Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie; drawing by David Levine

Originality is the quality of Ethiopia, originality in most of its profusion of meanings. To begin with, geography. Other countries have more or less evened up or worn down the irregularities of their physical creation, but the Abyssinian traveler, sloshing through mud, then stumbling down the impossible sides of a canyon into a quite different climate and up again over the sharpest rocks into a thorny desert, still has to cope with a landscape which bears the marks of being a first—and rather over-enthusiastic—try. There is, again, the originality of local Christianity, which Evelyn Waugh found all too close to the first catacomb experiments at a church of mystery, before his own church evolved something more Latin and public. There is the supposed originality of the race itself, as regards Africa, an anthropological fallacy which once inspired the struggling Negroes of America and the West Indies, and still inspires the sect in Jamaica which calls itself “the Rastafarians.”

In the debased sense of the word, the Ethiopians are original too: “the remedy for what Burton called ‘the lax moral habits’ of the Hararis was not to whip women for adultery but to force them to cover their slim legs and flanks with the tight-fitting velvet breeches which they still, most attractively, wear to this day. The Emir ordained that they be skin-tight so that they would be difficult to remove.” In short, the only originality the Ethiopians appear to lack is a sense of original sin.

Forgiveness, indeed, is an element which has always been present almost to embarrassment in Ethiopian politics. Mr. Mosley’s brilliant book brings this out very clearly. There is, for a start, a convention that the royal family is immune from execution. The succession struggles between rival candidates, although they may have killed a number of Ethiopian soldiers in the warring factions, never ended with the victor putting his brothers or rivals to death, as they did in similar succession contests in the Bantu conquest states to the south or even in medieval Europe. Instead, the defeated candidates lived on in captivity. In his own time, Haile Selassie was to suffer from this leniency when the deposed Emperor Lij Yasu escaped from prison and was set at the head of a rebellion. Yet the tradition of leniency endures. Mr. Mosley points out that only one leader of the 1960 coup d’état against the Emperor was executed, and the Italians, who introduced European practice in these matters by mass shootings of the small Ethiopian intelligentsia, are very well liked these days.

But Mr. Mosley, a British journalist who knows the country well and helped Orde Wingate to restore Haile Selassie to his throne when the British overthrew the Italians in East Africa, has no illusions about the generally harsh and cruel tenor of Ethiopian history, in which the practice of mercy could only flicker like an isolated candle. Slavery survived long after the colonial powers had replaced it by forced labor in central Africa; justice was done by appropriate mutilations or by turning the victim’s relations loose upon a culprit; valor in the constant feudal rebellions launched by the barons or “Rases” was measured by the human testicles collected by returning warriors. Banquets for perhaps eighteen thousand guests were given at Addis Ababa, at which the diners flung themselves upon raw meat still palpitating with recent life. Until Haile Selassie, the Emperors could not govern Ethiopia, only rule it, and that for short periods.

All the greater is the achievement of Haile Selassie. He has not yet fully modernized his country: that must wait for a successor. But he kept his empire tree of colonial domination through the perilous years of European imperialism until the last, irrelevant Italian conquest when expansionist energy was almost spent. And to an extent which will only be measured when he dies and the succession question presents itself, he has established the ascendancy of central government at Addis over the provincial Rases.

Haile Selassie—or Tafari Makonnen, as he was at first named—is far from the type of his predecessors. As a young man, this small, upright, frighteningly dignified person was mocked by courtiers for his abstemiousness and his reserve with the crowds of available concubines. But he held himself in check. Patience, delicate cunning at intrigue, a serenity which defeat, exile, and triumph have never affected: these remain his qualities. His failing, noticed both in the Italian war and the present period of change, is to appoint men who are owed rewards or tactically to be conciliated, rather than those with raw energy and talent. He came to the throne only gradually, in times of anarchy. The great Emperor Menelik, who had routed the Italians at Adowa in 1896, was paralyzed and senile by 1908, although he lived on until 1913, and had named as his successor the savage and syphilitic Lij Yasu. Tafari was already a clear rival, and while Lij Yasu brought the country to the edge of disintegration, he intrigued and waited his moment. In 1916 he got rid of Lij Yasu, and became Heir to the Throne under the Empress Zauditu, rising to the rank of Negus (king) in 1928 and finally being crowned as Emperor in 1930.


