The Emperor's Secret

Haile Selassie rules because he knows the true foundation of a ruler’s strength. If ever there was a man who realised that knowledge is power he is that man. Desire for knowledge is the mainspring of his character. In saying this I speak from personal experience.

When he was in England in 1924 he received me in private when the diplomatic functions were over and quietly and shrewdly questioned me concerning everything in London which he had found difficult to understand. As I answered his questions I had a feeling that each fact was quietly seized upon and stored away for use at some future time. Nothing escaped him. His penetrating enquiries concerning the political situation would, I remember thinking, have astounded the various functionaries who had treated him with somewhat superior politeness and answered him with official caution, amounting usually to evasiveness. He was in Europe for many reasons, but above all to learn.

The reception had at first a certain formality, for an Ethiopian of whatever rank or kinship when meeting his ruler after an absence must first make respectful renewal of allegiance; but we were soon gossiping easily concerning the past.

At this time, it must be remembered, the Emperor was only Regent, ruling with the Empress Zawditu, and bearing the name Ras Tafari. However, as representative of the throne, he was accorded full regal dignities.

“You knew my father, did you not ?” asked the Emperor.
I said that I had met Ras Makonnen, Governor of Harar, only on one occasion, but that I had always remembered his strength and charm. The Emperor mulled. “They thought well of him in London I am told?”

It was a happiness to reply with truth that during my years in England I had several times heard from officials concerned with Ethiopian affairs how greatly the character and ability of the Emperor’s father had been respected.

As I spoke he said nothing, but I saw a look of resolution come into his eyes, determination that he would be worthy of his father.

He picked up a volume from the table at his side. “Will you tell your cousin when next you see him that I value his dictionary,” he said. “It is a fine piece of work and the greatest assistance to us all.”

He was referring to my cousin, Charles Ambruster, British Consul at Gondar in Northern Abyssinia who, having retired to Majorca, had compiled an Amharic dictionary, the first attempt at an exhaustive guide to that elusive language. I was glad to be able to assure him that my cousin was well.

“There is still a monument to your father in Ethiopia,” said the Emperor, smiling. At first I did not understand. “The cannon which he cast for the Emperor Theodore. You know the story?”
I had heard my father tell it many times.
“I believe it was never fired?”
The Emperor’s smile grew wider.
“No, it was never fired, Princess, but for a man who knew nothing of such things it was a wonderful achievement. We have yet to make another. That was sixty years ago and we have still no factories.”
“You have seen factories in England, your Highness?” “No, not yet.”
“One part of England where there are many of them they call the Black Country.”
The ruler from the East was puzzled.
“The smoke blackens everything. It hides the sky. Factories can be very terrible.”
The Emperor slowly nodded.
“We shall not go too fast,” he said.

Seated in a high-backed chair, a pile of books and newspapers beside him, he talked alternately in French and Amharic, touching on many subjects. He did not pose. It was his air of simplicity that charmed me. London had excited him; he did not attempt to conceal it. That morning he had spent in a famous Knightsbridge store. “One day,” he said, “they shall open a branch in my capital.” He smiled as he spoke. “Wait,” he said, “I will show you what I have bought and how much they charged me. Then you shall tell me if I have done well.”

Having spoken he raised his hands and clapped three times. At once a servant emerged from behind a curtain —and I realised even in London he had maintained the rules of his palace and always had assistance close at hand. The various lists were brought and I glanced through them. He had spent over one thousand pounds, buying with excellent judgment and with little of that love of the ornate and curious which eastern potentates so often display. I was able to tell him that the prices were reasonable, and he nodded agreement. “Yes,” he said, “they do not cheat you in trade, the English. I like London. Everything here is so . . . ” he paused in search of a word. “So firm,” he said at last. “Everything here is so firm.”

Almost at once he began to speak of labour troubles, of Socialism. Was there any chance of this, he asked? Would it do harm? He spoke without prejudice and as one well acquainted with Socialist theory though very sceptical as to its practical application. I answered as well as I was able, with an uneasy feeling that concerning such matters he probably knew much more than I did. He saw that I was not likely to give useful answers and at once sought another topic.

He had been charmed by the Prince of Wales. One day that young man would rule a vast Empire. Would he be friendly to Ethiopia?

I gave what assurance I felt able, wondering inwardly at that strange gift which had enabled the Prince of Wales to find in a brief interview and without the least effort a friendly footing with an Ethiopian Emperor.

"I hope that he will visit me at Addis Ababa,” said the Emperor. “I will find good hunting for him. He shall see how our men can shoot and ride.... And you must come too, Princess. You have stayed away too long....” He looked at me reflectively. “Don’t you find your husband very white?” he asked.

