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.


Tsars and Strikes, Part 2: Cossacks to Comrades

So, where we last left off (about 1584, if you’re interested), Russia was looking successful, if a little oppressed. Powerful, expansive, but under the iron rule of an oppressive autocrat (oh god, feel like I’m talking about the USSR already), the Russian Empire was fully prepared to stretch east into the steppes of Asia and create the largest land empire since…well, since the empire of their Mongol oppressors. The Renaissance had arrived in full force and culture was flourishing across the brand new nation as huge, holy onion-things were built alongside grand imperial palaces and the ruins of everywhere that stood in the Empire’s way. Things were looking good, for the emperor at least…until the Poles got involved.


Congratulations! Your POLAND evolved into POLAND-LITHUANIA!

Poland and Russia have never been on good terms, but their relationship is perhaps a little less one-sided than you’d think. For years before they got involved in Russia, the Polish had dominated everything East of the Holy Roman Empire – bashing pagans in the Baltic, inheriting duchies around Belarus, actually resisting the Mongols unlike so many of their neighbours – and were often called an empire in their own right. And because of their myriad disagreements with Russia – Catholic vs. Orthodox, Feudal vs. Autocratic, Poland should own Russia vs. Russia should own Russia – they were constantly looking for ways to bring down their eastern cousin. The death of Ivan the Terrible and the crowning of Feodor I, a Tsar whose mental disabilities made him much more interested in ringing church bells and playing with clowns than ruling, they saw their perfect chance to strike. The result was the Time of Troubles, an era that cost Russia a third of its population through famine, chaos and war with Poland. Eastern European nobles launched almost constant campaigns against the Tsardom, each claiming to be Ivan IV’s long lost son and each bringing with them huge hired armies that tore up and oppressed the country like the lovechild of the Mongols and the Oprichnina. This would have killed many a nation. But Russia found its salvation in its mercantile past.


The main benefit of the Russian Enlightenment for the serfs was, of course, looking at the elite class being all fancy in their new coats.

For a nation built from trade routes, it seems fitting that it should be saved by a group of merchants. Under the leadership of a butcher and a prince (surely the first mismatched crime fighting duo in history) the Russian monarchy reasserted themselves, this time under the control of the Romanov family, who would be the second and last ruling dynasty of the empire. This time around, things were a little different in the empire – in came the Enlightenment, scientific Northern European sister to the Renaissance, which brought with it a wave of science, technology and philosophy that would change next-to everything about European life. And just as the Renaissance was embraced by Ivan the Terrible, the Enlightenment was embraced by Peter the Great, first of the Romanovs, rationalist and reformer extraordinaire. While a great deal of his “progressive” actions look strange in hindsight – he had a vendetta against that so old-fashioned of institutions, the beard, and so enforced shaving across the empire – he brought the technology Russia needed to remain a world power, from military technology that would win Russia yet more land in Europe to the administrative system that could keep it there. 40 years later, Russia (under Catherine the Great, who is unfortunately more famous for having sex with the original Casanova than the extraordinary feat of being a successful and mostly benevolent autocrat in a world of imperious men) would swallow its old enemy Poland in the West, even colonise Alaska in the East. Things were clearly good in Russia. But a new storm was coming, and this one would create more social change than the Renaissance and the Enlightenment put together.

The Industrial Revolution was made for some countries. The British Empire had huge amounts of coal to power factories, and a strong democratic and capitalist system that encouraged profitable new technology. France had an upper class of revolutionary thinkers and philosophers and a working class of urban, literate craftsmen. But Russia still had an absolute regime based on a tiny enlightened elite and a huge peasant class of rural and illiterate workers, one that even still operated under the serf system that had been created by everyone’s favourite despot some two centuries before. Industrial Revolution did not come and class unrest rose as more people questioned Russia’s status – huge but backwards, it still seemed like the Renaissance remnant of a 15th century reshuffle, with a bit more Siberia and a few less beards. It goes without saying that this unrest, this resistance to move with the times, would lead to…well, not nice things in the long term. Russia made progress, of course, and by abolishing serfdom in 1861 it almost started the Russian Industrial Revolution overnight, but the tensions of an increasingly urban working class only increased. They had only gone from slaves to wage slaves, in their eyes, and now they weren’t even guaranteed land to work on. To them, Russia needed an end to the class system that had been established in the old Grand Duchies, and in a world without any elected officials, any working or middle class representation, the seeds of revolution were already sewn.


The one thing that united the revolutionary groups was an appreciation of how freaking terrible the Tsar was.

