Throughout the many seasons of Downton Abbey, Lord Robert Crawley and his valet John Bates make references to their days fighting in the South African War. They were participating in the “scramble for Africa,” an intense period of European colonization between 1884 and 1914. Almost the entirety of the Dark Continent came under the rule of European powers during this time, save Liberia and Ethiopia.1

This hadn’t been the plan, of course. Although Liberia had been set aside as a dedicated free-from-slavery state,2 Ethiopia had maintained its freedom by fighting off the Italians at the Battle of Adowa.

Remember, we were the Edwardians.

— Violet Crawley, dowager countess of Grantham. Downton Abbey, 5.9.

More than Turkish diplomats ventured to the foggy isles. An Ethiopian “ras” (similar to a duke or an earl), Mekonnen, witnessed the coronation of King Edward VII in London in 1902.3 Ras Mekonnen had earned his stripes by leading his army to victory at the Battle of Adowa, and he came to govern the Ethiopian province of Harar in a feudal manner –not so unlike the Earl of Grantham.

The Crawleys’ second child Lady Edith was born the same year as the noble son of Ras Makonnen, Tafari.4 Both children lived in privileged aristocracy. While Lady Edith could trace her genealogy for more than century,5 little Tafari claimed a direct line to the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.6

If you ask me, this Miss Swire who, it may interest you to know, is not to be found in Burke’s Peerage or Burke’s Landed Gentry has an eye to the main chance.

— Carson, butler. Downton Abbey, 2.1.

Like the Crawley girls and their cousin Rose MacClare, Tafari spent many of his adolescent years at court where he was eventually promoted to Ras.7  He was a cousin-once-removed from Emperor Menelik II, who desperately needed a male heir, and so they forged a mentorship similar to that of Robert and Matthew Crawley.

When Emperor Menelik II passed away in 1913, the empire momentarily came under the reign of his grandson Yasu who had converted to Islam, which conflicted with nobility’s close affiliation with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  Things got complicated, and Ras Tafari emerged the winner. Menelik II’s daughter soon took over as empress, with Ras Tafari her heir apparent.8

The Spanish flu swept through Ethiopia in 1918, the same year it infected Downton. Like Cora, Ras Tafari became frightening ill, but managed to pull through.9

In the coming years, Ras Tafari advocated strongly for Ethiopia to be respected among the world’s powers –in ways undoing the closed-door policy from earlier centuries. He succeeded in 1923 with Ethiopia being admitted to the League of Nations, just one month after the admission of Branson’s beloved Irish Free State.10

In 1930 Ras Tafari became the emperor of Ethiopia and assumed the name Haile Selassie.11

After six seasons, Downton Abbey is coming to an end as the second world war is beginning to boil. Hitler is mentioned during dinner conversations, but (so far) has little hold upon the aristocratic Brits.

They’re a horrid bunch, from the sound of it.

— Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. Downton Abbey, 5.2.

We’ll pick up next time with the often overlooked, “African Theater.”

 

 

[1] St. John’s College Cambridge, “The Scramble for Africa,” (2014).

[2] U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, “Founding of Liberia, 1847.”

[3] The Illustrated London News, 88 (19 July 1902).

[4] Downton Abbey Wiki, “Timeline”; see also Biography, “Haile Selassie I.”

[5] Downton Abbey Wiki, “Crawley Family.”

[6] Encyclopedia of World Biography, “Haile Selassie Biography.”

[7] Trick: Say “Ras Tafari” to yourself. Yes, you’ve just uncovered the root to Rastafarianism, made popular by Bob Marley. That story is for another day.

[8] Biography.

[9] Sino Biological Inc, “Spanish Flu (1918 influenza pandemic).”

[10] Biography; see also Wikipedia, “Member states of League of Nations.”

[11] Biography.

 

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About Ashley Alemayehu

Ashley grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. She studied the liberal arts and law, and enjoys writing, painting and cooking. She is married into an Ethiopian family and dedicates this blog to sharing their story.

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