Tafari Makonnen was born in Ethiopia in 1892, the son of a general who was a trusted adviser and grand-nephew of Menelik II. In 1911 he married Wayzaro Menen. As Ras (prince) Tafari, he quickly became a rival of Menelik's grandson for the throne.
The grandson was unreliable politically and supportive of Muslims, and Ras Tafari was progressive and Christian. Tafari deposed him in 1916. He became regent and heir to Menelik's daughter, Empress Zauditu (Judith), in 1917.
Between 1917 and 1928 he traveled in Europe, becoming the first Ethiopian ruler to travel abroad. He became king in 1928. Zauditu died in November 1930, and Ras Tafari became the 111th emperor in the succession from King Solomon. He took the name Haile Selassie, Amharic for "Might of the Trinity."
Selassie inherited a land rich in culture and resources and recognized as sovereign by European colonial powers since 1900. It had grown under Menelik II and established treaties with Italy. Britain and Italy agreed, however, that Ethiopia should be under Italian influence. Tensions erupted occasionally, but when Selassie took the throne, Ethiopia was free and independent.
Selassie's travels in Europe convinced him that he needed to modernize Ethiopia. He reformed the laws, bureaucracy, schools, and health and social services while serving as regent. He applied to the League of Nations for Ethiopian membership in 1919 but was rebuffed because Ethiopians still practiced slavery. After abolition of the slave trade in 1923, the league accepted Ethiopia.
In 1928 Ethiopia and Italy signed a 20-year treaty of friendship. In 1930 Ethiopia outlawed the sale of illegal arms and established the government's authority to purchase arms for protection against external enemies and internal unrest.
In 1931 Selassie gave Ethiopia its first constitution. He established his bloodline as the only princely line eligible to inherit the throne and fought for four years before getting the princes to accept it. He continued to modernize schools, universities, and newspapers while establishing electricity, telephones, currency, banking, and other modern benefits.
Selassie's modernization occurred in the shadow of Benito Mussolini, who took power in Italy in 1922. Italy had a colony in Eritrea, where Mussolini instituted segregation. He also used Eritrea as a base for expansion in Africa. In 1934 Italian forces provoked an incident in Welwel, Ethiopia. The League of Nations failed to condemn the aggression, and Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in October 1935.
Selassie personally led his forces into battle. After seven months of fighting, Italian forces, gas warfare, and league inaction forced Selassie into exile on May 2, 1936. On June 30 he spoke passionately at the league about how league inaction would promote international lawlessness instead of collective security.
Ethiopians continued to resist the Italian occupation throughout Selassie's exile in Britain. Once Italy entered World War II against Britain, Britain recognized the strategic asset of an ally on the Red Sea, so it helped Selassie to return to Khartoum. With a force of British, African, South African, and Ethiopian troops, he returned to Addis Ababa on May 5, 1941. Fighting continued in Ethiopia until January 1942.
After the war Ethiopia was a founder of the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity. As his relationship with Britain waned in 1953, Selassie sought U.S. support. And he later received assistance from Italy, West Germany, Sweden, Taiwan, China, and the Soviet Union.
Internally, he attempted to bring peace among Ethiopia's many religious, ethnic, and economic factions. His reforms of the government continued in the 1950s, as did the internal factionalism. In 1960 he quashed a coup led by his son, among others, but internal discord grew as economic and social reforms failed to match their promises.
From the mid-1960s to 1974 Ethiopia was plagued with inflation, corruption, and famine. Selassie's attempts to divide and weaken his enemies failed in 1974 as uprisings broke out in several provinces, and the coup leaders united into the Derg, which, under the pretense of allegiance to Selassie, took effective control of the government.
After taking his resources and charging him with intentionally provoking the famine of the early 1970s, the Derg arrested Selassie and deposed him on September 12. Selassie died in August 1975 under questionable circumstances.
During his lifetime Selassie inspired Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X with his commitment to civil disobedience as a path to social justice and redress. He also inspired the Jamaicanborn religion of Rastafarianism. Rastafarians generally believe that Selassie is the messiah and Ethiopia is heaven on earth.