The Revolt Of Ras Hailu

As we have seen the throne of Haile Selassie has several times been in grave danger, but by shrewd diplomacy he has always managed to divide the forces ranged against him. The Ras Hailu conspiracy, however, came perilously near to success. Its leader was a bold and determined chieftain with great resources, and but for an error of judgment, which arose from a queer flaw in his character, he might well have carried all before him, so well did he choose his time.

I only met Ras Hailu on one occasion and that I have already recounted. It was while the Emperor was in England, and I felt instinctively that the towering chief who accompanied him was a man of ill intent. But it is only right to add that the feeling of uneasiness with which his expression sometimes inspired me was to a large extent offset by his undoubted powers of fascination.

He was a magnificent figure of a man, smooth, shining ebony. Even in European clothes the barbaric freedom of his stride was a pleasure to see and his dignified reserve was tempered by a charming smile.

In Europe, however, he showed his best side. In his own province he was a grasping, unscrupulous ruler, suspected of conniving at the slave trade from which it was said that he obtained handsome profits. These he hid in secret places, turning them always to gold, precious stones or other easily portable wealth. After his visit to this country he realised that the safest place for him to keep his money was in foreign banks, and I believe that in Switzerland he has still large balances.

His miserliness was a by-word in Ethiopia. Whenever bills had to be paid it was always the same story. The handsome chief would protest with tears in his eyes that he was a poor man, that his cattle had died of pestilence, and that his creditors were taking the roof from over his head. He only paid when he had to, and it was noticeable that if any persistent creditor were not strong enough to protect himself occasion was found to entangle him in the law and fine him (for the benefit of Ras Hailu) a sum considerably in excess of the debt.

Only the fascination of western luxury could turn Ras Hailu from his miserly ways. When in Bond Street or Rue de la Paix he would succumb to the lure of the shop windows and spend on a fantastic scale.

These orgies of spending his subjects had to pay for, and it was not long before his exactions led them to protest against his rule. Under pretence of a trading journey a number of the most prominent inhabitants of his province (the rich land of Godjam) came to Addis Ababa to lay their case before the King of Kings.

Haile Selassie was well informed of the situation in Godjam and resolved that the time had come to break Ras Hailu’s power. He listened sympathetically to the petitioners, ordered that they should be compensated from his own funds and then issued proclamations depriving the unjust chieftain of his power to levy dues. It was not possible at this stage to deprive him of his rank, but the measures taken by the Emperor aimed at gradually curbing the illegalities of this tribal ‘racketeer.’

Ras Hailu was shrewd enough to see that deprived of financial jurisdiction he would soon become a mere cipher. He knew that he must strike back at once before his name ceased to inspire fear. He was not long in finding a plan.

While he had no claim to the throne himself, he knew that he could easily find some claimant whose cause he could back, for the dynastic tangles of the Ethiopian succession had left a good many loose threads all waiting their chance to become main strands in the pattern once again. (My own family, for instance, have very definite claims should they care to urge them.) Ras Hailu, from the promising material at his disposal, selected the captive Lidj Yassu as his choice for the imperial throne.

Lidj Yassu had (as has been shown) an excellent claim, for he was the grandson of the great Menelek and had been definitely appointed to succeed him. That he was never crowned was due in the main to his own lack of courage. Later the priesthood turned against him, the reason being that they did not trust his devotion to Christianity, but he would have been in a much stronger position to have fought them had he been duly crowned.

His Islamic leanings, which the priests suspected, were inherited. His father, Ras Ali, governor of Wallos, was a Mussulman, but Menelek, who knew him to be a capable ruler, offered him a choice between Christianity or execution, in which circumstances he had been ‘converted.’

He had never liked his new faith, had secretly trained his son in the worship of Allah, and had offended the Church by the manner in which he mocked at Christian rites even while observing them.

Lidj Yassu might well have survived the disapproval of the Church, had he not preferred the pleasures of the palace to the toils of active government. In view of the many charges which have been made against him it is only right to say once again that he was a very charming fellow and stories of his tyranny were possibly exaggerated; but there can be no possible doubt that he neglected his duties, while it was sheer madness on his part to support the “Mad Mullah” of Somaliland who attempted a Moslem revolt against England and Italy. In 1916, having been finally convicted of Moslem practices he was solemnly excommunicated by Mattheos, the head of the Coptic Church.

