Abyssinia out of the Shadows

Three very different writers reported on the exotic and despotic court of the Emperor Haile Selassie. Jeffrey Meyers compares and contrasts. 

Christian and never colonised, remote and mysterious Abyssinia has only occasionally impinged on the western consciousness during its centuries of isolation. Evelyn Waugh visited it in 1930 and satirised what he saw as a barbaric country and the splendiferous coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie, who was to reign for 44 years, in Remote People (1931). He returned six years later to report and praise the Italian invasion in Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). Wilfred Thesiger, the son of a diplomat, was born in the mud buildings of the British legation in Addis Ababa, spent his childhood in Abyssinia and later explored unknown parts of the East African country. Serving in Orde Wingate’s Gideon Force during the Second World War, he helped drive out the Italian oppressors. He admired the traditional way of life and remained fiercely loyal to Selassie in his autobiography, The Life of My Choice (1987). The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski described the revolution of 1974 that overthrew Selassie in The Emperor (1978). In the books of these three writers Selassie appears in various guises: an exotic potentate, a victim of war and rebellion and an evil oriental despot. 

Evelyn Waugh in the 1930s.
Evelyn Waugh in the 1930s.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-66)

Waugh, who believed all foreigners were funny, was both fascinated and repelled by the Abyssinians and appealed to the racial prejudice of his English readers. He emphasised the tangle of incipient modernity and traditional barbarity, the clash between the dignified diplomatic corps, with their cocked hats, dangling ostrich feathers and rows of decorations, and the chaos that surrounded the shoddy pageantry and interminable religious celebrations. At the start of the coronation a vast crowd pushed into the tents erected near the cathedral and heard, amid the ecstatic dancing and drumming, the last of the singing in the all-night service conducted in the ancient ecclesiastical tongue. A salute of cannons terrified the imperial horses, which broke away and kicked their gilded coach. Airplanes swooped overhead, awakening the dozing audience. Journalists, who had to file their dispatches in time for the London morning papers and before the coronation took place, abandoned all pretence of reality and sent in the absurd inventions provided by their well-paid but unreliable informants. 

Waugh came to praise and stayed to mock. The poorer the conditions, the better the copy and he greatly enjoyed deflating the mystique of the country:

If in the foregoing pages I have seemed to give undue emphasis to the irregularity of the proceedings, to their unpunctuality, and their occasional failure, it is because this was an essential part of their character and charm. In Addis Ababa everything was haphazard and incongruous.

Always restless and in search of new material, Waugh twice ventured out of Addis. On his first trip, to the sacred monastery of Debra Lebanos, north of the capital and surrounded by desert, he contrasted his own sharp-eyed scepticism with the naïve, gullible and ill-informed Professor W, a putative expert on Coptic ritual. The holy treasures, wrapped in a silken shawl, turned out to be two tawdry ‘coloured lithographs, apparently cut from a religious almanac and printed in Germany’. The dreary eastern Orthodox rites, accompanied by chanting and drums, were also disappointing: ‘for anyone accustomed to the Western rite it was difficult to think of this as a Christian service’. 

Waugh actually saw the rather tedious coronation in 1930; he heard rumours about but did not see the Italian war in 1935, on which he punned in the title of Waugh in Abyssinia. He got within 200 miles of the battleground, but ‘no news of any value came from the front’. The swarm of foreign journalists, desperate for copy, continued to pour out their preposterous fantasies. The country had inevitably deteriorated during wartime and the ubiquitous lepers had returned. No longer fascinated by the comical anarchy, Waugh was now more impatient than ever with privation and danger and more intensely critical than before. He wrote that the country of slavery, torture and mutilation:

had nothing to give their subject peoples, nothing to teach them. They brought no crafts or knowledge, no new system of agriculture, drainage or roadmaking, no medicine or hygiene, no higher political organisation, no superiority except in their magazine rifles and belts of cartridges. 

In the east, Harar, vicious, tyrannical and squalid, was no better than Addis. During festivals, animals were slaughtered at every street corner and children ran about ‘carrying handfuls of fresh entrails’. The jail, Waugh exclaimed, was ‘the lowest pit of human misery to which I have ever penetrated’. In Jijiga, 50 miles east of Harar, a slave wrestled with half-grown lions and officers sold bullets to their own troops. He also condemned the fierce Danakil warriors, as he had the Masai in Remote People, by asserting that they ‘had been resorting to their traditional sport of murdering runners and stragglers from the Abyssinian forces’. 

