The Regency


What were the thoughts of this young man as he marched back to the capital after the battle? He was twenty-four years old. For the last ten years, since the death of his father, he had been the maker of his own destiny. Through school, and how insignificant in comparison with modern standards was that schooling; through his first practical experience of administration in a province two hundred miles away from the capital; through the heavier responsibilities of Harar with its more complex problems of government and trade; through the perils and perplexities of civil war, he had stood by himself, with no guide except a strong religious faith, a burning patriotism, and the awareness of his own call to lead.

We are so accustomed to see him to-day as the wise ruler, of ripe experience with the tremendous record of adventure and achievement behind him that it is wise to pause and envisage him as he was then on the threshold of his life’s work; as he entered on the long fourteen years of regency during which the foundations of a new Ethiopia were laid—and laid by him alone.

We see a young man, slight in build, with handsome intelligent features, the hands of an artist, and an underlying look of steely determination. We find that almost alone among his equals he has been educated, so that he can speak French with fluency, and that he shows an insatiable desire to amass information of all sorts about the outside world. We find that the few foreigners who visit the country are aware of this and appreciate it, and are attracted by a charming and sincere personality that awakens sympathy. But outside his own country he is quite unknown, and inside his own country it is not yet realized that a wholly unique character has stepped on to the stage. All the chiefs recognize that he is a young man of courage, energy, and intelligence; he is invested of course with the prestige of being his father’s son, the proclaimed heir to the throne, a representative of the Solomonian dynasty. But they are a little uneasy, all the same. Is he a man of too modern ideas? Will the reforms that he has shown himself already so anxious to introduce mean a break up of the old system, a sweeping away of ancient traditions? Have they done right in entrusting him with the future of their country’s welfare—even more important, with the future of their own so jealously guarded positions?

The Ministers appointed by Menelek as an assistance to the ever growing mass of public business had all disappeared from office during the Lij Yasu debacle, but certain personalities of influence were Ras Kassa, Ras Demissie, Ras Abate, Ras W. Giorgis (Gondar), and Dejazmach Balcha. Towering above the rest in influence, however, were the archbishop—Abuna Mattheos, an Egyptian appointed as was always customary by the Patriarch in Egypt—and the old Minister of War, Fitaurari Habta Giorghis. The Fitaurari, as we have seen, showed great valour and took a leading part in the battle of Sagalle. Like our own Wellington after Waterloo he is said to have commented: ‘I never doubted we should settle their hash but, by God, it was a damned near thing.’ He had risen to his high position under Menelek, who had great confidence in him.

The story is that when Menelek was starting for the front in the Adowa campaign he was short of mules. Habta Giorghis, a merchant in the town, hastily collected his own mules and those of all his friends and brought them to the Emperor. Menelek, greatly pleased, bade him stay by his side during the campaign and was so struck by his capacity and character that he made him his Minister of War when the holder of the title was killed. As time went on and the trend of Tafari’s modernizing plans and reforms became apparent, it was natural for these old conservatives to group themselves round the older Empress—the embodiment of conservatism and tradition—and seek through her to obstruct or at best to retard the fulfilment of his various projects. At times the sense of frustration in Tafari was very acute, but in justice to the Abuna and Fitaurari it must be said that they never allowed the political temperature to reach boiling-point. In fact these two older men—the representatives of the religious and secular power—began to assume more and more the role of mediators between the old and the new, though with the scales weighted in favour of the old. Tafari’s common sense and an infinite capacity for patience came to his rescue; he realized that so long as the War Minister and the Abuna were alive he could achieve little of an effective nature, and he schooled himself to abide his time, for time was on his side.

But patience was matched in his character by steadiest perseverance; much of the progress he made was more in the realm of his ideas than in what was obvious to the eye. He pondered deeply on the future and what could be done when the time was ripe. The author obtained a sidelight on this in the early twenties. She asked a young Ethiopian who had been in her service and had later obtained employment at the Regent’s palace how he liked his new work. ‘Oh,’ replied the lad, ‘I like it very much, and His Highness treats us very kindly, but there is one thing that is a terrible trial. One of us has, of course, to stay up until His Highness goes to bed—and he never goes to bed till the early morning.’

'Why, what is he doing?’ ‘Oh, nothing. He sits alone in his study, just thinking and thinking and thinking!’

