Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia

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His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I
Term of Office: April 2, 1930 - September 12, 1974
Predecessor: Zauditu
Successor: Amha Selassie I
Birth: July 23, 1892
Place of Birth: Ejersa Goro, Harar
Death: August 27, 1975
Spouse: Menen Asfaw
Children seven
Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox

His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I (Amharic, "Power of Trinity") (born Lij Tafari Makonnen, July 23, 1892August 27, 1975), styled HIM Haile Selassie I, was the Emperor (19301936; 19411974) of Ethiopia. He is the religious symbol for God incarnate among the Rastafari movement, although he was a devout Ethiopian Orthodox Christian his entire life.



Early life

Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnenin in the village of Ejersa Goro, in the Harar province of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), as Lij (literally "child", usually bestowed upon nobility) . His father was Ras (Duke) Makonnen Woldemikael Gudessa, the governor of Harar, and his mother was Woyzero (Lady) Yeshimebet Ali Abajifar. He inherited his imperial blood through his paternal grandmother, Princess Tenagnework Sahle Selassie, who was an aunt of Emperor Menelik II, and he claimed to be a direct descendant of Makeda, the queen of Sheba, and King Solomon of ancient Israel. Emperor Haile Selassie had an elder half-brother, Dejazmatch Yilma Makonnen, who preceeded him as governor of Harar, but died not long after taking office.

Tafari was made Dejazmatch (Count) at age thirteen. Shortly thereafter, his father Ras Makonnen died at Qulbi. Although it seems that his father had wanted him to inherit his position of governor of Harar, Emperor Menelik found it imprudent to appoint such a young boy to such an important position. Dejazmatch Tafari's older half-brother, Dejazmatch Yilma Makonnen was made governor of Harar instead. Tafari was at an early age a fixture at Menelik's Imperial Court, and was enrolled at the Menelik II School for Nobles (today the Menelik II High School).

Governor of Harar

Tafari was given the titular governorship of Sellale, although he did not administer the district directly. In 1907, he was appointed governor over part of the province of Sidamo. Following the death of his brother Dejazmatch Yilma, Harar was granted to Menelik's loyal general, Dejazmatch Balcha Saffo. However, the Dejazmatch's time in Harar was not successful, and so during the last illness of Menelik II, and the brief tenure in power of Empress Taitu Bitul, Tafari Makonnen was made governor of Harar, and entered the city 11 April 1911. On 3 August of that year, he married Menen Asfaw, the niece of the heir to the throne, Lij Iyasu.


Although Dejazmatch Tafari played only a minor role in the movement that deposed Lij Iyasu on 27 September 1916, he was its ultimate beneficiary. The primary powers behind the move were the conservatives led by Fitawrari Hapte Giorgis Dinagde, Menelik II's long time war minister. Dejazmatch Tafari was included in order to get the progressive elements of the nobility behind the movement, as Lij Iyasu was no longer regarded as the progressives' best hope for change. However, Iyasu's increasing flirtation with Islam, his disrespectful attitude to the nobles of his grandfather Menelik II, as well as his scandalous behavior in general, not only outraged the conservative power-brokers of the Empire, but alienated the progressive elements as well. This led to the deposition of Iyasu on grounds of conversion to Islam, and the proclamation of Menelik II's daughter (Iyasu's aunt) as Empress Zauditu. Dejazmatch Tafari Makonnen was elevated to the rank of Ras, and was made heir apparent. In the power arrangement that followed, Tafari accepted the role of Regent (Inderase), and became the de facto ruler of the Ethiopian Empire.

As Regent, the new Crown Prince developed the policy of careful modernisation initiated by Menelik II, securing Ethiopia's admission to the League of Nations in 1923, abolishing slavery in the empire in 1924. He engaged in a tour of Europe that same year, inspecting schools, hospitals, factories, and churches; this left such an impression on the future emperor that he devoted over forty pages of his Autobiography to the details of his European journey.

King and Emperor

Empress Zewditu crowned him as negus (king) in 1928, under pressure from the progressive party, following a failed attempt to remove him from power by the conservative elements. The crowning of Tafari Makonnen was very controversial, as he occupied the same immediate territory as the Empress, rather than going off to one of the regional areas traditionally known as Kingdoms within the Empire. Two monarchs, even with one being the vassal and the other the Emperor (in this case Empress), had never occupied the same location as their seat in Ethiopian history. Attempts to redress this "insult" to the dignity of the Empresses crown were attempted by conservatives including Dejazmatch Balcha and others. The rebellion of Ras Gugsa Wele, husband of the Empress, was also in this spirit. He marched from his governorate at Gondar towards Addis Ababa but was defeated and killed at the Battle of Anchiem on March 31, 1930. News of Ras Gugsa's defeat and death had hardly spread through Addis Ababa, when the Empress died suddenly on April 2, 1930. Although it was long rumored that the Empress was poisoned upon the defeat of her husband, or alternately, that she collapsed upon hearing of his death and died herself, it has since been documented that the Empress had succumbed to an intense flu-like fever and complications from diabetes.

