The Youth Of Haile Selassie

Although his father, Ras Makonnen, was the accepted heir of the Emperor Menelek it seemed on his death in 1906 that there was little chance that his son would eventually make good his father’s claim. The young boy, for he was only thirteen years old when his father died, was not old enough to have caught the eye of Menelek, and even had he done so it is not likely that the Emperor would have considered his claim, for the slight build and highly strung nature of the lad would not have found much favour in the sight of the strong, hard-living ruler of a troubled country.

Lidj Yassu (the name means “Child Jesus,” but would appear to have been singularly inappropriate) was at that time the favourite in court circles. A tall, well-built youth, with a sheen of bronze in his healthy, brown skin, he won all hearts by his simplicity, his natural easy-going manners, and above all by his gift for all kinds of sport.

For to a man outstanding in sport, whether it is running, riding, shooting or the throwing of the spear, the Abyssinian gives a whole-hearted hero-worship such as a fourth-form boy feels towards the captain of his school. Much of the English influence in Addis Ababa undoubtedly springs from the sporting tendencies of their race. It is still remembered how one night some years ago a band of thieves, led by a discharged servant with a grievance, broke into the British Legation and were fought single-handed by the Minister, who laid out four or five of the marauders with his bare fists.

Lidj Yassu, who excelled in sport, was therefore a great favourite, while the studious youngster who crept about the palace attracted no favourable notice. For all his charm, however, there was a sad streak of weakness in Lidj Yassu’s character. He had courage of a sort, but lacked the power to fight a losing cause. Also he was undoubtedly a bully.

Knowing that the orphan son of Ras Makonnen, though two years his senior, was of a nervous disposition, he did all in his power to ridicule and frighten him. He would come riding into the courtyard of the palace and cause his high-mettled horse to rear up suddenly so that its flashing hoofs seemed about to descend upon Tafari’s head. Then as the boy cowered away he would swerve out of his path, laughing at the terror which he had inspired.

His tutor, Ras Tessama, to whom Ras Makonnen had been a friend, did all in his power to check the unkindness of Lidj Yassu, but protests did very little good. Once when a wild horse had been brought in from the hill pastures and only partly tamed, Lidj Yassu went so far as to place Tafari Makonnen on its back and send it galloping off madly with a sharp slash of his hide whip. The horse careered wildly down the slope, young Tafari clinging for dear life to the shaggy mane. His eyes showed terror, but he clung on. With drawn face and set teeth he stuck to the mount until it tired. Yassu took great delight in this joke of his and repeated it on several occasions. He was courted by everyone in Addis Ababa since it was guessed that he would one day be Emperor. There was thus no one to interfere.

Tafari learned to take a beating, to be desperately afraid and yet to hang on. That lesson was to mould his whole character. In after years he never showed reckless bravery, but once he had set his hand to anything he never let go.

Ras Tessama often despaired of imparting the principles of right conduct to the wild prince in his charge, but he was a loyal servant of Menelek and laboured hard to fit the Emperor’s favourite for the throne. His outlook was cosmopolitan, for in his campaigns having had on his staff three officers, a Swiss, a French and a Russian, he had seen to what extent the European could be depended on, and had learnt a great deal. On an expedition to the White Nile he had seen the rivalry between the great powers of Europe and had observed the jealousy with which each tried to plant a flag first in any unexplored region. Tessama is also said to have known Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet, whose story is one of the strangest in the world. He was thus favourably disposed towards French culture, but it was Britain whom he feared.

For five years after Ras Makonnen’s death, Tessama kept Yassu within bounds and did many kindnesses to the young Tafari. He gave the boy his first full size gun and watched with great pleasure the ability which Tafari soon showed in the handling of it. Tessama also saw that the good education which his father had desired for him was imparted at the hands of the French Mission in Harar, the capital of Ras Makonnen’s province.

Tafari soon showed that his hand was steady and his eye keen. By constant practice he became a first class shot, far better than Lidj Yassu, whose steadiness of hand had already been lessened by the dissipations in which he indulged despite Tessama’s efforts to prevent him. This was a source of great mortification to Yassu, who one day stole some cartridges which Tafari had been saving for a special occasion. Ammunition is always short in Ethiopia and to steal a man’s cartridges is a very heinous offence under the law, which regards it much as horse stealing was thought of in the Wild West, where a man’s horse was a matter of life and death to him. Lidj Yassu found himself faced by a furiously angry Tafari who levelled a gun at him and demanded the return of his cartridges. At first he laughed out loud at this sign of determination on the part of one of whom he thought so little. Then as he saw the look in the eyes behind the gun, he threw down the stolen ammunition saying that he had only been joking.

That was the first triumph of Tafari over the man who bullied him. It taught the timid lad that the best way to deal with some sorts of people is always to call their bluff.

It was a great grief to Tafari when Ras Tessama died. The true circumstances of this death were never cleared up but it is certain that not long after he became Regent he met his end through poison. Who was the instigator of the crime it is difficult to say. Perhaps it was some older friend of Yassu’s who was jealous of the influence which the General exerted over the prospective ruler of the country and who wished to have the field clear to himself. Another possibility is that it was the Empress Taitu who was behind the crime. In her case the motive is harder to suggest, but she may possibly have resented the degree to which her husband, now a very sick man, depended on his General’s advice.

