The Lion of Zion, Part 2: Rastas and Revolutionaries

To read the first part of The Lion of Zion, click here.

We left Ethiopia on the verge of what historians call the Late Modern Period, which is somewhere in the late 1700s (because when you’ve been studying Egyptian tributaries or Inca agriculture for half your life you kind of lose perspective of what “recent” is). Perhaps it would be better to call it the Recognisable Age, because so many of the things our lives are based on – empirical science and automatic machinery, global diplomacy, mass politics and ideology- originated around then. They’re easy to take for granted but either didn’t exist or wouldn’t have been the same at all in an age of manpower and mercantilism and the divine right of monarchs. While it’s usually seen as a European thing, the Modern Age would have repercussions all over the world. In Ethiopia it would bring famines and boons, conquests and tragedies, bandit emperors and a son of God. It would begin in earnest, as many great sagas do, with a clash of kings.

I'm sorry, Tewodros II can't hear you over all the swag he has.

I’m sorry, Tewodros II can’t hear you over all the swag he has.

Sparked by a debatable line of succession – which coincidentally coincided with poor harvests, religious intolerance and a weak administration – the Ethiopian Age of Princes can be seen in the same light as the Time of Troubles in Russia a century earlier. Local nobles declared themselves Kings, Princes and Emirs in a battle royale for the…well, for the royalty, and the people of the country suffered massively. Muslim fought Christian, North fought South, and roving groups of bandits called Shifta fought freaking everyone. The Beta Israel even came out on top for a time, recreating their ancient Kingdom of Semien. It makes sense, in a conflict of local power, that the winners should be the ones who brought with them modernised, centralised structure. What makes less sense is that the winner would actually be one of the bandits. But Emperor Tewodros II was just that, a former Shifta and royal heir who – if you believe royal accounts – was basically Ethiopia’s Robin Hood figure before his systematic conquest of the petty states to restore order to the country in 1855. He was also, as it turns out, a sneaky moderniser – he asked for British weaponry and skills so he could “protect Christian interests on the borders of Victoria’s empire” and tried to separate the church from the state – and an impulsive badass – he filled his court with live Ethiopian Lions, a tradition that would last right up until the 1970s. But he was a new sort of Ethiopian leader, and like the new kind of Ethiopia he was far from stable. In his diplomacy with the British Empire, hindered already by Ethiopia’s unique alphabet and Britain’s obstinate refusal to ever learn anyone else’s language, he offended Queen Victoria’s aides, who decided to invade. Not wanting to be the Emperor who unified and destroyed Ethiopia in a single lifetime, Tewodros shot himself in his castle in 1868.

Ethiopia’s golden ticket of diplomacy worked worse in a secular, modern world – the “Prester John” card had failed, and protecting the Ethiopian Christians seemed less valuable to the Great Powers once they had become great enough to cross its mountains without habitually dropping dead. Ethiopia survived the British invasion only by installing a pro-British Emperor, who ironically had been given all the British supplies Tewodros had requested as payment, and life went on precariously. The rest of Ethiopia’s 19th century was spent expanding – expanding its army, expanding is borders, expanding its population. But it could only expand where there was space for it to do so, and the eyes of secular powers were still fixed on the now quite populous country. But one group of Westerners approached Ethiopia in a new light, and a unique light. Let’s give a warm, Holistic History welcome to Jamaica – and the movement who found God incarnate in Ethiopia.

Groundation Day: one hog away from a Bill Murray movie.

Groundation Day: Not to be confused with movies about Bill Murray’s repetitive life.

Ethiopia came under the control of Prince Tafari, later crowned as Halie Selassie, in 1916. Many saw him as another good Ethiopian diplomat – he had spoken out against the use of chemical weapons and for African independence at the League of Nations, and had become one of the most famous Africans in the world. But a literal reading of Bible verse had led some Jamaican Christians to believe he was something more. They believed he was nothing less than God in human form, and that Ethiopia was the “Zion” or holy land to the “Babylon” of the Western world. Combining Afrocentric philosophy, egalitarianism and the imperial colours of Ethiopia – red, yellow and green – they formed a religious movement which they named after the Prince which, in Amharic, made it “Ras Tafari”. Even more interesting is that Halie Selassie never accepted his role as God: he negotiated with Rastafari leaders, even offering them land to settle in Ethiopia, but remained a strict Coptic Christian his entire life. He visited Jamaica, an event still known as Groundation Day, but refused to speak to the crowd until the “cloud of ganja smoke” drifted away. Ras Tafari, the god who didn’t want to be, would spread his message of peace to a whole movement. But his mortal life was just as interesting.