The blame justly fell on the feudal Selassie, who ‘could make no claim to authority on grounds of heredity; the real [defeated] Emperor was in chains, few people knew where’. All these disasters, in Waugh’s view, left the way open for the Italian invaders, the bearers of European civilisation. Selassie’s only hope lay with the League of Nations, which indulged in high-minded pronouncements but did nothing to assist the Abyssinians. In the end the emperor, with no diplomatic cards to play, had to fight the overwhelming enemy. Waugh’s false claim that Selassie was driven from the country by his subjects and ‘fled precipitately’ was hotly disputed by his defenders. In fact, Selassie fought with his army on the northern front, risked capture by returning to the threatened capital and left to address the League of Nations in 1936.

Waugh’s most contentious assertions concerned the Italians’ use of bombs and poison gas against the Abyssinians, who had no artillery or planes to oppose them. A civilian, far from the front, he concealed and condoned the Italian atrocities and maintained that the ‘bloodless’ bombs did little damage. Ignoring the horrors, he stated that ‘gas was used but accounted for only eighteen lives’ and that the missionary who described the suffering of ‘women and children blinded by gas, now wrote to say that their sight had been restored’. As a recent Catholic convert, Waugh welcomed the Roman conquest in 1936 and also supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The novelist Rose Mac-aulay condemned his book as ‘a fascist tract’. In 1946, after the Italians had been defeated in the Second World War, he reprinted Waugh in Abyssinia in When the Going Was Good, but quietly suppressed the pro-fascist chapters.

Wilfred Thesiger during his journey across Arabia's Empty Quarter, March 1948.
Wilfred Thesiger during his journey across Arabia's Empty Quarter, March 1948.

Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003)

Thesiger’s character and life were formed by Abyssinia and he remained fiercely loyal to his father’s great friend, Haile Selassie. Tall and strong, he was the grandson of a viscount and nephew of the Viceroy of India. In the late 1940s Thesiger walked alone across the most hostile and desolate landscape on earth, the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Waugh – seven years older and much shorter – aspired to become, like Thesiger, a real aristocrat and romantic adventurer.

Thesiger met Waugh at Selassie’s coronation and in his autobiography, The Life of My Choice (1987), wrote that Waugh ‘was blind to the historical significance of the occasion, impercipient of this last manifestation of Abyssinia’s traditional pageantry’. Waugh wanted to join Thesiger’s expedition to the Danakils, whom he had mocked in Waugh in Abyssinia but whom Thesiger admired. Thesiger categorically refused his request and menacingly remarked: ‘Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.’

In 1916, when he was six years old, Thesiger witnessed the victory celebrations after Selassie had led 60,000 men in Homeric hand-to-hand combat and conquered the old ruler, Iyasu V. The antithesis of Waugh, Thesiger recalled that his early experiences had implanted in him

a life-long craving for barbaric splendour, for savagery and colour, and the throb of drums, and gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual, from which would derive later a deep-seated resentment of Western innovations in other lands, and a distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world.

Thesiger’s portrayal of Selassie was completely different from Waugh’s and he dedicated his autobiography ‘To the memory of His late Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie’. He praised his dignity and kindness, ‘his inflexible will, his intense patience, his courage, his horror of cruelty, his dedication to his country and his deep religious faith’. Waugh claimed that Selassie had ‘fled precipitately’; Thesiger showed that Selassie had commanded his army against the Italians at Qoram. He was forced to admit that as Selassie ‘acquired power he became increasingly autocratic’, but he insisted that ‘his foremost preoccupation was always his people’s welfare’ and that he ‘had an abiding horror of cruelty and executions. He himself never sentenced anyone to death’. In fact, he would make a Shakespearean comment, like ‘Methinks I like him not’, and let his servile ministers arrange the executions. Nevertheless, Thesiger continued to revere the despotic ruler.

Thesiger forcefully contradicted Waugh’s biased views of the hopelessly unequal war against the Italians, of General Graziani, of the barbaric methods of the invaders and – in defiance of the Geneva Conventions – their widespread use of poison gas. He described the ‘bitter fighting, largely swords, spears and shields against rifles, bayonets and hand grenades, that lasted until nightfall’. In a striking sentence he noted, ‘to meet a modern army, the Abyssinians lacked everything but courage’. 

