Bearing Gifts: Haile Selassie and the European Racial Imagination

This brief essay explores constructs of Ethiopia held by others in the West, and to consider how these were visible in the years leading up to the Italo-Ethiopian war in the 1930s. By comparing two images of HIM Haile Sealssie, we can suggest that historically and especially since Italy’s defeat at Adwa in 1896, Ethiopia has been a site of contention because of its strategic geographic position within Africa and because of the precarious psychological space that it has occupied in the European racial imagination. As a result, Ethiopia has long borne the desires of Europe, and the distortion of its own image in the West. By especially reviewing photographs leading up to and during the war, I want to make a case for the continued repatriation of artifacts to Ethiopia, not as gifts but as restitution of its cultural heritage and historical status.

Begin by considering the image above.  It is Haile Selassie from Time magazine's article celebrating his coronation in 1930.1 His photograph carries the caption 'King of Kings' and an accompanying story that recounts his mythic biblical lineage ruling over a nation of mixed race Abyssinians. The account of the lavish crowning ceremony attended by the heads of many nations includes as guests, Britain's Duke of Gloucester - third son of George V, Italian Prince Udine, and America's special envoy from President Hoover, Ambassador Jacoby. We are told that they came bearing gifts, the Duke of Gloucester providing the coronation cake but also honoring the event by returning manuscripts stolen from Ethiopia a century earlier. Additionally, the article specifically lists an electric refrigerator; red typewriter; radio set, phonograph, records, roses, and bound copies of National Geographic amongst the modern gifts just from the U.S. 2


The second appearance of Selassie on Time's cover in1936 is even more celebratory, this time as the magazine's Man of the Year. 3 His portrait reflects a dignified and benign regent, again effectively framed by the front page's bold typeface endorsing him for American TIME readers. In this moment, Emperor Selassie's international celebrity status is rising. After six years on the throne, Selassie is hailed as a frail but triumphant 'semite' and ruler of ‘blackamoors’ set to topple Mussolini's Italian fascism having already defeated his Muslim cousins in Ethiopia4 and also resisted European colonial encroachments on his borders. The tropes folded into and between these two magazine articles are troubling but also instructive. They allow for an exploration of Ethiopia's rich, political, diplomatic and social history and also a deconstruction of stereotyping and internal ambivalences around Ethiopia.5


The contrast between these two images taken six years apart is curious. Looking carefully, we realize that the 1936 cover is almost a painted version of the earlier photograph. Despite Selassie's own admiration of the camera and attempts to construct his image as a young, heroic and modernizing regent, Time's second cover and the article written about him subvert these efforts. Selassie appears older, greyer and more wisened. In the supporting article he is described diminutively as frail bodied and given the nick name 'Little Charlie' in contrast to his British colleagues who are considered 'robust Anglo-Saxons.' This undermining of his stature, physically and politically as well as a debilitating picture of his health are labels that would plague Selassie and ultimately Ethiopia as the war progressed. A battle for popular visibility would become more apparent even as attrocities of war were being neglected politically. Returning to the archives we can trace this contentious process between negation, emasculation and affirmation back through history, even to Christendom's Ethiopian eunuch.

1Time Cover, Haile Selassie, November, 1930

2Rastafari lore suggests that the Duke returned the golden sceptre That Selassie carried during the coronation, but Time tells us instead that he returned manuscripts stolen their punitive Magdala campaign. Even then, the Ethiopians did not consider them gifts rather restitution of their own property.

3Time Cover Haile Selassie, 1936

4The article discusses Selassie's initial victory of his Muslim cousin. 

5Covers compared

Extract from The Inaugural Rastafari Studies Conference, UWI, Mona, 2010