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Ethiopia's "Fighting Emperor" Haile Selassie
by Blaine Taylor

Photo: Emperor Haile Selassie, Negus of Ethiopia and Lion of Judah. (LC.)


Called the Black Napoleon, Ethiopia’s “fighting Emperor” Haile Selassie I was beaten by Fascist Italy, went into exile, returned triumphant, and ended his reign deposed by a Red revolution

Born Ras/Duke Tafari on July 23, 1892, the Emperor of Ethiopia (known as Abyssinia to his enemies, the Italians), was crowned from his Shoan ruling dynastic house as Haile Selassie/Power of the Trinity I on Apr. 3, 1930. He had many impressive titles: King of Kings, Negus Negusti, Janhoy, and Conquering Lion of Judah. The last derived from his belonging to the Jewish House of David, via the Biblical King Solomon of ancient Judea and his own land’s Queen of Sheba, whose seat of power was in Axum, Ethiopia’s holy city.

Like Adolf Hitler, he was rumored to employ doubles to escape assassination, and like his great foe---Italian Fascist Party Duce/Leader Benito Mussolini, he was a short man with a large head on a small body. All three men were convinced autocrats by nature.

When he ascended to the throne at his capital of Addis Ababa/New Flower, he found an Old Testament land that was at least four centuries behind that of the West in all respects. There had been but a lone automobile---His Majesty’s---when the country’s sole road was built in 1907. His dynasty was 1,500 years old, but his rival rebellious fellow Rases---all older than he---saw him merely as a “first among equals” in a sort of loose federation, much as did the ruling princes of the former German Empire in relation to their Kaiser/emperor. The 1889 Imperial Constitution was modeled on that of Japan.

Officially, the State religion was Christianity and the language was his own Amharic, but it was an Old Testament, Judaic state derived from Canaan, and the multicultural land also contained within its always undefined frontiers Muslim Arabs and rival---often hostile—red-cloaked, black Galla tribesmen---who sided with the Italians during the two Ethiopian Wars of 1935-41. There were, too, roving shifta bande with yellow flags created by the Italians to wreak more havoc everywhere. Ethiopians were secretive, reserved, and cautious, and so was their ruler.

Geographically, there were rugged mountains in the north and desert wastes in the south, connected by a high plateau in the middle. Oddly, Ethiopia in 1935 was very much like 18th Century Japan, emotionally isolated, but still surrounded by the rival s of Great Britain, Republican France, and---lastly---Savoyard Liberal Italy, the last of the Great Powers to enter the imperial game of conquest in Black Africa.

Despite being a dictator who surrounded himself with pet lions---again, ala Mussolini---Selassie saw himself as a Peter the Great-like Imperial reformer. His predecessors had introduced both telegraphy and vaccination, and he followed suit with a new land-owning class and a foreign-educated civil service to better rule the backward realm. Overall, however, slavery was rampant, and it took his Italian conquerors to finally eradicate it in 1936---just as Mussolini had promised. His barefoot army and elite Imperial Guard both were trained by Swiss and Swedish military experts, and he also created the new Oletta Cadet School to officer it. His main political advisors were an American finacier and a British journalist, and he established the country’s first weekly papers.

Still, the new capital lacked sewers, a proper water supply, electricity, and decent hotels. A country that had a population the size of Canada’s also had 90% of it diseased at any one time. Indeed, six of his own children predeceased him.

The Duce had been 13 years old and Ras Tafari but four in 1896 when the regular Italian Army had suffered a humiliating defeat at Adowa in a one-day, pitched battle that destroyed a trio of columns for the worst debacle of a white force by a black one in all colonial martial history. This cast a pall over Mussolini’s own trio of marshals---Emilio De Bono, Rudolfo Graziani, and Pietro Badoglio four decades later when all employed the very same tactics as before.

