HAILE SELASSIE EMPEROR OF ETHIOPIA
History shows many times that it is not in the interest of “the barons” to have too powerful a figure at the head of the kingdom, and it is probable that the Ethiopian chiefs who chose Ras Tafari as the Regent and future successor to the throne believed that in setting up a dual authority at Addis Ababa they had done a shrewd piece of work. Ras Tafari was not greatly esteemed at the time of his election because he had few of the surface qualities which endear an Abyssinian chief to his subjects. He was known to be clever and far-seeing—had he not successfully intrigued against the apostate Yassu?—and he knew how to get rifles out of the detested foreigner; but there was nothing of the strong man about him, and the chiefs were quite clear in their own minds that there would be no difficulty in keeping him in his place.
The system of dual control gave every opportunity for intrigue, and it was well known that the Empress Zawditu had little liking for Ras Tafari; so it seemed that the Regent had a troublous journey ahead of him. It was difficult, for instance, for him to invoke the name of Menelek as authority for his acts when, sharing the throne with him, and in perpetual disapproval, sat Menelek’s favourite daughter, who proved in her every action that her father’s blood flowed strongly in her veins.
Those who speak of Ras Tafari as cunning should meditate the situation in which he found himself. The precepts of Machiavelli had to be employed with considerable thoroughness if he were to survive.
Even more than the Empress Taitu, the Princess Zawditu had sorrowed for Menelek, her father. It was by her care that the body of the dead Emperor was embalmed, and for two years she would not let the body leave her possession. At length Yassu, in one of his fits of sullen bullying, drove her from the palace.
The sight of Menelek’s daughter driven from her home would have been disturbing in any circumstances to the chieftains who had loved the Emperor, but Zawditu’s simple dignity and her gift of powerful speech brought home to everyone the disgraceful conduct of the new king.
“I, an Emperor’s daughter, am cast out. Think then what shall happen to you!”
The Princess Zawditu knew that sympathy is a transient emotion in most men unless reinforced by the thought “It may be your turn next.” She sounded this note continually, and when finally Lidj Yassu expelled her from Addis Ababa and bade her take refuge in a convent, she went instead quietly from chief to chief exposing the wrongs inflicted upon her and the outrage which had been done to her father’s memory. She had Menelek’s gift of sudden warmth of glance, she knew how to waken personal loyalty. She was not strong enough in character to hold it for long, but she always came well out of a crisis. Ras Tafari had no such gift; but the attachments which he formed were more enduring.
Ras Tafari used her as a cover for his own plans. He knew that she could appeal to the chiefs. Her speech to the Abuna and the assembled nobles which she delivered at the time of her choice by them as queen was a masterpiece of direct oratory. “May God pitch his tent among you,” she said. “You have chosen me, and I pray that you have chosen wisely. Your faith is my faith, your sorrow my sorrow. All the love which I bore to Menelek your Emperor I now give freely to you. Henceforth it is you who are my glory, for when I bade farewell to Menelek did I not lose all that was splendid in this world?” A large concourse heard these stately words. The Abuna Mattheos wept with joy, Walda Gewargis, Etchege of Ethiopia, gave thanks to God that the spirit of Menelek still dwelt among men. Princes of the blood royal, chieftains, priests and officers hailed her as their queen.
Although her own personality had played a great part in her triumph she owed a great deal more than she realised to the cool brain of Ras Tafari, who with a small group of devoted friends had organised the victory. This she never admitted, and from the very first days she watched jealously everything that the Regent did, losing no opportunity of accusing him of exceeding his powers.
