The Emperor Menelik

The Emperor Theodore, owing largely to a series of family misfortunes, became disturbed in his reason and thus got into serious political trouble with the British Government by putting all the European residents in chains, having got the idea fixed in his mind that they were conspiring against him. Repeated requests by the British Government for the release of the prisoners having been refused the Government was forced to send an expeditionary force to release them. This would have been a very good excuse for the British to have annexed the country, but having given their word that the release of the prisoners was their only objective they immediately evacuated the country when this was achieved. Those who paint King Theodore in terrible colours must at least remember that though he killed himself he did not harm the prisoners, which, having decided on suicide he might very well have done.

After Theodore’s death in 1868 it was the Emperor John who succeeded him as Emperor of Ethiopia. It was during his reign that Menelek, who first ruled under him as King of the Shoa Province, began to conceive great ambitions. It was also at this time that the Italians had been given Massawa, an Egyptian port, because the Emperor John (to whom the Egyptians had first promised it in return for his services at the relief of Kassala which was besieged by the Sudan Mahdi) had felt unable to undertake the responsibility. The Italians, having obtained a footing on the coast, immediately began to penetrate inland, and thus came constantly in contact with the Emperor John, whose trusted general Ras Alula fought them in a dozen minor engagements and always drove them back. Finding it impossible to make headway in the north the Italians began their Machiavellian tricks in the south, their victim being King Menelek of Shoa. Finding him young and ambitious to secure the Imperial crown they promised to supply him with arms so that he might defeat his suzerain and become Emperor. Being unacquainted with European diplomacy he accepted their protestations of friendship at their face value.

The Emperor John, hearing of this intrigue and of Menelek’s increasing friendship with the Italian Government, wrote and told him that he would grievously regret placing any trust in these foreigners whose only aim was to steal. But Menelek, grossly enthralled by ambition, continued his course of action, and when at length the valiant and far-seeing Emperor John was killed in battle with the Dervishes, Menelek, with Italian aid, became Emperor. In gratitude for the Italian help he handed over the northern province of Hamasen to his wily friends.


Menelek was of heavy build and slightly over six feet in height. The most attractive characteristics of his somewhat heavy features were his high philosopher’s forehead and his frank and laughing eyes in which his power of clear thought was strikingly visible. His frown was terrible; but when he chose to exert his charm of manner he had a most winning personality.

His mouth and his chin indicated strength of character, and his short and rather curly beard, which he combed with the greatest care, added considerably, when he stroked it, to the general impression of affability. The lowest of his subjects could approach him; for he realised that a monarch who wins the common people has less to fear of his rivals among the aristocracy. Hence it was sometimes his practice to teach humility to his courtiers, and on one occasion, having seen a member of his bodyguard, an officer of noble birth, use unnecessary roughness in clearing an old peasant woman from the royal path, he stopped his escort and directed that the noble should place the old woman upon the horse which he was riding and lead her wherever she wished to go.

It is easy to attribute such actions to oriental strategy and to say that it was the abasement of the noble which was the king’s purpose rather than the helping of the old woman. But that is only part of the truth. Menelek went to church with great regularity, and frequently showed that for all his martial prowess and the fear with which he inspired his whole realm, he understood the teaching of Christ concerning humility.

Translation of a Letter sent by the Emperor Menelek of Ethiopia to Theophilus Waldmeier, in the Year 1871.

In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, The only true light which will never be extinguished, The only King who lives for ever and ever. To Him belongs Honour, Glory and Power for ever. Amen.

This letter is sent from King Menelek of Ethiopia to Mr. Waldmeier. How are you? I am, thank God, quite well. My people and my whole kingdom prosper through the mercy of God. I received your letter which caused me great pleasure. I will hear and accept your good counsel that the Gospel of Jesus Christ should be preached to the heathen nations, and I will never hinder or prevent you from proclaiming the Gospel. Two points in your letter especially gladdened my heart. The first is that the Gospel of Christ should be preached to the heathen Galla tribes, and the second is that you will bring some good artizans with you who will work for me. Now, come quickly. I give you permission to preach the Gospel among the heathens that they should be enlightened. And bring those men, and also buy me instruments for the work. I have sent for your journey the sum of one thousand dollars. Receive them from Messrs. Benden & Mayer in Aden. Send me word when and where you will come that I may receive you. I send you two copies of this letter, one by Tatschurra and the other by Aden and Massawa. When you come, come by the coast of Tatschurra. I have prepared the road, do not be afraid.