It is not generally known that in the conspiracy against him by the British Secret Service, the details of which were given in a previous chapter, the late Colonel Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) played an obscure but doubtless significant part. I have given some pains to unearthing the exact story of the Colonel’s activities but all to no avail. For the present it must suffice to say that it appears that the artist in revolt paid a brief visit to Ethiopia, after which things happened—which was usually the case when Lawrence was anywhere about.

Poor Lidj Yassu, he never knew what brains were pitted against him. He was hardly aware of his danger when sentence of excommunication was passed by the Church. This meant that the oaths of allegiance sworn to him no longer held. His followers thereupon deserted and he became a fugitive.

He escaped to the ghastly Danakil country and lived for many months in terrible danger. Had he remained there he would never have been caught, but the privations which he suffered gradually drove him to work his way back into the province of Tigre, where he obtained some support from time to time but was eventually captured in 1921.

Haile Selassie had not at this time become Negus. He still occupied the office of Regent in conjunction with the Empress Zawditu, and his powers were limited. But when the Empress would willingly have ordered that Lidj Yassu should pay the standard penalty for rebellion, Haile Selassie, far shrewder than his co-ruler, urged that his life should be spared.

Haile Selassie knew that martyred rebels have a way of becoming legendary heroes and doing far more harm after death than they have accomplished while alive. With several million Moslem subjects to consider he urged that it would be better that Yassu should be placed in honourable captivity. The prince, he observed with characteristic insight, was not ambitious at heart. An easy life in luxurious surroundings would content him. He would soon become too easy-going to wish to rebel and would cease to be an heroic figure to his sympathisers, who as Moslems required austerity and strength in their leaders.

It was not very easy, however, to arrange for imprisonment of the kind Haile Selassie suggested. The first Ras to whom Yassu was confided gave a knowing wink, and proceeded to lay careful plans for the poisoning of his “guest,” thinking that although the Empress and Regent had said nothing of this, it was the best way of winning their favour. It was only by the merest chance that Haile Selassie learned what was afoot and he at once removed Lidj Yassu from danger. Another place of safety was found, but here the captive nearly met death at the hands of a minor chief, one of whose brothers had been killed by the Moslems and who sought to avenge his family. After this it was plainly hinted to Haile Selassie that he had better kill Lidj Yassu at once and have done with it, for as long as this claimant to the throne lived there would be trouble. The Regent would not consent, however, and this clemency came near to costing him his throne.

Ras Kassa, a trusted friend of Haile Selassie, at length undertook to answer for the safety of Yassu. The captive was imprisoned in easy circumstances in the town of Fitche, the Ras swearing solemnly that he would forfeit his life should his prisoner escape him.

A very dear friend of mine, an English traveller (whose story could he be persuaded to tell it, would lift the veil from many dark places in Ethiopian history), visited Lidj Yassu in confinement and found him a charming and very studious man, whose weakness for champagne—which my friend shared—was a bond between them. He seemed well content with his lot, and harboured no serious thoughts of rebellion, though escape to Europe would have pleased him.

For eleven years he was captive. Then one day a bribed guard whispered to him that the great Ras Hailu planned to free him, to make him Negus Negusti—King of Kings—for by this time Haile Selassie was sole ruler upon the Imperial throne, and to displace him meant to secure complete sovereignty of all Ethiopia.

The great Ras Hailu was no fool, at least so far as the earlier stages of his plot were concerned. Deprived of his chief sources of income by the decrees of Haile Selassie which openly branded him as an oppressor and a thief, he knew he must strike back without delay for with every month of waiting his prestige dwindled. He could not corrupt Ras Kassa, but a renegade Moslem among the guards had proved easily corruptible, and had consented to keep him in touch with the captive claimant to the throne.

Telling Yassu to be ready for the signal to escape, Ras Hailu next began to organise his revolt. He attempted to win both Moslems and Christians for his cause, spreading the news among the Christians that Lidj Yassu had been converted as the result of a vision, and, at the same time reminding the Moslems that the success of one of their faith would bring them greater privileges. Meanwhile he was very submissive to the central government of Haile Selassie, and was careful to refrain from interference with the imperial tax collectors who were trying to place the fiscal system of his province—which he had tampered with to such an extent that it was based on little more than sporadic confiscation—upon a just and equitable footing.

