The Family


The present Empire of Ethiopia is divided into provinces, and a glance at the map will show that Shoa holds the central position. Cut off from the northern territory, perhaps deliberately, as has already been shown, by allowing the penetration of Galla tribes as well as by the configuration of the country itself, the rulers in Shoa, crowned on their circular hill of Mona Gasha—still a landmark on the horizon west of Addis Ababa—had established for themselves a position of considerable influence.

Deriving descent from the Solomonian line through Abatu Yahkob, a son of Lebna Dengel (or David), who had been emperor during the sixteenth century, they now began to assume a position of equality with the rulers of the north, and even to conduct negotiations and enter into relations with foreign countries. In 1840 and 1841 King Sahle Selassie received the missions of M. Rochet d’Hericourt from France, and of Major Cornwallis Harris from England. Both met the king in his capital at Ankober. ‘Sahle Selassie was seated on a leathern chair, his head bare, and his hair frizzled into little curls; a small gold cross was suspended from his neck by a blue ribbon, while a “laupe” brilliantly embroidered, but partially concealed a vest of Indian workmanship embroidered with gold beneath: two massive gold bracelets on his wrists completed his costume.’1 Under his rule Shoa enjoyed a period of peace and stable government, and Cornwallis Harris notes: ‘A rich mercantile harvest is assuredly in store for those who shall unlock the portals of the Eastern Coast and shall spread navigation upon waters that have hitherto proved barren.’2 His long reign lasted until 1847, when his son Haile Melakot succeeded him.

While Sahle Selassie ruled in Shoa there were two other powerful rulers contending for supremacy in the north—Ras Ali of Gondar (a former Moslem who had become first mayor and had then, in order to gain the support of the Church, turned Christian) and Dejazmach Wobie, who ruled supreme in the north ‘from the coast of the Red Sea to Gondar,’ including the whole of Tigre.

Though many travellers had visited these parts no official intercourse was maintained with any of these chiefs by the British Government until a Mr Plowden suggested to the Foreign Office the advisability of establishing a consulate at the port of Massowah, explaining how in his opinion ‘a considerable commerce must ensue.’3 On 2nd November 1848 a treaty of ‘Friendship and Commerce’ was concluded between England and Ras Ali, though the latter is reputed to have thought that little could ever come of it. It would seem curious that within a decade two missions should have been dispatched on similar errands to two different rulers— one of Shoa and one of Gondar—but it serves to show the confused state of affairs, both in Ethiopia itself and in the eyes of the outside world.

Ras Ali, who was not of the Solomonian line of descent, found it hard to maintain his position as head of the government and was finally killed after an engagement against a rival chief, Kassa, who had denounced his authority. This Kassa was ultimately crowned in 1855 as the Emperor Theodore. He was not, and did not claim to be, of the Solomonian line, but his vigorous and successful campaign in all parts of the country, and his championship of the Church, led to a general recognition of his position; he was at the outset of his career a man of strong character, imbued with an enthusiasm for Christianity and a real desire for reform. In this he failed to find support among the local chiefs, who saw only a possible check on their own freedom of action. Yet, in spite of growing unpopularity, he did much to unify the country, especially in the north. He was then strong enough to challenge the growing power of the Shoan kingdom, now under the rule of Haile Melakot, son of Sahle Selassie. He seized his capital of Ankober, and when the king died on the eve of battle, captured and imprisoned his son Menelek, then a boy of twelve years of age.

His newly unified empire had, however, no solid foundations. Disaffection and rebellion among the chiefs and governors of provinces angered and embittered the Emperor: his enthusiasm for the Church waned, his need of money entailed heavy exactions from his subjects, his cordiality and courtesy—recorded by his European friends on their first contacts with him—gave way to suspicion, malevolence, and finally madness. Venting this upon all and sundry he imprisoned and ill-treated English and other residents, thus bringing upon himself retaliatory action from the British Government, who sent a force of 16,000 men to rescue their nationals. Theodore, on the defeat of his army at Magdala in 1868, shot himself.

It was at this juncture that the young Menelek escaped and re-established himself as King of Shoa. After Tekla Giorghis had reigned for three years, Dejazmach Kassa of Tigre assumed the royal title and was crowned as the Emperor John at Axum in 1872. The latter consolidated the conquests of Theodore and added to them the important town of Harar in the south-east, which had been evacuated by the Egyptians who had held the province for ten years. Unfortunately the good promise of his reign was cut short by his death in battle against the dervishes, who were threatening invasion from the west.

As he lay dying he called to him his son Mangasha and appointed him his heir. But Menelek, King of Shoa, had also proclaimed himself emperor, and Mangasha was not strong enough to oppose him. Menelek was regarded with favour by a large following of chiefs, as well as by the Italians, who had gained, by this time, a footing on the Eritrean coast, and were ready to put arms at his disposal in order to establish themselves as the supporters and protectors of the young Emperor. The treaty of Ucciali was signed between Menelek and his Italian allies in 1888—a treaty which appeared to the Italians to constitute an Italian protectorate over Ethiopia, but which Menelek viewed from quite a different angle; though quite willing to make use of Italian help to gain his own ends, he had no intention of becoming their tool.

