The Lion of Judah

Haile Selassie: The Conquering Lion

by Leonard Mosley
Prentice Hall, 288 pp., $6.95

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…

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