Throughout his life and reign, Haile Selassie managed to avoid most of the entanglements of the European powers. The intrigues against Lij Yasu fell in the period of the First World War. Germans, British, French, Italians, and Turks all competed for influence, and the Entente considered a take-over, but Tafari, though desperate for weapons to use against the tyrant, rejected a British offer of arms in return for the expulsion of the German and Turkish legations if he won.

One of the most admirable things about Mr. Mosley is his objectivity about the British attitude to Ethiopia. He recounts the story of the British attempt in 1924 to partition Ethiopia into zones of influence with Mussolini, which was defeated by a well-composed letter of Haile Selassie’s to the League of Nations. Then came the episode of the Italian conquest; the British government and the League let Ethopia down and shirked the imposing of sanctions on Italy. At the Foreign Office, Vansittart ignored British obligations and refused to supply Haile Selassie with arms until, against a huge modern army and an airforce using gas, the Ethiopians collapsed and the Emperor left his country for exile in the nation which, more than any save Fascist Italy, had brought his defeat.

The breezy beastliness of a certain kind of British colonial civil servant—nobody who has not met it or lived in that happily almost extinct milieu can conceive how horrible it was. Leonard Mosley knows all about it, and knows how, through its integral racialism and taste for regimes of order, that attitude could evince even in the Second World War a temperate sympathy for Fascism. In Bath, in the early years of the war, Haile Selassie nearly died of cold and depression, while his protectors watched with interest the decline of an odd little man with some pretty mad ideas about himself. But the worst was to come, in the shape of leading members of the Sudan civil service. When his friends and allies managed to get Haile Selassie flown out to the Sudan in 1940, intending to put him at the head of the Ethiopian guerrillas resisting the Italians, a traditionally British conflict took place between the “chaps on the spot” and one of those groups of eccentric, romantic, reckless Englishmen who have come to the aid of small nations in trouble since the wandering “Phileleutheroi” of the nineteenth century. The volunteers who proposed to help the Ethiopians restore Haile Selassie to his throne were “a heterogeneous band of scholars, writers, adventurers, white hunters, scamps and drunks,” led by the unforgettable Orde Wingate, bearded, dishevelled, given to standing about naked and scrubbing his body with a toothbrush.

Their enemies, who thought of Haile Selassie as an irregular sort of native who might “bring the Italians down on us,” received a tongue-lashing which is a delight to read, and which Leonard Mosley must have delighted to write. For the truth is that they were not only absurd but dangerous. When Wingate had restored the Emperor to Addis Ababa and gone off to be killed in Burma, it was they and their kind who nearly dashed the cup from Ethiopia’s lips. There were important schemes to dismantle Ethiopia, always a pest to the orderly administration of the Sudan, by setting up a Galla state and ceding a fat slice to Kenya colony. South African troops quartered in Addis kicked the “Kaffirs” off the pavement, and there seems to have been something approaching a plot to establish a British viceroy over Ethiopia and to prolong the anomalous status of “occupied enemy territory” as long as possible. When Haile Selassie scotched these schemes by direct appeals to Eden and Churchill, the local British authorities nearly managed to destroy the economy. The 70,000 Italians, who now ran what modern services and institutions there were, found themselves rounded up for deportation, and urgent calls for finance were rejected. It is hardly surprising that, in spite of the Queen’s recent visit, British influence in Ethiopia has never been restored.

Ethiopia today is a highly respectable state. She houses the U. N. Commission for Africa, and the Organization of African Unity, trains South African guerrillas, and contributes to U. N. forces when required. Internal affairs and the matter of democracy are, as Mr. Mosley points out, less satisfactory.

In spite of the 1955 Constitution, the Emperor retains the prerogatives of an absolute monarch, dangerously balanced between disgruntled reactionaries and disappointed young progressives. For all of his 18 million subjects, there are fifty-four hospitals (only one is free), and 280,000 school places. The agrarian and social systems remain intact: the roads are still few.


Mr. Mosley’s biography, a thoroughly researched and most lively study of a statesman as astute as De Gaulle and a good deal more patient, ends on the thought that Haile Selassie, having achieved so much, can now only rule by playing off liberal and die-hard factions against each other. Did Ethiopia, a land where there is still 90 per cent illiteracy, really profit from its long struggle to avoid colonial status? A discussion of that difficult point would have rounded off Leonard Mosley’s book well. That, and a map.

This Issue

May 20, 1965