Born into slavery in Victoria, Texas, William Ellis’s prospects in life would have seemed quite dim to say the least considering that blacks were considered chattel property to be sold and exchanged in the marketplace. As slavery ended, many obstacles still remained for Ellis and all other black people in America. Black Codes and Jim Crow laws circumscribed his life leaving few options for employment and even dignity. His story is shrouded in mystery since men like him are often on the sidelines of history. This is the life of man who overcame tremendous odds to actually represent the United States of America at the court of Emperor Menelik II in Ethiopia.
William Ellis, a product of two generations of miscegenation, would use his light brown complexion and increasing fluency in the Spanish language to cross back and forth across the color lines and the Mexican-American border. He created a character for himself he called Guillermo Enrique Eliseo, a translation of his name William Henry Ellis, at various times posing as a Mexican or Cuban businessman. He joined others who believed blacks could do better outside the US and tried his hand at establishing a cotton and textile business in Mexico. Although that would eventually fail to thrive in his Mexican colonization business, he became acquainted with several wealthy financiers such as the steel magnet Andrew Carnegie and the gun manufacturer Henry Hotchkiss. He even purchased himself a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.
He would soon negotiate a far more successful life than any black man in America could at the time. Racial passing afforded him opportunities to accomplish what dreams are made of. Besides becoming a millionaire with an office in Mexico City and Wall Street, New York, he would serendipitously come to Ethiopia not only for business opportunities but to officially present Emperor Menelik II with the first Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Ethiopia.
Although William Ellis portrayed himself as non-black, he did make a number of forays into the African American community. Besides a short stint in Republican Party politics, it was a chance meeting with the Ethiopian General Ras Makonnen, who was representing Emperor Menelik II in Great Britain for the coronation of King Edward VII that got Ellis interested in Ethiopia. The African American community was all too aware of the recent victory of Ethiopia over Italy in the Battle of Adwa and the references to Ethiopia throughout the bible
Ellis would immediately make plans to visit this ancient kingdom despite the arduous journey he would encounter. After reading everything he could find on Ethiopia and even learning a few words in Amharic, he would procure various gifts to present to the Emperor and be off to Ethiopia. As a businessman, Ellis had big plans for Ethiopia which was in the midst of a modernization boom already similar to what he saw in Mexico years earlier. He thought he could help create a national currency and bank, establish trade relations with United States and develop the country’s natural resources. Accompanying Ellis on his trip would be the Haitian intellectual Benito Sylvain. Sylvain was representing Ethiopia at the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900. He thought after the battle of Adwa that Emperor Menelik II should represent the beleaguered African countries of the world.
The timing of the trip would be right before the diplomatic party of the State Department’s Robert P. Skinner would come to Ethiopia to negotiate a treaty with Ethiopia. It was reported later that Ellis would pave the way for the US State Department delegation to successfully negotiate the treaty with Ethiopia. Upon ratification by the US Senate and signature of President Theodore Roosevelt a delegation including William Ellis would be sent to Ethiopia to deliver the final treaty. Although the Assistant US Secretary of State, Francis Loomis sent his brother Kent Loomis to deliver the treaty, Kent apparently fell overboard from the ship and the role was given to Ellis. He completed the mission to much fanfare. There was some suspicion that he had something to do with the death of Kent Loomis but was exonerated completely.
Did William Ellis represent an imperialist America wishing to take advantage of the resources of Ethiopia, or was he a pan-Africanist interested in the economic development of a fellow black people? One can make arguments either way. I believe it is a combination of the two. Just as William Ellis learned to navigate both sides of the color line, his business and political life were meant to advance the interests of black people and America. Ultimately, Emperor Menelik II decided that the United States was not out to colonize Ethiopia as the Europeans were and signed on to the treaty. This was the beginning of a very fruitful but at times controversial relationship for both Ethiopia and America.
(Primary Sources: The Strange Career of William Ellis, Karl Jacoby, 2016. The 1903 Skinner Mission to Ethiopia & a Century of American-Ethiopian Relations, Robert Skinner, 2003.)