Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Coronation of Haile Selassie

[This gorgeous gold medal was struck in 1955, to commemorate of the 25th anniversary of Haile Selassie's coronation.]

It's always been a matter of curiosity to me how exactly an Emperor of Ethiopia could become a potent religious symbol, first to the people of Jamaica, and thence to the Rastafari movement - which currently numbers some 600,000 people worldwide. Clearly there is much more than meets the eye in Haile Selassie I, for although he was an eminently civilized and cultured person there is nothing in him that would, outwardly at least, seem to inspire the fervent devotion to HIM*. Imagine: a cult of personality formed around a modest, devout figure!**

Selassie's reign actually began in the reign of his aunt, Empress Zewditu, when he was elevated to the rank of heir apparent and eventually came to serve as regent from 1916 onward. While serving as Crown Prince, Selassie (then known as Ras Tafari) continued the modernization begun under Menelik II, and certainly Selassie's rejection of colonial norms and support for pan-Africanism must have struck a chord with blacks everywhere, especially in the 1920s. Nevertheless, there were constant power struggles between aunt and nephew, culminating in a near-coup over Selassie's brokering of the Italo–Ethiopian Treaty of 1928.

Zewditu's death, in April 1930 - under mysterious and never satisfactorily explained circumstances - set the stage for Ethiopia's greatest moment of glory - the coronation of Haile Selassie and Empress Menen, on this day in 1930; held at the Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa, the splendid affair (with a rumoured price tag of $3 million) was attended by royalty and dignitaries from around the world.

The introduction of the country's first written constitution in July 1931, providing for a bicameral legislature, would give the Kingdom an all-too short-lived crack at modern democracy; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and ensuing war of 1935-6 was a brief interruption (during which HIM lived in exile in the UK, at Bath's Fairfield House), but a brief coup in 1960 which installed his son Asfa Wossen as Emperor, the deposition of the Emperor in March 1974 following the Wollo Famine and the 1973 oil crisis, tenure of Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, and a severe famine in the 1980s*** all served to undermine what Ethiopia could have become, as well as what it dreamt of becoming on that day.

*Rastafarians refer to Selassie by many names, including HIM, the acronym of His Imperial Majesty.
**Sarcasm! Selassie's Christ-like attributes are made abundantly clear on any number of Rastafarian websites.
***No doubt caused or at least exacerbated by central planning - which does. not. work.

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