The Emperor

A few years ago I was teaching about the origins of World War Two and I came across a remarkable book by Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Emperor.  It is a book about Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).  After Selassie was deposed Kapuscinski travelled around Addis Ababa secretly interviewing the former court officials of the Imperial Palace.  It is incredible reading and reminds me of the famous quote by Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Each of the court officials interviewed is identified only by an initial.

F.: It was a small dog, a Japanese breed.  His name was Lulu.  He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed.  During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on the dignitaries’ shoes.  The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet.  I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth.  This was my job for ten years.

Hard to say if this job was better or worse than this one:

G. S.-D.: I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years.  I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with pride – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me.  I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones.  This allowed me to quickly choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur.  In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colours.

Twenty-six years!  It really must have been tough for this guy trying to get a job after the Emperor was deposed.  I can’t imagine his CV would have read well to prospective employers.


At the coronation of Haile Sellasie in 1930 the Europeans in attendance gave Sellasie honours while the Americans gave the new Emperor a curious selection of gifts that included:

  • One electric refrigerator
  • One red typewriter emblazoned with the Ethiopian Royal Arms
  • One radio set with phonograph attachment
  • One hundred records of “distinctly American music”
  • Five hundred rose bushes, including several dozen of President Hoovers
  • Three moving picture films: Ben Hur, The King of Kings, With Byrd at the South Pole

Time Magazine, 3 November, 1930

Extraordinarily, for such a colossally pompous ass, Haile Sellaise was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1936. 

In 1935 Italy invaded and occupied Abyssinia on the most spurious of grounds and the diminuitive Emperor (after fleeing) had been pleading his country’s case ever since in whatever forum would have him.  It was a situation that engendered a lot of sympathy and his petition was well received, although none of the great powers did anything of significance to help him.  When you read the article celebrating his Man of the Year achievement perhaps the most remarkable thing is the number of racial backhanders the writer pays Sellasie.  Here are a few examples:

  • Haile Selassie has created a general, warm and blind sympathy for uncivilized Ethiopia throughout civilized Christendom
  • …the Machine Age seemed about to intrude upon Africa’s last free, unscathed and simple people
  • In the last week of 1935, Haile Selassie reached Broadway as a character in the new George White’s Scandals. Cries he: “Boys, our country am menaced! What is we gwine do?” From then until the curtain falls amid applause which almost stops the show, His Majesty and guardsmen execute a hilarious tap dance.

A hilarious tap dance?  What is we gwine do, indeed.

In the same article all the faults that Kapuscinski would lay bare 40 years later are revealed by the Emperor’s doctor:

Every conversation the physician has had with his Imperial patient, writes Dr. Sassard, “gave me further reason to admire and respect this Sovereign, who is so different from those who surround him and from his own people, and who is so superior to them. … In his motionless face only his eyes seem alive—brilliant, elongated, extremely expressive eyes. They bespeak boredom as well as polite indifference, cold irony, or even anger. The courtiers know these different expressions well and retire suddenly when the monarch’s glance becomes indifferent, then hard. “

Time Magazine, 1936

Mind you, not all Western commentators were sympathetic to the Emperor’s cause in 1936.  Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called Waugh in Abyssinia that closes with an ode to the conquering Italians:

Along the roads [of Abyssinia] will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France, Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of  vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement.

Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936)

By mischief I presume Waugh is referring to the mustard gas the Italians used on the Abyssinians, or was that an example of fine workmanship and clear judgement?

Waugh is essentially in the same camp as the person who wrote Haile Sellasie’s Man of the Year article; the simple people of Abysinnia live in an uncivilised country.  The American believes that these darkies can probably be best helped/colonised by selling them stuff, while the Europeans think you need to physically take over.  The later half of the twentieth century would prove the American view correct. 

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I wrote a book called Kaitiaki o te Pō

3 thoughts on “The Emperor”

  1. The Italians in Ehtiopia were ridiculous. Even more ridiculous because they had tried to take over the country before 1935 and were beaten! World War Two put the Catholic church in a tricky position, and they didn’t come out of it looking too flash. I greatly admire Evelyn Waugh, but I found the conclusion of his book on the Abyssinian War quite distasteful.

  2. In the book The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, Anthony Rhodes reports:(re the Italian-Abyssinian war)

    “The Bishop of Padua wrote on the 21st October, ‘In the difficult hours through which we are passing, we ask you to have faith in our statesmen and armed forces.’ On the 24th October, the Bishop of Cremona consecrated a number of regimental flags and said: ‘The blessing of God be upon these soldiers who, on African soil, will conquer new and fertile lands for the Italian genius, thereby bringing to them Roman and Christian culture. May Italy stand once again as the Christian mentor to the whole world.”

    Its interesting to see this attitude against the current activity of the Pope in the Middle East.

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