary.

Tell us about your thesis topic.

My dissertation was the first comprehensive history of British relations with Imperial Ethiopia during the twentieth century. I grounded this project in the career of Haile Selassie, who oversaw Ethiopia’s foreign policy from 1916 to 1930, and then ruled as emperor until 1974. During this nearly sixty-year period, British officials’ attitudes toward the African state evolved from being fairly apathetic and dismissive to regarding Ethiopia as a valuable partner in the Horn of Africa. Leading up to the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937), Britain treated Ethiopia as an insignificant kingdom. During the mid-late 1930s, British officials even tried to use Ethiopia as a bargaining chip with Fascist Italy to form an alliance against Nazi Germany. After this strategy failed, Britain pivoted to supporting Selassie militarily and helped the exiled emperor regain Ethiopia in the East Africa Campaign of the Second World War. For the rest of the 1940s, Britain provided direct military and developmental aid to Selassie’s government, which included backing Selassie’s claim to Italian Eritrea after the war. As the British Empire decolonized from the late 1940s onward and it lost significant international clout, it shifted more to a soft power and collaborative approach with Selassie. The dissertation is filled with a lot of seemingly small incidents and collaborative efforts, but it is this type of “mundane” diplomacy that shapes two countries’ relationship. While British attitudes gradually became more positive, Selassie’s policy priorities largely remained consistent: to integrate Ethiopia into the international community and to modernize various institutions within Ethiopia (e.g., education, the military) without displacing his authority as Emperor.

What was the most valuable outcome of the Graduate program for you?

Saying that I feel like a different person than I was four years ago is an understatement. Through the process of completing my different degree requirements and embarking on my own journey of (self) discovery to the United Kingdom, I feel like the way I understand myself has sharpened considerably.

It is difficult to summarize everything that I found valuable. One especially valuable outcome was the opportunity to teach two courses post-candidacy. I am a firm believer that you do not truly understand a topic unless you can talk about it in a way that a non-expert can understand. I taught History 307: The Contemporary World in Spring 2021 via Zoom and History 488: Great Britain as a Great Power, 1690-1970 in-person in Summer 2022. The latter course was especially valuable for my growth as a scholar because it made me acknowledge limitations in my knowledge of British history.

Another part of my program I want to acknowledge was the considerable support I had with every step of the process from various professors, with Dr. Tim Stapleton at the forefront. This ranged from receiving useful feedback on my SSHRC application, which was critical in winning one in 2020, to connecting me with different historians to embark on various publication projects. As it stands now, I have one book chapter published from my PhD research, another one slated to come out later this year, and I just began the early stages of another chapter.

What are the next steps/plans for you?

I do not entirely know what is next for me; I am much better at understanding how my past experiences shape my present than I am at predictions. I am currently embarked on a job hunt while I work on publishing research from my dissertation. Otherwise, I am trying to find new projects that I can pour myself into. For example, I have been learning Cantonese over the past few months. I have also been putting significant work into improving my culinary skills, with a focus on blending East Asian flavours with western European cooking techniques.