During the years of his Regency the lack of education loomed large in his mind, and he devoted a great deal of his energies to working out a programme and laying the foundations of this vital reform. In 1920 not 1 per cent of the inhabitants, high or low, were literate. Apart from the small school founded by Menelek for the sons of the nobility and a similar school in Harar—the people of Ankober refused one offered to them—there were in effect no schools other than the groups of children who would be gathered round their parish church, and taught the rudiments of reading and writing through the medium of the Scriptures. The Church saw no reason to change this and offered much passive resistance to the infringement of their duties and privileges. Nothing deterred, Tafari greatly increased the scope of the Menelek School and himself founded and equipped the Tafari Makonnen School, which grew quickly to several hundred pupils.

Here are the first words of his speech at the opening of the school on 27th April 1925:

Thanks be to Thee, O Lord our God, infinite and omnipresent, that Thou hast led me to finish what by Thy will Thou didst cause me to begin and that Thou hast granted me to speak of this. Of Ethiopia’s greatness and antiquity, and especially of the long years when, surrounded by pagans, she struggled for her faith and for her freedom, we ourselves, her own children, can indeed bear witness. . . . But it is not what she was that can profit Ethiopia but what she may become. . . . That knowledge must be sought and found whereby Ethiopia, an African state which has preserved her independence, may be led towards progress and may obtain political stability and the well-being of her people. The task may then be undertaken, but before a task can be undertaken, the tools must be prepared. . . . Education is the tool. . . . Everyone who loves Ethiopia should concern himself with founding schools.1

He encouraged his wife, Princess Menan, to found the school for girls which bears her name, and which opened in September 1931. This is a striking tribute to his breadth of mind that he realized, while still so young, the essential need of trained and educated women, and he has ceaselessly striven for the raising of the marriage age for Ethiopian girls.

Into these schools he introduced European teachers, and at the same time began to send abroad—mostly to the United Kingdom and France—a steady trickle of boys who could benefit by a wider education; for the most part these were his own selection and paid for from his own resources. They were to be the tools which he could hope to find ready to his hand when the time came for his schemes of progress to go ahead, unhampered by the reactionary die-hards. How cruelly did fate disappoint him, for many of these young men fell as the victims of Fascist terrorism, and thus there is a gap of a generation still sadly felt in the higher grades of government service.

A few small schools were also started in the provinces at this time, but, whilst the furtherance of education has always been nearest to his heart, improvement in public health has come next. One hospital had already been built in Menelek’s time, and staffed by Russian and then by French doctors. To this Ras Tafari added a fine new hospital close to the gate of his own palace, which he named Bethsaida, and at which he was a constant visitor, frequently remaining as an onlooker in the theatre—as he still often does.

Seen in retrospect by far the most important achievement of the Regent was to secure the entry of Ethiopia into the League of Nations. Though he was often thwarted in his efforts at internal reform by the ‘old guard,’ now definitely ringed in opposition round the Empress, he was trusted in the domain of foreign affairs. His inquiries—and his March for accurate knowledge in every kind of sphere was tireless—led him to believe that in the League of Nations there existed a body that could throw a cloak of protection over the smaller states, and might therefore be a useful aid to Ethiopia against her three powerful neighbours, who had already given evidence that they would not be averse to absorbing Ethiopia into their own territories, or at least into their spheres of influence when the time was ripe.

He was not unaware that an applicant for admission to the League would have certain obligations to fulfil, and when in 1924 the Ethiopian Government submitted its application, it did so happen that Great Britain, Australia, Norway, and Switzerland opposed immediate admission, doubting whether Ethiopia was in fact capable as yet of assuming these obligations. They questioned whether the Central Government of the country was strong enough to control, for instance, the arms traffic, or to suppress slavery.

France and Italy, however, took the line that membership of the League would strengthen the Central Government and in the end Ethiopia was admitted on 28th September 1924, by the unanimous vote of the State members. This was a considerable personal triumph for Ras Tafari, for it was on his growing reputation that the favourable vote was cast. From that day to this, reliance on the League and its successor the United Nations Organization, and steadfast loyalty to its principles have been the keystones of Ras Tafari’s foreign policy; and few will deny that he has used with consummate skill its machinery for furthering the interests of his own country. At the same time he realized, and in the matter of slavery took immediate steps to carry out, his country’s obligations incurred on her entry to the League.

