Blogger: Gabeyehu adamou
The African American self-made diplomat who
paved the way for diplomatic relations with Ethiopia
Blogger's Note: The following blog entry and the next one are related to discussion which started on facebook about Baron de Jarlsburg's assertion in November 7, 1909 issue of New York Times that "Emperor Menilik II of Ethiopia was an accomplished linguist, [and] speaks French, English, and Italian fluently". I thought one way of affirming or disproving 
the assertion is to present what foreign visitors who had met the Emperor said about their encounter with the Emperor. This description of the encounter between William H. Ellis aka Guillermo Enrique Ellesio and Emperor Menelik was from an excerpt of a book presented at a conference called by CLEA at Stanford University on 31 August 2002 with a title:  A Page From a Century of Ethiopia-United States Relations By Professor Negussay Ayele. It is followed by biography can be found at the following site from Texas Historical Association: Unfortunately no photograph of William H. Ellis was found until now.
...the first direct quasi diplomatic contacts with Ethiopia were initiated by Diaspora Africans in the Americas. It is of symbolic significance that the initiative to make contact with Ethiopia, the country which was victorious over Italy in Africa, was by envoy Benito Sylvain of Haiti, a country that defeated Napoleon’s army in the Western hemisphere. The next person to embark on an informal track of private commercial cum diplomatic visit to Ethiopia was a Cuban-Mexican-African American in the person of William H. Ellis (a.k.a. Guillaume Enriques Ellesio) from Texas. He was escorted to Ethiopia and introduced to Emperor Menyelek by Benito Sylvain. Mr Ellis, nicknamed ‘the Moor” by some, was a Wall Street tycoon of sorts who hobnobbed with the likes of steel magnet Andrew Carnegie and gun manufacturer Henry Hotchkiss. He was a dapper, flamboyant bon vivant and a self-made diplomat. He read whatever books he could find (US$3000 dollars worth, he said) on Ethiopia before he embarked on his eventful trip and audience with Emperor Menyelek in the Fall of 1903. Although peppered with generous dashes of hyperbole, Mr. Ellis’s renditions about his stay and accomplishments in Ethiopia provide interesting perspectives on the Emperor and Ethiopia.
In one of his communications, Ellis relates a conversation with Emperor Menyelek on US President Abraham Lincoln and his struggle to keep the country united and, in the process also open the way for the legal manumission of slaves. “Tears came to his eyes,” says Ellis, as Emperor Menyelek heard of “the liberation of slaves…” in America, and he exclaimed, “What a great man!” More importantly, a theme that was to become the basis for relations of amity, trust and mutual respect between the United States and Ethiopia were the slogans, “America for Americans,” “Europe for Europeans,” and “Africa for Africans.” The Emperor loudly acclaimed the last refrain, Africa For Africans, telling Ellis to repeat that for him. Ellis says that he successfully conveyed the idea that whereas “other nations (Europeans) came to Africa to take the land, America was alone without land in Africa and wanted none. She only wanted liberty and trade.” It is not known if Emperor Menyelek and Ellis talked about Liberia, which was a sort of stepchild of America. At any rate, the belief that the United States did not wish to conquer or colonize Africa remained a guiding policy premise of successive Ethiopian rulers for the next three quarters of a century. It was, as we shall see anon, reaffirmed and even sanctified by Emperor Haile Sellassie for over fifty years right down to the end of his era in 1974.
Ellis had wanted to come to Ethiopia as an accredited United States representative, but he had no official status or mission. However, by the time Ellis went back home, he had blazed the trail and prepared the ground for the official track of American diplomacy, which materialized shortly after he left Addis Ababa. 
Posted on MediaETHIOPIA on December 27, 2002.
ELLIS, WILLIAM HENRY (1864–1923). William Henry Ellis, influential African-American entrepreneur, stockbroker, and proponent of the African-American emigration movement of the 1890s and early 1900s, was born in Victoria, Texas, on June 15, 1864. He was the son of recently-freed slaves, Charles and Margaret Nelson Ellis—a fact that, later on in life, Ellis hid from the public. Raised just outside of Victoria, Ellis felt a connection with the Hispanic heritage of the area’s Mexican-American population. He worked as a ranch hand and then as an assistant to a leather dealer. He began trading cattle in the Victoria area and also dealt in hides and wool. Ellis eventually expanded his hide and stock trade into other areas of Texas, as well as New Mexico and Arizona. At some point he worked as a customs inspector in Brownsville. According to Twentieth Century Successful Americans, Local and National (1917), Ellis attended college in Nashville and took business courses in New York at some time during his life.