Although she ascended the throne on 30th September, 1916, it was not till February of the following year that the coronation ceremony was performed. Scarcely was it completed when news was brought to Ras Tafari that Lidj Yassu was in communication with the Empress with a view to replacing him at her side. Following his dethronement Yassu, with a cheery disregard of the solemn nature of his many oaths to Allah, swore by the holy scriptures and by the Cross of Christ that he was a true believer, and would defend with the last drop of his blood the doctrines of the Holy Church. Only a month previously, to a gathering of Moslem chiefs on the borders of Somaliland he had protested his devotion to Islam and had produced a long and highly convincing document, prepared for him by a holy man, in which he claimed direct male descent from the Prophet. Such pedigrees are a frequent feature in Eastern history, for the first concern of every usurper is that the priests shall produce evidence of his distinguished lineage. This they never fail to do. No one really believes in these hastily constructed genealogies, but everyone would be offended were they not produced. It is related that when a scholarly European, who had become on excellent terms with a Mohammedan holy man, protested against the sheer impossibility of one of these family trees, he was told solemnly: “Do you not know that there are other births than those of the flesh?” Presumably the priestly conscience was salved by the postulation of some mystic kinship. Certain it is that in the case of Lidj Yassu the descent may well have taken place on the spiritual plane, for he was in both his good and bad qualities a typical Mohammedan.
His line of argument in approaching the Empress was that together they could dominate the whole country since he had the loyalty of the Galla chiefs and she had the support of the Shoan nobles, together with the blessing of the Abuna, whose voice swayed the Church. Ras Tafari he accused of preparing to hand over his country to the British—from whom he had accepted guns to arm the chieftains who followed him. He also said that Tafari had secret stores of money which Zawditu should have shared. Yassu announced his willingness to forego his share entirely should these moneys be seized.
While he was throwing out these feelers in the direction of Zawditu, Lidj Yassu, at last roused to energy by his fallen fortunes, was making plans for a concerted attack upon the capital. He aimed at striking first in the direction of Harar and then working up the railway line (still incomplete in those days) towards the hills. Meanwhile his followers on the western side were to keep on raiding so that the government forces would be divided.
When Ras Tafari found that the Empress had received messages from Lidj Yassu without telling him he was furious, for though he knew that so far there had been no treachery, he would have been sadly lacking in perspicacity had he not realised that this was merely because the time was not ripe.
At this time he received unexpected help from Hapta Giorgis, who eventually became Minister of War. This chief showed statesmanship to an uncommon degree, the one aim of his policy being to keep the unity of Ethiopia. He hated foreigners and was bitterly intolerant of western ideas, but he saw that Tafari was no fool and served him faithfully. Organisation is not native to the Ethiopian character, but once the Regent had convinced Giorgis that success in battle could be better achieved by European methods, the chief set to work to build up a well-armed and well-disciplined corps of troops in the capital, while still preserving in his soldiers the virtues of mobility and reckless courage which had won victory for Ethiopia on so many fields.
This force waged guerilla war with Lidj Yassu for nearly five years, and so successfully that Yassu never came within striking distance of the capital. It is difficult to reconstruct all the twists and turns of these campaigns, but they culminated in 1921 in a direct attempt by Yassu to regain the throne. That year there was considerable bloodshed, though no pitched battle on a big scale was fought. The final skirmish was won by the inspired use of cavalry.
Lidj Yassu’s men had been attacking all day a strongly held ridge of hills, but meanwhile, unknown to them, a picked body of mounted troops had been working round on to their flank. There were thick forests on these adjacent heights but there was one wide grassy valley which reached far up into the tree-clad slopes. This was ideal for a charge, but the problem was how to manoeuvre the attackers into such a position that the descent of the horsemen would catch them unawares. If they saw the attack coming they would be able to retreat to rising ground and the whole force of the charge would be lost.
The defenders were at length ordered to advance, but at the last moment this was broken off and a retreat was begun. Lidj Yassu’s commanders, thinking that the enemy were weakening called on their men for a last effort and the troops surged forward. But as they crossed the mouth of the valley, the hidden cavalry thundered down upon them.
The sun, which was low in the heavens, lay behind the wild mass of horsemen, dazzling the eyes of the rebels and magnifying the terror of the charge. Before there was time for defence the whirlwind of hoofs and swords and lances, weighted with the huge momentum of frantic animal flesh, cut through the swaying ranks of the valley forces leaving behind it, in a broad swathe, the slashed and pounded bodies of groaning men. And while the charge reformed on the slope of the further hills, the ridge defenders swarmed down upon the stricken wreckage of the column.
