The Consul at Asmara (Mulcahy) to the Department of State1

No. 162


  • Meeting Between Ambassador Childs and Duncan Cumming, Chief Administrator of Eritrea

On April 26, 1952, I accompanied The Honorable J. Rives Childs, American Ambassador at Addis Ababa, to Government House, Asmara, for a forty-five minute talk with His Excellency, Mr. Duncan Cameron Cumming, Chief Administrator of Eritrea.


The subjects discussed were those of general economic and political import to the establishment of the Federation between Ethiopia and Eritrea this year. The Chief Administrator admitted that he was not wholly optimistic that the transition would take place with perfect harmony although he did seem to think that his task of handing over to the new regime could be completed on schedule as his new “shadow government” had already been fairly well organized. He showed some concern for the necessity of our making arrangements very discreetly with the Ethiopians and with the Eritreans for the permanence of our military forces in Eritrea after September and he admitted his impatience with the failure to arrive as yet at an agreement for the handover of certain federal facilities and properties in Eritrea which were [Page 421] formerly the property of the Italian State. He also expressed his chagrin over the tendency of the Marchese di Campolattaro, Representative of the Italian Government in Eritrea, to exceed his instructions from Rome.


Mr. Cumming stated that, although there were great grounds for optimism concerning the Administration’s ability to accomplish its mission of handing over to the new regime by September 15, he did not think that the need for care and caution had passed. He implied that he foresaw the possibility of the reappearance of civil violence and disorder if the opposing political forces did not reach an agreement on the Constitution and other legal affairs in a short time. He said that, while the new “shadow government” will be permitted increasingly to assume responsibilities for the conduct of Eritrean affairs, he himself will retain a “firm hand at the helm” until the very last moment since the overall responsibility for Eritrea’s welfare will continue to be his until September 15, 1952.

Much of the progress yet to be made in arranging Eritrea’s future and of defining her part in the Federation remained to be settled. He was obviously nettled at the failure of the Ethiopians to come forward with definite proposals as to what would constitute “Federal” services after September. He also stated that the Foreign Office was at the moment considering the problem of precisely what amount of the ex-Italian State property in this Territory should be turned over to Eritrea and what amount to the new Federal Government.

U.S. Military

The foregoing problems in no small way involve the future of the American Armed Forces stationed in Eritrea since it was obvious that the Department will have to make arrangements with the Ethiopians for use of lands and installations in Eritrea. The Chief Administrator thought it was more than possible that the Eritrean politicians, more probably the Moslems, would sooner or later, whenever it suited their interest of the moment make a political football of the presence of American troops on their soil without their concurrence.

Mr. Childs had told me beforehand that he would prefer to avoid discussion of the position of the American military in Eritrea with the Chief Administrator at this time in view of the delicate nature of the prospective negotiation of the Base Agreement with Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Government’s own fears lest knowledge of the Agreement reach the British at too early a date, and the Department’s instructions that such matters should not be discussed with the British. Since we anticipated some mention of the question by the Chief Administrator it had been agreed in advance that comments on our part [Page 422] would remain as vague and as general as courtesy would permit. Mr. Childs stated that the formalization of our military position in Eritrea was far from settled and that neither we nor the Ethiopians saw any present need to rush it to a conclusion. We did not, however, anticipate any difficulty in reaching an ultimate agreement with the Government of Ethiopia on this point.

Property Division

Mr. Cumming next said that one of the chief problems with which he is confronted at the present time is the execution of the General Assembly’s Resolution of January 29, 1952, which arranges for the disposition of all ex-Italian state property in Eritrea.2 He is fearful lest the Eritreans later accuse the British of surrendering too much of their patrimony to the Ethiopians; on the other hand he is also worried for fear that an excessive amount of state property owned by the Eritrean state will constitute too much a burden of maintenance upon it when there will be a large enough budget deficit as it is. The Chief Administrator states that his hands are tied until the Foreign Office instructs him more definitely on the disposition of the property. He added that it has not yet been settled as to whether title to property in Eritrea used for the functions of the Federal Government will be transferred to the Eritrean or to the Federal Government.

There were other questions which were equally pressing, one of them being the maintenance of the Eritrean Highway System and the Eritrean Railways. Both would have to be settled together since the highways and the railway are competitors and it would not seem wise for them simply to be divided by giving the Eritrean Government the railway to manage and the Federal Government, the roads. The Ambassador and I thought that something resembling our own system of maintenance of national or interstate highways might provide the answer by making the highways a joint responsibility of both the Federal and the local Governments. Mr. Cumming thought that there was much merit in this plan.

Italian Policy

The Ambassador turned the conversation to a topic which has recently caused the British, the Ethiopians and ourselves some concern in recent weeks: the attitude of Benedetto Capomazza, Marchese di Campolattaro, Italian Government Representative in Eritrea. Mr. Childs stated that even the Italian Ambassador at Addis Ababa felt that the Marchese had been acting in excess of his instructions in his recent dealings with the Ethiopian delegation which visited Asmara and with the United Nations Commissioner. The Chief Administrator [Page 423] replied that this was a matter which the British had also been taking up on a Rome-London level and it was to be hoped that the Marchese would soon be instructed to exhibit greater signs of cooperation and to desist from his minor attempts at obstructionism since the policy of the Italian Government at the present time is to cooperate loyally in bringing about the establishment of the Federation and to preserve the friendly spirit with which the reestablishment of relations with Ethiopia have been accompanied.

The Ambassador, several times in the course of the talk, had occasion to compliment Mr. Cumming on the outstanding work he had accomplished since his assuming his present difficult post, especially his success in suppressing the banditry formerly so prevalent in Eritrea. The Chief Administrator expressed his appreciation of the opportunity to speak with the Ambassador on items of mutual interest and regretted that Mr. Childs visit to Asmara had to be so short.

Edward W. Mulcahy
  1. This despatch was also sent to USUN, London, Rome, and Addis Ababa.
  2. Reference is to UN General Assembly Resolution 530 (VI); the text is in Yearbook of the United Nations, 1951, pp. 282–285.