Born Tafari Makonnen near Harrar, Ethiopia (1892), the future Emperor Haile Selassie was the son of Ras Makonnen, Governor of Harrar and kin to Emperor Menelik II. He’s remembered for his role in Ethiopia’s victory at the 1896 Battle of Adowa.
Early Life of Haile Selassie
Born on July 23, 1892, outside Harrar in Ethiopia’s Enjersa Goro Province, the future Emperor Haile Selassie was initially known as Tafari Makonnen. His mother, Yeshimbet Ali Abajiffar, and father, Ras Makonnen Wolde Michael, the Governor of Harrar and a relative of Emperor Menelik II (1889-1913), played a significant role in the historic 1896 Battle of Adowa, which saw Ethiopia uniquely maintain its independence against Italian invasion through military might.
Tafari Makonnen’s ascent to prominence began with his appointment as the governor of Harrar Province. Despite his royal lineage, his political career would have likely remained unremarkable had it not been for his union with Menen Asfaw, a niece of the Ethiopian throne’s heir, Lij Iyasu. Amidst speculations of Iyasu’s inclination towards Islam, the Ethiopian nobility appointed Tafari as regent in 1916. Promoted to Ras, he effectively governed while Empress Zewditu, Emperor Menelik II’s daughter, held the ceremonial position of head of state.
Ras Tafari Makonnen, as regent, initiated Ethiopia’s transformative journey. In 1923, he abolished slavery and founded a school in Addis Ababa for the liberated slaves. This crucial step facilitated Ethiopia’s entry into The League of Nations. Additionally, Selassie embarked on tours across Europe, both to garner support for his modernization projects and to elevate the status of Ethiopia as the sole independent monarchy in Africa.
King & Emperor
Tafari’s anointment as King was met with controversy, primarily due to his decision to rule from the same region as the Empress, deviating from the traditional practices of Ethiopian royalty. This unique situation of two sovereigns, one a vassal and the other an empress, coexisting in the same area was unprecedented in Ethiopian history. This breach of custom provoked discontent among conservatives, who saw it as an affront to royal protocol. This tension led to the uprising led by Ras Gugsa Welle, the Empress’s spouse and the governor of Begemder Province. In the early months of 1930, he amassed an army in Gondar and proceeded towards Addis Ababa. On March 31, 1930, his forces engaged in battle with those loyal to Negus Tafari at Anchem, where Gugsa Welle met his demise.
The news of Gugsa Welle’s defeat and subsequent death was still fresh in Addis Ababa when, unexpectedly, on April 2, 1930, the Empress passed away. Speculation abounded about her death, with some suggesting she had been poisoned following her husband’s defeat, or that she died of shock upon learning of his death. However, it was later revealed that she succumbed to paratyphoid fever and diabetes-related complications, aggravated by dietary restrictions imposed by the Orthodox clergy during Lent.
Following Empress Zewditu’s death, Tafari ascended the throne as Emperor, adopting the title “Neguse Negest ze-‘Ityopp’ya,” meaning “King of Kings of Ethiopia.” His coronation on November 2, 1930, at St. George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa, was a grand and opulent event, witnessed by global royals and dignitaries, including The Duke of Gloucester, Marshal Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, and the Prince of Udine, along with representatives from nations such as Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium, and Japan. Eminent figures like British author Evelyn Waugh and American filmmaker Burton Holmes were also present, documenting this lavish ceremony that reportedly cost over $3 million. The event was marked by generous gifting, including a gold-encased Bible sent by the Emperor to an American bishop who had prayed for him on the day of the coronation.
In 1931, Haile Selassie introduced Ethiopia’s first written constitution, setting forth a bicameral legislature and maintaining noble power while hinting at a future democratic transition. The succession to the throne was limited to his descendants, a decision that was not well received by other royal family members, including princes from Tigrai and his cousin, Ras Kassa Haile Darge. The Sultanate of Jimma was formally integrated into Ethiopia in 1932 following Sultan Abba Jifar II’s death.
Haile Selassie allocated considerable efforts towards administering Eritrea, which fell under Ethiopian governance post-World War II. This military oversight in the region eventually spurred a successful independence movement, culminating on May 24, 1993.
Despite Ethiopia’s economic challenges and static political landscape, Selassie considered himself a significant figure on the global stage. Ethiopia was a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. In a move to support international peacekeeping efforts, he deployed Ethiopian forces to join the Allied forces in the Korean War in 1950. The 1950s saw him engage in extensive international travels. Notably, in 1954, he was the first national leader to visit the newly sovereign West Germany. Later, in 1963, he played a pivotal role in establishing the Organization of African Unity, choosing Addis Ababa as its headquarters. His visit to Jamaica in 1960 had a profound impact, leading to the Rastafarian movement, with a global following, venerating him as a divine figure.
Conflict with Italy
The progressive initiatives of Haile Selassie faced significant challenges due to the expansionist ambitions of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Italy, already in control of Eritrea to Ethiopia’s north, sought to rectify its previous defeat in the 1896 Battle of Adowa.