It was a gentle, friendly question, and the Emperor smiled as he spoke; but I sensed the hint of reproof in the tone and felt the intense pride of race that was summed up in those simple words.

The Emperor renewed his invitation with the utmost cordiality. Then all at once he frowned. “Your husband was a soldier. They tell me he has fought in the East?” I said that this was so. “You must bring him out to me,” he said. “ Our neighbours are becoming too... friendly. I fear we shall have trouble soon.”

The grave tone was prophetic. Then the Emperor was smiling again, telling me that the Empress wished very much to see me, that she had sent me her portrait, that she hoped my family were blessed by God’s mercy, that she would remember me in her prayers.

I met him several times in the course of his stay, the last occasion being just prior to his departure. Surrounded by his suite, for twenty rulers of provinces had accompanied him on his travels, he still remained a figure of scholarly dignity, though some of the chieftains, splendid figures and black as ebony, towered almost threateningly above him. As we exchanged brief but heart-felt farewells I felt a strange uneasiness. It is a legend in my family that the blood of the Queen of Sheba which flows in our veins gives to the womenfolk the power to foresee evil. Having lived so long in Europe I had almost forgotten the old beliefs; but at that moment I suddenly felt with appalling keenness that evil and danger were close at hand. I wanted to warn the Emperor that there was treachery somewhere near.

But western civilisation had taught me that such things were ridiculous and in any case the Emperor had by this time moved away. So the warning was never uttered. As I looked at the group of retreating figures, however, I caught a glimpse of one of the chiefs and there was a look on his face which filled me with fear. It was just a momentary impression, nothing more, but I turned at once to an Ethiopian merchant who stood beside me and whom I knew I could trust. “Who is that man?” I asked.
“Ras Hailu,” he said, “the richest man in Ethiopia.”
“I don’t like the look of him.”
My friend smiled.
“It’s all right,” he said, “don’t worry. The Regent is no fool.”

We had no time to say more for social duties parted us. But there was a sequel to that chance conversation. Some years later I was to receive a letter from my friend in which he was to remind me of my premonition. That letter told me in great detail the story of a strange conspiracy against the Emperor in which Ras Hailu had played the leading part. That story I have told in its proper place. I mention it here as an indication of the secret hostilities by which the Emperor has all his life been surrounded. During the last two years signs had not been lacking that so far as internal dissensions were concerned he was at last out of danger. It will be ironic in the extreme if just as his slow and painstaking plans for the betterment of Ethiopia seem likely to make rapid progress the clock is set back through the barbarous attack of a reputed civilised power.

It is perhaps the cream of this evil jest of fate that the Emperor Haile Selassie has an almost exaggerated respect for the institutions of civilised Europe, and that while those who know little of his country complain that reforms are tardy, there are many European residents of long residence in Addis Ababa who think that he is being dangerously swift in his imitation of western ideas.

I can still see him seated in that high-backed chair, his white cloak thrown around him, his tight white trousers looking strange though very neat above his patent leather shoes, and questioning, always questioning.

One of his questions I particularly remember. He wanted to know what were the duties of the English aristocracy. What were their duties to their king? I found the question very hard to answer and finally said that though most of them had no definite duties in the sense of tasks which must be performed under pain of punishment—here the Emperor smiled—that many of them, far more, in fact, than most people realised, undertook voluntary services to the State without reward of any kind.

He nodded. “So I have heard,” he said. “Perhaps it is in that fact that the secret of Britain’s greatness lies. If I could find men among my chieftains who would serve their country without thought of reward—not on the field of battle, we have brave warriors in plenty—but in civil life....” He was silent for a while. Then he said: “We must get the young men, we must train them in the path of service. The young men are our hope—if only we can set them on the right road.”

To-day there is in existence a League of Young Patriots who are pledged to service without reward. But the fact that they are growing up in an atmosphere poisoned by the aggression of a European power is a tragedy. Their minds are crippled by an instinctive and all-absorbing antagonism towards their country’s enemies, and much of the sincere emotion which might have been harnessed for their country’s good has flowed into the useless channels of hatred. Ethiopia is not the only country where patriotism which might express itself in positive good has turned instead to sterile anger at the sight of the predatory advance of civilisation.

On another occasion I was present while the Emperor told an amusing story which showed the difficulties of bringing enlightenment to his land. In the old days crime was smelt out by professional soothsayers who claimed the occult power of seeking out thieves and murderers and tracing stolen goods. The feats which these men performed while in a state resembling a trance were amazing, and it is for the psychologists to explain them, but the Emperor had gradually come to the opinion that this once honourable calling had fallen into decadence. Wrong accusations were being made in return for bribes, and so great was the confidence of the people in the verdicts of these diviners that there were many grave miscarriages of justice.

