100 Objects: Stamp Collection – Part Two

Man of Errors

All autobiography is self-indulgent.

Daphne De Maurier

In our journey around the world according to the Wanderer Stamp Album let’s start in Africa.  Before we look at a map of Africa I would like to put a plug in for this event as one of the defining moments of modern history:

Berlin Conference, 1884
Berlin Conference, 1884

It was this conference of Western European powers that decided how those powers would divvy up and control Africa (Africans weren’t invited).  By 1902 90% of Africa was under European control.  Once independence was thrust upon these arbitrarily constructed “nations” in the 1950s and 60s – nations which had been unsympathetically and arbitrarily imposed across different tribal groupings, languages and geographies at the 1884 conference – a lot of them descended into civil wars.  Some have never really been free of them since.

By 1935 the map of Africa looked like this:

Map of Africa 1935

The whole idea of this map is offensive.  But let’s just move on and look at the opening entry for the Wanderer’s Stamp Album:

AbyssiniaThe fiercely independent Empire of Ethiopia, with its ten millions of Christian black people, its seventy languages, and its Emperor Haile Selaisse I… is one of the most interesting nations of the world….  For centuries Abyssinia’s fierce tribes have engaged in almost continuous warfare, if not with other nations, then among themselves.  Abyssinians will fight anybody!  When Italy in 1896 ambitiously laid claim to some territory belonging to the Empire of Ethiopia, a war sprang up which ended in a savage and disastrous defeat of the Italian army!  Italy, at the order of Mussolini, again invaded Abyssinia in 1935.

A few years ago I was teaching about the origins of World War Two and I came across a remarkable book by Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Emperor.  It is a book about Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Abyssinia.  After Selassie was deposed Kapuscinski travelled around Addis Ababa secretly interviewing the former court officials of the Imperial Palace.  It is incredible reading and reminds me of the famous quote by Acton: ”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”  In the story of the fall of Abyssinia at the hands of the Italian fascists it is hard to take sides.  Selassie and Mussolini are equal measures bombastic fools, and cruel bastards.  Mussolini’s absurd and contrived war in Abyssinia was an abomination, but then so was the reign of Selassie.  Sympathy has to go, as usual, to the people.  In this case, to the people of Ethiopia.  The 20th century was particularly cruel to them.  Cruelty that started in the court of Selassie.

Each of the court officials who were interviewed by Kapuscinski for his book were identified only by an initial.  The life they describe in Selassie’s court is surreal.

F.: It was a small dog, a Japanese breed.  His name was Lulu.  He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed.  During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on the dignitaries’ shoes.  The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet.  I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth.  This was my job for ten years.

Hard to say if this job was better or worse than this one:

G. S.-D.: I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years.  I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with pride – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me.  I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones.  This allowed me to quickly choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur.  In my storeroom I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colours.

Twenty-six years!  It really must have been tough for this guy trying to get a job after the Emperor was deposed.  I can’t imagine his CV would have read well to prospective employers.  It is important to remember when laughing at this that life for most people in Abyssinia was very hard indeed.

Selassie

At the coronation of Haile Sellasie in 1930 the Europeans in attendance gave Sellasie honours while the Americans gave the new Emperor a curious selection of gifts that included:

  • One electric refrigerator
  • One red typewriter emblazoned with the Ethiopian Royal Arms
  • One radio set with phonograph attachment
  • One hundred records of “distinctly American music”
  • Five hundred rose bushes, including several dozen of President Hoovers
  • Three moving picture films: Ben HurThe King of KingsWith Byrd at the South Pole

Time Magazine, 3 November, 1930

Extraordinarily, for such a colossally pompous ass, Haile Sellaise was named Time’s Man of the Year in 1936.

In 1935 Italy invaded and occupied Abyssinia on the most spurious of grounds and the diminutive Emperor (after fleeing) had been pleading his country’s case ever since in whatever forum would have him.  It was a situation that engendered a lot of sympathy and his petition was well received, although none of the great powers did anything of significance to help him.  When you read the article celebrating his Man of the Year achievement perhaps the most remarkable thing is the number of racial backhanders the writer pays Sellasie.  Here are a few examples:

  • Haile Selassie has created a general, warm and blind sympathy foruncivilized Ethiopia throughout civilized Christendom
  • …the Machine Age seemed about to intrude upon Africa’s last free, unscathed and simple people
  • In the last week of 1935, Haile Selassie reached Broadway as a character in the new George White’s Scandals. Cries he: “Boys, our country am menaced! What is we gwine do?” From then until the curtain falls amid applause which almost stops the show, His Majesty and guardsmen execute a hilarious tap dance.

A hilarious tap dance?  What is we gwine do, indeed.

In the same article all the faults that Kapuscinski would lay bare 40 years later are revealed by the Emperor’s doctor:

Every conversation the physician has had with his Imperial patient, writes Dr. Sassard, “gave me further reason to admire and respect this Sovereign, who is so different from those who surround him and from his own people, and who is so superior to them. … In his motionless face only his eyes seem alive—brilliant, elongated, extremely expressive eyes. They bespeak boredom as well as polite indifference, cold irony, or even anger. The courtiers know these different expressions well and retire suddenly when the monarch’s glance becomes indifferent, then hard. “

Time Magazine, 1936

Mind you, not all Western commentators were sympathetic to the Emperor’s cause in 1936.  Evelyn Waugh wrote a book called Waugh in Abyssinia that closes with an ode to the conquering Italians:

Along the roads [of Abyssinia] will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France, Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of  vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement.

Evelyn Waugh, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936)

By mischief I presume Waugh is referring to fabricating a reason to invade a country and then using mustard gas on the Abyssinians, or was that an example of fine workmanship and clear judgement?

Waugh is essentially in the same camp as the person who wrote Haile Sellasie’s Man of the Year article; the simple people of Abysinnia live in an uncivilised country.  The American believes that these darkies can probably be best helped/colonised by selling them stuff, while the Europeans think you need to actually step in and take over.  The later half of the twentieth century would prove the American view correct.

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2 thoughts on “100 Objects: Stamp Collection – Part Two

  1. Thank you — this is a wonderful piece of writing.

    Haile Sellasie is I think an important figure in the twentieth century, for reminding us how complex the oppression of colonisation was. Often not just a colonising nation oppressing an indigenous people, but rather a colonising nation appropriating (and, to be fair, often worsening) the oppressive institutions that already existed.

    Also: I find Rastafari’s worshipping of Sellasie very odd. A reminder that it’s very easy for people do develop a myth around an individual, if they want too.

  2. Thanks. Ethiopia seems to have had a strange place in the imagination of the Western World for the whole of the 20th century. The Rastafarian connection is certainly a strain to understand. On the other hand Do They Know it’s Christmas was pretty hard to explain at the time too.

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