Written in Shoa in the city of Boussan, May 15th, 1871.
Signed with the King’s seal—a lion and crown with the sceptre.

There was in Menelek far more than the force and cleverness of an oriental tyrant who seized by strength and held by guile the whole of modern Ethiopia. He was in some ways an idealist, and it is noteworthy that the common people revered him as their especial protector. His breadth of view was astounding when it is considered that he met civilisation only through its diplomats. He did not read a great deal but knew how to listen. And he was renowned for his prodigious memory.

History, too, attracted him. He knew how to distinguish fact from legend, and when some priestly man of letters recited to the court tales of the miraculous deeds of the saints, the king, though ever courteous in the extreme to holy men, was known to smile into his beard.

“Alas that we have no such men nowadays,” he would exclaim. And the priest would be quite satisfied with this compliment to his story, never suspecting that there was quiet irony concealed in the words.

He knew that only by appointing his own representatives to administer outlying areas could he obtain a real hold of these provinces and make sure that justice was done. Thus he gradually formed a corps of trusted and well-informed public servants who could be sent wherever there was need. These men were very different from the grasping tax gatherers and petty chiefs who had been wont to terrorise the land. When national need compelled it Menelek was both summary and severe in his confiscation of whatever food supplies were needful to his campaign, but it was well recognised in his realm that such action was exceptional and designed to meet special dangers. When the danger was ended he frequently adopted a policy of compensation to set trade moving again, and twice in time of famine he organised a very competently administered system of relief, distributing grain from the royal granaries.

Not only did he set up courts of justice throughout the length and breadth of Ethiopia, but he modernised the code which the courts administered. It is one of the peculiarities of law that it always lags behind the thought of a nation. This is so in Britain, where almost within living memory amazing survivals of Saxon times have been at last abolished. Take ‘deodand’ as a fair example—how many people know what this was? Yet it existed long after its uses were outworn. Menelek was confronted with much the same sort of thing. Practices which dated from before Christ were still jealously maintained by the priesthood. Some of them showed a hopeless confusion of thought; others were clearly intended to work to the advantage of either priestly or secular authority. The king did his best to clean them out, but was careful not to travel too fast for the imaginations of his people.

Often rather than abrogate an old and illogical law his keen brain devised some means of circumventing it while still apparently observing its provisions. The classic example—what our lawyers would probably call a leading case—came before him, it is said, in the twentieth year of his reign. It arose from a charge of murder, and presented a nice specimen of the sort of obstinate refusal to think clearly with which he was continually faced.

A man of some substance, while climbing a tree to obtain a better shot at the game which he and a party of his friends were pursuing, slipped and fell upon one of them who was standing below. By an unfortunate chance he fell in such a way that his friend was picked up dead with a broken neck.

The relatives of the dead man claimed that he who had caused death must himself die. Killing was murder they insisted, and they invoked the ancient law in support of their claim. No one of any intelligence was deceived by their outcry, which was obviously directed to that provision of the old code which made a heavy fine payable to the near kin of the dead man from the wealth of the slayer. Nevertheless, they persisted, and it was difficult to deny their contentions since the law read “if any man shall cause the death of another...” and showed no perception of the distinction between accident and design.

Menelek was equal to the occasion.
“You have invoked the Law of Moses,” he told the clamouring relatives of the dead man, “and I will administer it to you justly. None shall say that there is no justice in my kingdom and that your monarch tampers with the law.”

There was a murmur of applause when this sentiment was conveyed to the petitioners by the officer known as “the breath of the king.” (It is the custom in Ethiopia that the royal verdict shall always be uttered through a mouthpiece, who is condemned, by the ancient code, to the most drastic penalties if the king’s words are altered by him in passing them on.)