Fluent in several languages, including Spanish, Ellis saw untapped opportunities in Mexican trade and began successfully dealing cotton across the border, as well as wool, hides, horses, and cattle. He began raising cattle in Mexico in 1888. During this time Ellis reinvented himself as the archetypical self-made American man. His light skin led some people to believe him to be a light-colored mulatto or of Spanish, Mexican, or Cuban descent—interpretations that Ellis encouraged. Eventually he began to alter his parents’ names, ethnicities, and birthplaces when asked and claimed Mexican or Cuban descent instead of his slave heritage from Kentucky. He created a Hispanic identity of “Guillermo Enrique Eliseo” by translating his name into Spanish. This alias allowed him to take advantage of amenities usually denied someone of African descent.
Ellis involved himself in African-American politics, particularly in Texas. During the 1880s and early 1890s, he allied himself with Norris Wright Cuney, Texas national committeeman of the Republican Partyfrom 1886 to 1896 and an outspoken proponent of colonizing African Americans outside of the United States. Ellis also befriended Bishop Henry Turner, the chief proponent of the back-to-Africa movement in the post-Reconstruction era. These associations helped Ellis formulate his own ideas about African-American colonization. He advocated the idea that Latin America presented the ideal home for African Americans, because Mexico was much closer than Africa, and the Mexican north was similar to the southern United States in that both regions produced corn and cotton for international markets.
In 1888 Ellis visited Mexico City and persuaded President Porfirio Díaz to grant him a permit to establish a colony of thousands of African Americans in Mexico. The plan stalled however. Ellis visited the head of the Tlahualilo Corporation, Juan Llamedo, in Mexico City with a proposal in 1894. He sought funding for the colony and in return promised the delivery of some 5,000 black field hands to work the land. Llamedo and Ellis signed an agreement for Ellis to bring the workers, and in late 1894 he returned to the United States to recruit potential colonists. He signed a contract with a well-known black Atlanta emigration agent, R. A. “Pegleg” Williams, to assist him in his endeavors. Ellis and Williams transported the first and only consignments of 816 Alabama emigrants, including 145 families, to Mexico, and they arrived at Tlahualilo in early February 1895.
From the beginning, controversy, often encouraged by the Southern press, surrounded the colony. In early March, Williams returned to the United States and accused Ellis of not providing housing, rations, and supplies promised to the emigrants. The San Antonio Expressreported on March 24, 1895, that several colonists, who had walked back across Mexico to the United States, reported that the colony was rapidly dissolving. Other newspapers in Alabama and Texas reported widespread mistreatment, starvation, and death of colonists. Ellis denied the criticism of the Southern press, refuted reports of deaths, and asked the State Department for an investigation. The investigation found the situation similar to that of Mexican workers, “but not as good as is received in [the emigrants’] own States.” The report stated that Ellis had failed to provide the proper food and medical services required for the colony, but could not substantiate many of the accusations levied against him in the newspapers. The colony itself dissolved, and the United States paid for the colonists’ return.
Ellis, who went back to San Antonio after his failed attempt in Mexico, saw an opportunity in Ethiopia to set up private commercial affairs overseas. In 1903 he met with King Menelek (also spelled Menilek or Menelik) of Ethiopia and received permission to grow cotton in Southern Ethiopia and establish a textile factory. Ellis saw himself as a self-made diplomat but had no official status as an accredited United States representative. However, by the time Ellis returned home, he had begun dialogue with Menelek in regards to establishing an American presence in Ethiopia. With the help of Robert P. Skinner, America’s consul general in Marseilles, France, who had, in his own right, been pressing for American involvement in the area, Ethiopia entered into a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States, which served as an impetus for forging an official relationship between the two countries.
In 1904 Ellis purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange for a reportedly exorbitant price of $45,000. But in August 1904 he returned to Ethiopia to present an official copy of the ratified treaty to King Menelek. For his pivotal role in helping establish American-Ethiopian relations, Ethiopians honored Ellis with their highest award. After 1904 Ellis returned to the United States, where he resumed his stock brokering in New York. He was a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, American Geological Society, and Mexican Society of New York. He occasionally returned to San Antonio, where he had built a lavish home for his mother. He also developed mining interests in Mexico and South America. Ellis later sold his seat on the stock exchange and apparently moved to Mexico. He died in Mexico City on September 24, 1923. An obituary in the Dallas Express characterized his life as “spectacular, filled with strivings in a big way….”
Negussay Ayele, “A Page From a Century of Ethiopia-United States Relations” (, accessed February 21, 2013. Dallas Express, October 13, 1923. Richard Pankhurst, “William H. Ellis-Guillaume Enriques Ellesio: The First Black American Ethiopianist?” Ethiopia Observer 15 (1972). Edwin S. Redkey, Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910 (Newhaven: Yale University Press, 1969). Alfred W. Reynolds, “The Alabama Negro Colony in Mexico, 1894-1896,” Alabama Review 5–6 (October 1952, January 1953). Twentieth Century Successful Americans, Local and National (United Press Service Bureau, 1917).
Douglas Hales and Bailey Haeussler

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