Following the Empress Zewditu's sudden death on, Tafari Makonnen was proclaimed Emperor, and King of Kings of Ethiopia. He was crowned on November 2 as Emperor Haile Selassie I at Addis Ababa's Cathedral of St. George, in front of representatives from 12 countries. (Haile Selassie had been the baptismal name given to Tafari at his christening as an infant.) The representatives included Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (son of British King George V, and brother to Kings Edward VIII, and George VI), Marshal Franchet d'Esperey of France, and the Prince of Udine representing Italy. The Emperor took the full title His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God.

By Empress Menen, the Emperor had six children. They were, Princess Tenagnework, Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, Princess Tsehai, Princess Zenebework, Prince Makonnen and Prince Sahle Selassie.

Emperor Haile Selassie also had an elder daughter, H.I.H. Princess Romanework Haile Selassie, born from an earlier union to Woizero Altayech. Little is known about this first union other than that it occurred when the Emperor was in his late teens. The marriage was not recognised by the church, but the Emperor's daughter was considered legitimized, and therefore received the title of Princess with the dignity of "Her Imperial Highness" with the rest of the Emperor's children in 1930. Princess Romanework was married to Dejazmatch Beyene Merid, and was the mother to four sons, two of whom survived to adulthood. Following the death of her husband in battle against the Italians, Princess Romanework was captured by the Fascists during the Ethio-Italian War, and taken in captivity to Asinara Island off the coast of Italy, where she died in 1941. Her body was returned to Ethiopia and buried at Holy Trinity Cathedral. Her two surviving sons, Dejazmatches Samson and Merid Beyene were raised by the Emperor and Empress.

His Majesty introduced Ethiopia's first written constitution on July 16, 1931, providing for an appointed bicameral legislature. It was the first time that non-noble subjects had any role in official government policy. However, the League's failure to stop Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led him to five years in exile. The constitution also limited the succession to the throne to the descendants of Emperor Haile Selassie -- a detail that caused considerable unhappiness with other dynastic princes, such as the princes of Tigrai, and even his loyal cousin Ras Kassa Hailu.


Following the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy from its colonies in Eritrea and Somalia, Emperor Haile Selassie made an attempt at fighting back the invaders personally. He joined the northern front by setting up headquarters at Desse in Wollo province. The Italians had the advantage of much better and a larger number of modern weapons, including a large airforce. The Italians also extensively used chemical warfare and bombed Red Cross tent hospitals, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Following the defeat of the northern armies of Ras Seyoum Mengesha and Ras Imru Haile Selassie in Tigrai, the Emperor made a stand against them himself at Maychew in southern Tigrai. Although giving Italian pilots quite a scare, his army was defeated and retreated in disarray, and he found himself being attacked by rebellious Raya and Azebu tribesmen as well.

The Emperor made a solitary pilgrimage to the churches at Lalibela, at considerable risk of capture, before returning to his capital. After a stormy session of the council of state, it was agreed that because Addis Ababa could not be defended, the government would relocate to the southern town of Gore, and that in the interests of preserving the Imperial house, the Empress and the Imperial family should leave immediately by train for Djibouti and from there to Jerusalem. After further debate over whether the Emperor would also go to Gore or he should take his family into exile, it was agreed that the Emperor should leave Ethiopia with his family, and present the case of Ethiopia to the League of Nations at Geneva. The Emperor appointed his cousin Ras Imru Haile Selassie as Prince Regent in his absence, departing with his family for Djibouti on May 2, 1936.

Marshal Pietro Badoglio led the Italian troops into Addis Ababa on May 5, and Mussolini declared King Victor Emanuel III Emperor of Ethiopia and Ethiopia an Italian province. At Djibouti the Emperor boarded a British ship bound for Palestine. The Imperial family disembarked at Haifa, and then went on to Jerusalem where the Emperor and his officials prepared their presentation at Geneva.

