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"My Life and Ethiopia's Progress: The Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie I"

By any standard of judgement the 58-year reign of Ras Tafari as regent (1916-1930) and as Emperor Haile Sellassie (1930-1974), in addition to being one of the longest, was also one of the most momentous in the 3000-year history of Ethiopia.
The first Autobiography of Emperor Haile Sellassie is detailed with information on the little giant of a man who many peoples from all of life consider to be the returned Christ, the Messiah, or Defender of the Faith. Indeed, a remarkable and outstanding world leader. Got to read it. First time ever in paperback.

Haile Sellassie I: The Formative Years 1892-1936 by Harold G. Marcus
Always controversial during his lifetime (1892-1975), Haile Sellassie became, after his dethronement in 1974, a political icon to some, a monster to others, and to all a legend. There is no understanding modern Ethiopia without a grasp of the emperor's life. This first volume of a project three-volume biography describes Haile Sellassie's early training as a member of a cultural and political elite, a conditioning that led him to believe it was normal for an elite (later an oligarchy) to govern and exploit Ethiopia, even if many of its peoples did not benefit from the prevailing order. Once he became emperor, he viewed himself as the embodiment of Ethiopia's proud sovereignty and independence. Haile Sellassie was the architect of the centralized Ethiopian state. He transformed Addis Ababa, his ramshackle capital, into a core city; educated a cadre of "Young Ethiopians"; and developed the central government. He managed his country's political and economic entry into the modern world and in the process made Ethiopia the central actor in Northeast Africa and himself a global figure. Between 1920 and 1935 Ethiopia made important and obvious progress toward modernization, which Italy regarded as potentially threatening to its African colonies. Haile Sellassie, ever jealous of his country's sovereignty, redirected trade away from Europe toward Japan and the United States. By so doing he robbed France of a good economic reason to protect Ethiopia from Italy, he alienated Great Britain, and he permitted Rome to contemplate his nation's conquest. By 1934 Ethiopia was without allies and without the means to counter the Italian aggression. The emperor suffered defeat, exile, and despair, but he would return in 1941, as a phoenix, to restore the status quo ante.

His role approximated Europe's absolutist rulers of the transitional period between feudalism and capitalism. Like his Western counterparts, Haile Sellassie introduced a standing army, a permanent bureaucracy, new forms of taxation, uniform laws, and the mechanisms of a national economy. He also came to control the landed aristocracy, whose authority he redefined and whose functions he redirected to strengthen his increasingly centralized state. The emperor supported his programs through more efficient exploitation of the existing modes of agricultural production, in whose interstices merchant capitalism grew in cooperation with the ruling elites. Even though the Ethiopian absolutist social formation anticipated a more advanced method of production, it contained elements of social organization that characterized earlier centralized empires.
As had the Egyptian pharaoh, the Chinese emperor, and the Persian king of kings, Haile Sellassie constructed a bureaucracy in which talent, skill, achievement, and, above all, loyalty to the ruler counted more than ethnic or social origins. The emperor's men ensured that the crown received a continuous flow of resources to maintain the machinery of royal and bureaucratic authority. Together with their patron, "they strove to concentrate in their own hands, the main centers of power and control in the country"; they codified and unified law, regularized revenue collection, and standardized administrative practices. The bureaucrats also helped to portray the ruler as the heir to ancient cultural traditions, whose importance would be strengthened through his governance. The king and his men fostered belief in ancient prescriptions through educational, cultural, and religious institutions. Uninterested in any new and secular legitimation base his authority on traditional or charismatic themes and on the mystification surrounding the monarchy. As this study reveals, Haile Sellassie built a bureaucratic, absolutist monarchy that related to the world capitalist economy. Yet, however much such an abstraction helps us to understand the complexities of a period of long personal rule, it would have meant little to the emperor himself, involved as he was in the daily business of power and authority. Haile Sellassie viewed himself as the embodiment of Ethiopia's proud sovereignty and independence. His national vision derived from his early experiences as heir of Ras Makonnen, a military ruler whose army kept order and whose officers constituted an oligarchy that exploited a polyglot, non-Christian population. Haile Sellassie naturally regarded this political order as normal and in the best interests of Ethiopia's peoples. He governed, as had his immediate predecessors, by acting as the country's balancer of power, a method that worked well in a customary government that mediated between the ruling classes and the masses. His limited Western education directed him toward change, however, and he introduced modern institutions whose functions he never clearly understood. He found them useful, however, because they added to imperial power and to the authority of the central government that acted in the emperor's name. Haile Sellassie always worked behind the scenes, manipulating actors and events to his advantage. His political goals were obvious, even if his tactics were concealed. He was always involved, though always proclaiming his innocence, his inaction, his isolation from events. He never admitted his nature as a politician but posed as a tool of fate, ready to do God's will or the will of the people. His apparent noninvolvement in politics only underscores the obscurity in which he maneuvered; the emperor's deft hand was invariably apparent in retrospect, and his careful planning became as obvious a success. He was such a good actor, however , that even thoughtful persons never understood the Haile Sellassie was able to educate a cadre of "Young Ethiopians" to strengthen the central government, to transform Addis Ababa, his ramshackle capital, into a leading city, and to begin securing Ethiopia's frontiers from encroachment by adjacent colonial powers. Ever jealous of his country's sovereignty and independence, the emperor also directed Ethiopia's trade and other activities away from its traditional European partners toward Japan and America, both of whom he believed supported his country's independence. By so doing, he robbed France of a good economic reason to protect Ethiopia from Italy; he alienated Great Britain; and he permitted Italy to contemplate his nation's conquest. Mussolini regarded Ethiopia's progress, especially after 1928, when Haile Sellassie gained indisputable power, as potentially threatening Somalia and Eritrea and as marking Italy's failure to transform the Solomonic Empire into a roman colony. During 1930-1932, domestic political considerations drove him to consider an attack on Ethiopia, and by 1934-1935, the European situation permitted the aggression. By then, Ethiopia was without allies and without the means to counter the Fascists. Haile Sellassie learned, as would other leaders, that collective security was the opiate of small, defenseless countries. Although the emperor would suffer defeat, despair, and exile, he would return in 1941, as a phoenix, to restore the status quo ante.
Harold G. Marcus Distinguished Professor of History and African Studies at Michigan State University, is the author of The Modern History of Ethiopia and The Horn of Africa; The Life and Times of Menelik II (RSP, 1995); The Politics of Empire: Ethiopia, Great Britain, and the United States, 1941-1974 (RSP, 1995). History of Ethiopia Updated Edition: Marcus (history, Michigan State Univ.) has authored several books on Ethiopia, most recently Haile Selassie: The Formative Years 1892-1936 (Univ. of California Pr., 1986). This one, which was eight years in the writing, is his most ambitious because it attempts to cover the entire history of Ethiopia from prehistoric times to the fall of the Mengistu government in 1991, although all but the first 80 pages deal with Ethiopia since its reunification under Menelik in 1889. Marcus views Ethiopian history as a series of cyclical expansions from its component parts to empire and back again; he argues that the idea of the greater Ethiopian nation will always cause the state to reunify despite its current disintegration. Whether or not one agrees with his thesis, this book is such a readable and up-to-date overview of a long and complex history that it is recommended for both academic and large public libraries.
In this eminently readable, concise history of Ethiopia, Harold Marcus surveys the evolution of the oldest African nation from prehistory to the present. For the updated edition, Marcus has written a new preface, two new chapters, and an epilogue, detailing the development and implications of Ethiopia as a Federal state and the war with Eritrea.


