The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I
From the death of H.H. my father till my appointment to the governorship of Harar (1906-1910)
Whatever may befall a man in this world, there is no-one who concludes his days entirely in joy or in grief, but pleasure and sadness occur alternately in their turn; hence all my thoughts were floating in a sea of distress as my father, who loved me dearly and was so fond of me, fell gravely ill.
H. H. my father departed from his city of Harar to go up to Addis Ababa on 4th Ter 1898 (= 12th January 1906). At that time he felt a little unwell. On the 9th of Ter (= January 17th) he camped by the Burqa (Burca) river and, after having spent the day celebrating the Temqat festival there, he went back, because the illness took a stronger grip on him, and entered his second city called Qullebi (Collubi) where he began to be treated by a doctor. At this time, as my father summoned me in his desire to see me, I went up to Qullebi. When I entered his bedroom to see his condition and he saw me standing by his side, he motioned me with his eyes to sit down, since it was difficult for him to speak with his tongue on account of the severity of his illness. As I was convinced that it was his wish that I was not to part from him, I spent the whole day sitting by his side.
But the hour of the judgement of death decided upon by the power of God cannot be postponed, even by the love of many— let alone by the love of one father and son. Thus he died at Qullebi on the 13th of Magabit 1898 (= 21st March 1906) and was buried in the church of St. Michael which he himself had founded at Harar.
After this my father’s officers and troops assembled in full. As, on one hand, my father had said to them during his life-time ‘I commend to you my son Tafari' and since, in the second place, they were aware of my father’s loyalty to the Emperor Menelik and his diligent services to his government, they expressed the hope that he (the Emperor) would not fail to give him (Tafari) his father’s governorate of Hararge. After they had concluded their consultations saying ‘we shall go up to Addis Ababa following the memorial service (tazkar) customary after 40 days’, a letter reached the officers from Emperor Menelik stating ‘Come at once with Tafari, his son, for it is before me at Addis Ababa that the lamentations for Ras Makonnen’s 40-day mourning are to be held’.
While my father was still alive he had prepared a present intended to be sent to the Emperor Menelik; and since it was an object he had put aside, we took it with us when we departed from Harar on the 3rd of Miyazya (= 10th April) and set out on our journey to Addis Ababa. As many people died on us during the trip, grief was heaped upon grief. The reason was that the ‘small' rainy season was active and that, because of the multitude of the army, malaria spread in our camp. On the 19th of Miyazya (= 26th April) we reached Addis Ababa.
Emperor Menelik had given orders that tents be pitched, sewn together like a hangar, on a vast field at which he gave a memorial banquet for my father; and there he caused the officers and troops to assemble. While the lamentations proceeded, with the arrivals stationed at one side and the hosts mustered on the other, we were gathered with Emperor Menelik in great mourning.
On the 40th day, i.e. Monday 22nd Miyazya (= 30th April 1906), the priests of the monasteries and churches in Addis Ababa and surroundings, after completing the prayer of absolution proper for Christians, all proceeded to the tent that had been prepared and spent the day at the great banquet arranged for them. The Rases and Dejazmatches, because some of them were his blood-relations and others had grown up with him, entered the appropriate part of the tent, stood there, and observed lest any item of food should be missing. To the poor were given, apart from food, a lot of alms in cash.
On the morrow, according to the custom of our country, on the 40th day after a person’s death, lamentations are being held as on the day of death itself. On the vast field, where the big tent had been pitched, the officers and troops assembled. Emperor Menelik himself was seated in the centre, and then the most amazing display of mourning was performed for my father when his ceremonial robes, his Ras’s crown, his medals, and his battle arms were carried, and his horse and mules, saddled in golden harness, were paraded in the midst of the army. One of the mourners composed in his honour the following dirge which he recited:
In the Addis Ababa Palace it was being said that no-one knew an occasion when similar lamentation and mourning had occurred for anyone. After the demonstration of these lamentations had ceased, the ushers informed the assembled army that they should go home; they then departed and went on their way. But my father’s troops, who had come with me from Harar, had remained there quietly; and when they were asked ‘Why do you remain when the entire army has left’, they replied ‘it is to escort to his camp our master’s son, Dejazmatch Tafari.' When the Emperor heard this, he permitted me to go to the camp with my father’s troops. When we left, my father’s Addis Ababa friends came to join us and to accompany me to the camp; all passers-by on the way stopped and expressed astonishment on account of the extraordinary size of the escort. Owing to this event, other friends of my father’s who were living at Addis Ababa—let alone my father’s troops—told me they had heard people say among themselves ‘the fact that the Emperor is permitting Dejazmatch Tafari to go back with his father’s army may be because Menelik is thinking of giving him the governorship of Harar.’
But my elder brother, Dejazmatch Yelma (who had been born to my father before he married my mother, Wayzaro Yashimabet), had married Wayzaro Assallafatch, the daughter of Empress Taitu’s sister.
