THE LION OF JUDAH HATH PREVAILED
The Emperor left Dire Dawa by train for Djibuti on 2nd May and on 3rd May he embarked in a British cruiser which took him, his immediate family, and his much trusted Foreign Minister, Belatingeta Herowi, to Haifa, where he landed, to proceed immediately to Jerusalem. On the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is an Ethiopian scene in miniature: priests of the Ethiopian church reside there, in tiny houses, replicas of the country huts of their homeland.
Here he spent a fortnight—resting physically after the rigours of the campaign which had tried him hard, gathering courage and energy spiritually for the conflict that he still must wage. An acquaintance whom I met in London that same summer, and who was a true friend of the country and its ruler, expressed with some vehemence how much better it would have been, in her view, had he died at the head of his army, fighting valiantly—but in vain. But was it not the realization that he had a sacred duty still left to him as the temporal and spiritual head of his afflicted country, a duty which only he could perform, that decided him to come in person to the League—to fight not against guns and gas in the hills and valleys of his native land but against ‘spiritual wickedness in high places’ in an international arena, carrying out those responsibilities which he had already shouldered ‘for the whole of Humanity’?
Again he travelled on a British cruiser, which took him safely through the Mediterranean and landed him this time in England, where he was received with acclamation by a large crowd gathered in London. There was deep seated in the British people a feeling of impotent discontent at the whole sorry tale of injustice, that could find an outlet only in this way. Certain it was that wherever he went he made friends and won respect and admiration. This was not just sentimentality for the leader of a lost cause, but an expression of sympathy and understanding, an awareness of the principles of right, truth, and justice for which this Christian ruler of an African state was fighting—single-handed. On 10th May the Emperor had sent a telegram from Jerusalem to the League of Nations Secretariat in Geneva:
We now demand that the League of Nations should continue its efforts in order to ensure respect for the Covenant, and that it should decide not to recognize territorial extensions, or the exercise of an assumed sovereignty, resulting from an illegal recourse to armed force and from numerous other violations of international agreements.1
Immediately he set to work energetically to receive reports from Geneva, and prepare himself with the help of his Swiss and American advisers to present in person his final appeal to the League.
On 27th June a note was addressed to the States members of the League by Dejazmach Nasibu on behalf of the Emperor. In it he stressed the incompleteness of the Italian conquest; the existence in the unoccupied part of the country of a government with which the Emperor was in communication, and on which he had conferred full powers; the insistence of the Emperor on his full rights and his continued demand that States members should fulfil their obligations under the Covenant.
Two days later Haile Selassie appeared in person to address the Assembly. Undeterred by the exhibition of hooliganism by Italian journalists, who had to be forcibly removed, he rose to speak—a small slight figure ‘with the triple claim to consideration conferred on him by his personality, his rank, and his fate.’2 There can have been no scene in the whole history of the League Assembly more profoundly moving than on this tragic occasion—no speech more justified in its reproach, no prophecy more pregnant with doom. In it is his clear expression of his deep sincerity, of his unalterable and unshakable faith in the righteousness of his cause, of his sureness of the final triumph of good over evil.
What prophetic relevance in view of the events of the next three years. Mr. de Valera in commenting the next day upon the speech said: ‘Does any delegate deny that, in so far as it relates to what has happened, there is truth in every word of it? ’
His appeal made, his warnings uttered, the Emperor returned to England, where he found a house on the outskirts of Bath, and retired into private life. This did not mean any cessation of his determination to maintain to the best of his ability his country’s rights as a member of the League of Nations, and to this end he devoted himself for the next eighteen months.
During the summer the lifting of sanctions against Italy was yet another disappointment to the friends of Ethiopia. The defeat and surrender of the two generals, Ras Desta, son-in-law of the Emperor, who was foully murdered as a prisoner; and of Ras Imeru in the west, put an end to any immediate hopes of organized resistance.
A new and more pressing problem arose by September of the same year. Although Haile Selassie was still recognized as sovereign by all countries except Italy and Germany, questions were asked at the September Annual Session of the League Assembly as to the credentials of the Ethiopian delegation. Could these be considered valid, issued as they were by the Emperor of a state which he no longer actively administered? The question was after much discussion referred to the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Meanwhile the delegation took its seats as before.
This point temporarily shelved, the position was safeguarded; but still further disappointments made bitter the year that followed. One by one the member states, headed by Italy and Germany, and closely followed by Austria, Hungary, and Switzerland, recognized Italian suzerainty over Ethiopia. This rendered still more difficult the status of Ethiopia for the following annual meeting in September 1937, and the Emperor, after taking the advice of well-known legal experts, decided that it would be unwise to put the question of credentials to the test. He therefore suggested to the Secretary-General that as Ethiopia had no business to put before the Assembly, he would postpone the appointment of a delegation. If the permanent delegate at Geneva were to inform him that any matter relevant to the position or status of Ethiopia had arisen, he would immediately appoint a delegation to take its seat in the Assembly. For this purpose three persons remained in Geneva in case of emergency; credentials signed and sealed were there ready to present should need occur. They did not have to make use of them. Ethiopia could not be expelled from membership of the League, save for misdemeanour in violating its provisions; this could certainly not be laid to her charge.