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The Ethiopians: A History (Peoples of Africa) by Richard Pankhurst (Paperback ): This is a history of the Ethiopians from pre-history to the present day. Drawing on research in archeology, anthropology, linguistics and on recent historiography, the book charts the development of Ethiopian peoples and their society, placing emphasis on the African origins of Ethiopian civilization.
The book opens with a review of Ethiopian prehistory, showing how the Ethiopian section of the African Rift Valley has come to be seen as the "cradle of humanity". It describes, for instance, the discovery of the remains of the oldest known hominid, "Lucy", in the middle Awash Valley, in 1974. The book then discusses Ethiopia in biblical time, reconsidering, for example, the legend of the Queen of Sheba. The author examines the various dynasties that ruled in the period up to the first Portuguese mission, and explores the subsequent political and religious struggles between Christians, Muslims and Falashas. He discusses the social and economic effects of key stages in Ethiopian history such as the Gondar period and the era of the "Judges".
The book also examines the succession of modernizing monarchs that followed, culminating in the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie. The book concludes with a review of Ethiopian history and culture considering contemporary Ethiopia within an historical context.

Richard Pankhurst who has lived in Ethiopia for over thirty years, is Professor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa. His most recent books include A History of Ethiopian Towns from the Middle Ages to the Early Nineteenth Century (1982) and A Social History of Ethiopia (1990), and History of the Ethiopian Borderlands: Essays in Regional History (1997).
 


  


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Review of Haile Sellassie I, My Life and Ethiopia's Progress, vol. II

By Charles W. McClellan, Radford University <cmcclell@runet.edu>
11 September, 1995

My Life and Ethiopia's Progress, Vol. 2 by Haile Sellassie I (King of Kings of Ethiopia). African Historical Sources, No. 6. Edited and Annotated by Harold Marcus et al. Translated by Ezekiel Gebissa et al. East Lansing MI: Michigan State University Press, 1994. xviii+190p. Bibliography, index, glossary, map, picture. $31.95.

While in exile in England during the Italo-Ethiopian War (1936-41), Emperor Haile Sellassie I began dictation of his autobiography. How long the process took and to what degree his various Ethiopian scribes may have edited the original manuscript are not clear. The first volume of this manuscript, covering the years from 1892 to 1937, was published in Ethiopia in 1972/3. Just a year before the emperor's deposition in a military coup in 1974, his granddaughter approached Prof. Edward Ullendorff about an English version, which appeared in 1976 (London: Oxford University Press).