Even prior to this the Empress, on the recommendation of the Regent, had reaffirmed the edicts published by Menelek against the slave trade, and in March 1924 a law was promulgated providing for the liberation of any slave who could prove cruelty or underfeeding against his master; of all those slaves who had been sponsored at their baptism by their owner, or with their owner’s permission had entered the Army or the Church; of any slave whose master had not claimed him within a week of arrest. It was further enacted that slaves who were not liberated on the death of their master (as was frequently done) should serve for seven years only in the household of the heir, after which they should be considered free.

In 1925 it was stated before the League of Nations that cases of slave trading were more numerous in Ethiopia than in all the rest of Africa. The Regent, however, drew attention to the fact that, as the market for slaves still existed, chiefly in Arabia, the states which administered the neighbouring countries where were the ports of embarkation were equally concerned in the traffic; and the Ethiopian Government expressed a desire to come to some agreement with them for combined action. At the same meeting they publicly expressed the intention of obtaining the gradual disappearance of slavery as a recognized institution.

It was as difficult, however, for the Regent to make any immediate change in this direction as it was with most of the other plans which he was so busy conceiving and preparing during the waiting years. It was hoped that better things might eventuate when he became Emperor. Nor were these hopes disappointed.

For over ten years, by steady perseverance, incessant industry, and unflinching resolve, the young man pressed on his way—the way of advancement, as he saw it, for his beloved country. Then in due course the Fitaurari and the Abuna died in the same year. Tafari began inexorably to force the pace.

One of his first moves was to summon to the capital Dejazmach Balcha, the same man whom we have met earlier as having done good service both for Menelek and at the time of Lij Yasu’s overthrow, but who had become one of the most influential among the group of his opponents. He received a summons to the capital, a summons which he chose to disregard. A more peremptory message followed and this time the Dejazmach thought it prudent to obey. He arrived in Addis Ababa, however, or rather on the outskirts of the town, at the head of an army of ten thousand men, and ensconced himself in his own house some eight miles from the heart of the city. This was an obvious challenge to the Regent, who acted with vigour. He invited the Dejazmach to come to a banquet the following day, even acceding to his stipulation that he should arrive with a bodyguard of some six hundred armed retainers. The banquet was held, the conversation was animated, each protagonist seeking to justify his own position. The Dejazmach rode away again unpersuaded. But a surprise and shock awaited him. As he neared his own property he found the compound deserted, his army evaporated into thin air. In his absence the Regent had sent his own men to persuade the provincial soldiers that it was in their own interest to go home without further ado; their immediate interest was satisfied with a present which would see them provided for during the journey—and the advice was followed. Dejazmach Balcha recognized the adroitness of the manoeuvre which had outwitted him, and though he sought sanctuary for a few days in a neighbouring church, he was persuaded to give himself up. After retiring to a monastery for some years he presented himself for service again at the time of his country’s peril. There is no animosity in the character of the Emperor. Balcha died in October 1936, fighting for his country on the outksirts of Addis Ababa some time after the Italians occupied the capital.

The reactionary party realized that their position was fast becoming untenable, and within two years of these latter events a conspiracy was formed to depose the Regent from his trusted position. It failed, and in September 1928 this failure of the Palace Revolt, as it came to be called, finally established Ras Tafari in his position, and advanced him to the rank of Negus (king). Its story will give an additional picture of his steadiness in danger, and his power of quick decision, if the emergency demand it.

The Regent had gone down, as was his almost daily custom, from his own house—the little ghibbi—to the palace in which state affairs were conducted—the big ghibbi. Hardly had he set foot within the hall when the gates of the palace were closed behind him, and held closed by troops within. Machine-guns, posted on the roof of the Menelek mausoleum, which stands within the wall of the palace enclosure, were trained on the entrances. Within, the Empress was questioning the Regent on rumours reported to her that he was aiming at supreme power. Disposing scornfully of such allegations of disloyalty, Ras Tafari maintained complete self-possession in the face of the threatening soldiers of the palace guard. Ordering the great doors of the ghibbi to be thrown open he passed out and down the steps of the assembly hall. The force of his personality held the crowd. Outside the main gates there had already arrived retainers from his own palace who had been hastily armed with any weapons which his wife, Waizero Menan, who had been apprised of the situation, could lay hands on.

The gates were opened at his orders, his own servants poured in; in the silence of surprise Ras Tafari mounted his mule and rode slowly towards his own house; his calm confidence had won the day.