The day which he had chosen for his coup d’etat was that of the marriage of the Emperor’s son. A huge feast was to be held at Addis Ababa; there would be carousing for several days, and military discipline would be slackened. All of the chieftains would be called to the capital for the great occasion—among them Ras Kassa. Nor would the festivities be confined to Addis Ababa. In every smaller city, in Fitche, for example, where Yassu was imprisoned, local celebrations would be in full swing.

Hailu had distributed enough (but only just enough) largesse to win over sufficient warriors to form a nucleus for his rebel army, and he now sent a detachment of these to hide in the hills and watch the roads to the capital. The others he mustered under his own command to wait in readiness for the escape of Lidj Yassu. Once this was accomplished he proposed to proclaim Yassu as Negus Negusti and march on Addis Ababa. It was his idea that many of the lesser chiefs present at the feast would desert to him as soon as the attack began, for he thought that they would be bitterly envious of the luxury of the capital and would be ready to seize any chance to loot.

The scheme was well conceived, and at first all went well. A bag of silver thalers was smuggled to Yassu by means of the Moslem guard, and as soon as Ras Kassa had left for the wedding feast at Addis Ababa the pretender to the throne began a judicious distribution of this money, hinting at the same time that a huge revolt was already in progress and that he would soon be Emperor, in which event he would be able to give rich rewards to those who aided him now.

He had always been popular with his guards and in the excitement of the feast day some had been drinking and boasting that they were going to be the new Emperor’s personal bodyguard and live in splendour at Addis Ababa. Their native cunning, however, made them preserve a line of retreat and it was agreed that Lidj Yassu should not be set at liberty but should be allowed to escape. Then if things went wrong, they argued, it would be possible for them to say that they had not been parties to the plot.

There must have been a pleasant flavour of comedy in the proceedings at Fitche that evening. The drunken guards with shouts and much self-congratulatory merriment all helped in the digging of a hole in the walls of Lidj Yassu’s house, that at least is the story which came to me. Certain of the guards in the town were not party to the plot, and to evade them it was arranged that Yassu should be smuggled through the compound gate in women’s clothes. It was arranged that a girl in a very bright red robe should be admitted to Yassu’s apartments during daylight so that the guards seeing a figure in this same robe leaving under cover of darkness would ask no questions. This part of the plans worked to perfection. At last the hole was completed, and after a final round of toasts Lidj Yassu was spirited away in the girl’s disguise to the outskirts of the town, where he mounted a horse which Ras Hailu had sent him and rode to a rendezvous where a chief named Gussessay was awaiting him. They were to gather what support they could and then to move to the westward to link up with the main body under Ras Hailu.

That their chance of success was quite good is undoubtedly true. Hailu’s plans have since been described as a wild folly, but in fact they were sound. The district in which Gussessay was waiting was by no means blindly loyal to Haile Selassie who had been attacked a good deal in secret by the priesthood for his fondness for foreigners and his innovations in the western style, also for his courageous attempts to suppress slavery.

Ras Hailu was justified in counting on this. So far he had planned shrewdly. But the fatal kink in Hailu’s character now proved his undoing. When it had been a matter of getting Lidj Yassu out of his prison he had been willing to spend money, but it had hurt. Now that his object was apparently effected his well-known meanness got the better of him. He had promised Gussessay a large sum of money to be paid as soon as Lidj Yassu joined him. But the money did not arrive. Instead there were excuses and more promises.

These seemed a bad omen to Gussessay. He was now far involved in treachery to Haile Selassie and it appeared that Ras Hailu, on whom so much depended, was not a man of his word. Furthermore Gussessay did not care much for the look of Lidj Yassu, who seemed a good-natured bounder rather than a determined rebel upon whose brow could be seen the aura of success.

Confinement and self-indulgence had developed Yassu’s tendency to corpulence. His demeanour was anything but warlike. Actually his subsequent wanderings showed that he was of tougher fibre than Gussessay realised. He had been a good athlete in his youth.

It is not difficult to reconstruct the first night of Yassu’s freedom. The cautious Gussessay (it is really extremely puzzling to know how to write his name in English) did some very quick thinking and came to the conclusion that he was backing the wrong horse.

