This silver plate from a European-made dinner service would have been part of a commission for Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. It has scalloped edges and is cast with the Emperor’s cypher and tiered crown, and a lion of Judah motif.
The Lion of Judah traditionally is regarded as the symbol of the Israelite tribe of Judah from which the emperors of Ethiopia claimed descent. Ethiopia’s emperors – the ‘kings of kings’ – adopted the symbol as their own, and so it often was depicted in Ethiopian art and items associated with the royal family.
The reverse of the plate has several (unidentified) assay or maker’s stamps.
The plate is heavy for its size and in fine condition.
Haile Selassie I was Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. Born in 1892 with the princely name of Lij Tafari Makonnen, he assumed the name of Haile Selassie after his coronation. His full title was ‘His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God.’
He was the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins to the 13th century, and from there by tradition back to King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum, also known as the Queen of Sheba.
Later, Haile Selassie would be revered by Rastafarians as the returned messiah of the Bible. Their movement originated in Jamaica in the 1930s and regarded Selassie as a messianic figure who will lead a future golden age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity. Haile Selassie himself was an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian throughout his life.
As emperor, Haile Selassie was a close ally of the West. He introduced Ethiopia’s first written constitution in 1931, providing for a bicameral legislature. The constitution kept power in the hands of the nobility, but it did establish democratic standards among the nobility, envisaging a transition to democratic rule. But not long after, he had to flee his country and go into exile.
Ethiopia became the target of renewed Italian imperialist designs in the 1930s when Benito Mussolini’s forces invaded in 1935. Haile Selassie joined his northern armies and set up headquarters in Wollo province. For two years, the fronts shifted alternatively favouring the invading Italians and then the Ethiopians.
When the struggle to resist Italy appeared doomed, Haile Selassie travelled to the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela to fast and pray. To protect the royal family and the succession it was decided that the emperor’s wife Menen Asfaw and the rest of the family should depart for Djibouti and from there continue on to Jerusalem where the imperial family maintained a residence. It was soon agreed that Selassie should follow.
The choice of Jerusalem was highly symbolic, since the Imperial family claimed descent from the House of David. From there Selassie made his way to London and then to Switzerland to address the League of Nations in 1936. His speech to the League is regarded as one of the great speeches of the twentieth century.
Noting that his own small country could never withstand an attack by a large power such as Italy, with its ‘unlimited quantities of … death-dealing weapons’, he contended that all small states were threatened by the aggression, and that all small states were in effect reduced to vassal states in the absence of collective action. The speech made the emperor an icon for anti-fascists around the world, and Time magazine named him ‘Man of the Year’.
Haile Selassie spent his years in exile (1936–1941) in Bath, UK, in Fairfield House, a 14-room Georgian house, which he bought, and which he donated to the city of Bath on his return to Ethiopia after the occupying Italian forces were forced out.
A first significant act on his return was to abolish the legal basis of slavery and the imposition of severe penalties, including death, for slave trading. Other legal reforms were passed but Ethiopia remained semi-feudal in the face of opposition from the nobility.
Famine and the oil shocks of the 1970s hit the Ethiopian economy hard. Marxism took root among the intelligentsia and for the first time, the authority of the Emperor was questioned widely. A military coup saw Haile Selassie’s downfall and the rise of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. The last months of the emperor’s life were spent under house arrest in the Grand Palace.
In November 1974, sixty former senior officials of the imperial government were executed without trial. The executed included Haile Selassie’s grandson and two former Prime Ministers.
On 27 August 1975, Haile Selassie died reportedly from respiratory failure following complications from a prostate operation, a claim later denied by his doctor. Many believe that Selassie was murdered.
Brus, R., Crown Jewellery: And Regalia of the World, Pepin Press, 2011.