Wolde Selassie

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Wolde-Sillasie (Geez: ዎልደስላሴ; b. Antalo, Enderta, c. 1736 – 28 May 1816)[1] He was an Overlord of Tigray-Mereb Milash and a Ras Bitwoded of Ethiopia. He was the second son of Dejazmach Kefla Iyasus Amdamikael, hereditary chief of Enderta. In his "Life in Abysinia" book, the 19th century British traveler Mansfield Parkyns writes that, "the family of Dejazmach Kefla Iyasus and Wolde-Sillasie were of distinguished origin and came from Antalo (Hintalo) in Enderta of which place they were chiefs."[2] His brothers included Dejazmach Bilaten-Geta Mennase Kefla Iyasus and Dejazmach Debbab Kefla Iyasus who is the great grandfather of Emperor Yohannes IV. And his wives included Mentewab (died 1812 from smallpox), the sister of Emperor Egwale Seyon; and Sahin, the daughter of Emperor Tekle Giyorgis I.[3]

John J. Halls, in his Life and Correspondence of Henry Salt, preserves a description of this powerful warlord, as "small in stature, and delicately formed, quick in his manner, with a shrewd expression, and considerable dignity in his deportment."[4] Nathaniel Pearce also notes that Ras Wolde was an avid chess player, and "would play at from morning till night".[5]


Wolde-Sillasie, a hereditary chief of Enderta,[6] emerged as the ruler of Tigray-Merebmilash and Gondar after years of fighting; Nathaniel Pearce describes an encounter where he made a name for himself by single-handedly slaying the brothers Abel and Cail, "two of Ras Michael's choice men" who were sent by Michael to kill Wolde-Sillasie. Despite the fact Ras Mikael Sehul was so impressed at this act of bravery that he tried to make peace with him, but Wolde-Sillasie remembered how the older man had killed his father, and until the old Ras died he spent his years in exile amongst the Wollo Oromo and in Gojjam.[7]

Wolde Gabriel, grandson of Ras Mikael, attempted to crush Wolde-Sillasie when the later was in Wogera, but according to Pearce after besieging Wolde-Sillasie for 20 days Wolde Gabriel came off the worse, and made peace by proclaiming him Balgadda, or governor of the salt-making districts.[8] After Wolde Gabriel's death in battle against Ras Aligaz of Yejju the then Emperial regent of Abyssinia, Wolde-Sillasie petitioned Emperor Tekle Giyorgis for the governorship of his kingdom, Enderta, but the Emperor "according to his usual bad faith" made another warlord, Ras Gebre Masqal, governor of Enderta instead. Wolde-Sillasie then quickly marched forth with a smaller army against the Ras, which he defeated, then entered Gebre Masqal's camp and took the Ras prisoner. Shortly afterwards he marched on Gondar. The two Emperors, Tekle Haymanot and Tekle Giyorgis bestowed Wolde-Sillasie the titles of both Ras and Bitwoded of the Abyssinian empire in 1790.[9]

Wolde-Sillasie made his seat of government in Chalacot, but maintained his capital at Antalo in Enderta Province. He built four residenial palaces, at Chelekot, Antalo, Felegdaro and Mekelle, all in Enderta. He played a role in the politics of the Imperial Throne, in part by providing shelter to Emperor Tekle Giyorgis I in 1799 and 1800, and was visited by the former Emperor Baeda Maryam in 1813.[10] Although at first he cooperated with Ras Aligaz, the Imperial Regent, after his power grew, Wolde-Sillasie came to challenge Aligaz for that office prior to Aligaz's death in 1803.[11] The first years of the 19th century were disturbed by fierce campaigns between Ras Gugsa of Begemder, and Ras Wolde-Sillasie of Tigray, who fought over control of the figurehead Emperor Egwale Seyon. Wolde-Sillasie was eventually the victor, and practically ruled the whole country as Enderase till his death in 1816. Wolde-Sillasie, a conservative Christian who greatly valued Ethiopia's monarchial traditions, hated the Yeju parvenus. He hit out at them by effectively conquering the Azebo and Raya Oromo and by taking control over all the important passes in Lasta leading to Tigray. He then turned his attention to the coast, slowly but surely imposing his suzerainty over the Muslim authorities there until he finally could control and tax their trade inland; he used the revenues, to train, reform and re-equip his army and when the nineteenth century opened, Wolde-Sillasie was by far Abyssinia's leading figure and certainly the main champion of the Solomonic tradition.[12]