So a wise passivity in the face of defeat, discouragement, and disappointment ruled the Emperor’s policy at Geneva. Meanwhile he himself, watching, waiting, working to safeguard all that he could of his country’s interests and to keep alive in man’s memory the very fact of her existence, set to work to gain knowledge of men and affairs, and to impress his personality upon all with whom he came in contact. His quiet dignity in public, his unaffected and winning cordiality in private life won him many devoted friends. Though puzzled and disheartened in his relations with the British Government at this time—and still more so when in July 1938 it became evident that they and many others were preparing to recognize the status quo in Ethiopia, and acknowledge the Italian annexation; yet he always could feel that there was good understanding and sympathy between himself and the man in the street. There was no doubt that the British public as a whole felt keen sympathy for him, they considered that he had right on his side and had been given a raw deal. By a curious chance the author’s husband was a witness of an instance of this feeling. He was sitting in a carriage at Paddington station. An express was alongside his train, about to leave for the west, and in the express, without his knowing it, was the Emperor on his way down to Bath. The whistle blew for the express; suddenly the door of his carriage was flung open and a big bluff grey-headed guard precipitated himself into the compartment, scrambled through into the corridor beyond, threw down a window, and leaned out towards the moving express with every evidence of excitement. Obviously a crisis was imminent in the working of the Great Western line. But no! A minute later the guard relaxed, pulled up the sash, and came back through the compartment looking very much pleased with himself. Then no doubt feeling that an explanation was called for remarked with great fervour: ‘That’s the man for me!’ ‘Who? What? What are you talking about?’ ‘Oh! it was Haile Selassie sitting in that train. You know, the Emperor of Abyssinia!’
Of his life in Bath there is little that is not known to the British public. At his house, Fairfield, he led a quiet and unassuming life, sometimes walking down into the town, where he made many friends and performed many kindnesses. A small chapel was fitted up in the grounds. That side of his character—his complete faith in the ultimate triumph of right, in the sure protection of Almighty God—was abundantly evident in his speech and his actions, and supported him through many dark and difficult days.
Here his trusted Foreign Minister, Belatingeta Herowi, died, to the great grief of his Imperial master, who felt deeply this severance of a link with the days that had been. But younger men were ready to take up the work, and in the darkening clouds of European politics there shone a gleam of light.
The Munich crisis of 1938 had its repercussions on the Ethiopian situation. There were many who saw in it the inevitability of conflict—conflict in which the western democracies must unite to combat the ideologies, gone mad, of Hitler and Mussolini; conflict in which Ethiopia might be in a key position on the way to the East.
Many reports were coming in from Ethiopia, of unrest, of growing resentment, of Ras Ababa Aregai with his many thousands of followers holding out in the district between the road and the Danakil desert. Letters would arrive confirming loyalty, describing local revolts against Italian rule, asking for arms, appealing again to the Emperor to speak to the League on their behalf.
News arrived of the existence of a group of young educated Ethiopians, who had formed a committee of ‘Union and Collaboration’ to pass news and organize guerrilla warfare in the occupied areas. Ras Ababa Aregai and Dejazmach Gherassu Duke were both writing long letters to the Emperor boasting of their active independence of Italian domination—telling of their raids and the numbers of their followers. Ras Ababa claimed to have an army of 10,000 men near Ankober, ready to head resistance to Italian misrule. There was a printed news sheet issued and circulated by these young men throughout the empire. In order to link up these activities, and obtain accurate information, the Emperor dispatched a trusted official, Ato Lorenzo Taezaz, to make his way into the country via Khartoum and report to him on the situation.
Thus hope grew as more and more evidence reached him that the fires of revolt were smouldering ready to burst into flame when the moment came.
Lorenzo Taezaz, after several months spent in Gojjam, where he travelled openly, wearing an officer’s uniform, returned with a valuable report which he communicated to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo as he passed through. By the winter of 1939 he was back in England with news to gladden and inspire. The author, with whom he stayed for a few days after his return, well remembers the glowing confidence with which he spoke of the situation as she drove him up the snowy roads to speak with Lord Lugard—ever a faithful friend to Ethiopia—and establish contacts that would touch off the fuse at zero hour. It arrived on 10th June 1940, when Mussolini stabbed France in the back and declared war against Britain, using his troops in Ethiopia to invade the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and British Somaliland.
Never did he commit a more foolhardy act. Within a month the Emperor, despite difficulties and delays, was in Khartoum, and the flames that finally consumed the Italian Empire in East Africa were being energetically fanned into a blaze by a small group of British and Ethiopian comrades in arms known as Mission 101.
The wheel had come full circle, and the Emperor was with his own again. The tardy allies had arrived.
1 Arnold Toynbee: Survey of International Affairs 1935, vol. ii, p. 483.
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September 24, 2019