“The Law of Moses says,” continued Menelek, “‘an eye for an eye.’ It further provides that if a man slay another he shall himself be slain—and in like manner. It is also the duty and privilege of the slain man’s relatives to execute sentence. I therefore pronounce that he who has killed must die in the same manner as that in which he inflicted death. The next of kin of the slain shall climb the tree and himself fall upon the slayer. This he shall do until death results. This is my judgment in accord with the Mosaic Law.”

There was a murmur of discussion among the petitioners. The tree was some thirty feet high. The dead man’s next of kin was fat. He might well inflict death on anyone he chanced to fall upon, but the chances were equal that he would suffer it himself in the process.

He announced at length that he did not propose to exercise his privilege but would be content with the fine, for which the law provided.
“Tell him not so,” said the great Menelek. “He who appeals to the law must take the whole law or none at all. Release the prisoner, and bring no more such cases before me. Death by chance is no murder. Let every judge in all Ethiopia hearken to my words.”

The story continues that the priests were dissatisfied with the judgment and approached the king. An ill-deed had been wrought and someone must be punished. It would bring the law into discredit if nothing were done.

Menelek listened patiently to their case and gravely considered how he might appease them.
At length he asked: “How came the man to fall?”
“A branch of the tree broke beneath him,” was the reply.
“Then,” said Menelek, “I find the tree guilty of causing the death of one of my subjects. No tree shall do such an act and live. It shall not be said that I, Emperor of all Ethiopia, am not quick to avenge the wrongs which my subjects suffer. The tree shall be cut down—nay, utterly uprooted, that all may see that I rule justly and respect the law.”

So the priests and the dead man’s relatives made a great ceremony of uprooting the tree which they chopped into many pieces, savagely proclaiming that the dead man was thus avenged. And the great Menelek smiled into his beard.

Doubtless the story has lost nothing in the telling. It may well be that it is a modernised version of some ancient tale. But it is related still with much circumstantial detail by the story-tellers of Ethiopia, and appeals very much to the sense of humour of the new generation which is growing up in Addis Ababa, and to whom any triumph over the old superstitions is good news.

The value of the story lies not in its literal truth—though there is no reason to doubt it—but in the fact that a king’s character is bound to emerge in the stories told concerning him. Whether the actual incident occurred or not is comparatively unimportant. What matters is that it shows the manner of man Menelek was, and how his people thought of him.

Another story which is told in Ethiopia, being attached to the name of any king deemed wiser than the rest, is also found in many other parts of the world, though it is specially connected with the wisdom of Jewry. It is said that a father having died and having left his land equally between his sons, they disputed bitterly over the details of the actual division.

At length the king decreed that it was the privilege of the elder son as nearest to the father to divide the inheritance and was hailed by the elder son as a wise and righteous judge.
“And you, too, will deal justly,” said the king. “You swear that you will make the division equal?”
The elder son was profuse in his protestations.
“Then,” the king continued, “it will matter nothing to you that when the property is divided it shall be for your younger brother to decide which portion he will take.
”This story is also related of Menelek. The subtle irony of the king might well have been his.

The British diplomats were well-liked by Menelek, for they were shrewd enough not to underrate him. He was secretly amused, but naturally also a little irritated, by the approach of certain other European representatives who treated him as though he were a childish savage. On one occasion when a tinkling musical-box was brought to him as a great curiosity he accepted it graciously and at once, in the ambassador’s presence, caused it to be conveyed to the women and children in the palace. This gentle indication that he was not to be won by such toys was typical of one side of his character. He could show great wrath on occasion, and this even when he was dealing with Europeans. But when rightly treated he knew how to express his gratitude. Speaking to the delegation who were sent to him in 1897 for the purpose of concluding what is now known as the Rennell Rodd Treaty, he said: “Other nations have treated me as a baby and given me musical boxes, magic lanterns and mechanical toys. You, on the other hand, have brought me only what is of real use and value. Never have I seen such beautiful things before.”

He showed a great appreciation of the power over disease which the white races exercised by means of medicine, and he astonished an English visitor in the last years of his life by saying:

“My body is a battleground and the powers of evil are gaining the day. I have asked the physician to send into my blood the forces of Christ that they may do battle, as the British did to many of my people who were attacked by the plague. But he tells me it is beyond his power.”