According to Paul Henze, Ras Wolde-Sillasie was the first ruler of this period to have close contact with Europeans, hosting three British diplomats, George Annesley, Viscount Valentia, his secretary Henry Salt, and Pearce. Salt's arrival in Abyssinia culminated in the signing of a treaty of friendship with Wolde-Sillasie representing Abyssinia and the former representing Great Britain in 1805. Henry Salt also proposed inaugurating trade with Britain; Wolde-Sillasie was quick to see possible advantages in relations with Britain and promised to encourage such commerce with every means in his power. Revealing himself a realist, and speaking, Salt says, with 'great sincerity', he nevertheless expressed the fear that his country

might not be able to supply any quantity of valuable commodities sufficient to recompense our merchants for engaging in so precarious a trade; more especially as the Abyssinians were not much acquainted with commercial transactions...Could any plan, however, be arranged for obviating these difficulties...he would most readily concur in carrying it into effect.

Wolde-Sillasie also touched on a major obstacle that the Abyssinians had faced, the Egyptians had control over the port of Massawa which they acquired from the Ottoman Empire and reminded King George that with their "naval superiority in the red sea" Abyssinia might find it difficult to gain access to the port.[13] Wolde-Sillasie's effort however, did bear fruit in the long term when his successors Dejazmatch Wube of Semien and Tigray and Emperor Yohanness of Ethiopia followed up on the treaty that was struck between him and the kingdom of Britain.

Nathaniel Pearce lived with Ras Wolde from about 1808 and the warlord's death. Pearce's diary of his stay is not only valuable for the history of this period, but also provides enormous detail about daily life in Ethiopia.[14]

The great Ras died at the age of 80 due to natural causes at his residence in Hintalo, Enderta. His death was universally mourned.


At the effort of Ras Wolde-Sillasie, Ethiopia received its first Abuna, or titular religious leader, from Egypt since the death of Yosab in 1804: Qerellos III (1816–1828), who made his residence in Antalo.

The British traveller Henry Salt described Wolde-Sillasie as "distinguished still more for his intrepidity and firmness than by the policy with which he has uniformly ruled the country under his command; having been successfully engaged in upwards of forty battles, and having evinced. on these occasions even too great a disregard of his own personal safety in action."[15] Another British traveler by the name of Parkyns adds, “Wolde Selasie reigned for twenty-five years, and during this long period obtained and maintained for him self the character of a good and wise prince”.[16]


  1. ^ http://www.royalark.net/Ethiopia/tigray2.htm.
  2. ^ Mansfield Parkyns, Life in Abyssinia, vol. 2 p. 93.
  3. ^ Richard K.P. Pankhurst, History of Ethiopian Towns (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1982), vol. 1 p. 206.
  4. ^ John J. Halls, Life and Correspondence of Henry Salt, (London, 1834), vol. 1 p. 114
  5. ^ Nathaniel Pearce, The Life and Adventures of Nathaniel Pearce, J.J. Halls. ed. (London, 1831), vol. 2 p. 92
  6. ^ James Bruce, Bruce's travels and adventures in Abysinia" edited by J.M Clingan pg xxxiv (34).
  7. ^ Pearce, The Life and Adventures, vol. 2 pp. 87f
  8. ^ Pearce, The Adventures, vol. 2 p. 88
  9. ^ Henry Salt, A voyage to Abyssinia, p. 252
  10. ^ Pankhurst, History, pp. 201f.
  11. ^ Mordechai Abir, Ethiopia: The Era of the Princes; The Challenge of Islam and the Re-unification of the Christian Empire (1769-1855) (London: Longmans, 1968), p. 31
  12. ^ Harold G. Marcus, A history of Ethiopia (University of California press: 2002), p.53
  13. ^ Salt H., A Voyage to Abyssinina (London, 1814)
  14. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time, A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 122
  15. ^ Salt, A Voyage, pp. 252f
  16. ^ Mansfield Parkyns, Life in Abyssinia, vol. 2 p. 109.