On October 3, 1935, Italy launched an unprovoked invasion of Ethiopia, leading to a seven-month conflict. Despite the League of Nations identifying Italy as the aggressor, no substantial measures were enacted. The Italian military overpowered the Ethiopian forces, compelling Haile Selassie and his family to seek refuge in Great Britain on May 2, 1936. It was during this period, on June 30, 1936, that Selassie delivered his renowned address to the League of Nations. In his speech, he condemned the use of chemical weapons against his people and criticized the escalating “refinement of barbarism” through advanced technology. Although his oration earned global acclaim and elicited empathy for Ethiopia, Western nations did not intervene against Italy.
While the League of Nations remained inactive, the onset of World War II saw Britain and France, now combatants against Germany and Italy, extending support to Ethiopia. On May 5, 1941, with the aid of South African, British, and Ethiopian troops, Selassie triumphantly returned to Ethiopia. By January 1942, all Italian forces had been expelled from the country.
Haile Selassie welcomed British military aid but was cautious of their political involvement in Ethiopia’s reconstruction, wary of potential attempts to diminish his authority. This concern about foreign influence led him to decelerate the modernization efforts he had initiated as Emperor. Under his reign, Ethiopia gravitated towards an autocratic system, increasingly isolating itself from the international community.
Legacy of Haile Selassie
At the onset of Haile Selassie’s reign, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s amid the Fascist Italian invasion of Ethiopia, media portrayals of Selassie were largely favourable. He was celebrated as a resilient figure opposing fascism, symbolising hope for Africa and aligning with the Allies in World War II. This positive media narrative was exemplified by his feature as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1935. British Pathé newsreels depicted his return to Ethiopia as a triumphant moment for an emperor reuniting with his people. In a notable 1963 interview on “Meet the Press” during his state visit amid the U.S. Civil Rights movement, Selassie voiced strong opposition to racial oppression and advocated for Pan-Africanism. However, NBC News later faced criticism for its coverage of this visit, with The New York Times questioning the intent and appropriateness of such reporting.
In the 1950s, marking his Silver Jubilee, Selassie introduced the 1955 Constitution, which democratized governance and curtailed monarchical power. Post-World War II, he played a crucial role in the new administration, notably diminishing the Orthodox Church’s influence. He was broadly regarded as a progressive and effective leader in Ethiopia during this era. However, in the 1970s, economic challenges and famine severely tarnished his reputation, leading to widespread protests calling for his resignation, ultimately culminating in his removal from power.
Selassie’s legacy remains complex and multifaceted, often celebrated for his modernisation efforts, founding of Haile Selassie University, and his role in establishing the Organisation of African Unity, which evolved into the African Union, and his stance against colonialism.
In 2021, a documentary by Selassie’s granddaughter, titled ‘Grandpa Was An Emperor’, was released, offering an intimate look into the life of the Ethiopian royal family.
In recent years, various memorials honouring Selassie have been established. Notably, the African Union’s Headquarters in Addis Ababa unveiled a memorial in 2019, and Unity Park in the same city features a wax statue of him. In Kingston, Jamaica, the “Haile Selassie High School” stands not only as an educational institution but also as a tribute to his legacy. Additionally, there are older memorials in Addis Ababa, including one depicting the Emperor teaching children. However, in 2020, a bust statue of Selassie, created in 1957, was destroyed by protestors linking his rule to the assassination of Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa.
Haile Selassie holds a divine status among certain followers of the Rastafari movement, which originated in Jamaica during the 1930s, influenced by Leonard Howell and Marcus Garvey’s “African Redemption” movement. Named after Selassie’s pre-imperial title, Ras Tafari Makonnen, the movement views him as a messianic figure destined to lead African peoples and their diaspora to liberation. His titles, including Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings of Ethiopia, alongside his claimed descent from Solomon and Sheba, resonate deeply with Rastafarians, aligning with prophetic visions in the Book of Revelation.
The philosophy of the Rastafari movement closely reflects Haile Selassie’s viewpoints, particularly following the global dissemination of his coronation news in 1930, notably through Time magazine.
In 1961, the Jamaican government sent a delegation, including Rastafari representatives, to Ethiopia to discuss repatriation with Selassie. The emperor reportedly reassured them of his support in this endeavour.
Selassie’s visit to Jamaica on April 21, 1966, was a pivotal moment for the Rastafari movement. Thousands gathered at Kingston’s Palisadoes Airport, creating an atmosphere dense with ganja smoke. The emperor initially stayed on the plane due to the overwhelming crowd but eventually descended following negotiations by Rasta leader Ras Mortimer Planno. This event celebrated as Grounation Day, marked a significant turning point and remains a key holiday in the Rastafari calendar.
Following this visit, Jamaican officials ensured Rastafari’s presence at state functions involving Selassie. The emperor, respecting their beliefs, never denounced their view of him as a deity and honoured prominent Rastafari elders with gold medallions.
Rita Marley, wife of Bob Marley, converted to Rastafari after witnessing Selassie’s visit, claiming she saw a stigmata-like mark on his hand. This event, alongside Bob Marley’s global fame and songs like “Iron Lion Zion,” significantly raised awareness and acceptance of the Rastafari movement worldwide.
- “Haile Selassie” on Wikipedia. This comprehensive entry provides a detailed account of Haile Selassie’s life, reign, and impact on Ethiopian and global history. Wikipedia: Haile Selassie.
- “Haile Selassie (1892-1975)” on BlackPast.org. This source offers an insightful overview of Haile Selassie’s life, highlighting his significant contributions and the challenges he faced during his reign. BlackPast.org: Haile Selassie.