After 425 deacons and monks were shot in Debra Lebanos, which Waugh had visited in 1930, the furious Thesiger quoted Waugh’s justification of the Italian terror and extermination. Waugh had declared that the Italian ‘civilising mission’ was ‘attended by a spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place’. Thesiger was also outraged by Waugh’s attempt to cover up the use of mustard gas, a toxic chemical that burned exposed skin and lungs and formed large blisters oozing yellow pus. The soft tissue of the eyes were especially vulnerable. In his ‘New Year Letter’ (1940), Auden wrote of ‘The Abyssinian, blistered, blind’. Thesiger vividly concluded that ‘anyone who was splashed with the fluid or who breathed its fumes writhed and screamed in agony’.

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007)

Born in Pinsk in eastern Poland, Kapuscinski studied history at Warsaw University, joined the official Communist youth organisation and became a journalist. In 1958 he started working for the Polish Press Agency and was sufficiently trusted by the Party to become the agency’s roving foreign correspondent, covering wars and supporting left-wing revolutions. He claimed to have seen 27 rebellions and, on numerous occasions, to have narrowly escaped death. He visited Ethiopia in 1975 and 1977. The subtitle of his The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat (1978) announces the theme of the book, its tripartite structure echoing that of Waugh in Abyssinia. Waugh did not see the war in the north; Kapuscinski did not see the famine that befell the same region. Like Waugh, he criticised his malicious and cynical fellow-journalists. 

Ryszard Kapuscinski in Warsaw during the 1960s.

In Abyssinia, a country of 30 million farmers, agriculture received one per cent of the national budget and the police and army – the largest in Africa – got 40 per cent. But when the emperor ordered a generous gift, the costive treasurer would dip into his bag of money as if it had been filled with poisonous serpents. The peasants were hopeless, naked and starved. Torture was pandemic and, in a humane gesture, public executions by disembowelment were replaced by a firing squad. Years later Kapuscinski matched Waugh’s condemnation of the wretched conditions:

The whole nation is being crushed by misery, whole provinces are starving … anyone who falls seriously ill dies because there are neither hospitals nor physicians, ignorance and illiteracy hold sway everywhere, barbarity, humiliation, trampling underfoot, despotism, exploitation, desperation.

In a series of interviews after the fall of Selassie, Kapuscinski tried to recapture the backward world and the ancient art of governing that had been extinguished by the revolution, as well as the life of the emperor who had ‘tolerated corruption in the Palace, defended a backward system and accepted [indeed created] the misery of millions of his subjects’. His interviews with courtiers and servants were the most contentious aspect of the book and some details are unconvincing. The initials Kapuscinski used to identify his informants do not correspond to real people: the aristocrats and servants all sound the same and speak improbably perfect English. The formal, highly stylised, even archaic language does not include the usual proverbial wisdom or echoes of the Bible. One sceptical friend called The Emperor ‘the best Polish novel of the 20th century’.

Still loyal to the emperor, the informants blamed the corrupt ministers for the disastrous revolution. But Kapuscinski’s pervasive irony revealed the opposite meaning of what the speakers intended and suggested his own criticism of the anachronistic court ritual. It seems most likely that his interviews were not recorded and transcribed verbatim, but imaginatively reconstructed from actual conversations. He thus created a new heightened reality, truer than true and brilliantly effective. 

The grovelling but pompous servants provided the most amusing interviews and produced some rare lighthearted moments: the cloak man placed the heavy black robes on the monarch’s shoulders; the human cuckoo clock bowed with mechanical regularity to announce the official hour had ended and to signal that it was high time to move on to the next event; the motorman, after the banquets, fired projectiles that released coloured handkerchiefs imprinted with the emperor’s image; the pillow bearer slid a comforting cushion under the unusually short imperial legs so they would not dangle awkwardly in the air; the sanitary engineer’s job, when the emperor’s pet lapdog Lulu urinated on the shoes of visiting dignitaries, was ‘to walk among [them] and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth’. But these absurdities are similar to contemporary practices in Arabian, oriental and western courts. 


There are also some unresolved contradictions. Kapuscinski states that Selassie had a well-developed intelligence service and consulted every day with his network of police informers. Despite advanced age, he had an ‘awe-inspiring prescience’ and maintained ‘a perspicacity amazing to those around him’. Yet Kapuscinski repeatedly contradicts this by quoting officials who stated that the emperor, cocooned in unreality, had no access to the truth and did not know what was happening. No one, they retrospectively added, ‘noticed the malignant growth of a conspiracy in the very centre of the Palace …. Nobody had any foreboding that the end was drawing near’. The most convincing explanation is that the intelligence services were too incompetent or too frightened to tell him the truth and that ‘he understood the end was coming and was too old to stop the impending avalanche’.

