Ras Makonnen's Impact on the Life and Reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I
Much has been written about His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I. But something which has often been overlooked by academics who study Rastafari, and even by many Rastafari themselves, is the profound impact that Ras Makonnen, His Majesty’s father, had on His life and reign.
Who is Ras Makonnen?
Ras Makonnen, born May 8, 1852, was one of the most influential figures in Ethiopia during the reign of his cousin, Emperor Menelik II. Equally adept as a politician, military official and diplomat, it was only fitting that Ras Makonnen was named future Emperor and successor to the throne of Menelik in 18981 - a destiny which his untimely death in 1906 prevented him from fulfilling.
Though unable to ascend the throne himself, the brilliant example of Ras Makonnen’s life would become the foundation upon which his son, who would wear the crown as Emperor Haile Selassie I, was able to successfully bring Ethiopia to international prominence during His historic reign as King of Kings.
Influence on Government
Ras Makonnen is best remembered as the Governor of Harar, the Ethiopian province where Emperor Haile Selassie I was born as Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892. It is in this role, as a political figure, that Ras Makonnen had perhaps the most direct influence on his young son. At the age of thirteen, young Tafari was given his first official position in the government of Ethiopia, under the tutelage of his father:
“Ras Makonnen celebrated his sons formal entry into the empire’s elite by hosting a reception and feast, during which he publicly proclaimed Tafari his heir and entrusted him to his officers… The Ras familiarized his son with the workings of provincial government. Constantly at [Ras Makonnen’s] side, the youth was permitted to ask questions and to offer advice.” 2
The impact of Ras Makonnen’s role in government becomes clearer when we examine a few of the political policies and projects he enacted during his term, and compare them to those of His Majesty.
Importing the First Printing Press
Ras Makonnen, during his time as Governor, “imported the first printing press to be seen in Harar,”3 in an effort to promote literacy and education. His Majesty, similarly, made literacy a top priority during His reign and put great value on the power of the printed word:
“For Ras Tafari, it was an urgent necessity to introduce printing into Ethiopia on a much larger scale, so that not only could the government’s laws and decrees be published, but also books and periodicals could be printed within the country.” 4
During the 1920’s, while not yet crowned as Emperor, then-Ras Tafari was unable to convince the Ethiopian government to fund his ambitious goal to import even more printing presses. Undeterred, Ras Tafari instead used His own money to purchase two printing presses, and had a printing office built. From there, He founded two newspapers: Berhanena Selam (Light and Peace) and Kesate Berhan (Revealer of Light).
Building Hospitals and Schools
Ras Makonnen “had a hospital built and was responsible for endowing a number of schools” 5 while Governor of Harar. The hospital he built was the very first modern hospital in Harar. This example set by His father reiterated to young Tafari the importance of caring for His people's physical and intellectual wellbeing:
“Ras Tafari also founded schools, and through each phase of His reign steadily expanded the network of educational facilities. He could not raise the funds to build a second hospital, but was not prepared to take no for an answer, and built and staffed it – in Addis Ababa – from His own privy purse.” 6
The high value that His Majesty placed on education is evident in the study of His speeches, and stands as an example to all who follow Him. “We have chosen education as Our primary concern because we believe that it is the instrument by which Our aims could be brought to fruition,”7 His Majesty once said. “From truth alone is born liberty. And only an educated people can consider itself as really free and master of its fate.”8
Ras Makonnen at the Battle of Adwa
In addition to being the Governor of Harar, Ras Makonnen was also a skilled military general. His military prowess had been instrumental in Emperor Menelik II’s decision to promote him to a position of political authority. Haile Selassie I writes, in His autobiography:
“Since it had become known to [Menelik II] that my father was valorous in battle and a friend and leader of soldiers, he appointed him, at the time of Harar’s occupation, Governor of the town and its province as well as Commander-in-Chief, with the rank of Dejazmatch. And similarly, after Menelik II had been anointed King of Kings of Ethiopia, he appointed my father to the dignity of Ras.”9
Later, during the famous “Battle of Adwa” in 1896, where the Ethiopian army defeated their would-be Italian colonizers, Ras Makonnen played a key military role.
