Haile Selassie – Biography, Family Tree, Rastafarian Religion, & Famous Quotes
Worldhistoryedu.com digs deep into the major events and crucial facts about the life, reign and colorful legacy of Haile Selassie I – one of Ethiopia’s most famous and respected rulers of the modern era.
Haile Selassie I: Major Facts
Born: Lij Tafari Makonnen
Date of Birth: July 23, 1892
Place of Birth: close to Harer, Ethiopia
Date of Death: August 27, 1975
Place of Death: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Burial place: Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Parents: Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael and Yeshimebet Ali
Spouse: Menen Asfaw (married in 1911)
Children: 7, including Princess Romanework, Princess Tenagnework , Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, Prince Makonnen
Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox
Positions held prior to his reign: Regent Plenipotentiary (1916-1928)
Coronation: November 2, 1930
Title: His Imperial Majesty the King of Kings of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God.
House: Sahle Selassie (Solomonic dynasty, Amhara Branch)
Successor: Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen
Predecessor: Empress Zewditu
Most known for: Modernization of Ethiopia; pan-Africanist views; co-founding of the Organization of African Unity (currently African Union)
Epithets: Might of the Trinity; King of Kings (Negusa Nagast), Jah Jah Jah (by the Rastafari movement)
Other title: “His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Ethiopia” (Sa Majesté Imperiale, l’Empereur d’Ethiopie).
Birth and Early life
Haile Selassie’s was born* in Ejersa Goro – a village located in the province of Harar, Ethiopia. His parents were Woizero Yeshimebet Ali Abba Jifar and Ras Makonnen Wolde Mikael. His mother, who hailed from the Amhara tribe, was the daughter of Dejazmach Ali Abba Jifar, a prominent chief from Wollo province. His father, a prominent member of the Oromo tribe, was the grandson of King Sahle Selassie.
His claim to the throne came from the fact that his paternal grandmother – Woizero Tenagnework Sahle Selassie – was the aunt of Emperor Menelik II.
He spent most of his childhood education home schooled by Abba Samuel Wolde Kahin and Dr. Vitalien. Upon reaching the age of 13, he was bestowed upon the title of count – Dejazmach (“commander of the gate”).
After the death of his father in 1906, he became the governor of Selale. A year later, he became the governor of some areas in Sidamo.
**He was born Ras Tafari Makonnen. The word Ras means “head” or “prince” in Amharic. He was also sometimes known as Lij Tafari Makonnen. In Amharic, Lij means “child” or “little one”. The meaning of Tafari is “one who is cherished or feared”.
Marriage and children
At the age of 19, he married Menen Asfaw – an Ambassel princess and the daughter Jantirar of Ambassel and Woizero Sehin Michael. Menen was also the niece of Emperor Iyasu V (Lij Iyasu) who was the grandson of Emperor Menilek II.
By Menen Asfaw, Tafari Makonnen had six children: Princess Tenagnework, Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, Princess Zenebework, Princess Tsehai, Prince Makonnen, and Prince Sahle Selassie.
By his first wife, Woizero Altayech, he had a daughter called Princess Romanework Haile Selassie who died in captivity in Turin, Italy during World War II.
Haile Selassie: Regency and Early Reforms
Following the death of Menilek II in 1913, his grandson Lij Yasu was crowned emperor (Emperor Iyasu V). Prior to that Tafari Makonnen had served the deceased emperor in several capacities.
Lij Iyasu’s reign (from 1913 to 1916) was rife with scandals upon scandals. He was also accused of mistreating the counts and Dukes in his court. His conversion to the Islam faith was seen by powerful courtiers and princes as a threat to the Ethiopian Orthodox C0hurch and the country in general. These were some of the reasons why Emperor Iyasu was forced to step down in September 1916, paving the way for his aunt Empress Zewditu to ascend to the throne.
Owing to Tafari’s very progressive reforms as governor, many nobles in the royal court, including Habte Giyorgis (the Minister of War), preferred the crown to be close to Tafari. He was given the title of Ras (prince). Tafari was also elevated to heir apparent and Crown Prince.
During Empress Zewditu’s reign, he was effectively the de factor ruler as he served as Regent Plenipotentiary. In that role, he proceeded to roll out several administrative reforms. In the coming years, he set about to modernize his somewhat backward country by moving very fast with a host of social, educational and economic reforms. He also took the bold step to gradually bring an end to the practice of slavery in the empire.
In a bid to end economic imperialism, he enforced a rule in the country were every foreign-owned enterprise was required to have partial local ownership or content.
On the international front, he worked very hard to secure Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations in 1923. A year later, he visited several European and Middle Eastern countries, including France, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Alexandria and Jerusalem.
Rise to the throne
As crown prince, he consistently tried to consolidate his power in order to usurp that of his aunt, the Empress Zewditu. This was evident when he recalled Dejazmach Balcha Safo – the governor of Sidamo Province – to Addis Ababa. In the ensuing tension, Tafari removed Balcha from his post. Subsequently, there was an attempt by some courtiers loyal to the empress and Balcha that sought to overthrow Tafari. Owing to the support he received from the country’s military and police, Tafari was able to smash the opposition elements in the royal house.
On October 7, 1928, the empress bestowed upon him the title of Negus (king). Tafari’s elevation to co-monarch angered a number of conservative elements and Menilik’s appointees. This led to the Empress Zewditu’s husband – Ras Gugsa Welle – rebelling and marching a large army against Tafari in the Battle of Anchem. Gugsa Welle’s defeat and death in the battle further helped Tafari to consolidate his grip on the empire. The empress, shocked from the passing of her husband, passed away in Addis Ababa.
On November 2, 1930, Tafari was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia (Neguse Negest ze-‘Ityopp’ya) at the Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa. Tafari’s coronation ceremony, which cost the royal house about $3 million, was graced by officials and monarchs from around the world. At the ceremony, he was given the title “King of Kings of Ethiopia”. In an extremely lavish affair, the new emperor showered expensive gifts on the guests that attended the ceremony.
The regnal name “Haile” means “Power of” while Selassie translates to “trinity”. Hence Haile Selassie’s name means “Power of the Trinity”.
Ethiopia’s first written constitution
As emperor, Haile Selassie quickly tried to snuff out members of the old guard that opposed his ascension to the throne. In a bid to accomplish this task of his, he came out with the first ever written constitution in Ethiopia on July 16, 1931. The constitution also created a bicameral legislature; however ultimate power resided firmly in the Emperor’s and nobles’ hands.
Selassie hoped that the constitution will pave a way for Ethiopia’s transitioning into full democracy where the people could elect officials to govern them.
The constitution also helped him secure his descendants sole succession to the throne. This act of his infuriated the other dynastic princes.
Accomplishments of Emperor Haile Selassie
During his reign, Ethiopia went from a really backward country to one that was exporting close to 30,000 tons of coffee. Haile Selassie instituted many reforms that were model on Western systems. He invested heavily in social and economic infrastructure which spurred further growth in the country.
He was credited with modernizing the big cities in Ethiopia Modernization. To complement those efforts he invested a lot in the country’s police and military forces.
In a bid to diminish the feudal power of other dynastic princes, he instituted measures to remove feudal taxes. He achieved reasonable successes in those tax reforms in spite of strong opposition from the country’s clergy and provincial leaders.
Emperor Haile Selassie’s thrived to create a very centralized administrative structure with him at the helm of affairs. By so doing he was able to reduce the powers of the feudal chiefs. For example, he removed the civil servants from the payroll of the feudal chiefs and placed them on a centralized payroll system.
Kind courtesy to his efforts, Ethiopia was able to become a charter member of the United Nations. And following in the spirit of solidarity and corporation on the African continent, he invested a great deal of time in efforts towards the decolonization in Africa.
A staunch pan-Africanist, Haile Selassie was involved in the founding of the Organization of African Unity (currently African Union), an organization that he would later serve as its first and fifth chairman [May 25, 1963– July 17 1964, and November 5 1966 – September 11 1967].
Emperor Haile Selassie shared similar pan-Africanist ideas as that of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah and Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe. Selassie was a big advocate of forming a United States of Africa so to speak, encouraging the formation of the Organization of African Unity (presently known as African Union) in the early 1960s.
Another very laudable feat of his came in August 1942 when he officially abolished slavery in the country. The Emperor also relied on some foreign advisers in order to attract the needed foreign direct investments into the country.
Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935
Upon the death of Sultan Abba Jifar II of Jimma, Haile Selassie annexed the Sultanate of Jimma in 1932. Ethiopia’s growing prominence and economy in the region (the Horn of Africa) was perceived by Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini as a threat to Italy’s imperialist ambitions. Italy was also anxious to invade the Ethiopian kingdom in order to make amends for it defeat during the First Italo-Abyssinian War (18955-1896).
Prior to Italy’s invasion in October 1935, Emperor Haile Selassie mobilized his forces and headquartered at Desse in Wollo province.
In the initial months of fighting the Ethiopians were able to put up some level of resistance; however, it all crumbled by May 1936. Ethiopia’s inferior and poorly armed forces were no match for the Italians. In addition to his superior weapons, Benito Mussolini decimated the Ethiopian forces using forbidden chemical weapons. Emperor Haile Selassie and his family fled into French Somaliland before heading to Jerusalem. He left his cousin Ras Imru Haile Selassie in charge of the defense of Addis Ababa.
In spite of his passionate speech before the League of Nations in Geneva on June 30, 1936 calling on the global community to intervene and end the slaughter in Ethiopia, very few member countries of the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Italy. This was the point in history when the League demonstrated how toothless an organization it was. Haile Selassie’s speech did however inspire many anti-fascist advocates around the world.
Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini unleashed chemical weapons upon the Ethiopians, killing several hundreds of thousands of people. The Ethiopian army was completely vanquished and Emperor Selassie was forced to go into exile in May 1936.
From 1936 to 1941, Italy established an empire that incorporated Eritrea, Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia, calling it the Italian East Africa.
It was not until Italy joined forces with the Axis forces in World War II that the Allied forces came to the aid of Ethiopia. The United Kingdom formed a joint force that included troops from its African colonies and South Africa. By May 5, 1941, Haile Selassie and the Allied forces in the Horn of Africa had successfully forced the Italians to surrender.
The 1955 Constitution
His 1955 constitution – Ethiopia’s first ever written constitution – helped create a system were members of the lower house of parliament would be elected. The Parliament also had some level of control over taxes and the vetting of ministers. Inclusive in the constitution was an effort to have an independent judiciary and the promotion of human rights.
Regardless of those laudable reform efforts, Haile Selassie still very much a powerful figure, politically and economically.
Decline and Opposition
After World War II, Haile Selassie quickly formed a new government and continued from where he left of prior to the breakout of the war.
After successively lobbying the international community, he was able to secure a United Nations General resolution that allowed for Eritrea and Ethiopia to form a federation on December 2, 1950. Eritrea was allowed to have its own constitution while Ethiopia was given control over Eritrea finances, defense and foreign policy.
By 1961, nationalist elements in Eritrea had started calling for independence. The emperor responded by dissolving the federation and shutting down Eritrea’s parliament.
On the streets of Addis Ababa, there was growing opposition to his rule. Much of this opposition came from students and some elements of the army.
The discontent came from the public’s displeasure with his over reliance on the military, aristocrats and the oligarchs. Many bemoaned his poor land reforms which they believed impoverished the poorest of the society.
Haile Selassie also had to contend with the 1958 famine of Tigray which claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.
Overthrow of Emperor Selassie
On December 13, 1960, a palace coup by the imperial guard (Kebur Zabagna) was unsuccessful because he still enjoyed some level of support from the army and the police.
But the seeds of discontent had started to take roots as Ethiopia started engaging fiercely with insurrectionist in Eritrea and Muslim pastoralists, who felt oppressed and marginalized. The Emperor was quick to crush the unrest and restore order in Ethiopia.
Rebellions in Eritrea caused a great deal of unease in Ethiopia. The country’s problems were further compounded by the drought and famine in the north which claimed tens of thousands of lives. In 1974, a small section of junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers mutinied. Not even a 33% increase the wages of the army could stop them from going ahead with the coup d’état, which started in Asmara. Prime Minister Aklilu Habte-Wold resigned on Februray 27, 1974. Following the political instability, there was a general strike by workers to show their increasing discontent with the Emperor.
The Derg – also known as the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army – under the pretext of resolving the issues capitalized on the imperial government’s hesitation and overthrew Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974.
The committee, which was chaired by Maj. Mengistu Haile Mariam, swiftly worked to bring down the monarch and its institutions; there were several arrests of members of the royal family and the emperor’s allies and advisers.
The Provisional Military Administrative Council (PMAC) placed the senile and old emperor under house arrest at his palace. Lt. Gen. Aman Andom went on to become chairman of the council and the head of state.
In what was later termed as Ethiopia’s “Bloody Saturday”, several high ranking officials of Emperor Selassie’s government and inner circles were executed without trial on November 23, 1974. Selassie’s grandson Iskinder Desta was among those executed on that day. The executions drew sharp criticism from Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, who later ended up stripped off his title as the military abolished the Solomonic Dynasty completely.
How did Haile Selassie die?
To this day, the circumstances surrounding Ethiopia’s long-reigning emperor’s death remains a bit unclear. Emperor Haile Selassie died at his palace on August 28, 1975 – less than a year following his house arrest. The military government at the time stated that the Emperor died of completely natural causes. According to them, Haile Selassie suffered a respiratory failure that they claim he picked up from a prostate operation he had a few months prior.
However, there were claims that the military government ordered his death by strangulation. This claims surfaced after the Derg regime was overthrown. A 1994 court investigation charged a number of high-ranking military officials for their involvement in the Emperor’s death.
On November 5, 2000, the Ethiopian Orthodox church gave him a befitting funeral. The funeral was attended by a number of followers of the Rastafarian movement, including Rita Marley, the wife of legendary reggae musician Bob Marley.
Primarily based in Jamaica, Rastafarianism is both a religious and social movement that hails Emperor Haile Selassie as the personification of God on earth. He is revered as the messiah (i.e. the Second Coming of Jesus) destined to lead the entire of Africa as well as the African diaspora to freedom.
Largely influenced by Marcus Garvey’s “African Redemption” movement, Rastafarianism first took its roots around the 1930s, coinciding around the time that Haile Selassie was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia.
This religious group maintains this claim because Selassie’s imperial dynasty – the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia – is believed to be the descendants of the first emperor of Ethiopia Menilik I, who himself is believed to be the son of the biblical King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba.
Haile Selassie himself never came out openly to reject or confirm the claims that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He did once say that he was simply a mortal man and that regarding him as divine being is a complete mistake. Haile Selassie was in fact a Christian and belonged to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Some famous members of the movement include former Prime Minister of Jamaica Michael Manley (1924-1997), reggae musician Bob Marley (1945-1981) and his wife Rita Marley. Iron Lion Zion – a posthumously released song by Bob Marley – was in reference to Haile Selassie.
Did you know: to majority of the followers of the Rastafarian movement, the two most important days are: the coronation date of Emperor Haile Selassie (i.e. November 2, 1930) and the day the Emperor visited Jamaica (i.e. “Grounation Day” which fell on April 21, 1966)?