There was no hope save in instant flight, and this was not easy, for while the infantry slew without mercy in the heart of the valley, the horsemen, divided into bands, scoured the fringes of the hills, driving back fugitives to death in the central melee. It was ghastly work, but it had to be done. That charge, which will always be remembered, saved Ethiopia from the menace of a return of Islam. Lidj Yassu, who had fled at an early stage of the encounter, was captured and brought before Ras Tafari.
The defeated noble, once the ruler of the country, can have had little hope of his life being spared. By all the rules of Ethiopian warfare his head was many times forfeit to the throne. Nevertheless Ras Tafari spared him. The Regent, sensing his growing hold upon the nation, felt that he could afford to be merciful. It was also possible that the conquered rebel might be held as hostage for the good behaviour of the Galla tribes. So Yassu was sent to Harar where he was interned rather than imprisoned, every luxury being provided for him.
In adversity he showed the better side of his nature, studied a good deal, and charmed all Europeans who met him by the natural courtesy of his manners and the brilliance of his mind. It seemed that the Regent’s policy had been a sound one, and that those round him who had urged the execution of Yassu, were wrong. Their case had been that while he lived there would always be a dangerous claimant to the throne, whose cause any disgruntled chief or foreign enemy of the government might make a pretext for revolt within the kingdom or attack from without. But Ras Tafari refused to listen; he wished to show that he did not fear his rival sufficiently to make it worth his while to execute him. This was a magnanimous attitude, yet future events were to suggest that it was of doubtful wisdom.
With Zawditu, the first Empress of Ethiopia since the time of Sheba, said the priests, firm upon the throne, Ras Tafari found time to devote himself to his books. This does not mean that he could retire for any length of time into his library but merely that instead of dealing with affairs of State every moment of his waking day, he was able to find a few hours now and then for literary labour. But he had always to be ready to deal with trouble, for certain of the chiefs openly expressed their contempt for him, and contempt is soon defiance.
He was able, however, to teach one of them a lesson in most salutary fashion, after which there was a noticeable increase in the respect with which the new regime at Addis Ababa was treated.
In one of the Shoan provinces a local chief had been indulging in extortion. The complaints had reached Ras Tafari through a European trader since the victims were too terror stricken to protest themselves. The Regent sent to enquire why it was that more than the legal amount of produce was being levied and received the reply that the law provided that any man who concealed his possessions from the tax gatherer might rightly be fined double or, for a further offence, treble the original tax. There had, the chief explained, been an epidemic of evasion in his province and he had merely been enforcing the law.
Ras Tafari congratulated him on his zeal and pointed out that the law also provided that a large proportion of any such fine should come to the central government. The chief agreed that this was so, but explained that for the enforcement of the Emperor’s decrees among the lawless he had been forced to go to greater expense than his humble resources could stand. The fines which he had collected he had sequestrated to reimburse himself for these expenses, which had been occasioned by his zeal in the service of the State.
Still friendly in tone the Regent expressed his sympathy for the chief, and stated that he was concerned to know that there was such disorder in his district. For the better regulation of these matters a conference must be held immediately. Then arrangements could perhaps be made for help to be given him. No man should say that he was ruined in the service of the Government. Would the chief report at once to the capital that there might be an enquiry into this unhappy state of affairs?
Meanwhile the Regent had been collecting indisputable evidence of the chief’s wrongdoing which he planned to place before him at the suggested council. The chief was wary, however, and respectfully and with a variety of ingenious excuses managed to evade the summons. There were crops to be reaped, his daughter was to be married, there was a cattle thief still at large... and so on. And the exactions continued nor was any money paid to the State.
At last the Regent lost patience and no longer asked but commanded. In the name of Menelek the recalcitrant chief was bidden to present himself before his ruler upon a certain day.
He came, but he brought close on a thousand picked fighting men with him. They camped at the gates of the capital and sang songs extolling their prowess. They were careful not to commit any act of hostility, but showed plainly by their manner that they served their own Ras rather than the Government and that they were not to be trifled with.