Once decided as to this he acted swiftly. Still keeping up the appearance of great cordiality towards Yassu he sent a couple of picked men to carry the news of the revolt to Addis Ababa.

After the first day of feasting the capital was in joyous mood. There was no thought of possible treachery in Haile Selassie’s mind. Ras Hailu had not been invited to the ceremonies since he was in disgrace, but arrangements had been made to keep a watch on him, and apparently there was nothing to fear from that quarter. It was afterwards discovered that the Emperor’s spies had been deceived as to Ras Hailu’s intentions, thinking that the mustering of men was merely a gathering for local festivities and that when they realised that a movement of troops was in progress had attempted to send word only to find that it was too late. Ras Hailu’s men held the roads.

At that time, in fact, though no one in Addis Ababa suspected it, the capital, though not yet encircled, was completely cut off from news.

The runners dispatched by Gussessay were good servants. Partly on horseback, partly on foot, they pushed on to the Emperor’s city in a mad race against time. Already the drums were beating for revolt in the northern and eastern provinces and soon Ras Hailu’s cause would have gained dangerous momentum. But the runners got through with their news.

It is easy to imagine the consternation which these two breathless and ragged messengers caused when they gasped out their evil tidings to the Emperor and his assembled guests. For a moment there was almost a panic. Then the Empress took charge. This strong-willed and courageous woman had held apart from the celebrations and her mind was clear. She questioned the two messengers carefully, convinced herself of the truth of their news and immediately imparted the results of her questioning to her husband who soon had formed a plan. A message of re-assurance was issued to the assembled chieftains and the panic stayed. Meanwhile a picked body of men had been sent out to see if they could discover Ras Hailu’s guards on the roads east of Addis Ababa and capture them. This move was completely successful. On the next morning the expedition returned with several captives who when they saw that all was known soon made complete confession.

Armed now with full details of Ras Hailu’s plans Haile Selassie moved with decision. He was soon in touch with Gussessay who, acting on his instructions, continued to appear friendly to Lidj Yassu, while sending the Emperor news of the pretender’s whereabouts.

A party of trusted troops was sent to capture Lidj Yassu, but he scented danger and escaped into the forests. Ras Hailu, on the other hand, was taken by surprise and captured after comparatively little fighting. The rest of the revolt collapsed.

Once more Lidj Yassu was a fugitive. At last, desperate with fatigue, he sought sanctuary in a monastery. But he was told that the writ of excommunication issued nearly twenty years before still ran. He was a Moslem and had no right to claim the protection of the Church. The monks, however, did not denounce him, the abbot saying that he would not interfere in the quarrels of kings, so Yassu managed to double back on his tracks and reach Gussessay —of whose treachery he was unaware. From that moment his fate was sealed. His host placed him in a guarded hut and sent for the imperial forces. There was a brief struggle in which two or three men were killed, for Lidj Yassu still had a few faithful defenders. Then he was made prisoner once more.

The trial of Ras Hailu was a moving spectacle. The prisoner, an imposing figure in chains of gold, spoke defiantly of his wrongs. He was sentenced not to death but to life imprisonment and the confiscation of all his property. It is said that he was offered his liberty by the Emperor in exchange for the monies held on his behalf by banks in Europe. But he steadfastly refuses to part with his wealth, hoping always that his time will come.

Lidj Yassu was not punished for his part in the affair beyond being sent back to conditions of captivity similar to those to which he had previously been subjected. It is interesting to note, however, that recently when the Italians commenced to advance, one of the first orders that the Emperor issued was for the removal of Lidj Yassu to an inaccessible part of the country. Haile Selassie feared quite naturally that should Yassu fall into the hands of the Italians they might use him for the rallying point for a Moslem revolt.

Ras Hailu is now imprisoned on one of the islands in Lake Zouai. His confinement, at first rigorous, has lately been made easier, but it seems likely that he will end his days in prison, for he plotted the death of the Emperor from whom he had received much kindness, and mercy is not likely to be shown.

The news of Lidj Yassu’s death has now arrived in England accompanied by rumours of poison. The evidence is utterly vague, however, and there is no reason to suppose that this brilliant and likeable, but indolent and ill-starred prince met any but a natural end.

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July 14, 2021