So the Emperor, struggling to start a police system on sound European lines—I had not the heart to interject that it had yet to be shown if the European lines are indeed sound—forbade the consultation of these diviners. If there was theft the aggrieved person was to apply to the police. The new decree came into force and for a while it seemed that all was well. Then one day there was a law suit, a well-known diviner claiming that the head of police in a certain district who had been making use of him for some time had failed to pay the stipulated retainer!

But in spite of heart-breaking disappointments on every hand the Emperor continues to work on. Only those who know nothing of him describe him as weak or timid. It would have been so easy for him to have amassed a fortune abroad and slipped away to enjoy it in peace. It need not have been done so as to give the impression of deliberate desertion—a palace revolution, the deposed monarch exiled... it would all have appeared so natural. Then, with ample means, he could have devoted himself to the books which are his chief love. It would have been easy, too, for a weak-minded man in the Emperor’s place to make excuses for such conduct, that he had done his best and failed, that his people were ungrateful. But though Haile Selassie is a man of peace no one doubts who knows him that he will fight to the last.

With regard to his tour of Europe he has sometimes been criticised for extravagant spending, though compared to some eastern rulers who have visited the western world he was studiously moderate in his purchases. Everything he bought had a purpose. He knew that at the stage of development which his countrymen had reached display was a necessary part of any attempt to rule them. Moreover, the best way to spread the new gospel of cleanliness and health was to build a palace and fit it up spotlessly on modern lines. Slowly the example would spread. Chiefs who cared nothing for hygienic principles might well be persuaded to adopt them from slavish devotion to royal fashion—which weakness is not a monopoly of Europe—and so a generation might be bred to whom sanitation was no novelty. Those who know how the Emperor has poured out his own money in the fitting up of hospitals laugh when they hear him spoken of as proud and mercenary.

Yet proud he certainly is, and he openly expressed his opinion to members of his entourage that his reception in Great Britain was not so royal as he would have wished. This applied only to the first days. Later when he had made an excellent impression he had no cause to complain of lack of hospitality; but in the first stages of his welcome he detected a lack of warmth. He questioned me closely as to this. The Duke of York had met him on his arrival. He was the King’s second son. Did that imply a slight? Was the State landau in which he had been driven through London the same as that in which a European monarch would have been conducted, and were his quarters—he was lodged in a house in Kensington, the property of Mrs. Sassoon—suitable to his rank?

Questions such as these might well have been interpreted as indicating an overweening vanity—yet few conjectures could have been so far from the truth. To understand the Emperor’s feelings (he was, of course, in those days only Regent) you must remember that he knew little of Europe and further that it was of the utmost importance to him from the point of view of policy that he should be treated with deference. There were jealous eyes watching him, not only at home but in his own suite, who could judge human worth only in terms of the respect shown to it by foreigners and who could estimate respect only in terms of ceremonial etiquette. It was thus not personal vanity which prompted the questionings but shrewd considerations of policy. As a man the Emperor cared nothing for the social shams of either East or West. His keen mind pierced through them and showed them to him for what they were—he had not read the great French satirists for nothing; but as a statesman he was compelled to estimate to a nicety the possible effect on his followers of any slight either real or imagined. Such calculations are part of the art of ruling to a monarch placed in his position and personal vanity does not enter into them in any but the least degree. When one considers the absurdities of which Europeans with social aspirations are capable with very much less than a throne at stake it is possible to see the attitude of the Emperor in proper proportion and to acquit him of the charge of undue self-esteem unless there is evidence of a far more personal nature to confirm the accusation.

And such evidence is lacking. Possibly you have read that when the Emperor goes out shooting the official who accompanies him always shoots first and misses while the Emperor then brings off the winning shot. This sort of anecdote though true enough in uninterpreted fact gives a very wrong impression. To begin with a second shot is often a good deal more difficult than a first—and Haile Selassie is admitted by all who know him to be a very fine shot indeed; while it is incorrect that the ceremonial—a very ancient prescription—is carried out whenever the Emperor shoots. A young Frenchman of my acquaintance, an almost miraculous shot, told me how some years ago he had the pleasure of a few hours’ informal shooting with the Emperor whom he paid the compliment of treating simply as a fellow sportsman and beating at the game—though by a very small margin.

“When it was all over,” he said, “I watched for signs of sulkiness, or alternatively that glassy politeness which is even more indicative of the bad loser with whom the fault is inborn. I will swear that I saw no such sign. The Emperor was genuinely glad to have found an antagonist willing to meet him on equal terms and being beaten in a fair trial of skill perturbed him not in the least.”

To me that story outweighs all evidence to the contrary.

This, then, is Haile Selassie as he appeared to European eyes when, as Ras Tafari, he visited the western nations some ten years ago. Let us now consider for a while the land over which he rules.

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March 5, 2021