Ethiopia Standard Oil

This map, dated 31 August 1935, was sent to American newspapers, by Associated Press.

Ethiopia was on the brink of war. Tension had been building for months, with the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini determined to seize Ethiopia. His aim was to reverse the defeat at the historic battle of Adwa in 1896, when Italian forced had been routed by the Ethiopian army. Mussolini also wanted to prove that Italy was a great power by extending his African empire and Ethiopia appeared ripe for the plucking.

A border clash at Wal Wal in December 1934 had given the Italians the excuse they had been looking for and a troop build-up in Somalia and Eritrea got under way. By mid 1935 the situation for the Emperor Haile Selassie was looking grim.

The Emperor’s gamble

In a desperate gamble, the Emperor sought to forestall an Italian invasion by offering to “rent” as much as half of Ethiopia to a big U.S. or British oil company. An agent for the American Standard-Vacuum Oil Co. promptly signed up. But fearing that Washington would get dragged into a war, the State Department vetoed the plan.

The American public were told this in newsreels: “Ethiopia waits, ready to go down fighting in a war that could become a world conflict. But between Abyssinia and the United States, between America and the world war clouds, roll 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean. Time marches on!”

The map

The map above was sent out to American newspapers. On the back it carried this text:

“Checkmating Mussolini, who has large plans for exploiting Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie has leased almost half his kingdom to a syndicate headed by the Standard Oil company, and supported by British capitalists. Selassie figures that he probably will lose his oil and mineral lands if Italy sends her army in to make war on him. So, before Il Duce could steal the country, Selassie leased it for a nice round sum. Rather neat. Mussolini would not pay anything; the oil interests will, so no matter what happens, Selassie stands to save something from the wreck. The shaded portion shows the territory embraced in the lease and charter of development.” Associated Press, 31 August, 1935.

Of course the gamble failed. Mussolini invaded and it was not until the end of 1941 that British, Free French, Free Belgian together with Indian and Sudanese troops managed to defeat the Italian forces. During all this time the Ethiopian patriots kept up constant attacks on the Italians, playing an important role in the return of the Emperor in May 1941.