In 1936, the Country That Couldn’t Be Conquered was occupied by that eternal latecomer to the imperial party, Italy – at the time, calling itself the New Roman Empire under the control of the prime minister and “Duke of Fascism” Benito Mussolini. The invasion would be one of Ethiopia’s bloodiest and most brutal, with both sides using illegal weaponry – the Ethiopians used expanding bullets, the Italians chemical weapons. The fight lasted for the whole of the Second World War, and Halie Selassie – from exile – raised the profile of Ethiopia considerably by denouncing the Italians. By the end of the war, with Italy’s defeat, Selassie’s diplomatic cunning allowed Ethiopia to annex Eritrea, a former Italian colony, and propelled it into being one of Africa’s most influential states, a model for the ambitious leaders of newly forming African nations. But Selassie, like so many of the leaders of post-war Africa, was good and dictatorial in equal measure. He passed the laws of Ethiopia, he took part in the nobles’ intrigue – he passed a law in 1967 which allowed him 75% of the country’s crops should he require it. In many ways, Selassie ran the country just like a pre-modern absolute monarch, right down to the Imperial Pillow-Bearer who carried cushions and bedding wherever he went. The modern world, however, is a world of ideology, and Ethiopia was about to experience one of the 20th century’s most dogmatic and powerful. In the ranks of an unhappy and powerful military, Communism was brewing.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

Bob Geldof, surrounded by displaced Ethiopians in the famine.

The Derg presented themselves as loyal servants to the Emperor. A group of army officers and generals, they claimed to be helping Selassie administer his country in his declining years. But one by one, imperial assets seemed to disappear – his shares in industry were taken by the state, his law-making powers transferred to the Derg. In 1975, they declared themselves the true rulers of Ethiopia, imprisoning Selassie in his own palace. Many claim he was killed by suffocation with one of the imperial pillows. The Derg then ran Ethiopia with as iron a fist, and a great deal more extravagance – borrowing money for ridiculous projects and personal gains under the leadership of Mengistu Halie Mariam that it could never sustain. In their attempts to retain power, they were also brutal. They are estimated to have killed between 30,000 and 500,000 people, most notably and first of all the communist Revolutionary Party that had been collecting mass support in secret under Selassie. Mengistu would later be found guilty of genocide, and his entire rule known as The Ethiopian Civil War. A great – and somewhat related – tragedy came in the Ethiopian Famine of 1984. Famine caused by drought is common in subtropical Ethiopia, but during this famine the Derg insisted on a large quota of all the grain grown. They also tried to use it to settle more Amhara Ethiopians – those of the ethnic majority – in the less populated south and, in many cases, simply starve potential rebels from other ethnicities to death. When international aid did arrive – thanks to Live Aid and the work of film-makers like Mohamad Amin, it did in huge amounts – it went too often into the hands of the Derg itself.

There are few absolute bad guys in history. To be honest, the Derg can be seen as an extreme continuation of Amharic Ethiopia’s expansion and conquest from the invader state of Dmt onwards. Tewodros II showed the benefit of the modern world’s centralised power, ideology and structure, the Derg merely showed the other side of the coin. But the Derg years, which lasted until Mengitsu was run out of office by an army composed mostly of Ethiopia’s minorities in 1991, were atrocious in a unique way. The way Ethiopia is seen today is mostly the result of these years. In reality, Ethiopia remains at the same time both unique in Africa and a totally interconnected part of it – it has a somewhat alien religion to some, and a somewhat alien alphabet, even a somewhat alien history, but it’s got the same ancient roots, the same astounding cultural diversity, and faced the same issues of independence and colonial power, albeit in a slightly different way. Ethiopia may seem to defy being put into boxes. But there’s some things that connect all across history, and no country shows it better.

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