It was plain from the remarks which followed that the Emperor had grasped the main principles of vaccination with a clearness shown by few oriental monarchs. In the years after Adowa, when small-pox devastated the country (to which sickness he was referring when he spoke of plague), it is recorded that he ordered the priests to double their prayers, and at the same time published an edict that all his subjects were to be vaccinated. This treatment was explained as a kind of sacrament, but the king was well aware that it was a medical and not a magical process, its sacramental nature arising from the truth that all good things are of Christ.

When the electric light was introduced into his palace the king set himself to master the principles which governed this latest wonder of the white man. But he never succeeded in understanding how light was possible without flame; and when he was one day the victim of a slight shock as the result of a faulty switch on a damp wall he very nearly had the whole installation dismantled. “I have never feared sword thrusts,” he said, “but this pain which seized me is clearly of the devil.”

About that time it was brought to his notice that a white wizard was astonishing the chieftains near Harar. The method adopted was simple. In a bowl of water the magician (an Armenian trader) placed twenty thalers, and to anyone who paid three thalers or its equivalent permission was given to plunge in his hand and take as much money as he could.

He warned them, nevertheless, that if they were not pure in heart the demon who dwelt in the water would seize their hand. None of the various applicants were of the necessary degree of purity, although they often went to the priest for purification beforehand. When they placed their hands in the water the demon immediately clutched them and caused them agony of pain.

Menelek listened to the tales that were brought him. Then he said: “You will find that the demon lives in a small box. This you can seize without fear for he will be powerless to harm you.”

The Emperor had mastered the subject sufficiently to know that the white wizard had somewhere an electric battery.

King Menelek was a man of agile and determined thought, never afraid of new ideas merely because they were new, but always seeking to select which of them were likely to be of use to his country without delivering it into the hands of grasping white men. Thus he instituted a postage system which, though it did not operate over a very great area, being principally used to communicate with Jibuti, represented the beginning of civilising influences which, had continuity of administration been possible after Menelek’s death, would probably have made far greater strides by now.

In his marriages Menelek was not altogether fortunate. His first wife, a daughter of Theodore, made his life a misery, for she could not in her heart forgive him for having turned her family from the throne. He divorced her and married again, this time with fair success; but his third wife, who, strangely enough, had the same name as the first, a circumstance which Menelek frequently lamented should have warned him, proved what modern terminology would describe as a butterfly and a gold-digger. She showed a weak-minded partiality for everything foreign and courted the notice of Europeans in the capital. Further, she wasted money on cheap and flashy wares, which she allowed traders to sell her at exorbitant prices. Menelek at length rebelled, and after rather complicated negotiations the lady was persuaded, in return for handsome “alimony,” to retire to a convent. Menelek’s fourth wife was a remarkable woman. She was tall and regal in manner and had a very fair skin. She also had been married four times previously, which fact was popularly supposed to be particularly lucky. Each of her four husbands had occupied a responsible post, and while she had no great education, she had inherited from her father, the powerful Ras of Gondar, abundant if rather obstinate good sense.

In the year previous to her marriage she had won widespread fame, for she had led her own troops against the Italians at the advance on Makale. This deed, which has never been forgotten, is always told to the women of Ethiopia to inspire them with patriotism. Few foreign observers have realised the part which women play in determining the policies of the land.

The Empress Taitu was a generous, strong-minded woman, passionately devoted to her country and suspicious of all foreigners. She was opposed to innovations, and particularly disliked the European diplomats who, she was convinced, had only one object—to steal as much of Ethiopia as they could lay hands on.

It cannot be denied that in this last belief she was very close to the truth. The gradual encirclement of the country and the various pretexts for encroachments seemed to show beyond doubt that the white men were determined, as the Empress so often said, “to eat up” her native land. Though a devout believer in the national faith and a friend of religion, she always insisted to her husband that the Moslems were much less to be feared than the Christians, who were cruel and deceitful beneath a mask of fine words.

When a dispute arose over the Ucialli Treaty with Italy, it was Taitu who, having listened with anger while an Italian envoy raised his voice and spoke sharply to her husband, seized the offending document and tore it in pieces; and in the Councils which preceded Adowa she took her full share.

