Zauditu of Ethiopia

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Empress Zaiditu of Ethiopia

Empress Zauditu (also known as Zawditu or Zewditu) (April 29, 1876 - April 2, 1930) was reigning Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930. She was noted for opposing the reforms of Tafari Makonnen (later Emperor Haile Selassie) and for her strong religious devotion.


Early life

Zauditu was the eldest daughter of Emperor Menelek II of Shoa. Her mother, Woizero (Lady) Abechi, was a Shoan noblewoman. Abechi had died when Zauditu was very young, and so Zauditu was raised mainly by her father. Menelek later married Taytu Betul, but had no children by his Empress. Menelek had three aknowleged children, Zewditu, a son Assfaw Wossen who died in infancy, and another daughter Shewa Regga, mother of Lij Iyasu his eventual heir. The Emperor however remained closest to Zauditu. Zauditu also had good relations with her step-mother Empress Taytu.

In 1882, Zauditu was married to Ras Araya Selassie Yohannis, son and heir of Emperor Yohannis IV. The marriage was political, having been arranged when Menelek agreed to submit to Yohannis' rule. Yohannis and Menelek eventually fell into conflict again, however, with Menelek launching a rebellion against Yohannis' rule. Zauditu's marriage was childless, although her husband had fathered a son by another woman. When Zauditu's husband died in 1888, she returned to her father's court. Despite the hostility between Menelek and Yohannis, Zauditu managed throughout the conflict to maintain good relations with both.

Zauditu had two further marriages, both brief, before marrying Ras Gugsa Welle. Gugsa Welle was the nephew of Empress Taytu, Zauditu's stepmother. Zauditu had already been on good terms with Taytu, but the establishment of a direct tie between the two helped cement the relationship. Unlike her prior marriages, Zauditu's marriage to Gugsa Welle is thought to have been happy.

Ascent to power

Upon the death of Emperor Yohannis IV at the battle of Mettema against the Mahdists of the Sudan, Menelek seized power and become Emperor of Ethiopia in 1889. In 1913, Menelek died. Lij Iyasu, the son of Zauditu's half-sister Shewa Regga, had been declared heir apparent in 1909. Iyasu considered Zauditu a potential threat to his rule, and exiled her and her husband to the countryside.

Iyasu was officially proclaimed as Emperor Iyasu V, but quickly encountered problems with his rule. He was widely disliked by the nobility for his unstable behavior, and the church held him in suspicion for his alleged Muslim sympathies. He was never officially crowned. After a troubled few years, Iyasu was removed from power. Zauditu was summoned to the capital, and on September 27 1916, the Council of State and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church officially deposed Iyasu in favour of Zauditu. Zauditu's official title was Negiste Negest (Queen of Kings), a modification of the traditional title Negus Negest (King of Kings).

Initially, Zauditu was not permitted to exercise power herself. Instead, her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed regent, and her father's old loyal general, Fitawrari Hapte Giorgis Dinagde was made commander in chief of the army. Ras Tafari was also made heir apparent to Zauditu - none of Zauditu's children had survived to adulthood. In 1928, after an attempt to remove Ras Tafari Makonnen from power failed, the Empress was compelled to crown her cousin Negus or King.


Political maneuvering

While the conservative Ethiopian aristocracy was generally supportive of Zauditu, it was less enthusiastic about many of her relatives. Zauditu's stepmother and the aunt of her husband, Dowager Empress Taytu, had withdrawn from the capital after Menelik's death, but was still distrusted somewhat due to her well known nepotism she had practiced during the reign of her late husband Menelik II. In an attempt to limit her influence, the aristocracy arranged for her nephew (Zauditu's husband Ras Gugsa Welle) to be appointed to a remote governorship, removing him from court. This move, while intended as a strike against Taytu rather than against Zauditu, is believed to have upset Zauditu considerably. Zauditu also suffered guilt for taking the throne from Lij Iyasu, who her father had wanted to succeed him - while she believed that Iyasu's overthrow was necessary, she had admired her father greatly, and was unhappy at having to disobey his wishes. Her separation from her husband and her guilt about Iyasu's overthrow combined to make Zauditu not particularly happy as Empress. Increasingly, the Empress retreated from state responsibility into a world of fasting and prayer, as the progressive elements that surrounded the heir, Tafari Makonnen gained in strength and influence at court.

War against Iyasu

The early period of Zauditu's reign was marked by a war against Lij Iyasu, who had escaped captivity. Backed by his father, Negus Mikael of Wollo, a powerful northern leader, Iyasu attempted to regain the throne. The two failed to effectively coordinate their efforts however, and after some initial victories Iyasu's father was defeated and captured at the Battle of Segelle. The King of Wollo was paraded through the streets of Addis Ababa in chains, carrying a rock of repentance on his shoulders, before entering the throne room and kissing the Empress's shoes to beg for her mercy. The heir to the throne, Ras Taffari Makonnen was not present at this spectacle out of consideration for the feelings of his wife, who was the granddaughter of King Mikael of Wollo. Upon hearing of his father's defeat and humiliation, Iyasu himself fled to Afar. After years on the run, Iyasu was later captured by Dejazmatch Gugsa Araya, the son who Zauditu's first husband had fathered by another woman. Gugsa Araya was rewarded with the title of Ras from his former step-mother, and Princess Yeshashework Yilma, the niece of Tafari Makonnen, as his bride.

Rise of Tafari

As Zauditu's reign progressed, a rift gradually widened between her and her appointed heir, Tafari Makonnen. Tafari was a moderniser, believing that Ethiopia needed to open itself to the world in order to survive. In this, he had the backing of many younger nobles. Zauditu, however, was a conservative, believing in the preservation of Ethiopian tradition. She had the strong backing of the church in this belief. Slowly, however, Zauditu began to withdraw from active politics, leaving more and more power to Tafari. Under Tafari's direction, Ethiopia entered the League of Nations, and abolished slavery. Zauditu busied herself with religious activities, such as the construction of a number of significant churches.

In 1928, there was a small conservative uprising against Tafari's reforms, but it was unsuccessful. Zauditu was compelled to grant Tafari, who now controlled most of the Ethiopian government, the post of Regent and the additional title of Negus. While Negus Tafari remained under the nominal rule of Zauditu (who was still Negeste Negest, Queen of Kings), Tafari was now effectively the ruler of Ethiopia. A number of attempts were made to displace him, but they were all unsuccessful. In 1930, Zauditu's husband Gugsa Welle led a rebellion against Tafari in Begemder, hoping to end the regency, but was defeated and killed in battle by the modernised Ethiopian army at the Battle of Anchem on March 31, 1930.

Death and succession

On April 2, 1930, two days after Ras Gugsa Welle was killed in battle, Empress Zauditu died. It is known today that Zauditu suffered from diabetes, and was seriously ill, but it is not universally agreed that this was the cause of her death. According to some popular histories, Zauditu died of shock and grief at hearing of her husband's death, but other accounts contradict this, claiming that Zauditu was not informed of the battle's outcome before her sudden death. The timing of her death immediately after news of the outcome of the battle reached Addis Ababa has caused considerable speculation as to her cause of death. Some, particularly conservative critics of her successor, Emperor Haile Selassie, allege that once the rebellion had been decisively defeated, he or his supporters felt safe in poisoning Zauditu. Speculation as to the cause of Zauditu's death continues today.

Empress Zauditu was succeeded on the throne by Negus Tafari, who took the name of Emperor Haile Selassie.

External link

  • Biography (
Preceded by:Empress of EthiopiaSucceeded by:
Iyasu VHaile Selassie I

fr:Zaoditou sl:Zavditu


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