Emperor Haile Selassie was the only head of state to address the General Assembly of the League of Nations. When he entered the hall, and the President of the Assembly announced "Sa Majesté Imperiale, l'Empereur d'Ethiopie," the large number of Italian journalists in the galleries erupted in loud shouts, whistles and catcalls, stamping their feet and clapping their hands. As it turned out, they had earlier been issued whistles by the Italian foreign minister (and Mussolini's son-in-law) Count Galeazzo Ciano. The Emperor asked the General Secretary if he would not "silence these beasts for the sake of civilisation", and waited quietly for security to clear them out of the gallery, before commencing his speech. Although fluent in French, the working language of the League, the Emperor chose to deliver his historic speech in his native Amharic. The Emperor asked the League to live up to its promise of collective security. He spoke eloquently of the need to protect weak nations against the strong. He detailed the death and destruction rained down upon his people by the use of chemical agents. He reminded the League that "God and History would remember (their) judgement." He pleaded for help and asked "What answer am I to take back to my people?" [1]. His eloquent address moved all who heard it, and turned him into an instant world celebrity. He became Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" and an icon for anti-Fascists around the world. He failed, however, in getting what he needed to help his people fight the invasion: the League agreed to only partial and ineffective sanctions on Italy, and several members recognized the Italian conquest.

See also: Second Italo-Abyssinian War


Emperor Haile Selassie spent his five years of exile (1936 - 1941) mainly in Bath, England in a dwelling he had purchased, "Fairfield House". Following his return to Ethiopia, he donated it to the town of Bath as a residence for the aged, and it remains so to this day. There are numerous accounts of 'Haile Selassie was my next door neighbour' amongst people who were children in the Bath area during his residence. The Emperor also spent extended periods in Jerusalem.

During this period, Emperor Haile Selassie suffered several tragedies. His two sons-in-law, Ras Desta Damtew and Dejazmatch Beyene Merid, were both executed by the Italians. His daughter Princess Romanework with her children were taken in captivity to Italy, where she died in 1941. His grandson Lij Amha Desta died in Britain just before the restoration, and his daughter Princess Tsehai died shortly after.

1940s and 1950s

Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia in 1941, after Italy's defeat in Ethiopia by United Kingdom and Ethiopian patriot forces. After the war, Ethiopia became a charter member of the United Nations (UN). In 1951, after a lengthy fact-finding inquiry by the allied powers and then the UN, the former Italian colony of Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia as a compromise between the sizable factions that wanted complete Union with the Empire, and those who wanted complete independence from it.

During the celebrations of his Silver Jubilee in November 1955, His Majesty introduced a revised constitution, [2] whereby he retained effective power, while extending political participation to the people by allowing the lower house of parliament to become an elected body. Party politics were not provided for. Modern educational methods were more widely spread throughout the Empire, and the country embarked on a development scheme and plans for modernization, tempered by Ethiopian traditions, and within the framework of the ancient monarchical structure of the state.

Later years

Following an abortive coup attempt on December 13, 1960 by his Imperial Guard forces - who briefly proclaimed Haile Selassie's eldest son Asfa Wossen as the new Emperor - Haile Selassie pursued more conservative policies, aligning Ethiopia with the West and distancing himself from the more common radical leftist African governments. The coup attempt, although lacking wide popular support, denounced by the Orthodox Church, and crushed by the Army, Air and Police forces, had gained considerable support among the students of the University and elements of the young educated technocrats in the country. It marked the beginning of an increased radicalization of Ethiopia's student population.

In 1963 the Emperor presided over the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity with the new organisation setting up its headquarters in Addis Ababa.

The increasingly radical student movement took hold in Addis Ababa University and high school campuses, and student unrest became a regular feature of Ethiopian life. Marxism took root in large segments of the Ethiopian intelligentsia. Resistance by conservative elements at the Imperial Court and Parliament, in addition to within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made proposals of widespread land reform policies impossible to implement, and also damaged the standing of the government.

Outside of Ethiopia, however, the Emperor continued to enjoy enormous prestige and respect. As the longest serving Head of State then in power, the Emperor was usually given precedence over all other leaders at most international state events, such as the celebration of the 2500 years of the Persian Empire, the summits of the Non-aligned movement, and the state funerals of John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle. His frequent travels around the world raised Ethiopia's international image.

A devastating drought in the Province of Wollo in 1972-73 caused a large famine which was covered up by the Imperial government and kept from Haile Selassie, who was celebrating his 80th birthday amidst much pomp and ceremony. When a BBC documentary exposed the existence and scope of the famine, the government was seriously undermined, and the Emperor's once unassailable personal popularity fell. Simultaneously, economic hardship caused by high oil prices and widespread military mutinies in the country further weakened him. The Derg, set up to investigate the military's demands, took advantage of the government's disarray to depose Emperor Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974. The Emperor was placed under house arrest briefly at the 4th Army Division in Addis Ababa, while most of his family were detained at the late Duke of Harrar's residence in the north of the capital. The Emperor was then moved to a house on the grounds of the old Imperial Palace where the new government set up its headquarters.