Her bitter dislike of all things Italian was no secret in Addis Ababa and endeared her to the common people; but her attitude sometimes embarrassed Menelek in the handling of delicate foreign affairs. It was Menelek who insisted that when he denounced the Ucialli Treaty he must pay back the loan which had been advanced to him after the signature of the document—a sum amounting to 4,000,000 francs. He was adamant concerning this obligation, for the customs of Harar had been mortgaged as security for the loan and there was a clause that in the event of non-repayment the whole of that province should be taken by Italy. Taitu could not see that to refuse repayment of the money would be to play into Italian hands since it would give them a legal claim to Ethiopian territory. To her mind the Italians had, by their conduct, lost all right to any consideration from Menelek, and she is known to have urged her husband to keep the money. Menelek was wise enough to see that public opinion in Europe was a force to reckon with, and that the denunciation of the treaty would appear as fraud to the European mind unless accompanied by the immediate discharge of the loan with which a supplementary agreement had provided him. It was a typical instance of the sound judgment which the Emperor displayed throughout his whole reign. Taitu was delighted, however, when in 1896, in the earlier brushes before the Adowa campaign, Ras Makonnen, having besieged 1,500 Italians in the town of Makale and having cut off their water supply, refused to raise the siege until the Governor of Eritrea had sent one million thalers as reparation. Menelek was encouraged by this to demand 25,000,000 thalers as indemnity for the Italian attacks, and it was as the result of this demand that the ill-fated Baratieri advanced towards Adowa.

The prestige which accrued to Menelek after Adowa was immense. In the following year several envoys arrived at the capital to make cordial representations on behalf of their countries. Most picturesque among them was Prince Henri D’Orleans, the Due de Valois, who brought many very beautiful presents, including a magnificent service of Sevres china, complete in every detail, some pieces of which are still used in the Palace.

By 1905 Menelek was at the peak of his power and prosperity, his failing health being the only factor in the Ethiopian situation which caused the least anxiety. But when in the following year he lost Ras Makonnen, who was to have succeeded him, he showed great sorrow and ceased to have so keen an interest in foreign affairs. So great was the power of his name, however, that the chiefs did not think it safe to rebel even when it was known that he was on his deathbed, though doubtless it was his clever policy which contributed towards this attitude on their part.

He had only replaced those chiefs who proved intractable and had shown more than once that he requited good service and regular payment of taxes by according privileges to the chiefs who did not attempt to shuffle out of their obligations. Thus there was a considerable degree of self-government to be found in the outlying provinces, where the chiefs, who could use the might of Menelek’s name as a bulwark against invaders, were neither humiliated nor unduly taxed by him. It was thus in their interest to keep him on the throne, for the weaker ones knew that the Emperor was their guarantee against aggression from the stronger provinces, and the stronger chiefs were bitterly jealous among themselves.

Taitu was a tower of strength in these last years. She was an efficient wife in every way, her only failing being a complete lack of tact. She had heard a great deal about Queen Victoria and always thought of herself in terms of the great White Queen, whose story, coupled with that of the Queen of Sheba, obtained a great hold on her imagination. This did not please the chiefs who were bitterly resentful and swore that no woman should rule them.

On one occasion they were outraged by her casual treatment when several of them had journeyed considerable distances to the Palace, and raised a miniature revolt against her. Fearful of her life she meditated flight to the British Residency, but a friend of the Emperor’s persuaded her that the best course was to go out, meet the rebels, trusting to Menelek’s name to protect her, and to promise them better treatment in the future. This she did, and her royal bearing, conciliatory attitude and evident sincerity (for she had been thoroughly scared, probably for the first time in her life) made so great an impression that the chiefs and their followers cheered her before they dispersed.

However, it was obvious that the question of the succession must be decided and that with every postponement discontent would grow. Menelek at last proclaimed Lidj Yassu, son of his second daughter by her husband, Ras Mikael, chief of the Wollo Gallas, his heir, making the young Prince’s tutor Regent.

Ras Tessama, the tutor, was a man of the same cast of mind as Ras Makonnen, of whose personality and distinguished career there follows a brief account.

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

April 12, 2021