The enigma at the centre of The Emperor is Haile Selassie himself, whose head, by now, uneasily wore the crown. Kapuscinski observed the clashing views – one held by Thesiger, the other by Waugh.

There existed two images of Haile Selassie. One, known to international opinion, presented him as a rather exotic, gallant monarch, distinguished by indefatigable energy, a sharp mind, and profound sensitivity, a man who made a stand against Mussolini, recovered his empire and his throne and had ambitions of developing his country and playing an important role in the world. The other image, formed gradually by a critical and initially small segment of Ethiopian opinion, showed the monarch as a ruler committed to defending his power at any cost, a man who was above all a great demagogue and a theatrical paternalist who used words and gestures to mask the corruption and servility of a ruling elite he had created and coddled.

His feudal court could not create a prosperous country and his mania for economic development, which never happened, was impossible without political reform. The rebels saw him as an obstacle to creating a modern state.

Personal access to the emperor was the source of all wealth and power. He transacted all business secretly and by word of mouth, though he rarely spoke and kept no written records. Loyalty was paramount, peculation was tolerated, even encouraged, and he himself was corrupt. He owned 15 palaces and 27 limousines and had $100 million hidden in Swiss banks, which was not recovered after the revolution. To make himself look good, the courtiers said, he deliberately chose bad ministers who obediently carried out the death penalty. Students were suspect and he forbade building new schools and granting acreage to landless peasants. To encourage constant fear, he meted out violence in cunningly careful doses. 

Haile Selassie with his pet cheetahs before the Jubilee Palace, Addis Ababa, c.1955.An abortive revolution erupted in Ethiopia in 1960. Selassie’s son joined the rebels and 18 members of the royal family were arrested and executed. Hyenas roamed the streets and the emperor shot his favourite lions for admitting traitors to the palace. But the police, imperial guard and most of the army remained loyal and the revolution was crushed. Instead of responding to this threat and instituting reforms, Selassie became even more corrupt and oppressive and paved the way for the next revolution.

In 1973 the television journalist Jonathan Dimbleby made a film, Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine, which provoked international outrage by showing the emperor feasting with palace courtiers while his people were dying of hunger. In Ethiopia the increased taxes on starving peasants and the widespread corruption sparked the successful revolution of 1974. When the emperor tried to placate the common soldiers with a pay rise, the generals stole the money and gave them nothing. When overseas benefactors sent vitally needed food supplies, the Imperial Treasury demanded extortionate customs fees. Selassie, now completely out of touch with reality, imagined that he was still in charge and ‘wanted to rule over the rebellion, to command a mutiny, even if it was directed against his own reign’. He even claimed, when arrested, that he supported the revolution. He only protested, as the owner of a fleet of luxurious vehicles, when he was driven away in a humble green Volkswagen. Kapuscinski supported the revolution but did not describe the horrific aftermath: the Marxist-Leninist junta, led by Mengistu Mariam (now in comfortable exile in Zimbabwe), murdered Selassie. Mengistu became the dictator and led the Red Terror in 1977-8 that killed two million people. 


These books reveal Selassie’s astonishing transformations. He was a fearless hero in western Europe during the Italian invasion, but after the British defeated the Italians in East Africa and he returned from exile in England to regain his throne in 1941, he became even more tyrannical. All three authors wrote superbly but distorted the truth to justify their own points of view. Waugh vividly portrayed the plight of the country but he praised the barbaric Italian invasion of 1935, which he believed would civilise and improve Abyssinia. Thesiger admired almost everything that Waugh disliked: locked in his own reactionary views, he knew more but understood less than Waugh. He hated and fought against the Italians who had destroyed an ancient culture that he felt should have been allowed to survive without western interference. Dazzled by the primitive pageantry he held to the idea, not the reality, of Selassie and was blindly loyal to the colourful Abyssinians. He longed for the pristine past; loved the wild Danakil, Masai, Samburu, Bedouin and Marsh Arabs and saw Abyssinia as a kind of private theatre for his delight. He wanted the spectacle to last forever and did not really care what happened to the mass of suffering people. Conditions that were funny to Waugh were tragic to the left-wing Kapuscinski. But when he arrived in Abyssinia 40 years after Waugh and political and social conditions had not improved, he agreed with the right-wing Waugh rather than with the retrograde Thesiger and supported the disastrous revolution in 1974.

Jeffrey Meyers is the author of Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013) and Thomas Mann's Artist Heroes (2014). 

Abyssinia out of the Shadows

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