Ras Tafari did not trifle with them. On the day of their arrival he sent out a courteous message of welcome, which was interpreted by the chief as a sign that the Regent surrendered. His surprise may be imagined therefore when he found the next morning that during the night the State troops had stolen out soundlessly from the city and encircled him. Rifles and machine guns bristled on the crest of every hill. A wrong move on his part would have been the signal for deadly fire.
The chief gave in. He discovered that much of his ammunition had been brought as a present for the noble Ras Tafari, Ruler of all Ethiopia, defender of the most holy faith. Ras Tafari accepted the gift with every expression of gratitude, gave other, but less dangerous, gifts in exchange, and sent back a very chastened chieftain to his province with instructions in future to obey the law and not to extort by means of alleged fines any more. It is also on record that the correct proportion of the “fines” which he claimed to have gathered was paid to the Regent out of the chief’s own pocket. The suavity and general gentlemanliness with which the whole affair had been conducted appealed very strongly to the taste of the Amharic population with whom the Regent’s reputation immediately rose.
In considering the strained relations which soon developed between the Regent and the Empress Zawditu, it must be remembered that factions in the capital were doing everything possible to stir up discord between them. Indeed, had they been similar in temperament and outlook and not very different, they could scarcely have hoped to have agreed for long.
Zawditu was the rallying point for all the forces of reaction in Ethiopia. The priesthood were her especial friends and were fanatically opposed to the spread of education on which the Regent had set his heart. Ras Tafari did his best at first to win them by showing them his great interest in the ancient books of the country. He urged that if these books were printed and people taught to read them it would strengthen the forces of religion and make for the glory of God. The priests considered the matter, and replied, just as many a reactionary English squire must have done within living memory, that God was worshipped in the heart and that no learning was required to pray to Him.
The Coptic Church had one unbroken rule—the Abuna must be a monk who had spent his life in seclusion. The purpose behind this was that he should be pure in mind and body—a very laudable ideal. In effect the result was that over many generations the heads of the Church had been rarely pure and always ignorant. It was difficult to prevent the snares of the flesh from entering a monastery, but all enlightenment was effectually excluded. Even actual ability to read the scriptures was sometimes lacking, and of the learning of the western world there was known nothing at all.
Against the invincible ignorance of the Coptic Church, which had in Zawditu so firm an ally, Ras Tafari struggled manfully and not in vain. He was always very careful to observe minutely the various ceremonies which the priests and people expected to be performed by the ruler of the country, and thus the priesthood had never any chance to accuse him of neglecting or undermining the Faith. This indeed he had no wish to do, since he regarded the Church as a wonderfully unifying force among his people and was a keenly religious man, though redeemed to a great extent from superstition by his knowledge of science.
His sensitive mind delighted in the beauties of his Church ritual, and he took intense pleasure in the quaint though exceedingly fine illustrations with which the old religious books were plentifully supplied. But he found the priesthood adamant when he wished to extend his learning to the common people.
“Books are holy things,” said the Etchege when drawn into a discussion of printing, “but if you have many of them they will become so common that no one will consider as wisdom what is to be found within their covers. Thus God will be insulted and profaned, so that He is certain to visit His wrath upon us.”
One very interesting development of this argument was found among the priests. They said that there was holy power in the sacred books—that is, power to charm away illness and to protect against foes. Now either this holy power was not passed on to a copy—in which case why make a copy which was clearly a sham and a deceit; or the power was passed on. And this was serious—for if the power of a sacred book was to be shared among a thousand copies surely it would become so little that it would be of use to none. And since the safety of the land depended upon the power residing in the scriptures, surely the whole realm would be imperilled if they were tampered with and copied by the thousand.
