90th Anniversary of Waugh’s First Visit to Ethiopia: 10 October 1930

The following post is by Waugh Society member Milena Borden and is a preliminary version of a longer article that is being prepared for publication in a future issue of Evelyn Waugh Studies:

In July, it was reported that the bust of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie which stood in Cannizaro Park in Wimbledon was destroyed by a group of Ethiopian diaspora. Shortly afterwards the Friends of Cannizaro Park’s website published a short message thanking those who wrote to them about it and expressed hopes that there will be better news about the fate of the statue soon. It was also reported that the police have launched an investigation in relation to the incident. The attack on the statue was linked to the death of the Ethiopian singer Hachalu Hundessa who was shot dead in June in Addis Ababa followed by waves of protests.

I recently visited the Cannizaro Park where the Emperor’s statue stood but all what was left from it was the pavement foundation on which it was erected. The sign “Haile Selassie Statue” still points towards the location but there were only three benches within a small and secluded green area suitable for a picnic.

Haile Selassie had a turbulent life by all standards. In 1930, he acquired the title of the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Tafari Makonnen and was crowned as the Negusa Negast, the King of the Kings of Ethiopia. Five years later, Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Selassie was exiled in Britain until 1940. He triumphantly returned to rule the country until 1974 when after a military coup he died in detention under suspicious circumstances.

The most famous account of the Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation is written by Evelyn Waugh who spent five months in Abyssinia from 10 October 1930 to early March 1931. Waugh went as a correspondent of The Times and the Daily Express but he also wrote in detail about the events in Addis Ababa in his travel book Remote People (1931). In the biography of Selassie, King of Kings  (2015), Asfa-Wossen Asserate regrets that Waugh focused on the entertaining aspects of the coronation ceremony and especially on the faux-pas of the international journalists, officials and diplomats who attended. Assarete, who is a living relative of the Emperor, writes that Waugh was “a typical English snob under the blazing African sun” and supports this claim with the opinion of others who were present. According to him both the explorer Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003) and the Duke of Gloucester (1900-1974) who represented Great Britain at the event disliked Waugh.

At the time of his first Abyssinian adventure Waugh was a 27-year old Catholic convert. He was taken by the amusing stories he heard about the country from his close friend Alistair Graham, who was then a diplomat in Cairo. Waugh decided to explore one of the most exotic and oldest African Christian traditions and went to Abyssinia on a journalistic assignment. From there he wrote 13 reports which gained him the approval of the Times editor.1

From reading them as well as Remote People one is left with the impression that Waugh was not a fan of the Ethiopian royalty. He usually described the Emperor in purely informative terms underlining his monarchical ambitions:  “…he wished to impress on his European visitors that Ethiopia was no mere agglomeration of barbarous tribes open to foreign exploitation, but a powerful, organised, modern state. He wanted to impress on his own countrymen that he was no paramount chief of a dozen independent communities, but an absolute monarch recognised on equal terms by the monarchies and governments of the great world.”  However, while in the Ethiopian capital, Waugh purchased a portrait by a native artist of the Emperor, which was made the frontispiece of Remote People, and the painting was hung in Piers Court where he lived with his family until 1956.

As the world moved on towards the Second World War, the Ethiopian politics intensified and so did Waugh’s career as a writer and a journalist. In 1936 he went back to Ethiopia under very different political circumstances but again as a journalist although a more mature one. He supported the Italian invasion of Ethiopia led by the Fascist leader Mussolini. At the same time Britain became the first country to recognise Victor Emmanuel III as the emperor of Ethiopia. Waugh’s views about the Italian campaign are well documented in his book Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). Although he closely followed Ethiopian politics, his focus was primarily on the coverage of the international press during the conflict.

It is also interesting and perhaps typical of him that he was critical of the British policy towards the conflict: ”…I believe that the misfortunes that have fallen upon both peoples – the slaughter and terror on one side, the crippling expenditure on the other – are primarily due to the policy pursued by the British government. The Emperor believed that if he could win the support of the League, there would be decisive action on his behalf…”. The Italian-Ethiopian conflict provoked a political crisis in Britain. Officially the government was against the Italian aggression in Ethiopia but at the same time also wanted to maintain good relations with Italy as part of its appeasement policy. It entered secret negotiations with France over a compromise which was leaked to the public and viewed as a pact with the devil. Meanwhile the League of Nations was still debating how to deal with the Italian aggression, but the resistance in Ethiopia collapsed.

Waugh was never part of the inner circle of the Emperor, neither when he attended his coronation nor during his exile in Britain. He died ten years before Selassie who was deposed in 1974. With his end, the 3000 year history of the Ethiopian Empire, which Waugh admired, drew to a close. It is beyond doubt that, had he lived, he would have disapproved of Selassie’s authoritarian modernisation of the country, and especially of his flirtations with the Soviet Union and Tito during the 1960-70s. But it is easy to imagine that he would have been interested in Selassie’s highly ceremonial reburial in Addis Ababa in 2000 with only a few western journalists in attendance. As far as the most recent destruction in Cannizaro Park, Waugh probably would have thought about it as yet one more predictable misunderstanding between the Emperor and the world.

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One Response to 90th Anniversary of Waugh’s First Visit to Ethiopia: 10 October 1930

  1. Pingback: Ethiopian King of Kings’s Statue and Waugh Revisited – Milena's Blog & Other Items of Interest

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