“In this decisive engagement, the Governor of Harar, riding in the vanguard of his army, gave ample proof of his courage, fighting on until victory was assured despite having sustained a wound.”10
International Diplomacy, Progress and Development
When the war was over, Emperor Menelik II often employed Ras Makonnen for diplomatic affairs. “[Menelik II] sent Makonnen to Rome to negotiate an important treaty. While in Europe, the Ras came to appreciate Ethiopia’s urgent need for development, modernization and education.”11
The need that Makonnen recognized during his international travels, to advance the development of Ethiopia, was no doubt influential on his young son Tafari, who later echoed his father’s sentiments in His own autobiography. “My father had a strong desire to see the people get accustomed to the work of civilization which he had observed in Europe, and to make a start in his governorate.”12
Though he was confronted with fierce opposition, His Majesty similarly set out to reform and modernize Ethiopia: “The new regent wanted to institute reforms, while his opponents were determined that everything should remain just as it was. Ras Tafari knew that it would be a long struggle for him to reshape the country according to his own ideals.”13
“Schools, hospitals, modernization on all fronts: Ras Tafari’s vision of a modern Ethiopia was calculated to rally the ‘young Ethiopians’ to his cause.”14
In the widespread reforms introduced by His Majesty during His reign, and His focus on industrialization and education, the strong influence of Ras Makonnen’s desire for development is clear.
“The many schools and educational institutions, which it has been Our pleasure to inaugurate from time to time in various parts of the country, is a proof that Our plans for the modernization and the development of Our country are being gradually achieved. The establishment of a sufficient number of well-equipped hospitals and educational institutions is today essential for the basic growth and well-being of a nation, and it can be said that of the many branches of learning, technical knowledge is vital for its livelihood. The greater part of Our efforts has been directed towards giving Our beloved people the advantages of modern medical treatment and access to academic and technical education. With the guidance of the Almighty We are progressively moving towards the fulfilment of Our plans.”15 - His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I
The Founder of Pan-African Advancement
But the scope of His Majesty’s plan was greater than Ethiopia alone. In time, His Majesty would come to be known as the “Father Figure of Modern Africa.” The 38th American President, Gerald Ford, once noted that His Imperial Majesty had been a “towering leader for 50 years, not only of His own country but of the entire African continent.”16
As founding member and first Chairman of the Organization of African Unity, Emperor Haile Selassie I brought together all independent African states for the first time in thousands of years of history.
“The Emperor summoned the first continental congress of heads of independent African states. Solemnly he bade his fellow rulers to join hands in building a new Africa,” the New York Times wrote of His Majesty. “Haile Selassie may be remembered as the founder of Pan-African advancement.”17
From this we can see the precedent set by Ras Makonnen was built upon by His Majesty to positively affect the entire African continent, and ultimately, the world.
Ras Makonnen had a number of attributes that shaped the character of His Majesty’s life and reign. One of the most enduring of those attributes may be the carefully balanced approach that Ras Makonnen took towards both spiritual and secular matters.
His Majesty writes, in His autobiography: “I observed my father striving to fulfill, to the best of his ability, the Christian ordinances enjoined, by giving his money to the poor in trouble and to the church, and by praying at every convenient hour. As I grew up, the spiritual desire was guiding me to emulate him and so to conduct myself that his example should dwell within me.” 18
His Majesty taught that “Progress without religion is just like a life surrounded by unknown perils and can be compared to a body without a soul.”19 From this we can gather that, even with all the advances in modern science and technology, a society can only prosper and develop on a path that doesn’t lead to destruction if its moral character and goodwill are equally balanced with its development.
“Knowing that material and spiritual progress are essential to man, we must ceaselessly work for the equal attainment of both. Only then shall we be able to acquire that absolute inner calm so necessary to our well-being. It is only when a people strike an even balance between scientific progress and spiritual and moral advancement that it can be said to possess a wholly perfect and complete personality and not a lopsided one. The type of progress we have chalked out for Ethiopia is based on these fundamental principles.” 20 - His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I
Mosiyah Tafari is a musician, writer and founding member of the Rastafari Coalition who currently serves as Executive Director for the Board of Directors and Lead Organizer.