An Emperor At Bay

In the heart of his mountain kingdom Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, Negus Negusti—“King of Kings,” is rallying his subjects against the invader. He has the sympathy of almost all the onlooking nations, but has received little if any practical help. At any moment now vast fleets of bombing warplanes may pour destruction upon his capital. Meanwhile he prays constantly, studies maps and dispatches, issues carefully conceived orders to his troops, and to the outer world sends proclamations remarkable for their dignity and moderation.

In Rome the towering figure of Benito Mussolini, the limelight of the world upon him, presents a strange contrast to the mild, scholarly figure whose country he has sworn to seize; but time will show which of these two men is the stronger.

Haile Selassie is short in stature and slight in build. His voice is soft, his hands are delicate as an artist’s. Throughout his life his greatest happiness has been found in his well-stored library. There is nothing of the warlord in his character, and his own voluminous writings show the detachment of a philosopher rather than the acute practicality of a man of affairs.

Yet none can deny that he has proved a successful ruler. Surrounded by difficulties and dangers which can hardly be estimated by the European mind he has kept firm control of his people, and in the face of much unreasoning prejudice has worked hard for the betterment of his land. Now that he has been attacked by a great European power his greatest fear is that, even if his country emerges in safety from the conflict, civilising influences will have been so weakened that his life’s work will have to be begun again.

The story of his life, which I have set out to tell, will come as a surprise, I think, to those who have smiled sympathetically at that quiet, frail personality revealed by the cinematograph. Conspiracy, revolt, poison, and sudden death—all these are to be found in that story. Espionage and diplomatic intrigue run without a break throughout the tale. That the Emperor Haile Selassie has braved these dangers, has outwitted plotters, outmanoeuvred subtle diplomats, brought western ideas to his people despite a powerful priesthood’s continuous opposition, proves that he possesses unusual qualities; and when it is remembered that he has survived without recourse either to cruelty or to treachery of any kind, who can deny the splendid nature of his achievements? Yet Europe and America show little understanding of what manner of man this is and what he has done. Alone, unaided, maligned, yet proud, able and determined he stands at bay.

One evening several months ago the Emperor’s personal envoy, who was my guest, after delivering the several messages entrusted to him, produced from his despatch case a mass of press cuttings which he spread before me with a puzzled smile. We both felt keenly the strangeness of the situation. For years our country had been little more than a name to Europeans, but now, with the threat of war in the air, it was discussed on every side. Column upon column of print described the geography of Abyssinia, the customs of its peoples, the secrets of its unexplored territories. A few of the stranger statements my friend had blue pencilled, but most of the confusions of fact he was content to dismiss with a shrug of his shoulders. To sift out the truth from this mass of contradictions and half truths was clearly a hopeless task.

“You should see my room,” he said. “The printing presses of the world are turning out books by the score. It is part of my duty to keep an eye on them.”
I said that I did not envy him his task.
“That is a pity,” he answered, “for I was about to ask you to share it.”
We both laughed.
“You see,” he continued, “there are so many statements now being made about Ethiopia which are quite untrue and ought to be contradicted. But we have no big staff to deal with them. Often a month goes by before we can issue a denial. And the harm is done by then. I hope you will help me. The Emperor will be very grateful.”

And then he began to tell me of some of the things which were being written. One writer he mentioned wrote of Abyssinia as though her barbarism were a menace to the hearths and homes of Europe. We were all a race of savages who if not stamped out at once by a beneficent Italy would overrun all Africa and then imperil western civilisation. This was not stated in so many words— but the general trend was clear. Never, I thought, had so much falsehood been packed into so small a compass.

“Who was it,” asked my friend, “who remarked that when war breaks out truth is the first casualty?”
“War?” I questioned—“we are not yet at war?” “Make no mistake,” he answered, “the war has already begun. The rains are preventing actual fighting but the Italian campaign is well on its way.”
"They think in England that Mussolini is bluffing.” He nodded. “I know,” he said. “England disapproves of the war and cannot imagine Italy flouting that disapproval. But you will see.”
“War... and the Emperor has no guns...”
“And Britain and the League forbid us to obtain them...”
“What does the Emperor say?”
“He has no illusions. He knows what lies ahead.”
“Danger... terrible danger.”
“Well, he is used to that.”

I pictured that slight, alert figure standing on the steps of his palace gazing at the great hills beyond which lay the menace of extinction. He was alone, terribly alone. Just a handful of trusted advisers understood the position. For most of his people war in the modern sense of the term was unknown and unimaginable. Yet if war came they would die in thousands fighting the monstrous devices of modern science with the weapons of the Middle Ages.