The son of Ras Makonen---a provincial governor---Tafari succeeded to the throne because the pro-German Emperor Joshua was removed in an internal coup in 1916, and then replaced with an Allied-leaning Empress who took the young man as her Crown Prince. When he defeated and killed Her Majesty’s husband Prince Gugsa of Gondar at the Battle of Aulein, Tafari became known as the Black Napoleon. The Empress Judith died mysteriously of poison, clearing the way for his ascension the next day. The Hohenzollern dynasty horse-drawn carriage he rode in at his coronation allegedly “put Ethiopia on the map.”

Like Mussolini, he spoke French, and the two men actually met in Rome once when the then- Regent in 1924 visited the relatively new Italian Premier who was embroiled in the Matteotti murder scandal that almost overthrew him. Fascist Italy had even supported Ethiopia’s bid in 1923 to join the League of Nations at Geneva, where on June 30, 1936 as Emperor, Haile Selassie made the most famous speech of his long career. A further irony was that the two countries had signed a Treaty of Amity on Aug. 2, 1928 that seemed to eliminate any future hostilities. What changed?

First, Italy’s agreement to the 1922 Washington Naval Accord expired after a decade in 1932. Mussolini now wanted to build a world-class navy that would dominate the Mediterranean and sweep eastward to the Red Sea as well. Second, domestically, the bombastic Duce’s regime was at a dead-end in terms of the disastrously poor state of the Italian economy and unemployment at an all-time high. After a decade of Fascism, Mussolini needed a foreign diversion that would also impress the rising German menace in Europe. Thus, he and Colonial Minister De Bono began discussing plans in 1932 to “avenge” Adowa by a new colonizing and “civilizing” invasion that would complete Italy’s East African empire. A border dispute at the Wal Wal wells inside Ethiopia in December 1934 provided the cause for the undeclared war that had already been decided upon.

The annual rainy season determined that the coming invasion campaign wouldn’t begin until the beginning of October 1935 at the earliest, however, so both sides had 10 months to prepare.

On July 18, 1935, Haile Selassie reviewed a gala parade at Addis Ababa of his 4,000-man Imperial Guard in their khaki uniforms and lion hair caps. The emperor proclaimed, “Soldiers! Better to die free than to live as slaves. Be cunning. Be savage! Fight the nomad war---snipe and kill singly. Your emperor will be in your midst!” His warriors responded with their traditional war cry, “Li-li, li-li!” dancing about and boasting how they would “Drown the baby killers in their own blood!” The war drum in the courtyard of the Imperial Little Ghebbi/Prince’s Pleasure palace sounded the tocsin of coming battles.

Ironically, soldier Haile Selassie had the right strategy to defeat the Italians by drawing them into the interior of his rugged land and then beat them with small unit actions in an on-going guerrilla war, thus making of it Mussolini’s Vietnam. In Rome, that was exactly the strategy that the Duce’s own generals feared the most, and Badoglio---who opposed all of Fascist Italy’s wars---told Mussolini frankly that it would take seven years to subdue the Ethiopians, not just conquer Ethiopia, and, in fact, the wars only ended in 1941. What defeated the Emperor, however was at least in part his own generals---the Rases ---who insisted on fighting a series of daylight, one-day battles of suicidal mass charges that they always lost to the better-equipped, armed, trained, and motorized Italians. The latter also had a tremendous aerial advantage of 400 modern planes to Ethiopia’s 11, and used gases abundantly and criminally---both mustard and poison---for the first and last time since the end of the Great War.

Internal problems plagued Haile Selassie throughout his long reign of 45 years: attempted coups in 1928 and 1960, and the successful one of 1974 that ended both his rule and that of his dynastic line for good. Indeed, in 1934 one of his generals told him to his face, “I was fighting Italians before you were born,” and all his generals disobeyed Imperial orders at one time or other. He understood them well, however: “Most of my chiefs take money from the Italians, “ he asserted. “They pocket the Italian money, but they remain steadfast to Ethiopia.” Only one major Ras deserted to the Fascists in 1935.

