Extracts from Imperial Exile

A selection of extracts from Imperial Exile


​The exile of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in the city of Bath in the 1930s is a gripping human drama. There are a number of compelling reasons why I want to share this poignant story.

​First, it deals with exile and separation – a universal human condition, which is becoming ever more prevalent in today’s turbulent world. Second, Haile Selassie’s enforced stay in Bath raises the perennial issue of how to deal with international aggression, and the attempts by the strong to dominate the weak.Third, the story of this exile experience gives a unique insight into a fascinating period of history both in Africa and Europe.

​The life of a refugee is never easy. It can be often misunderstood and looked down upon. Being in exile is an intense and testing time for anyone, be they kings or commoners; rich or poor; western, African or Asian. Trying to understand the inner turmoil of a person separated from their homeland can help us to appreciate the full range of what it is like to be human and the importance of home. Those of us who have never been forced from our countries have escaped lightly. But pausing to consider such an experience can enrich our own lives and teach us something new about ourselves and others. The story of being forced into banishment, and then escaping from it, has been told in many cultures throughout history in myths, fairytales, songs and poems. The experience involves an intense range of emotions, and fluctuations in an individual’s state of mind. Of course, getting inside the head of such an inscrutable and regal character such as Haile Selassie is not that straightforward. However, it is certainly possible to imagine many of the pressures and stresses he underwent.

​This story of an extraordinary African monarch, who lived through extraordinary times, provides a demonstration of the resilience of the human spirit. Haile Selassie was one of many exiles living in Britain in the 1930s as countless opponents of the fascist regimes in Italy and Germany had to flee for their lives. However, the Emperor’s story is definitely among the more complex, intriguing and rewarding.

​Haile Selassie ended up fleeing to Britain after the Italian forces of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini invaded his country in 1935 to help satisfy his colonial ambitions. The story has great relevance today.We are still witnessing big states bullying smaller ones, constant debates over how to organise collective security, and continued attempts by states and groups to impose what they regard as their civilising values on other countries and societies with different cultures and traditions.The Emperor was a symbol of national independence, which had been snatched away unfairly by Mussolini’s invaders. Haile Selassie fled to Europe because he believed he could stir the conscience of the so-called civilised world and ask for help to repel an aggressor. He made an eloquent appeal to the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, but it fell on deaf ears.

​The lukewarm response to Ethiopia’s plight by the British government also revealed its condescending attitudes towards Africa. Some of these prejudices and ignorances persist to this day and the Emperor was one of the first African leaders to challenge the fundamental precepts and assumptions of colonialism. However, the Emperor’s cause at the time was recognised and supported by millions of ordinary British citizens, keen to back an underdog.They recognised colonial bullying for what it was. Haile Selassie was a controversial character and there are still divided and hotly-contested opinions about his rule in Ethiopia. However, this book is not aimed at investigating any of the Emperor’s alleged crimes and shortcomings, nor at providing a comprehensive assessment of his time in power. While some of his achievements as well as his mistakes are mentioned, my focus is not primarily political in nature.

​This story also provides an engaging mingling of cultures between the privileged world of an Ethiopian monarch, and the genteel arena of Bath in the west of England. Here I have to declare an interest, which explains my passion and enthusiasm for this story. I live in Bath and have been on more than 50 trips to Ethiopia in the last 15 years. I love both places. I taught for several years at Addis Ababa University where the main campus is based in the grounds of the Gennete Leul, Haile Selassie’s former palace.

​Ethiopia is a surprising and beguiling country with its ancient Christian civilisation, its orthodox church with its many rites and sacraments,its hauntingly beautiful landscapes and more than 80 diverse cultures and languages. I have travelled to the eastern town of Harar where Haile Selassie grew up; to the volcanic lake area of Debre Zeit where he used to escape for weekends when in power; and to the northern town of Dessie where he manned an anti-aircraft battery when under attack by Italian warplanes. I have also visited three important religious sites of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which was.

​so important to Haile Selassie: the northern town of Axum, the home of the legendary Queen of Sheba, and the claimed location of the Ark of the Covenant; the remarkable rock-hewn churches of Lalibela; and the Debre Libanos monastery, perched on the edge of a stunning river gorge.

