He was born on July 23, 1892, near Harer, Ethiopia. Haile Selassie, originally named Lij Tafari Makonnen, was an Ethiopian ruler descended from the Shewa dynasty. His childhood, marked by a noble lineage and meaningful names, saw him grow under the tutelage of French missionaries.
As a youth, Tafari showcased intellectual brilliance, catching the eye of Emperor Menilek II. Following Menilek II’s death, Tafari navigated through a series of political upheavals, eventually becoming the rallying force for Christian resistance. His steadfast leadership through times of change and his eventual ascension to Negusa Nagast, or “King of Kings”, marked the start of a transformative era for Ethiopia.
His name, Lij, is translated as “child” and indicates that a youth is of noble blood, while his given name, Tafari, means “one who is respected or feared”. Like several Ethiopians, his name “Tafari” is followed by his father Makonnen and his grandfather Woldemikael. At his infant baptism, his Ge’ez name, Haile Selassie, was given to him and later adopted again as part of his regnal name in 1930.
The Early Life of Haile Selassie
Tafari was a great-grandson of Sahle Selassie of Shewa (Shoa) and a son of Ras (Prince) Makonnen, a chief adviser to Emperor Menilek II. He was educated at home by French missionaries and recognised for his intellectual prowess at an early age by the emperor, who ensured he was given due promotion. After the death of Emperor Menilek II in 1913, his grandson Lij Yasu ascended the throne. Still, due to his unreliability and close association with Islam, he was unpopular with the majority Christian population of Ethiopia. Tafari became the rallying point of the Christian resistance and deposed Lij Yasu in 1916. Zauditu, Menilek II’s daughter, became empress in 1917, and Ras Tafari was named regent and heir apparent to the throne.
During this period, he was the Governor of Harar and became known as Ras Tafari Makonnen. His newly adopted name ‘Ras’ is translated as “head” and is a rank of nobility equivalent to Duke, and often rendered in translation as “prince”. Later in 1916, he was appointed to the position of Balemulu Silt’an Enderase (Regent Plenipotentiary) by Empress Zewditu I and in 1928, she granted him the throne of Shewa, thereby elevating his title to Negus or “King.”
After the death of Empress Zewditu on 2 November 1930, Tafari was crowned Negusa Nagast, which meant King of Kings, rendered in English as “Emperor”. Upon his ascension to the throne, he took as his regnal name Haile Selassie I. Haile means in Ge’ez “Power of” and Selassie means trinity—therefore, Haile Selassie roughly translates to “Power of the Trinity”. Haile Selassie’s full title in office was “By the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings of Ethiopia, Elect of God”, a title that deeply reflected Ethiopian dynastic traditions, which hold that all monarchs must trace their lineage to Menelik I, who was the offspring of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
Haile Selassie promulgated a new constitution, which strongly limited the powers of the Parliament in 1931. While in charge of the Ethiopian government, Haile Selassie established provincial schools, strengthened the police forces and progressively outlawed feudal taxation. He sought to help his people and increase the central government’s authority. In 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, Haile Selassie led the resistance and appealed for help from the League of Nations in a famous speech that he delivered in Geneva on June 30, 1936. He secured British assistance in forming an army of Ethiopian exiles in Sudan with the advent of World War II. However, by November, the invasion had slowed appreciably, and Haile Selassie’s northern armies could launch the “Christmas Offensive”. The Italians were forced back and put on the defensive during this charge. The First Battle of Tembien stopped the progress of the Ethiopian offensive, and the Italians were ready to continue their offensive in early 1936. After the defeat and destruction of the northern Ethiopian armies at the Battle of Amba Aradam, the Second Battle of Tembien and the Battle of Shire, Haile Selassie took the field with the last Ethiopian army on the northern front. On 31 March 1936, he launched a counterattack against the Italians at the Battle of Maychew in southern Tigray. His army was defeated and retreated in disarray. While Haile Selassie’s army withdrew, the Italians attacked from the air along with rebellious Raya and Azebo tribe members on the ground, who were armed and renumerated by the Italians.
