Haile Selassie in Bath

By Harry Mottram. In 2019 a blue plaque was unveiled at Fairfield House in Bath by the grandson of the late Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

The event was an acknowledgement of the period of 1936 to 1940 when the head of state of the East African country stayed in the city at the house having fled from the invading Italian army instigated by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

The narrative of the time painted Haile Selassie as a romantic figure standing up to fascist imperialism as the head of the last independent country in Africa.
His speech at the League of Nations has gone down as one of the best denunciations of aggressive imperialism and conquest in the 20th century and has been argued to have effectively ended the League as an international body.
It was an era of the rise of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – both keen to invade any neighbouring countries with force of arms.

The world stood by and watched as Italy used poisoned gas, modern artillery and carpet bombing to overcome what was effectively a medieval army in Ethiopia – ill equipped and unsupported by any European nation. Despite this the Ethiopians put up stiff resistance before finally being defeated.
From this brave defence which cost the lives of thousands of Ethiopian soldiers and civilians and Haile Selassie’s speech and flight eventually to Bath a myth grew up around him which portrayed him as a heroic anti-fascist.
The reality was Haile Selassie was a brutal dictator who suppressed all opposition and prevented the country from democratic reform which led eventually on his return after the war to his overthrow in 1974 with a Marxist-Leninist coup.

In the novel Cutting for Stone (2009) the Ethiopian-born Indian-American medical doctor and author Abraham Verghese described the life of twin boys brought up in Addis Ababa in the 1950s and 1960s.
Although the background is the coming of age story the author describes the reality of the rule of Haile Selassie with its arrests, censorship and repressive laws.
Ethiopian academic Dr Yohannes Woldemariam wrote in an essay decrying the ruler’s romantic legacy: “Does Selassie deserve to be depicted as a dictator? The historical record provides a decisive answer.

“First, it is well-established that he spent $35 million for celebrating his 80th birthday during the Wollo famine. He travelled widely, visiting the United States many times, only stopping once in Jamaica in 1966.
“Perhaps less well-known are Selassie’s crimes and his associates, such as Asserate Kassa in Eritrea. “Similarly, the autocrat is remembered in Tigray for inviting the British Royal Air Force to bomb the region in 1943 to quell what came to be known as the first Woyane Rebellion. He consolidated his power by weakening the provinces after Italy’s defeat by the British in 1941.”

By dissolving the union of Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1950 he effectively prompted a long war of secession costing hundreds of thousands of lives and the de facto independence of Eritrea in 1991.
The country’s political situation since he was overthrown and assassinated in the 1970s is a direct result of his misrule.
The Derg era that followed his death saw purges and inter factional violence costing tens of thousands of lives with an ongoing break-away war with Eritrea, the 1983-85 famine and war with Somalia.

Today Ethiopia’s ruler Abiy Ahmed and the Prosperity Party is notionally democratic but its instinct is repressive – marked currently with a bloody civil war with break-away Tigray. And it must be mentioned that unlike say France or Britain Ethiopia is a mixture of ethnic tribal groups with different languages and cultures resulting in those in power having their favourite ethnic bases and playing one tribal group off against another.
Haile Sellasie’s rule lasted from 1930 to 1974 with a break from 1936-41 when Italy occupied the country. He did abolish slavery and founded the precursor of the African Union as well as attempting some reforms and modernisations. However as the Emperor he saw himself as the legitimate ruler of the country descended from a dynasty dating back centuries – and ruthlessly suppressed any dissenters. His sojourn in Bath is of historic note and due to the Second World War and Britain’s role in facing down the Axis powers Haile Selassie was both a victim and refugee of fascism.
The leader of a democratic and liberal Ethiopia he was not. So perhaps it is time for Bath to revise its romantic view of the Emperor of Ethiopia.

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