Tessama died with the word “Poison” on his lips but gave no hint of his own opinions as to who had killed him. A slave in his household disappeared about that time and was declared to be the guilty party. But Menelek knew differently and shook his head with sorrow when the news came that Tessama had died. “First Makonnen,” he said, “and now Tessama. Soon I too shall pass, and who knows what will come upon my country.”

To a man who had lived so fully as the great Menelek the thought of death was not easy, and he had postponed the making of any public announcement concerning his heir, though as early as 1902 the claims of the various possible successors had been discussed in council. As his illness increased, anything which savoured of death had become acutely distasteful to him and none had ventured to speak of it except the Empress, who was always eager that her own power might be both extended and confirmed. Menelek, though he valued justly her undeniable merits would never hear of Taitu having any power to rule, and though his last days were made unhappy by her protestations he kept to his decision.

It was in the year 1909 that Menelek first faced the fact that the stability of his country could best be secured by naming an heir at once and thus giving his successor time to obtain a hold on the reins of government before the death of the Emperor should call him to the throne.

Summoning to his bedside the Abuna Mattheos, Menelek turned to him and said in solemn tones: “I call you to witness, Mattheos, that I have this day chosen Lidj Yassu, my grandson, born of my daughter the Princess Shoaraga whom I love. He shall reign after me, and that the people accept him shall be your charge. You of our Holy Church are to support him. He who rebels against him you shall excommunicate. But if he himself shall rebel against your holy power then shall he be excommunicated.... Now let us set apart a day for the summoning of my chieftains that we may tell them what is to be.”

When he had obtained the assent of the Abuna, Menelek caused all the nobles and the Imperial bodyguard to come together and also summoned all the troops that were stationed round the capital. It was a dramatic moment when he called on them to be faithful to his heir as they had been to him and to fight bravely for him against all his foes.

“The curse of God shall rest upon any one of you who shall refuse obedience and he shall beget a black dog for a son. But if he who reigns after me shall betray you or shall behave deceitfully, or seek to deliver up our country to the stranger, then shall you be free of your oaths and the curse shall rest upon him. He shall beget a black dog for son and all the righteous shall turn away their faces from him.”

The death of a king has always been a grave moment in Ethiopian history—it is a strict custom, in fact, that the death of the ruler may not be spoken of by anyone directly. It has to be mentioned always in roundabout phrases: “The air at this season is evil towards kings.” Or “This is the time of year when kings die.” The origin of this strange custom must go back far indeed in the history of the Amharic race. It is based, no doubt, upon the old conception that in some strange way the fate of the people is bound up in that of their king. Some say in Ethiopia that it will bring disaster upon the country if it is said openly that the king is dead since the demons who lurk in the darkness will be emboldened to attack the cattle or even the subjects of the realm if they learn that there is no king to defend the land. Thus speech concerning the death of kings must be cryptic to deceive the demons so that they will suspect nothing until the new ruler has full power.

Major Darley in his account of his travels tells how when King Edward died the news reached the Abyssinians long before the exploring party was aware of it. Thus, when complaining of his treatment to a chieftain, he threatened that the government of Great Britain would require justice against any who did evil towards him, he was asked in enigmatic tones: “How do you know that there is a British Government any longer?” The Ethiopians were convinced that following the death of the king there would be such serious disorder in Britain that it would be a long while indeed before that country would be able to reassert its authority along the Abyssinian frontiers.

Menelek’s death was hidden by the Empress as long as she was able. It is a grim and rather frightening story how she watched many days beside the dead body of her husband not daring to allow her servants to tell the chieftains that their ruler was dead. The body was eventually embalmed, but the burial of the greatest ruler who ever held the destinies of Ethiopia in his strong hand was done secretly, so shameful were the events which followed the accession of Lidj Yassu to the throne.

Yassu owed everything to the love and kindness which his grandfather Menelek had shown towards him from the earliest years, but there was in his character neither gratitude nor reverence. He was at heart afraid of the great destiny to which he had been called and believed that were he to be crowned, secret enemies would find some way to destroy him. He postponed his coronation, neglected his duties, and lived a life of riotous pleasure surrounded by boon companions, some of them older than himself, whose brawls and wild behaviour disgusted all who saw them.

They would ride out at morning to hunt in the hills and after the day’s sport would ride drunkenly back to the palace striking any who chanced to be in their way and acting with the greatest bravado. On one occasion the force of police whom Menelek had organised, somewhat on European lines, to guard the streets of his city after darkness, attempted to interfere with the vile behaviour of the king’s friends. A pitched battle was fought in the streets and the police were routed. Several were shot dead on the spot. Those who fled were sought out on the following day and killed without mercy.

The Empress Taitu at length begged the Archbishop to arrange for the burial of her lord, but he was afraid to perform the ceremony publicly by day in case the band of dissolute ruffians led by Yassu should show open disrespect to the proceedings, for Yassu had already banned any public mention of Menelek’s name.

In a small church on the outskirts of the city a grave was secretly prepared and the body of the dead Emperor was hurried there at dead of night with neither procession nor music, and only a few hastily muttered prayers from the head of the Church. The body was left in the darkness, for those who had performed the burial were afraid that the light of candles would betray them.

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April 21, 2021