Magazine article The Spectator

'King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia', by Asfa-Woosen Asserate, Translated by Peter Lewis - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia', by Asfa-Woosen Asserate, Translated by Peter Lewis - Review

Article excerpt

King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia Asfa-Woosen Asserate, translated by Peter Lewis

Haus Publishing, pp.374, £20, ISBN: 9781910376140

Great men rarely come smaller than Haile Selassie. In photographs, the golden crowns, pith helmets and grey felt homburgs he often donned can't conceal the fact that he is the shortest man in the room. It didn't matter: for the 44 years of his reign -- with a five-year interruption engineered by Benito Mussolini's invading troops -- he was effectively lord of all he surveyed.

Ethiopia's current government, established by a former Marxist rebel group, has always harboured mixed feelings towards Tafari Makonnen, as he was baptised. But for his countrymen he looms like a colossus, remembered for dragging his vast empire from feudalism into the modern age, and as a symbol of anti-colonialism who shamed the League of Nations for failing to stand up to fascism and went on to found the Organisation of African Unity.

Enigmatic, arrogant and aloof, he pulled off the paradoxical feat of being both a radical reformer and a hidebound dictator who insisted on the literalism of the title 'Elect of God' and came to be worshipped as a deity himself by the Rastafarian movement.

A full-scale biography has been missing up till now, perhaps because the emperor recorded a detailed, if partial, memoir with the British historian Edward Ullendorff. This latest account, translated from German, is particularly welcome because Asfa-Wossen Asserate, a prince by birth, is Haile Selassie's great nephew. His nobleman father went from rallying support for the emperor during a first failed coup in 1960 to begging his ageing leader to abdicate, and was finally one of 60 officials executed during a second, successful coup which ushered in a military dictatorship. So in theory this is that precious thing: an African history written by an insider.

Initially, however, the author fails to deliver on that promise of privileged access. While highly critical of accounts penned by the likes of the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski and Evelyn Waugh, Asfa-Wossen fails to provide a written Ethiopian perspective to correct these outsiders' viewpoints. That material, he says, simply doesn't exist, the archives of the imperial palace having been 'dispersed to the four winds' by succeeding regimes. Thankfully, Asfa-Wossen's own memories -- he was a teenager when two charismatic army officers first tried to topple Haile Selassie -- kick in halfway through the book, along with accounts of conversations with exiled former aides and ministers. …

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