Haile Selassie always had the Imperial rifle-bearer at his side. He knew right from the outset that he couldn’t defeat the Italians in the field---his warriors’ spears and swords were little real use versus Mussolini’s tanks and endless columns of trucks over the genius of Italian Army road building. Although their war was one of cultural clashes and Biblical warfare against that of a modern, industrialized state, both were Christian lands. The Catholic Pope blessed the men and their vehicles that sailed through the Suez Canal unimpeded to attack their Coptic religious cousins.

Sensing that he could only win with outside help, Haile Selassie hoped for British intervention via their own East African colonies on his other frontiers, and also cabled Franklin Roosevelt thus: “Tell him that the fate of my country may serve as a warning; that words are of no avail against a determined aggressor.”

At both the capital---and also from his advanced field headquarters at Dessie---the feisty “little man” personally manned an Oerlikon anti-aircraft machine gun and fired back at 18 Caproni bombers that were dropping high explosive bombs, roaring out at his aides, “Haven’t I told you not to crowd together? Do you want to make me a target? Take cover---let me fire!”

He also at last gave in to his Chinese-like warlords and agreed to lead the fight in person against Marshal Badoglio at the climactic Battle of Mai Ceu (pronounced My Chew) on St. George’s Day, March 31, 1936. The comparative losses were 68 Italian officers and 332 enlisted men plus 873 black native Askaris versus 8,000 Ethiopian casualties. His defeat there led to the rout of the last remaining large Ethiopian fighting force. Its retreat was harassed not only by the Italian Regia Aeronautica/Royal Air Force, but also by 3,000 Galla horsemen, who watched the battle unfold until it was apparent which side was going to win---and then attacked the Emperor’s rear-guard.

When his Oletta Black Lion youthful cadets failed to delay the Italian advance on the capital, His Majesty briefly considered setting up his beloved guerilla war from Gore in the far interior, but the Rases persuaded him instead to flee by rail---ala Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918---to Djibuti in French Somaliland. There he and a large entourage boarded a Royal Navy cruiser to go into a four-year-long exile in England, where he was a political embarrassment to his hosts. Indeed, the English toyed with two diametrically opposed ideas: to either recognize the Italian conquest, or to invade and annex Ethiopia themselves, as they done in Arabia after World War I.

The Emperor issued a final press bulletin: “Ethiopia is not defeated. It will carry on its fight to the last man.” The land had been conquered, but not its people.

Before he left, Selassie also gave these orders concerning his own capital: “Sack this ill-fated city. Leave nothing for the Italians!” The resultant three days of unchecked rapine and looting by his remaining soldiers---and even the chief of police!---was used as propaganda by the Fascists to confirm their own civilized superiority. Badoglio entered the capital on May 5, 1936 on horseback as the new Caesar of the Fascist Augustan Age.

Seldom had a regime been as soundly thrashed as had that of Haile Selassie, and yet his appearance before the League a month later electrified the Free World with his fatefully true warning: “It is us today. It will be you tomorrow. Fifty-two nations were held in check by a single aggressor. They must one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia.” A week later, the League voted to suspend all economic sanctions against Italy, thus ignoring his pleas. Overnight, however, His Majesty’s political position as “a great man” and as a courageous fighter of freedom against Fascist tyranny was enshrined; he had reached the height of his symbolic achievement, never equaled again.

In England, His Majesty---short of funds because the deposits of the bank of Ethiopia in London were blocked by Neville Chamberlain’s conservative, pro-Italian government---was forced to sell his personal silverware in order to buy Fairfield house in cold, damp Bath. Writer Sylvia Pankhurst took up his case in the English newspapers, though, keeping his name alive for four long years of exile. He also was injured in a taxi accident and broke his collarbone.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill---ever the staunch monarchist, but also an early admirer of the Duce ---considered a British takeover of Ethiopia, just as the emperor feared, but within two weeks of the Italian declaration of war against Great Britain in June 1940, on the 28th, “the exile from Bath” was on his way back home via British Sudan. There, he set up a new headquarters at ancient Khartoum, and was reunited with his court from its own exile at Jerusalem. From Khartoum’s Pink Palace, the indigenous guerrilla war against bloody Fascist rule under bands of self-styled Patriots was supported by the British. The Emperor worked with crusty British Middle East commander Gen. Archibald Wavell, as well as with his subordinates, Brig. Gens. Ben A. Sandford and Frank Messervy. They crafted a many-faceted invasion of his homeland to defeat and eject the Italians, with units codenamed Meadow, Gazelle, and Frosty Forces, plus colorful Free French native North African Spahi cavalry.

