Articles in this series:
Series: A History of Early Twentieth Century Ethiopia
06. The Emperor’s Coronation, and Pre-War Reforms
We saw last week that the period after World War I had witnessed a number of reforms, as well as difficult relations with both Britain and France. Now read on:
Reforms of the 1920s
Contacts between Ethiopia and the outside world were nevertheless strengthened by the establishment of an Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and by the setting up of Ethiopian Legations in Paris, Rome and London. Talks with the Coptic Church of Egypt were also initiated, with a view to reducing Ethiopia’s age-old subordination to the Church of Alexandria. The Egyptians insisted that Ethiopia should continue to have an Egyptian Abun, but agreed, in 1929, to the appointment of five Ethiopian bishops. This was two more than Emperor Yohannes had succeeded in procuring half a century earlier, but two less than the Zagwe King Yemrahana had unsuccessfully tried to obtain in earlier medieval times.
Reforms were also undertaken in several other fields. The soldiers’ requisitioning, or looting, of supplies from the peasantry was forbidden. The practice whereby a murderer would be handed over to his victim’s family for punishment was abolished, and replaced by institution of government executioners. Usurious rates of interest were forbidden.
Tafari, throughout this period, was steadily outmaneuvering his rivals, for the most part Menilek’s courtiers, who were by then becoming weak and elderly men. The Regent’s enhanced position was recognized by Empress Zawditu, on 6 October 1928, when she accorded him the prestigious title of Negus. In the following year he established an Ethiopian airforce. This helped him further consolidate his power, and that of the central government, over the provinces, and their potentially rebellious lords. Aviation was in particular decisive at the battle of Anchem, in March 1930. In that engagement Zawditu’s ex-husband, Ras Gugsa Wale, the ruler of Bagemder, from whom she had been parted when she assumed the imperial throne, was defeated and killed. Only a few days later the Empress, a sick woman, herself passed away. Tafari thereupon assumed the imperial throne, as Emperor Haile Sellassie I.
Haile Sellassie’s Coronation
The new Emperor’s first success, after his accession, was the conclusion of an arms agreement, with Britain, France, and Italy. Signed on 29 August 1930, it proclaimed the need to ensure “effective supervision over the trade in arms and munitions in Ethiopia”, but specified that the Emperor should be allowed “to obtain all the arms and munitions necessary for the defence of his territories from external aggression and the preservation of internal order”. Haile Sellassie’s coronation, on 2 November 1930, was a colourful event, for which Addis Ababa was considerably beautified, and some street lighting installed. The ceremony was attended by the Duke of Gloucester for Britain, the Prince of Udine for Italy, and Marshal Franchet d’Esperey for France. Representatives also came from Sweden, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, the United States, and Japan. The celebrations attracted considerable international media coverage, for both the monarch and the country. One of those attending was the British novelist Evelyn Waugh, who described the event in a journalistic account, and later also wrote a satirical novel, Black Mischief, set in Ethiopia of the time.
The Country’s First Written Constitution
In the following year the Emperor introduced the country’s first written constitution. It was drafted after study of those of many other countries, including Japan, and was based on considerable debate between the nobles and the bureaucracy, which consisted largely of commoners. The Constitution was promulgated on 16 July 1931. In it the monarch, who was officially described as a descendant of King Solomon and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, was accorded virtually absolute powers, and his body was declared sacred. A two-house Parliament was established as a kind of political sounding board. It consisted of a Senate, nominated by the Emperor from among the princes and nobles, and a Chamber of Deputies to be elected on the basis of fairly restrictive property qualifications. A line of imperial succession was also, for the first time, laid down, sovereignty being , it was stated, permanently based on descent from Haile Sellassie.
Anti-Slavery Decree, and Bank Nationalisation
The Emperor that year also promulgated a second, anti-slavery decree. More comprehensive than its predecessor, it provided for the gradual, but systematic, emancipation of slaves. No less than 62 anti-slavery offices were established in various parts of the country. Decrees were likewise issued for the curtailment of labour service, and for the reform, and monetarisation, of land taxes. Menilek’s old Bank of Abyssinia, a private institution, was nationalised, also in 1931, and replaced by a state institution, the Bank of Ethiopia. A new national currency, bearing the effigy of the new monarch, was established, and supplemented by a sizeable issue of gold-backed paper money. New postage stamps were likewise inaugurated.
Other developments, no less important from the point of state building, also took place. Ras Haylu Takla Haymanot, the traditional ruler of Gojjam, was fined for tax evasion and other offences, and arrested in 1932, for conspiring to assist Lej Iyasu’s escape from detention. The semi-autonomous status of Jemma was terminated in the following year. Parts of Charchar and Bale were established as areas of model administration. As a result of such acts, some dating back to the period of Tafari’s regency, most of the country was brought under centralised rule, perhaps for the first time since the reign of Emperor Zar’a Ya’qob.
New Ministries, Schools, and Hospitals
The process of creating Ministries meanwhile continued, with the establishment of a Ministry of Education, in 1930, and a Ministry of Public Works in the following year. A number of modern schools and hospitals were likewise established. The former included the first girls’ school, founded in Addis Ababa by, and named after, Haile Sellassie’s consort, Empress Manan, opened in 1931. Ethiopian women, a result, began for the first time to be prepared for the professions. A number of schools in the provinces were also inaugurated. Some, situated near British possessions, gave instruction in English; the others in French. The Empress Zawditu Memorial Hospital, ran by Seventh Day Adventist missionaries, was set up in Addis Ababa in 1934. Further students were sent for study abroad, in the Middle East, Europe, and America. Several of them became military cadets.
Road-building continued, with the result that Addis Ababa became the nub of a not unimpressive embryonic road network. A road to the north led as far as Dase, in Wallo, with an extension under construction to Addegrat, in Tegray. There were also three roads to the west. One went to Dabra Libanos, with work in progress as far as Dabra Marqos, in Gojjam; the second ran up to the Gibe river, with construction going on as far as Laqamti, in Wallaga; the third extended to Jemma. To the east and south of the capital a track led to the railway town of Mojjo, and thence southwards, through the Rift Valley, to Yirgalam, far away in Sidamo.
The Emperor throughout this time employed, and made effective use of, a number of foreign advisers. Several of them played a notable role in policy making. The three most important comprised a Swede, Eric Virgin, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; a Swiss, Jacques Auberson, in the Ministry of Justice; and an American, E.A. Colson, in the Ministry of Finance. Three other advisers may also be noticed: C.S. Collier, a Canadian, who served as governor of the Bank of Ethiopia; Ernest Work, a black American, in the Ministry of Education; and Frank de Halpert, an Englishman, who was employed to advise with the abolition of slavery, in the Ministry of Interior. With the exception of the latter, who was appointed mainly to appease British complaints about slavery, and had virtually no influence, none of the advisers came from the neighbouring colonial powers, Britain, France or Italy.
Military Training in the Last Years of Peace
The last years of Ethiopian independence prior to the Italian fascist invasion, also witnessed several other significant developments. The country’s first radio station was established, in 1931, and later replaced by more powerful installations, which enabled the Emperor to address a “message to the world” in January 1935. Military reorganisation was also intensified. A Belgian military mission arrived, in 1930, to train the Imperial Bodyguard, and a Swedish mission, in 1934, to establish a Military College. It was situated at Holata, west of the capital, in one of Menilek’s former palaces. The first cadets, however, had not graduated before the country was engulfed in an invasion of unprecedented