This view, that if a copy of anything is made some part of the virtue of the original must reside in it—so that the original is harmed—is, as students of magic will recognise, a very widespread belief among primitive tribes. It has been said that there were within living memory fishermen on the coast of Scotland who refused to let tourists sketch them—quoting the cases of friends of theirs who, having had their picture done, never had another day’s health in their lives. It is also well known that one of the principles of witchcraft which crops up all over the world is that if you make an image of anything you can, if you know the correct formulae, cause damage which you do to the image to be reproduced upon the original. For instance a wax model of your enemy left to melt before a fire will cause his life to ebb away in time with the gradual melting. This was an argument used against printing—that if copies of the sacred books got into wrong hands powerful witchcraft might be set in motion against the word of God.
Against perverted logic of this sort the Regent had constantly to struggle, with Zawditu always on the opposing side. That he was able to carry through so many reforms is greatly to his credit for the odds were heavily against him. Those who call to-day for greater speed of progress can have little knowledge of the obstacles which lie in its path.
With increasing age Zawditu became a morose and unhappy woman. Her married life had been unsatisfactory, and during her reign the personal troubles of her past occasionally reared up in awkward forms. Her first marriage (in 1882 before her father had secured control of the whole country) had been to Ras Areya Selassie, the son and heir of the Emperor John. This was part of Menelek’s scheme for a series of dynastic alliances which would result in the gradual bringing of the various kingdoms of Ethiopia under one rule. The marriage was not very happy, for her father usurped the inheritance of her husband. When Ras Areya Selassie died in 1901, Menelek again thought of his daughter as a pawn in his plans for the better union of his territories and did his best to marry her to Guangoul, the son of a famous chieftain of the Wollo Gallas. Negotiations were entered into and the settlements were arranged when the young man, having seen his bride to be, frankly refused to go on with the matter. So obstinate was his resistance that neither the threats of his father, Ras Gobana, a mighty warrior, nor the fear of the wrath of Menelek, availed. Menelek, who had offered an extremely generous marriage portion with his daughter, was mortally offended by this refusal and salved his wounded honour by fining Ras Gobana heavily for breach of contract. That the fine was paid is an index of Menelek’s power, but as can be imagined the incident left many unpleasant feelings in the minds of all concerned.
Zawditu was married again hurriedly in the same year so that she should not appear to be a rejected woman. Her husband was one of Menelek’s generals, the Dedjes-match Ube. She was not happy with him and he divorced her three years later; nor was her marriage with Ras Gugsa, the nephew of Queen Taitu, any more successful. He divorced her in 1910 and afterwards gave her a good deal of trouble, raising a revolt against the Regent in 1930, with the object, it is said, of remarrying Zawditu and getting possession of the throne.
The unhappy married life of Zawditu was possibly accounted for by her exaggerated affection for her father which made all other men seem poor specimens at best. The unhappiness which she experienced undoubtedly poisoned her life and made her very difficult to get on with. It is said that she hated Ityi Manen, the wife of the Regent, and did her best to provoke a rupture between man and wife.
Every day she requested an interview with Ras Tafari, and forced him to report to her minutely concerning all that he had done. Any appointments, however trivial, she insisted on making herself, and as her nominees were rarely the persons best fitted for the work the efficiency of the administration was considerably interfered with. Late in life she became very capricious in the bestowal of rewards, and also suffered from unreasoning hatreds which caused great disturbance. But till this time she had been a very capable administrator of her own property and was well liked by her servants who, though they feared her, recognised in her iron rule the will of the great Menelek, and were forced to admit that she was fair in her dealings with them except when moved to passion. These fits of rage, inherited or perhaps copied from her father (bad temper is usually deliberately worked up), made life unbearable for Ras Tafari, and it is even thought that she went so far as to plot his death by poison. Of this fact there is no confirmation.
Tafari showed great dignity in dealing with her outbursts, and was indeed secretly glad that her unreasonable conduct was alienating the chiefs and bringing them round to his side. He longed to travel, and in 1923, in a peaceful interval, he started off on a tour of the European world. But though he was received everywhere with great cordiality he knew that there was trouble ahead of him, for certain boundaries of his country were still undefined and he had inherited from Menelek a dangerous feud.
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May 16, 2021