The Italians occupied their combined East African holdings with an army of 250,000 men in 1940 under the command of Amedeo, the Duke of Aosta. The original November 1940 incursions were under Gen. William “Bill” Slim, with the more formal invasion beginning Jan. 20, 1941 by white British soldiers, and black Kenyans and Ethiopians with camel supply trains. Noted one writer, “A rumor of the arrival of Congolese soldiers with cannibalistic tendencies has struck fear into the hearts of Italian forces.” On his soil once more, His Majesty personally raised his own lion banner again, aided by a colorful personality like himself in many ways.

Haile Selassie meshed well with the man who would become his own Lawrence of Arabia, British Army Maj. Orde Wingate. The latter---a Biblical type of warrior akin to His Majesty---established Gideon Force to spearhead the British-led invasion of Ethiopia that began the campaign of January-June 1936 that ultimately defeated the Italian occupation armies and re-took Addis Ababa, which the emperor returned to five years to the day of Badoglio’s triumphal entry. It was a comeback to equal that of the Emperor Napoleon during the 100 Days of 1815, but lasted instead for 34 years.

On May 4, 1941, he issued a Golden Proclamation: “We shall take the enemy’s weapons and make him return by the way he came,” but invited the Italian civilians resident in-country to remain in peace; 14,000 did. The Duke of Aosta surrendered with his staff on May 19th, thus ending Fascist rule.

Noted one author, “He (the Emperor) was the most prominent and most admired of the exiled rulers, and he was the first to go back, the prototype for the sovereigns of The Netherlands, Norway, Greece, and even for Italy herself.” Stated another, “The Ethiopian War presaged the fall of all the European colonial empires. Ethiopia had been the last independent state of Africa to go down before the power of Europe. It was the first to recover its independence.”

Not only did His Majesty replace the colonizers by ejecting the former conquerors---unheard of anywhere else in black Africa---but he was even received in Rome officially in 1971 with full State honors, an apology, and financial reparations.

On Nov. 6, 2000, the Associated Press published an article datelined Addis Ababa that was headlined Ethiopians bury emperor 25 years after his death; questions still linger over how leader died: “Bells tolled and thousands of Ethiopians wailed and applauded…as Haile Selassie---their last emperor---was finally laid to rest 25 years after his mysterious death.

“As leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stood by---resplendent in colorful robes---elderly veterans of Ethiopia’s 1936-41 struggle against Italian occupation carried the coffin, draped in the nation’s red, green, and gold flag, up the steps of Trinity Cathedral. Family, friends, and associates embraced at their first public gathering since 1974, when the emperor was overthrown by (the Dergue Provisional Committee) Marxist military officers” (on Sept. 12th. The monarchy was formally abolished on March 21, 1975.)

“A crypt had been waiting at the cathedral since Haile Selassie’s remains were discovered under a concrete slab on the grounds of his former palace in 1992---17 years after he died under house arrest.

“Officially, his death at age 83 was due to complications from a prostrate condition. The Haile Selassie I Foundation, which had worked for eight years to give the emperor a suitable burial, claims he was assassinated….Two of the emperor’s personal servants testified that he was killed on a night they were ordered out of his room (on Aug. 27, 1975.)”

Thus ended the life and reign of “The Little Man” also known as the Black Napoleon.

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* Ethiopia's "Fighting Emperor" Haile Selassie


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