Haile Selassie’s Journey to Exile
Haile Selassie decided to make a solitary pilgrimage to the churches at Lalibela, at considerable risk of capture, before a return to his capital. At an intense 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 interest of protecting the Imperial house, the emperor’s wife, Menen Asfaw and other members of the imperial family should immediately depart for French Somaliland, and from there continue to Jerusalem. There was further debate as to whether Haile Selassie should go to Gore or accompany his family into exile, and it was agreed that he should leave Ethiopia with his family and present the case of Ethiopia to the League of Nations at Geneva. This decision was not unanimous as several participants, including the nobleman Blatta Tekle Wolde Hawariat, sternly objected to an Ethiopian monarch running away from an invading force. After departing with his family for French Somaliland on 2 May 1936, Haile Selassie appointed his cousin, Ras Imru Haile Selassie, as Prince Regent in his absence.
Haile Selassie was in exile from 1936 – 1941 in Bath, England, in Fairfield House, which he bought. The emperor and Kassa Haile Darge took morning walks together behind the high walls of the 14-room Victorian house. Most of his serious hours were occupied with the 90,000-word story of his life that he was laboriously writing in Amharic whenever he was not reading his favourite book, “diplomatic history.”
Haile Selassie’s activity during this period was centred on foiling Italian propaganda about the state of Ethiopian resistance and the legality of the occupation. He spoke vehemently against the heresy of houses of worship and historical artefacts (including the theft of a 1,600-year-old imperial obelisk). Also, he condemned the atrocities suffered by the Ethiopian civilian population. He continually pleaded for League intervention and voiced his certainty that “God’s judgment will eventually visit the weak and the mighty alike”. However, his moves to gain support for the struggle against Italy were unsuccessful until June 1940, when Italy entered World War II on the German side.
Haile Selassie suffered several personal tragedies during this period. The Italians executed his sons-in-law, Ras Desta Damtew and Dejazmach Beyene Merid. His daughter, Princess Romanework, wife of Dejazmach Beyene Merid, was taken into captivity with her children, and she died in Italy in 1941. Tsehai, another daughter of the Emperor, died during childbirth shortly after the restoration in 1942.
Freedom for Ethiopia
Liberation for Ethiopia started when British forces consisting primarily of Ethiopian-backed African and South African colonial troops under the “Gideon Force” of Colonel Orde Wingate, coordinated the military effort to actualise this freedom. During the East African Campaign, Haile Selassie crossed the border between Sudan and Ethiopia near the village of Um Iddla on 18 January 1941. Two days later, he and a force of Ethiopian patriots joined Gideon Force in the fight for freedom. A point of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth of Nations, Free France, Free Belgium, and Ethiopian patriots later defeated Italy. Haile Selassie entered Addis Ababa and personally addressed the Ethiopian people, five years since his exile on 5 May 1941. On his return, he granted a new constitution giving him as much power as the previous one in 1955. However, overt opposition to his rule surfaced in December 1960, when a dissident wing of the army took control of Addis Ababa and was dislodged only after a sharp engagement with loyalist elements.
In his quest for the development of Africa, Haile Selassie played a vital role in establishing the Organization of African Unity in 1963. His rule in Ethiopia continued until 1974, when famine, worsening unemployment and the political stagnation of his government stirred up mutiny by segments of the army. Haile Selassie was deposed, and a provisional military government that espoused Marxist ideologies was created. He was kept under house arrest in his palace, where he spent the remainder of his life.
The Death of Haile Selassie
On 28 August 1975, it was reported by the state media that Selassie had died on 27 August due to “respiratory failure” following complications from a prostate examination followed up by a prostate operation. However, the prostate operation had occurred months before the state media claimed, and it was believed that Selassie had enjoyed robust health in his last days. An Ethiopian court, in 1994, later found several former military officers guilty of strangling the emperor in his bed in 1975. Three years after the military socialist Derg regime was overthrown, the court charged them with genocide and murder, claiming that it had obtained documents attesting to a high-level order from the military power to assassinate Selassie for leading a “feudal regime”. Copies were widely circulated online showing the Derg’s final assassination order bearing the military regime’s seal and signature. Multiple former members of the military Derg regime have supported the authenticity of these documents.
Haile Selassie was regarded as the messiah of the African race by the Rastafarian movement, and there is a statue of Ethiopia’s last emperor outside the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in recognition of his role in establishing the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU).