Haile Selassie: Exile and autocrat

I recently (May, 2022) spent a wonderful few hours at the villa in Bath, Somerset where Ras Tafari, Emperor Haile Selassie spent 1936-40 in exile from his country, Ethiopia, which had been over-run by Italy’s Fascist troops. Selassie has resonated with me since I talked with two of his admirers. I interviewed Bob Marley in July 1980 and read Wilfred Thesiger’s A Life of My Choice (1987) and at some point interviewed the grand old man of desert travel and SAS action. It seems that of the two only Thesiger knew the Emperor personally. Here are a few reflections on the Emperor, and his place in history and in Bath.

Fairfield House in Bath puts on regular open days which make a fabulous introduction to Ras Tafari, Emperor Haile Selassie the First, twice the effective sole ruler of Ethiopia, and in between exiled in Georgian resort England for four years. The British romanticised him, according popularly-acclaimed state visits in 1924 and 1954, but packing a punch when it counted. Britain’s unconventional warrior Orde Wingate led an Expeditionary Force to help Selassie to boot the Italians out of Ethiopia in 1941. 

Not in a million years could one make up this life and reputation. Selassie powerfully influenced  well-known people who became devotees. Brief encounters with two of them years ago influenced me to take an interest in the Ethiopian monarch. Wilfred Thesiger, explorer and SAS pioneer, was one and Bob Marley the other. But who knew that the feminist Sylvia Pankhurst, daughter of Emmeline, devoted her later life to his causes, or that her son Richard would devote himself to writing histories of his adopted country? The Emperor and his country were not obvious heavy-hitters on the world stage, but this leader claimed nearly 3,000 years in his aristocratic lineage from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and his country had a historic grip on European imaginations. Patronising, ignorant and self indulgent we may have been, but for my parents’ generation and mine Selassie fitted quite well with T E Lawrence’s  Arab leaders; John Buchan’s Prester John; Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She; and Kipling’s depiction of the long legacy of Alexander the Great in The Man Who Would Be King. They figured an African, Middle Eastern and Eurasian exoticism and nobility Britain’s suburbia was not producing as it produced me.  Haile Selassie, not unlike the Queen of Tonga, struck a chord in Britain, but his note was as serious as it was glamorous and only very slightly and all the more endearingly comic. He was regal, devout, a warrior; he liked the British Empire at a time it was losing friends; and he had something of a liberal vision for his country and the world. He was a monarch with a belief in something like the divine right of kings. He adhered quite strongly to the Coptic faith of Egypt and Ethiopia which was both one of Christianity’s most ancient and authentic branches and one of the most stubbornly schismatic. Seen romantically, Selassie represented a world which was mythically ancient and still recognisably medieval. But in a way he was actually very modern and even prescient. He was significant to the founding of the United Nations, because he could see and show how his country illustrated vividly the failures of its precursor, the League of Nations. He was more important to Pan-Africanism than the fantasist Marcus Garvey, his erstwhile supporter who proposed that he, Garvey, might rule the continent. Abyssinia had not experienced European imperial takeover, and Selassie was proud of that. White outsiders could be oddly pleased that here was an African country whose problems we had not obviously caused. Selassie was not proud of Ethiopia’s primitive ways and sought to make it a little more European and progressive in its thinking. Wilfred Thesiger, whose family had known the country intimately, and not as colonialists but as British emissaries, wrote tellingly  about the allure of Ethiopia and about the astonishingly hard experiences which shaped Haile Selassie’s views about his duty. Selassie felt keenly two attempts by Italy to take over his country; one was in his father’s generation in the 1890s and one on his own watch as Mussolini sought in the 1930s to establish Africa Orientale Italiana and its credentials both as a fascist nation and a successor to Rome’s empire. The Battle of Adwa in 1896 saw an Ethiopian army of robes, swords and spears defeat the industrial equipment of the Italians. At Fairfield House, old but gleaming toy soldiers depict the fight. In 1936 Selassie left Ethiopia and came to Britain, it is safe to assume not so much to escape the Italian military invasion and impending rule but in order to live to fight another day, not least in raising awareness  of Mussolini’s brutalities in North Africa and to embolden the West’s response. By 1940, he was writing from Fairfield House to Winston Churchill congratulating him on taking over from Chamberlain, as one belligerently anti-fascist and anti-Nazi to another.

In Fairfield House that Sunday in May, there was conversation amongst the Selassie-minded visitors which suggested that Italian assaults on Ethiopia were a precursor or premonition of today’s war in Ukraine. One certainly could build out a decent case that Mussolini’s Italy was imperialist and fascist by turns, and that in both modes needed some good red meat to throw its citizens. Thus far, so Mussolini, so Putin. Suppose there to be, now, an equivalent to the secret 1935  Anglo-French Hoare-Lavall Pact (itself a mirror of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement to carve up the Ottoman Empire of its day). The plan was to partition Ethiopia and it outraged British public opinion when its existence was revealed. Actually, there was good realpolitik reason to appease Mussolini back then, and presumably some unpalatable and perhaps unspoken accommodation may be made with Putin now.

