King Sahla Sellase (1795 -1847) and His Contemplation of Modernity

King Sahla Sellase (c. 1795 – 22 October 1847 ) was a Meridazmach (and later Negus) (1813–1847), an important noble of Ethiopia. He was a younger son of Wossen Seged. He was the father of numerous sons, among them Haile Melekot, Haile Mikael, Seyfe Sahle Selassie, and Darge Sahle Selassie; his daughters included Tenagnework, Ayahilush, Wossenyelesh and Birkines. After the death of his father, Sahle Selassie seized power at a very young age with the support of his mother Zenebework’sMenzian. He was proclaimed the Ras and Meridazmach of Shewa. Despite his many reverses against his political rivals inside Shewa and out, considered against any other period of history, Negus Sahle Selassie was a progressive and benevolent ruler. A British traveler of the time, Charles Johnston, stated that “the contemplation of such a prince in his own land is worth the trouble and the risk of visiting it …his character for justice and probity has spread far and wide, and the supremacy of political excellence is without hesitation given to the Negus [king] of Shoa throughout the length and breadth of the ancient empire of Ethiopia. To be feared by every prince around, and loved by every subject at home, is the boast of the first government …”

Sahle Selassie also worked to modernize his country, and like his contemporaries Goshu of Gojjam and Wube Haile Maryam of Tigray, he made contacts with European countries like France and Great Britain in hope of gaining craftsmen, educators, and above all firearms. Like his contemporaries, he understood the value of firearms, and increased the number in his armories from a few score when he took office to 500 in 1840, and doubled that number again by 1842. Cornwallis Harris, the leader of the British mission, at that time reported that “the conversation turned …to fire-arms”, a subject which was “of all other most agreeable to him” He signed treaties of friendship with both France (16 November 1841) and Great Britain (7 June 1841). “Despite his understanding of the value of foreign technology and the need for craftsmen from abroad Sahla Sellase had no desire for foreign missionaries,” Pankhurst notes, The argument put forward was the missionaries’ works “are not as ours and their holy book is different from that which has been considered the true world on our country. If they be suffered to return the people will fall from the faith of their father” and although the arrival of two Protestant missionaries in 1837 led to a diplomatic mission from Britain by William Cornwallis Harris, both men were gently but firmly expelled in 1842. Anxious to learn more about the outside world, Sahla Sellase spoke of sending a couple of Ethiopians back with the British envoy and declared “if two of my subjects will accompany you to your country they will see all the wonders you have described to me and will return and tell me of them” Ato Warqe and Ato Waldab, were accordingly selected to go to Bombay (the British colony at the time).

Read more on Richard P.K. Pankhurst, Economic History of Ethiopia, 1800-1935 (Addis Ababa: Haile Selassie I University Press, 1968), pp. 217, 625

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