“What is the Emperor’s plan?” I asked.
“He will make no move. He hopes that the League of Nations may act before it is too late. In any case he knows that only among the mountains can he hope to stem the Italian advance. His policy is to ‘wait and see’.”
“Are the chiefs willing?”
“Not all of them. Some favour attacking at once. But the Emperor has them well under control.”

I looked at the portrait of the Emperor, his gift to me at our last meeting. It seemed strange to reflect that this kindly, courteous man whose gaze, direct yet sensitive, met my own, had brought strong and just control to a land of turbulent tribes, could hold in check his brave yet unthinking warriors, and could rally an oft divided nation against a common foe. How many people in England realised, I wondered, the qualities demanded of a man by such a task? There stood the Emperor, his whole life pledged to the tasks of peace, yet compelled to wage a ghastly and merciless war. One of the greatest tragedies in history might well be enacted in Ethiopia if world opinion could not intervene, a tragedy great not in its scope but in its depths of bitterness.

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, an almost unknown monarch thrust suddenly into dangerous fame.... What was the secret of this remarkable man? Even in Ethiopia opinions were sharply divided concerning the reasons for his success. Some said that it was magic, others that it was luck; some that it was devilish cunning. A more considered answer might be that it was the triumph of a man of good intent who was nevertheless possessed of sufficient brains to fight rogues by their own methods.

As to his personal character some called him harsh to the point of sadism; others said that his continual bias towards mercy was a terrible weakness in a land where mercy was not understood. One author of considerable brilliance had pictured him as a crafty oriental using his superior learning to enrich himself at the expense of his unfortunate subjects. On the other hand a traveller of some distinction pictured the Emperor as an idealist made of stern stuff, who spent his personal fortune on schools and hospitals, who dreamed yet knew how to make dreams realities, who would yet astonish the world.

Where in this conflict of impressions lay the truth? As I looked at that portrait I determined to seek it both in my own mind and in the minds of others who knew the Emperor well. Before my friend the envoy left me I had promised to write a book. It was perhaps a rash undertaking and I did not altogether appreciate the immense labour involved. But while others were dying for Ethiopia the least I could do was to write.

Yet this book is no piece of propaganda. I have had a free hand. My only concern has been to get at the truth. Now that my task is almost completed and I am surveying the material which, with the help of many friends both in Europe and in Ethiopia, I have managed to gather, I feel that there are depths in my Emperor which I have failed to sound, that the riddle of his character has not been resolved in these pages. But if I have provided facts on which others may base their judgments I have perhaps done as much as I had any right to expect might be accomplished by one more used to read than to write and who has never tackled a full length book before. But whatever are the shortcomings of this work of mine, and I do not doubt that they are many, one good effect has resulted from my task. I have learned to judge less harshly the writings of others.

I have learned something else as well... that to sit writing, always writing, with the knowledge that even as you write men and women of your own kindred are being savagely slaughtered and that there is nothing you can do to aid them, is a deadly business. It is no use trying to comfort yourself by saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. You have the certain knowledge that though that may be true of some pens, the chances are that it isn’t true of yours. But you can’t help clinging to the hope that your work may do some good, that a few readers here and there may be reached by your struggles to get such truth as is available down on to paper, and that here and there a lie may be countered before its poison has had time to spread. And it is this hope, not altogether illusory I trust, that has held me to my task.

There is also the memory of brave young Ethiopians whom I have seen set out for their country ready with laughing willingness to give their lives.
“We will fight, Waisaro, you shall see how we will fight,” said one young officer who came to say good-bye. “If they win it will be because there is not one man of us left to go on fighting.”
“They must not win,” I said. “They must not.”
He smiled.
“Wait till we get them in the hills.”
He kissed my hand, saluted, and was gone. A scholar and a gentleman, a man who though young was trusted by his Emperor, who had hoped to do great things for Ethiopia in the peaceful development of the land. He had gone to die beside his Emperor—in a vile, useless and criminal war.

I thought of young Italians going out to die.... “Wait till we get them in the hills...” It all seemed so horrible, so insane. I prayed that Great Britain, whose love of justice is known to all the world, might step in and forbid the slaughter.

But it seems that her hands are tied, that her authority is weakened. In the heart of his mountain kingdom, alone, unaided, a Christian Emperor of the East, his godless foes upon him, stands bravely at bay.

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March 3, 2021