Current historiography argues that Joseph Lyons' United Australia Party [UAP]-Country Party [CP] conservative coalition government had no real influence on British policy over the Italo-Abyssinian crisis of 1935-6, and was little concerned other than to apply sanctions as a loyal member of the League of Nations and hope Britain would keep its powder dry for possible future conflict with Germany and Japan. (2) Alone among the major labour parties the Australian Labor Party [ALP] chose a thoroughly isolationist path. None of the accounts, however, with the partial exception of W. J. Hudson's, used Australian archives to any significant extent. (3) Given that we are marking the seventieth anniversary of the conflict which many regard as the beginning of the tilt towards the Second World War, it is time to dust down the files in the Australian Archives to see what light they might shed on Australia's involvement.
There are a number of interesting aspects to the Australian story which have hitherto attracted little or no attention. Firstly, there was significant naval activity. Secondly, Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the Australian High Commissioner in London, was a member on the League of Nations Council throughout the crisis and was its President at a critical juncture. Thirdly, the crisis marks an early stage in the development of Australia's and, in particular, Lyons's own appeasement policy. Fourthly, there is the question of the influence of Australian domestic opinion on government policy. And lastly, there is the impact on the Australian economy of the application of sanctions on Italy.
The broad background to the crisis can be sketched briefly. In the early 1930s Abyssinia was the last state in Africa not to have become part of a European empire. (4) It was a land-locked, corrupt, ramshackle, Coptic Christian, feudal state of some ten million people. A British Foreign Office report in mid-1935 said it was characterised by 'cruelty, crudity and confusion'. (5) Its ruler was the diminutive young Emperor, or Negus, Haile Selassie: 'King of Kings', 'Lion of Judah', and the list went on to the extent that it was said he had more titles than inches. Abyssinia, or Ethiopia as it was also called, included the source of the Blue Nile in Lake Tana and grazing lands for the coastal nomads of its limotrophe states, clockwise from north to south, of Italian Eritrea, French, British and Italian Somaliland, the British colony of Kenya and the Anglo-Egyptian protectorate of the Sudan. A railway had been completed from the Red Sea port of Djibouti in French Somaliland to the capital, Addis Ababa.
Apart from their interests in cross-border grazing rights and respectively the Nile headwaters and the railway, the British and French, by long standing agreement, regarded the country as within the Italian sphere of influence. The French and Italians had sponsored Abyssinia's entry to the League in 1923 (despite the reservations of Britain, Australia and several other member states over slavery, arms trafficking and other humanitarian and governance issues), and an Anglo-Italian agreement of 1925 promised...