For this reason Empress Taitu, used to supporting all her relatives, was said to be exerting herself with a view to Dejazmatch Yelma getting the governorship of Harar, arguing that, while there is an elder son, the younger son should not be appointed to his father’s governorship; and because there had been delay in the announcement, very many people rose up indicating that the governorship of Harar should be mine.
But since, on one hand, Empress Taitu had pestered Emperor Menelik by saying ‘Give it to Dejazmatch Yelma for my sake’, and because, on the other, the time had not yet arrived at which God had determined that I should become governor of Harar, the matter was decided by saying ‘let it go to Dejazmatch Yelma’. The reason why my father’s troops and his friends thought that the governorship should be mine was because they were used to me, being constantly in my company, and because my father, when still alive, had said to them ‘I commend to you my son Tafari'.
After the decision to give the governorship of Harar to my brother Dejazmatch Yelma had been taken, it appeared to be thought that it would upset me and the army if the proclamation were issued while I dwelt in the midst of my father’s troops; I was therefore summoned from the camp some eight days before the date of the proclamation and it was arranged that I should stay in a tent prepared for me in the Palace precinct. Then they ordered some of my father’s most loyal officers who had shown particular favour and affection to me, Dejazmatch Abba Tabor and Fitawrari (now Dejazmatch) Hayla Sellasse Abaynah, to stay here at Addis Ababa as suppliants, threatening them for a time with (royal) displeasure and detention. The reason was that Dejazmatch Abba Tabor and Fitawrari Hayla Sellasse had firmly assumed that the governorship of Harar would be mine, and it was rumoured that the advice had been given on the part of Empress Taitu that, if they were now to go back to Harar, they might at every opportunity make things difficult for Dejazmatch Yelma.
Eight days later, on the 2nd of Genbot (= 9th May 1906), the Emperor’s proclamation was issued, to the effect that he gave Harar, the governorate of Ras Makonnen, to Dejazmatch Yelma, and Sallale, the governorate of Ras Darge, to Dejazmatch Tafari. As a consequence, my father’s army as a whole was distressed. Among them there were many who came to stay with me leaving their home, saying ‘We shall not go with Dejazmatch Yelma and abandon Dejazmatch Tafari our master’s, Ras Makonnen’s, son whom he had entrusted to us.' Among those who remembered me were Fitawrari Qolatch, Ledj (later Dejazmatch) Walda Sellasse, Ato Dannaqa Gobaze, Ledj Alamayahu Goshu (later Fitawrari), Qagnazmatch Walda Maryam Abaynah, Ato Sabsebe (later Bajerond), Ato Hayle Walda Rufa’el (later Tsahafe Te’ezaz), Qagnazmatch Defabatchaw, Ato Tafarra Balaw, Qagnazmatch Gabra Wald, Ato Waqe (later Dejazmatch), Qagnazmatch Darbe.
During the time when I served as governor of Sallale, orders were given to reconstruct the church of the monastery of Dabra Libanos which had fallen into ruin. Hence, when the foundations were excavated, there was found a ring and a piece of gold which was very fine and which bore an inscription. My deputy, who was carrying out the work there, sent it to me and it reached the Emperor through me; it was thus reckoned to be a great good fortune for me. Having gone, according to the custom of the country, to the governorship of Sallale, the Emperor yet permitted me to stay with my retainers. Since I did not wish to be separated from the Emperor, it was arranged that my deputy should reside in the governorate of Sallale, while I spent the whole day at the Addis Ababa Palace, from 7 a.m. till 8 p.m., eight whole months of attendance at Court.
At that time Emperor Menelik had opened a school for young Ethiopians to study foreign languages and had brought teachers from Egypt. While selecting Ledj Iyasu, Ledj Berru, Ledj Getatchaw, and other sons of the great nobles and placing them at that school, he left me out; and this was a matter of great sadness to me. But when I spoke to him, a few days later, revealing my desire to study, he gave me permission and said 'It is because you were a governor that I thought you chose to live like the nobles, but if you wish to study, then go and learn'; thus I began my studies. But, while at Harar, I had learnt French; now at Addis Ababa, since it was not appropriate to take lessons together with the beginners, they began to teach us separately, fixing some hours for us alone. Those of us studying together were Ledj (later Ras) Emru, Ato Assefaw Banti, and Ledj Zawde Gobana (later Fitawrari). After I had remained for about a year in my appointment over Sallale, I was appointed to the governorship of Baso.