It is fascinating and depressing to roll on a few decades and to note that various Marxists in the 1970s were more successful ideological imperialists in Ethiopia than Italy had ever been and left a longer-term scar. Socialist revolutionaries turned Ethiopia into a thorough-going Marxist state by a much odder and more insidious process than direct invasion and occupation. Brains not boots were the force on the ground. By one argument, it was in part Selassie’s own fault. In the first decades of the 20th Century Ethiopia – like Russia, Italy, Germany and Spain before it –  didn’t grow a sufficiently powerful liberal consensus to fend off populist revolt against aristocratic rule. Ethiopia’s government was neither representative nor responsive. Selassie may have admired Europe and its monarchs, and sought elements of European modernity, but he didn’t seem to notice that modern royalty needed a very deft touch, granted the varieties of strong man which were available as models to dissidents. As a reforming absolutist ruler Selassie had encouraged liberal Western educators to spread their message in his backward country.  The nativists and nationalists of much of “British” Africa, Malaysia and India were learning how to become leftist in their propaganda. In much of Africa they also became patrinomial kleptocrats. It is hardly surprising that Ethiopia became a soft target for hard-line revolutionary thinking. It was ripe for the soviet-inspired Derg with its avowedly Red Terror techniques.

Other factors were involved in the downfall of Selassie’s monarchy. The higher echelons of Ethiopia’s complicated tribal or multi-ethnic society were reluctant to give up their feudal power or accede to land reforms, whilst village powers-that-be equally disliked any erosion of their power.

Both Western and Ethiopian perceptions of the country’s predicament  and its descent into desert and highland totalitarianism are claimed to have been  influenced by Jonathon Dimbelby’s famous 1973 TV documentary about a ghastly famine in the country, which it claimed had been covered up by Selassie. Ten years later, Michael Buerk reported on an even worse famine, with even larger public impact in the West.  The Guardian noted two disobliging “bookended” European accounts of the Emperor (Ian Samson, “Great Dynasties of the World”, October 2010). In 1931 Evelyn Waugh had written satirically about the young Selassie’s coronation in Addis Ababa and in 1978 the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote Downfall of an Autocrat, a controversial semi-fictional account of the last days of the elderly Selassie’s reign and something of his imprisonment in 1974 by the Derg and probable murder by them in 1975.

Given years of internecine chaos and the violence of its regional neigbourhood it is hard to know how productive this harsh country might in principle have become or even how far it might have managed better without Selassie. The Emperor seems now to be discussed in British schools as an adjunct to the study of Mussolini’s fascism and British and French attempts to keep him from Hitler’s embrace. Looking cursorily at the work of various Ethiopian specialists I haven’t found convincing accounts of  the  merits of Selassie as a reformer (See footnote.) At very least, the West’s majority perception has been that Selassie deserved to be consigned to history as a curiosity. 

At Fairfield House, however, he has adherents who are as loving as they are loyal. Selassie bought this Victorian Italianate villa for his British exile and lived there from 1936 to 1941. He revisited it in 1954, when Bath welcomed its most famous modern resident with large crowds. People now in their 70s remember his coming to their schools and his being both tiny and impressive. In 1958, Selassie gave the house to the city, for the care of the elderly. Over the years it became a residential care home for the elderly of the African diaspora and the Windrush Generation of African-Carribean descendants of slavery. Perhaps oddly, Selassie’s call for the abolition of slavery within his country was one of his more contentious domestic policies. Fairfield House is now a day care centre for the black people of Bath. There is every sign that its future will be as a hub for all sorts of community groups.

Right now, however, it also has very and rather lovely incarnation as the home to a particular form of admiration for Haile Selassie and his legacy. Rastafarianism is its broad theme. It believes Haile Selassie’s own account of his ancestry as being the Lion of Judah, descended from Israel’s Davidic kings. But whilst Selassie was an Orthodox Copt, with its faith in Jesus and St Mark, some Rastafarians talk of Selassie as the new Christ. I have heard a Rastafarian describe their faith as being a little like that of Jehovah Witnesses in believing in the present reality of a Second Coming. To some extent, Selassie’s elevation to the status of prophet can be attributed to the work of Marcus Garvey, who is himself seen by some fans as being prophetic and by others as a manipulative poseur. Whether Selassie was any kind of saint perhaps only matters to his religious adherents.

Fairfield House certainly has rooms which are a fascinating Selassie museum. It has a small outdoor worship area and may be a sort of pilgrimage destination. For some reason I cannot quite fathom, I admire Bob Marley as a modern psalmodist. He thought of himself as a Rastafarian. Marley was no revolutionary so far as I can see, but he was some sort of liberationist. He believed there was value in Rastafarianism. In our only conversation, late in Marley’s short life, I suggested to him that Marcus Garvey and Haile Selassie were improbable prophets. Marley said he thought his people deserved all the positive beliefs they could get hold of. In May I touched the bronze statue of Marley’s head which stands at the front door to Fairfield House, and I felt what I took to be the same kind of stirring which the religious feel in contact with their own icons.

Footnote on further reading.

I recommend John Ryle’s writing on Ethiopia (available on his website). I take it to be more reliable than Ryszard Kapuscinski’s, and am reinforced in that view by the work of  the serious Neal Ascherson (also available online). I am a bit surprised that I haven’t found good accounts of the role of Selassie as a reformer and his place in the fraught matter of African under-development. It may be that insights are to be had from Selassie’s Autobiography (which seems mostly unloved); the translator of the first part of that autobiography, Edward Ullendorff; the historians HC Marcus and Richard Pankhurst and the analyst Robert Kaplan. I may keep looking for accounts of Selassie’s historic value as a ruler, and if I do I shall add material to this piece.

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Publication date

20 July 2022


Mind & body; On art; On books