All through this affair eye-witnesses were greatly impressed by the new vigour and promptitude and the cool decision with which Tafari had acted. He acted in fact like a man who knew that his moment had come and was determined to mould events to his own will. And in the outcome, when the mutineers were safely under guard and all was quiet, the Council of State met at the Old Palace, endorsed what Tafari had done, and petitioned the Empress to raise him to the status of Negus—thus putting all real power into his hands. The ceremony which took place a day or two later was symbolic of this change.

A silken tent had been pitched in the palace grounds over against the old Church of the Trinity. Here at an early hour assembled the participants: the Empress Zauditu and her officers of state, Tafari with his own personal officers, the Itchegi or chief of the monks, who was acting head of the Church in the absence of an Abuna. There were present the corps diplomatique and one or two privileged spectators—the author’s husband being one. After some intoning by the priests Tafari rose and, descending from the throne erected for him, advanced slowly towards the Empress and knelt at her feet. Silk hangings were draped around the pair as the crown was placed upon his head. Then the hangings fell apart and as Tafari—the king—rose to his feet there was a startling zip as swords whizzed from their sheaths and were waved on high. His officers thronging round him seemed almost to carry him back to his throne. Ensued a dramatic pause, and then again as though on a sudden impulse the whole concourse surged round him and bore him off in triumph to the church hard by, where he was to receive the acclamation of the people—leaving the Empress alone, a forlorn figure in the almost deserted tent.

Then when he left the church he drove, wearing his crown, in an open carriage back to his own palace.

The reins of government were now definitely in his hands. One last effort was to be made to snatch them from him. Within a few months of the events just described, a deep-laid conspiracy was unmasked revealing that Ras Gugsa, Governor of Begemder, and former husband of the Empress, was engaged in an attempt to marshal the powerful forces of the north against Shoa and the Regent. He had been forced to separate from the Empress when she was called to the throne, and to retire to the north. For this, and perhaps other reasons, he bore an undying grudge against Tafari; and descended as he was from Ras Wollie of Gondar, he had great influence and prestige throughout the north.

The danger was extreme but Negus Tafari met it with firmness and astuteness. A great battle between north and south was to be avoided at all costs, but Gugsa must be isolated. The Regent’s emissaries did their work well, and one by one Gugsa’s friends fell away from him. To clinch the business the new Abuna was prevailed upon to excommunicate him. This news and the Church’s condemnation of all those who dared to support Gugsa was broadcast in leaflets from an aeroplane—a ‘messenger from the sky’ not seen before in those parts.

Meanwhile an overwhelming force had been set in motion from Shoa, Wollo and Yejjo and was converging on Gugsa. The ensuing battle was brief and could only have one result. Gugsa was killed on the field, and his force, consisting of his personal troops, was overwhelmed.

Meanwhile the Empress, who had been ailing for some months past and who, during the events just described, must have been undergoing severe mental distress, became seriously ill and within a few hours of receiving news of Ras Gugsa’s death succumbed. Negus Tafari immediately moved his own personal troops into the palace. His accession as King of Kings was proclaimed and took place smoothly and quietly. The goal had been reached.

Proclamation in the name of the Crown Prince and Regent Plenipotentiary of the Ethiopian Realm, His Majesty King Tafari Makonnen, on his ascending the Imperial Throne with the name of His Majesty Haile Selassie the First, King of the Kings of Ethiopia.

King Tafari Makonnen

In accordance with the Proclamation which our Creator abiding in His people, and electing us, did cause to be made, we have lived without breach of our Covenant as mother and son. Now, in that by the law and commandment of God, none that is human may avoid return to earth, Her Majesty the Empress, after a few days of sickness, has departed this life.

The passing of Her Majesty the Empress is grievous for myself and for the whole of the empire. Since it is the long-standing custom that when a King, the Shepherd of his people, shall die, a King replaces him, I being upon the seat of David to which I was betrothed, will, by God’s charity, watch over you. Trader, trade! Farmer, plough! I shall govern you by the law and ordinance that has come, handed down from my fathers.

25 Megebit 1922. (3rd April 1930).

1 Speeches of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I, Part I, 27 April 1925.

Next Chapter

Electronic edition created and published online by members of the
Emperor Haile Sellassie First Theocracy Reign
Order of the Nyahbinghi

Crest of the Nyahbinghi Order

August 27, 2019