My brother, Dejazmatch Yelma, after having governed for about 17 months following his appointment over Hararge, died at Harar on 29th Maskaram 1900 (= 10th October 1907); and when the sad announcement was transmitted by telephone to Addis Ababa and we had grasped it, there was great mourning. Afterwards it again began to be said by the mouth of every man that the governorship of Hararge was to be given to Dejazmatch Tafari. But as I have said before, since the time had not yet arrived which God had determined for me to become Governor of Harar, on 27th Magabit 1900 (= 4th April 1908) the governorship of Harar was given to Dejazmatch Baltcha, while the Emperor gave me part of the governorship of Sidamo. Therefore I had to abandon my studies and was ordered to proceed, together with the army, to my governorate of Sidamo and to take care of the business of government. It was arranged that some 3,000 men of my father’s army at Harar should come to me.
When my departure for Sidamo was decided, it was conceded to me that Dejazmatch Abba Tabor and Fitawrari Hayla Sellasse, who had remained in nominal detention, should go with me. Since Dejazmatch Abba Tabor was alert in everything he did as well as firm in his word and truthful without any falsehood whatever, this was to me a matter of great good fortune. During the period I served in my governorate of Sidamo I had a time of perfect joy, as I encountered no trouble whatever, because there worked for me Dejazmatch Abba Tabor, being responsible for outside work, and my grandmother (my mother’s mother) Wayzaro Wallata Giyorgis, being responsible for the inside work. While I knew that it was proper to exercise judicial functions—a provincial governor, according to local custom, would sit in Court—up to now I had not dared exercising those functions of sitting in judicial assembly, seeing the tenderness of my age. But now, since my appointment to the governorship of Sidamo, I began to pronounce judgment while sitting in Court on Wednesdays and Fridays.
While I divided my own previous servants, those who had come to me from my father’s army, and the newcomers, who had entered my service after I had gone to Addis Ababa, into three parts making proper adjustments for each according to their rank and assigning their duties, I remained there very happily for about a year. Then, when I heard in 1901 (= 1908-9) that the Emperor was gravely ill, I asked for permission to come to Addis Ababa. As the Emperor’s missive reached me allowing me to come, I went to Addis Ababa in the month of Miyazya (= April 1909) after giving orders to my chiefs in each district that they should carry out their work diligently and that they should guard the country meticulously.
Since the Emperor Menelik was gravely ill, he no longer had the strength to undertake any major work—except to appear before the army by coming out into the palace square; consequently, all the people, great and small alike, felt very grieved. As to all the work of government, it was Empress Taitu who took it on as plenipotentiary. For this reason, as peace became disturbed, many people appeared in the Palace precinct endeavouring to stir up agitation. As all this was going on and while Empress Taitu, acting as plenipotentiary, was carrying out all the work of government, envious men began a conspiracy against her to deprive her of her powers and to evict her from the Palace. When they asked me to join them in the conspiracy, I told them that I did not wish to enter into their plot; and consequently all the conspirators began to look upon me with enmity. When Empress Taitu heard about my refusal to enter into the conspiracy, she told the Emperor and both were very pleased.
Although the Emperor was gravely ill, at that time his mind was still balanced. Nevertheless, he did not find an appropriate occasion to warn and to reproach the conspirators. As to my refusal to join the conspiracy, I did not tell either the Empress or anyone else about it, but those conspirators let out the secret saying ‘Dejazmatch Tafari refused when we said to him join the conspiracy'. When the Empress repeatedly asked me in order to find out about this matter with certainty, I was firm in my statement that there was no-one who had asked me to join the conspiracy. Therefore she declared that she was very pleased about my not letting out the secret and told me: 'I know the truth. Your refusal to let out the secret is because you are a very discreet man.'
Since Empress Taitu had heard it being reported that it was in the Ministerial Council Chamber that this matter of the conspiracy had been started, she foiled their plot for the time being by causing the Ministerial Council Chamber to be closed. Furthermore, in the previous year three Germans had come on government appointments to an advisership and posts in medicine and education and were working while frequently meeting the Ministers about their respective tasks. Since Empress Taitu entertained some suspicion that perhaps those Germans might have given advice to the Ministers to conspire against her, it was reported that, while seeking some pretext, she made them give up their work.
Since in that year Dejazmatch Abreha, the governor of Endarta in the Tigre province, had rebelled, Ras Abata, while he was still Wagshum, attacked Dej. Abreha at the end of Maskaram 1902 (= October 1909) and defeated him. It was reported that other governors of the Tigre province were looking on in silence without coming to the aid of Dej. Abreha or Ras Abata.
Emperor Menelik’s illness was of the type called paralysis which prevented him moving all his limbs and carrying out his work; on the 17th of Teqemt 1902 (= 27th October 1909) at 9.00 o’clock at night (= 3 a.m.) it suddenly became impossible for him either to move or to speak; and when the officers and the army heard about this, there was great sadness in the precincts of the Palace and in the capital. Yet after a few days the illness seemed to relax its hold over him and he appeared to be getting better, but it was not thought that he had many years left till death would overtake him.
Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
August 06, 2016