On August 28, 1975, the state media reported that the "ex-monarch" Haile Selassie had died on August 27, following complications from a prostate operation. His doctor denied that complications had occurred and rejected the government version of his death. Some believe that he was suffocated in his sleep. Witnesses came forward after the fall of the Marxist government in 1991, to reveal that the Emperor's remains had been buried beneath the president's personal office. On November 5, 2000 Emperor Haile Selassie was given an Imperial funeral by the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The current post-communist government refused to give it the status of a state funeral.

The Rastafari

Among many followers of the Rastafari movement, which developed in the 1930s in Jamaica under the influence of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement, Haile Selassie is seen as God incarnate, the Black Messiah who will lead the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora to freedom. His official titles, King of kings, Lord of lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Root of David, are believed to be the titles of the returned Messiah in the New Testament Book of Revelation. Their belief in the incarnate divinity of Emperor Haile Selassie began very shortly after his crowning.

When Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, somewhere between one and two hundred thousand Rastafarians from all over Jamaica descended on Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, having heard that the man whom they considered to be God was coming to visit them. When Haile Selassie arrived at the airport, he refused to get off the aeroplane for an hour until Mortimer Planner, a well known Rasta, persuaded him that it was safe to do so. From then on the visit was a success. Rita Marley, Bob Marley's wife, converted to the Rastafarian faith after seeing Haile Selassie, and her fervour was what drew Bob Marley into the faith himself.

Haile Selassie's attitude to the Rastafarians

Haile Selassie was never a member of the Rastafarian faith, nor did he have any role in organizing or promoting the religion. During his lifetime, the Emperor was a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. His views towards the Rastafarians varied from polite interest to unsettled concern. The Emperor did not personally believe the divine claims made of him by the Rastafarians. When interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Bill McNeil in 1967, Haile Selassie denied that a man could be an emanation from God.

The Rastas were never worried by Haile Selassie never claiming to be God, saying that the real God would never claim to be so just to get worldly acclaim and power. During the Emperor's visit to Jamaica, he told the Rastafarian community leaders that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica. After the visit, the Emperor is said to have told Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop Yeshaq: "There is a problem in Jamaica… Please, help these people. They are misunderstanding, they do not understand our culture… They need a church to be established and you are chosen to go."

As a gesture of kindness to the Rastafarians and their aspirations of returning to Africa, the Emperor donated a piece of land at Shashamane, 250 km south of Addis Ababa for the use of Jamaican Rastafarians. There is a community there to this day.

The Rastafarians' attitude towards Haile Selassie

Many Rastafarians say that they know Haile Selassie is God, and therefore do not need to believe it. Belief to them implies doubt, and they claim to have no doubts about his divinity. In the early days of the movement, he was seen as a symbol of black pride, and as a king for African people. The first Rastafarian to appear in front of a court was Leonard Howell, who was charged with sedition against the state of Jamaica, and its King George V. Howell declared himself a loyal subject, not of the king of England, but of Haile Selassie I. Emperor Haile Selassie going to plead in front of the League of Nations, and then being rejected by them, confirmed their belief in his greatness. For them, the nations of Babylon, in reference to the ancient biblical place, turned their back on the returned messiah. Many equated the Italo-Ethiopian war with the fight in the Book of Revelation between the returned messiah and the antichrist. The Emperor's restoration to power in 1941 strengthened the Rastafarian faith that he was Almighty God.

They also call him "Jah Rastafari Selassie," and affectionately Jah Jah. They are very proud of knowing and declaring that he is their God. They believe that marijuana brings them closer to God, and will always bless the pipes they communally smoke in the name of "Selassie I". Roots reggae is full of thanks and praises towards "Selassie". He is referred to as Haile Selassie I (pronouncing the Roman numeral that indicates "the first" as the word "I", that being the first person pronoun), thus emphasising the personal relationship they have with the Emperor Haile Selassie. They believe Haile Selassie will one day call the day of judgement, calling the righteous and the faithful to live with him for ever in Holy Mount Zion, said to be a place in Africa.

Some Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie is still alive, and that his purported death was part of a conspiracy to discredit their religion. In addition to being a political and historical figure, Haile Selassie has become a popular culture symbol through the Rastafarian movement. Many Rastas are concerned that the world does not see Haile Selassie in a positive light.


  • "That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned: That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man's skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained." – Haile Selassie, United Nations, and popularised in a song called War by Bob Marley..

External links


  • Haile Selassie I. My Life and Ethiopia's Progress: The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I. New York: Frontline Books, 1999. ISBN 0948390409
  • Paul B. Henze. "The Rise of Haile Selassie: Time of Troubles, Regent, Emperor, Exile" and "Ethiopia in the Modern World: Haile Selassie from Triumph to Tragedy" in Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000. ISBN 0312227191
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat. 1978. ISBN 0679722033

Preceded by:
Emperor of Ethiopia
Succeeded by:
Amha Selassie
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