Much might be written about his reign: how he extended and consolidated the work of his predecessors in the making of the Ethiopian Empire; how he set it upon the map of the world. He was no longer the mythical Prester John of medieval times, but a monarch who opened his capital to foreign legations, constructed the railway line which linked his domain with the sea, built the ‘new flower’ (Addis Ababa), which became the centre of trade and the seat of settled government, and noticed with favour and approval the growth and development of outstanding qualities in a young boy—the son of an old friend and able general—who was just emerging into manhood. He himself had no such son.

Sahle Selassie, King of Shoa, had a large family of sons and daughters, of whom Haile Melakot, the eldest, succeeded him. Among his daughters was one Tenagne Worq, married to Dejazmacb Walda Mikhail of Shoa-Doba. His father was Walda Melakot, a well-known figure at Sahle Selassie’s court, famous as a maker of roads. Their younger son, Ras Makonnen, was therefore first cousin to the Emperor Menelek. While the latter was engaged in the wars, first within his own territories, which resulted in the unification of his empire, and then outside its boundaries, this Ras Makonnen was his able general and loyal friend. He fought at Adowa with conspicuous bravery; with his imperial master he achieved the pacification of Harar province, and put into practice such reform in the administration and in the law-courts that ‘The Justice of Ras Makonnen’ became a byword in his province.

When at last the Empire was consolidated from within and protected from without it was Ras Makonnen who was sent by Menelek to make friendly contacts with other nations of the world. He had visited France, Italy, and England as the emissary of the Emperor, in order to help Ethiopia to a place of respect and acknowledgment among the nations of the world; and it was perhaps these contacts with the civilizations of the West that warned and advised the Ras that without education Ethiopia could never hold her own in the world of the twentieth century.

Certain it is that it was in the atmosphere of enlightenment and reform that Ras Makonnen set himself to the administration of the rich province that, after its conquest, he was set to govern. The registration of land was his first concern, in order to facilitate the collection of government taxes. During the previous governorship of the Emir Abdullah a great many of the peasant owners had been expropriated by the local chiefs, who relied on the support that they had afforded to the late governor to confirm them in their illegal occupation. Emboldened by the reputation for justice which the new governor inspired the peasants presented their case, and after little deliberation Makonnen gave orders that they were to be reinstated in their original properties. He thus bound to him by ties of gratitude many thousands of cultivators who saw in him a protector as much as a governor.

Stories are told of his impartial justice to Ethiopian and foreigner alike. An Ethiopian who had insulted a foreigner in his shop to the point when the latter, exasperated, had beaten him up, was ordered to be imprisoned for having himself been the cause of the incident. An Austrian housewife had trouble with her cook. The Ras ordered her to attend the court, but she asked to be excused until a time later in the day. Notwithstanding her protests the soldiers brought her by force, but were sternly reprimanded for having refused to listen to a legitimate excuse. A foreigner who had a case against a blacksmith was awarded a decision in his favour. Not content with the punishment of a fine inflicted by the Ras, the foreigner sought to have the prisoner turned out of the town. ‘In our country,’ said the Ras, ‘we have need of every available merchant and above all of artisans. You have obtained justice, there is to be no question of expulsion.’4

Such stories serve to show reasons for the honour and affection in which Ras Makonnen was held both among his own people and the foreign community. Further, we have an example of his generous nature, when having himself ordered the expulsion of a foreigner convicted of murder, who had already served a long sentence in prison, he paid the passage money necessary to ensure his return to his own country.

A description of the hospitality accorded by him to foreign visitors may be found in many of the books written by visitors to the country in the last decade of the nineteenth century.

‘We pitched our camp at the required spot, a slight rise in the grassy level overlooking a marsh, with a clear stream half a mile off, and found a plenteous offering of bread and sheep and tej sent by Ras Makonnen . . . ’ and after meeting him: ‘Ras Makonnen had produced on us a pleasing impression. He is a small dark man with delicate hands, large expressive eyes, a small black beard and moustache, and a most intelligent cast of countenance. His voice is very gentle and his manners extremely dignified and quiet. What he said was little but to the point, and he gave us then and thereafter the impression of a man who wielded a good deal of power in a quiet way.’5

Monseigneur Jarosseau, who spent his long life in Ethiopia and the greater part of it in Harar province, writes thus of him: ‘Makonnen, justly admired as the greatest military leader that Abyssinia has perhaps ever known, as the victor of Adowa, respected on all sides for his high intelligence and his uprightness, was also much beloved for his justice and goodness, and his spiritual character.’6

He married Waizero Yeshimabeit in 1875. She was the daughter of a chieftain of the Wollo country north-east of Addis Ababa. Its people are among the hardiest and most hard working in the empire, for their cold bleak country is a good preparation for courage and endurance. Of this Church union were born ten children. Yet the only child to survive of this large family was the present Emperor. How precious then must have been this youngest born; what hopes must have rested on him; in what full measure has he repaid the love and care which was to prepare him to serve his country and the whole world.

Tafari Makonnen was born in his father’s country home near Harar on 23rd July 1892 (16th Hamle 1884 in the Ethiopian calendar). He was baptized in Harar at the church which his father had built and received his Christian name Haile Selassie. As very often happens in Ethiopian families he was called at home by another name, Tafari.

1 Abyssinia Described or the Land of Prester John, ed. J. C. Hotten, p. 57.
2 Ibid., p. 77.
3 Ibid., p. 113.
4 Adrien Zervos: L'Empire d'Ethiopie.
5 Gleichen: With the Mission to Menelik, p. 40.
6 Gaetan Bernoville: Monseigneur Jarosseau, p. 231.

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