Ullendorff, though, proved reluctant to continue, feeling that volume two (1936-42) lacked the insight and merit of the earlier material. Differing with Ullendorff's assessment, Prof. Harold Marcus then took up the project, himself just beginning a multi-volume biography of the emperor. The two projects converged nicely. Volume one of the biography appeared in 1987 (University of California Press), while translation of the second volume of the autobiography was proceeding.

Marcus' approach to the translation diverged substantially from that taken by Ullendorff in the first volume. Ideally any such translation would strive to render Amharic ideas and phraseology into English as truly and accurately as possible while bringing forth an English text that was smooth and flowing. Both Marcus and Ullendorff committed to these ideals, but Ullendorff gave preference to the former, while Marcus was more concerned about readability. Ullendorff admits to a certain "ungainliness" in his English translation, while Marcus freely acknowledges the "liberality" of his version from the Amharic. The challenges dealt both translators were similar. Consequently, a reading of the introduction to Ullendorff's first volume provides good preparation for beginning Marcus' second.

The emperor's autobiography derives largely from literary forms traditional to Ethiopian society and thus is unlike those produced in the west. It is a volume reflecting a certain modesty, devoid of emotion, and evidencing an aloofness that readers will find a bit disconcerting, but which nonetheless reflecs accurately the emperor's public persona. Although underneath he was a man of deep feelings who grieved profoundly for the loss of his country and the deaths of close friends and family and who despaired at the international community's failure to live up to its treaty obligations, there is little emotion in his recollections. The emperor was a deeply religious man who accepted these trials as God's test and who bore his burden largely in private.

The emperor was not given to chastise or condemn his contemporaries. His autobiography is a kind of morality play; the moral is clear without having to state it. History and the book's readers are left to make their own judgment. This places the emperor above the political fray, reflecting again the realities of his own leadership style. His whole commentary is permeated with strength, confidence, and certitude. There is no doubt in his own mind that in the end God would see to the Italian defeat and secure his return to the throne. At least that is the impression he wishes to leave. Any sense of personal vulnerability is well hidden.

The emperor demonstrates excellent recall. He mentions hundreds of individuals in the autobiography and describes many events and negotiations in great detail. Not all are accurate, but enough to evidence his remarkable mind, one that served him well politically. His minions were both astounded by and terrified of his sharp remembrance of names, episodes, and details from years before that they hoped he had forgotten and which he could conveniently draw forth to embarrass and destroy them, or bring them into line. One of the great accomplishments of those who edited this second volume of the autobiography was identifying the hundreds of individuals mentioned, a Herculean effort Marcus has accomplished admirably. The detective work involved was nearly as challenging as the translation itself.

In the end, one must see the emperor as a historical actor, recording his autobiography for practical political reasons. His dictation began during one of the most traumatic periods of his life. Despite his public optimism, he must have been torn by at least some self-doubt. Would he spend the remainder of his life in exile? How would his countrymen remember him and how would history record his actions? Haile Sellassie was a man much concerned with image and was a master of propaganda. We must assess his autobiography to some degree in this context. He was aware that many of his countrymen abhored his decision to leave the country rather than die in battle, and he knew that he would have to face their opposition if and when he returned.

His autobiography, particularly this second volume, thus serves to argue and justify his point of view that he was a man who never stopped "fighting" for Ethiopia even in exile. He chronicles all the meetings he had, the exchanges of notes with governments, the public speeches he made during those years, and includes within the work the full or partial texts of many of these documents, almost as if this book was a legal brief. He also had in mind his public image internationally. He seeks to demonstrate that even after the fall of Addis Ababa, his voice and authority continued to be felt within the country; he fills the work with his correspondence to and from the Patriots, thus proving, so he hoped, their loyalty, and his direction and support of them. Haile Sellassie may not have been much of a general on the battlefield, but at least he was out to prove his credentials as a diplomatic warrior.

Unless one is able to read between the lines, it is difficult to get any concrete sense of the emperor from the autobiography. Marcus's biography is much more insightful in this regard and can be read as a useful companion volume. We can look forward eagerly to his forthcoming tomes. Although history defined for Haile Sellassie a transitional role, he had his own vision of where he wanted to take Ethiopia, and that seems to have been in the direction of the modernized monarchies that he saw in Europe during his 1924 tour. He made good progress in economic and military reform and this success may in part have encouraged the Italian attack in 1935. He was unable to break free of his feudal background and his perceived divine mission; he mistrusted his people's ability to make their own rational choices, and thus failed to move democratization along at an acceptable pace. Consequently, the political crises with which he would have to deal in later years slowed overall progress and ultimately undermined his regime.

Scholars will be thankful that Marcus and his team cared enough to translate this second volume of the emperor's autobiography. It cannot have been an easy task. As a combination of recollection and political propaganda, it fits appropriately into Michigan State University Press's African Historical Sources Series. Not only does it provide perspective on one of the twentieth century's most important leaders, but it also lends insight into the politics and culture of the era. And Marcus' annotations prove as useful as the autobiographical text itself. It is not necessarily for light reading, but it is nonetheless engaging and instructive, and it is rendered in a style that makes it quite accessible to ordinary readers.

Charles McClellan
Radford University

1967
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