Empress Zewditu of Ethiopia

March being the celebration of women and their achievements month, we’re going to highlight some stories of women who have been instrumental in the history of the African Society. We begin with Zewditu (Ge'ez: ዘውዲቱ, born Askala Maryam; 29 April 1876 – 2 April 1930) Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930. The first female head of an internationally recognized country in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the first empress regnant of the Ethiopian Empire, her reign was noted for the reforms of her Regent and designated heir Ras Tafari Makonnen (who succeeded her as Emperor Haile Selassie I), about which she was at best ambivalent and often stridently opposed, due to her staunch conservatism and strong religious devotion. She is the most recent empress regnant in Ethiopian history, and until the 2018 election of Sahle-Work Zewde as president, was the most recent female head of state of Ethiopia.

AFRICAN HISTORY

deangichuki

3/19/2022 3 min read

woman wearing black and multicolored turband

March being the celebration of women and their achievements month, we’re going to highlight some stories of women who have been instrumental in the history of the African Society. We begin with Zewditu (Ge'ez: ዘውዲቱ, born Askala Maryam; 29 April 1876 – 2 April 1930) Empress of Ethiopia from 1916 to 1930. The first female head of an internationally recognized country in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the first empress regnant of the Ethiopian Empire, her reign was noted for the reforms of her Regent and designated heir Ras Tafari Makonnen (who succeeded her as Emperor Haile Selassie I), about which she was at best ambivalent and often stridently opposed, due to her staunch conservatism and strong religious devotion. She is the most recent empress regnant in Ethiopian history, and until the 2018 election of Sahle-Work Zewde as president, was the most recent female head of state of Ethiopia.

Upon the death of Emperor Yohannis IV at the Battle of Metemma against the Mahdists of the Sudan, in the Mahdist War, Negus Menelik of Shewa assumed power and became Emperor of Ethiopia in 1889. This restored the direct male line succession of the dynasty, as Emperor Yohannes's claim to the throne was through a female link to the line. As the daughter of Menelik II, Zewditu would be the last monarch in direct agnatic descent from the Solomonic dynasty. Her successor Haile Selassie was also linked in the female line. Menelik died in 1913, and Lij Iyasu, the son of Zewditu's half-sister Shewa Regga, who had been publicly declared heir apparent in 1909, took the throne. Iyasu considered Zewditu a potential threat to his rule, and exiled her and her husband to the countryside.

Due to fears of instability that might be caused, the cabinet of ministers decided not to publicly proclaim the death of Menelik II. As a result, Iyasu was never officially proclaimed as Emperor Iyasu V. However, both Menelik's death and Iyasu's de facto accession were widely known and accepted. The Church authorities, the Lord Regent Ras Tessema, and the ministers agreed that Iyasu's coronation should be postponed until he was a bit older and had taken Holy Communion with his wife, which would make his marriage insoluble in the eyes of the Orthodox Church. However, Iyasu quickly encountered problems with his rule and he was never crowned. He was widely disliked by the nobility for his unstable behavior, and the church held him in suspicion for his alleged Muslim sympathies. After a troubled few years, Iyasu was removed from power. Zewditu was summoned to the capital, and on 27 September 1916, the Council of State and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church officially announced the death of Emperor Menelik II and deposed Iyasu in favour of Zewditu. Zewditu's official title was "Queen of Kings" (Negiste Negest), a modification of the traditional title "King of Kings" (Nəgusä Nägäst).

Initially, Zewditu 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 Zewditu, for none of her children had survived to adulthood. The Empress, who patterned her reign after British Queen Victoria whom she admired, nonetheless soon clashed with Tafari Mekonnen who wanted to modernize Ethiopia. Empress Zewditu, a conservative, feared that his reforms might spark demands for greater power for Ethiopia’s populace. Zewditu did promote the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and built numerous new churches and temples throughout the Empire. She also allowed Mekonnen to abolish slavery and lead the Empire into the League of Nations. With these reforms Mekonnen was ruler in fact if not in name during the last years of Zewditu’s reign.

Empress Zewditu’s husband, Gugsa Welle, led conservative supporters in a rebellion against Mekonnen which ended when they were defeated at the Battle of Anchem on March 31, 1930. Welle died in that battle. Two days later on April 2, 1930, Zewditu mysteriously died in her palace.

Zewditu, having no surviving children, was succeeded by Tafari Mekonnen who upon becoming Emperor was renamed Haile Selassie.