​DNA studies in the past few years have suggested that we all are descended from a group of migrant Africans who left the Rift Valley area of Ethiopia around 60,000 years ago. So the history of Ethiopia may be in some way the history of us all. Perhaps the fact that some of my DNA possibly originates from the country explains why I feel so at home there!

In turn, Bath has its hot springs expertly exploited by the Romans, its rolling hills, and its inspirational and exquisite Georgian architecture from the 18th and early 19th centuries. I have explored with great curiosity most of the city either on foot or by bicycle. I have marvelled at the beautiful wooded valley of Limpley Stoke and the unspoiled hills to the south of the city where one can walk undisturbed for hours. In this book I hope to capture some of the exciting essence of both places and make them come alive, especially for those not familiar with them.

​Haile Selassie’s separation from his homeland has all the ingredients of a great human story. It involves a tempestuous struggle of the soul against isolation and injustice against a backdrop of two incredibly diverse and magnificent civilisations. I am well aware though of the dangers of romanticising Haile Selassie’s exile. It was a hard experience with few frills – a crucible of suffering, lament and longing. The Emperor’s exile turned out to be no more than a brief interlude in his long reign, which began in earnest at his coronation at a glittering and sumptuous ceremony in Addis Ababa in 1930. However, he had held considerable power and influence for 14 years before that as regent and crown prince.

​In trying to fully comprehend the exile period,it is important to understand where Haile Selassie came from and what impact the experience of separation had on him afterwards. Chapter One gives an account of the immediate events in Ethiopia leading up to his exile, and Chapter Three gives the full background of his early life and upbringing in his country. Chapter Nine examines how the Emperor’s exile experience influenced his rule after he returned to Ethiopia. However, the main focus of this book is on what happened during the Emperor’s enforced stay in Britain. Although the Emperor was ensconced in his handsome Victorian villa in Bath, his mind inevitably was mainly elsewhere – with his people, who were undergoing intense suffering.

​The Emperor’s enforced sojourn has enriched the history of Bath but is not that widely known or examined in detail. Many biographies have been written about the Emperor by authors both inside and outside Ethiopia, though few of them explore the Bath years in any significant detail. Some excellent articles have been devoted to the activities of the Emperor while he was in the UK. But these focus more on what the Ethiopian leader did rather than his state of mind, and the impact of his exile on his emotions and personality.

​My book will take a much more observational approach and will attempt to uncover the experience of what being in exile was actually like, rather than just focusing on what happened. It will concentrate on the bitter experience of separation from one’s own country, especially at a time of great suffering and turmoil. The book therefore attempts to provide an accessible case study of the human condition of being in exile.

​It is of course difficult for any of us to enter fully into the time when these core events took place between 1936 and 1940. We all have to try to suspend our knowledge of what happened to Haile Selassie at the end of his life when he was overthrown in a left-wing revolution in 1974.The image projected of him then as an out-of-touch old man, accused of heartless despotism, remains a very powerful one. But the main focus of this book is long before this time when the Ethiopian leader was in the prime of life, in his mid-forties.

​A touching essay by the Palestinian intellectual Professor Edward Said reveals what it is like to be uprooted from one’s own country. He says separation denies dignity, leads to miserable loneliness and that its essential sadness can never be surmounted. Said quotes the American poet Wallace Stevens, who said that being in exile was being forced to have permanently what he called the mind of winter. The French philosopher Simone Weil said that to be rooted was perhaps the most important but least recognised need of the human soul.A poem by an author called Paul Tabori says that exile is the long wait for the train that never arrives, the plane that never gets off the ground. And exile is a song that only the singer can hear.

​The medieval Italian poet Dante, who himself was in exile, gives a very graphic but down to earth description of his experiences. In the Paradiso he says you have to leave behind what you love most:‘You have the bitter taste of someone else’s bread, how salty it is; you also have to cope with the hard experience of going up and down someone else’s stairs.’

The Emperor had an existence of epic proportions and could have easily been the basis for a character in a Shakespeare play. Such comparisons are often made but rarely justified. In the Emperor’s case it certainly is appropriate as he lived a life infused with great drama and tragedy. Five of his seven children died before he did. He witnessed many betrayals and jealousies, and saw a host of family members and close friends killed in battle, or die prematurely through illness or accidents. He also battled against countless enemies and did not shirk from sometimes employing brutal and ruthless tactics to overcome them. Whatever his politics and record in power, Haile Selassie endured more suffering than many of us ever face or could cope with.