Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of Ethiopia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Haile Selassie (born Tafari Makonnen) emerged as the undisputed ruler of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia, beginning a forty-four-year reign interrupted by war and exile that ended in a Marxist coup. Haile Selassie’s ascension to the Ethiopian throne marked the end of feudal decentralization and the emergence of a relatively modern and centralized national government dominated by an absolute monarch.

Summary of Event

On November 2, 1930, Tafari Makonnen was formally crowned emperor of Ethiopia. Following the tradition in which Ethiopian monarchs take a new name following their coronation, Makonnen adopted a new name, Haile Selassie (which means “power of the trinity”). Affixed to this name was the customary title for Ethiopian emperors: king of kings, conquering lion of Judah and the elect of God. Although an ascension to the Solomonic throne had always been an occasion of great celebration, the pomp and weeklong extravaganza that followed Haile Selassie’s coronation was probably the most splendid in Ethiopian history. In a way, this event was skillfully staged by Haile Selassie to help him achieve several political objectives. First and foremost, the new emperor used the occasion to send a clear message to his own people that the old feudal order, in which power was shared among a number of competing grandees, had been replaced by a new centralized bureaucratic system under the authority of a strong monarch. The ceremony provided Haile Selassie an opportunity to demonstrate his own elevated position and the diminished status of the traditional nobility, who were required to attend the event literally at the feet of the emperor. [kw]Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of Ethiopia (Apr. 2, 1930) [kw]Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie Is Crowned (Apr. 2, 1930) [kw]Ethiopia, Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of (Apr. 2, 1930) Ethiopia;Haile Selassie I [g]Africa;Apr. 2, 1930: Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of Ethiopia[07590] [g]Ethiopia;Apr. 2, 1930: Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of Ethiopia[07590] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 2, 1930: Haile Selassie Is Crowned Emperor of Ethiopia[07590] Haile Selassie I Zauditu Menelik II Iyasu, Lij Makonnen, Ras Habte Giorgis, Fitawrari Gugsa Welle, Ras

Haile Selassie also used the occasion to win recognition and respect for the “new” Ethiopia that he had labored to create during the first two decades of the twentieth century, when he was still a regent. Although Ethiopia had successfully fended off European imperialism, its survival as the only independent African state was continuously challenged. Britain, France, and Italy, whose empires completely surrounded Ethiopia and had completely cut the country off from the sea, were not fully reconciled to the idea of Ethiopian independence. The coronation pageantry was designed to maximize international publicity for Ethiopia and its new ruler, and the ceremony was delayed for seven months after the death of the previous ruler, Empress Zauditu, to ensure the largest possible number of foreign representatives. Meticulous preparations were carried out to impress foreign dignitaries and the hundreds of journalists who came to Addis Ababa from all over the world. Several of the leading nations of Europe and North America sent representatives to the coronation.

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Haile Selassie had been patiently preparing for this day ever since he was chosen as regent and heir apparent in 1917, when the youthful but reckless Lij Iyasu was overthrown and Empress Zauditu was placed on the throne. A grandnephew of Emperor Menelik II and the son of Ras Makonnen, Tafari was perhaps the most progressive and agile politician in the capital when he was appointed regent. He made himself the power behind the throne by effectively isolating the empress and moving shrewdly and decisively against the bulwarks of the old system. The death of the minister of war and powerful lord Fitawrari Habte Giorgis in 1926 and the removal of Dejazmach Balcha Saffo from power in 1928 brought Tafari close to the pinnacle of power. The defeat and death in March of 1930 of Ras Gugsa Welle, Empress Zauditu’s husband and the last paragon of the old guards, removed the last obstacle to the consolidation of Tafari’s personal power. The empress died two days later, leaving Tafari as the undisputed master of the Ethiopian throne on April 2, 1930.

Once he secured the throne, Haile Selassie continued to push his program to create a unitary state—the dream of all Ethiopian emperors since the mid-nineteenth century. Haile Selassie placed loyal supporters in key government positions and provincial posts, and he banned the regional lords from importing arms or maintaining armies outside the central government’s command. As a result, the central government monopolized key sources of revenue. These efforts to centralize the state and consolidate Haile Selassie’s autocratic control were greatly assisted by the selected program of modernization, and new schools opened to produce the next generation of state cadres. A new constitution providing a legal framework for the consolidation of the emperor’s absolute power was proclaimed in 1931.

These reforms were, however, interrupted by the Italian invasion of the country in 1935. After the disastrous defeat of his army at the Battle of Maichew Maichew, Battle of (1936) in April of 1936, the emperor fled into exile in England, where he remained until the end of 1940. The outbreak of World War II provided Haile Selassie with a fresh opportunity to win British military support and to join his warriors, who had continued the resistance against fascist Italy. Haile Selassie regained his throne on May 5, 1941, and once again resumed his attempts to modernize the country and aggrandize his personal power. Despite his apparent success in changing the country’s traditional institutions and his enormous international standing, these changes were not fundamental enough to transform the country. The emperor lacked the commitment to meet the growing expectations that his own reforms had engendered.

Significance

The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie was one of the most pivotal events in the history of modern Ethiopia. It heralded the political demise of the hereditary nobility that had hitherto limited the power of the monarchy. Haile Selassie transformed Ethiopia from an antiquated feudal polity into a relatively modern and centralized bureaucratic state. He carried out a series of reforms that gave the country the facade of modernity. Unfortunately for Ethiopia, most of these reforms were carried out selectively, with the view of aggrandizing the emperor’s personal power and prestige both at home and abroad. As time passed, the emperor grew more isolated and detached from the many complex problems that beset the country in the second half of the twentieth century. Few were surprised when, in 1974, the emperor who had wielded absolute power for half a century was overthrown by a military coup led by junior officers. Haile Selassie died in detention on August 27, 1975; some said he was killed by a military junta. Ethiopia;Haile Selassie I

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bahru Zewde. A History of Modern Ethiopia. London: James Currey, 1991. One of the most authoritative works on modern Ethiopia. Provides succinct analysis of the development of the absolutist state under Emperor Haile Selassie.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haile Selassie. My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress, 1892-1937. Edited and translated by Edward Ullendorff. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1976. The emperor’s autobiography is particularly interesting for its vivid description of the coronation ceremony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henze, Paul. Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia. New York: Palgrave, 2000. A readable general work that has utilized some of the most important contemporary accounts to provide an interesting description of the rise of Haile Selassie and the transformation of the Ethiopian polity in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marcus, Harold. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. One of the best standard works on Ethiopia by an author with a profound grasp of Ethiopian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spencer, John H. Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Sellassie Years. Algonac, Mich.: Reference Publications, 1987. An intimate account of Haile Selassie’s personality and style of rule by an American adviser who worked with the emperor and his ministers beginning in the 1930’s.

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