In 1917, it all sort of happened at once. Three movements emerged at once in opposition to the incompetence of the Tsar and his outdated system: peasant revolts, parliamentary opposition and worker’s revolts. They all wanted the system that would work best for them – the peasants generally wanted a system of very, very local government where land belonged to everyone; parliament wanted an intensely liberal and tolerant society with parliament in charge, the workers wanted something weird and Western called Communism. You can guess who won. That’s right, parliament. Seriously. For a few short months after the Tsar abdicated, Russia was run by an amazingly liberal, free-press-and-free-speech loving parliament. But Russia hasn’t got a good record on liberal movements. The army still wanted peace, the workers still wanted bread, the peasants still wanted land. Eventually, a small communist party, once discredited for their anti-war, autocratic views, made promises that appealed to all three parties. Their motto was “Peace, Bread, Land”. And their leader was Vladimir Lenin.  The new Soviet Republic – so named for the districts called Soviets or self-governing communes that it divided the country into – survived, Lenin (somewhat ironically) using all the same techniques Ivan the Terrible had used to create his empire 500 years previously – secret policemen; brutal treatment of political enemies; terrible, terrible choice of heir. For all the progress of the Russian Enlightenment, it was returned to a system of autocracy and corruption. The main difference was that anyone in Russia could rise through the ranks do do the oppressing. For many, that wad the best that they could hope for.

Communist RussiaIn the end, Russia was left – along with the other states in the USSR – in the same rut it was in under the Ivans: oppressed by an autocrat, at constant war, and, most ironically of all, with laws that tied the peasants to their farmland. It’s definitely worth a Holistic History of its own someday. Now, of course, communism has fallen, but the transition has led millions into poverty with little to no financial assistance and there’s talk of whether the new system is democratic at all. Even now, it seems Ivan, Peter, Katerina’s legacy of control and aristocracy lives on. Maybe it always will.

The Monster Raving Loony Emperor: Norton I of the United States

Read any history textbook and you’ll be flooded by greatness. The subject is filled to the brim with stories of people who were inspirational, people who were extraordinary, people who were generous or kind or ruthless or really, really pretty. (And yes, the only group with a significant number of women in it is the last, but I’m happy that at least my namesake Phillip “the Handsome” of Spain is an exception). One group of people who tend to be forgotten by history, however – and it’s a terrible shame because they’re my absolute favourites – are the mad. The quirky. The eccentric. And unless they’re in charge of one of the largest countries in the world at the time, or the pet of someone who is, they’re likely to be swept up by asylums or banished into the wilderness forgotten. That’s what makes the case of Joshua Norton so special, what makes his story amazing and why I’m willing to forgo holistic overviews for a personal story today. Ladies and Gentlemen, by the Grace of God, I present Emperor Norton I, lord of the United States of America and Protector or Mexico, Regent of San Francisco and all-round eccentric.

Norton I in all his imperial frivolity.

Joseph Abraham Norton was born to a rather un-royal background, a British citizen born in England and raised in British South Africa in the early 1800s. His early life is largely unknown, but historians are pretty sure he moved to San Francisco in 1849 to move into finances and lost most of his money by investing unwisely.  That’s not an unusual story – thanks to the Gold Rush in California in 1848, San Francisco was the place to be for budding investment bankers and finance gurus at the time, and naturally a lot of them went bust. Norton, for his own reasons, stayed, and it’s about then that he started…you know…the mad stuff.

See, on the 17th of September, 1859, Norton did something that puts other eccentrics to shame. He declared himself Emperor of the United States of America (by some unknown authority only he knew about, of course) and ordered the entire US government to meet him in the San Francisco Theatre to hold a meeting on the state of his newly inherited country. He was ignored by the government, but the press loved him, jokingly printing his declarations in the local newspapers. This is where the story gets really heart-warming. The local people grew to love him, humouring him as he went about his “official duties” – checking the trams, posing for photographs, writing to the US government to try and dissolve Congress to give his absolute power, the usual stuff for an Emperor of his rank to do. As time went on, he grew more and more popular – the army gave him a uniform with gold-plated shoulders, restaurants would put up plaques if they got the “Imperial Seal of Approval”, plays were written with Norton as the protagonist at his favourite theatres – and he became a cult hero to the residents of what was quickly becoming the US’s most tolerant city.  He even became a force for good in the community – he campaigned for a bridge to be built across the San Francisco Bay 60 years before the Golden Gate was built, and was one of the first to suggest that America form a League of Nations (read: He invented the UN 50 years early) for international peace. His finest hour was in the middle of an anti-immigrant riot, where he protected local Chinese labourer by STARING AT THE RIOTERS UNTIL THEY WENT AWAY. Suffice to say he was a local legend by the time of his death in 1880, as 30,000 people paraded through the city’s streets in his honour.

The Norton Government, in debt by 50 cents – and therefore in a far better position than the US at the time.

The story of Norton, First Emperor of the USA, is a good one because it’s about a whole town’s kindness to one rather odd man – it’s about tolerance in a city so multicultural, so full of the weird and wonderful that racial and social tension should be constantly high. But, more importantly, it’s the story of an extraordinary man, a visionary and a lunatic all at once, and the legacy that means that, even today, the bridge he suggested across the San Francisco Bay still hold a plaque in memory of San Fransisco’s first – and so far only – Emperor.