He was born Tafari Makonnen, the son of a noted general and the grandnephew of Emperor Menelik II.
A brilliant student, Tafari became a favorite of Menelik, who made him a provincial governor at 14. As a Coptic Christian, he opposed Menelik's grandson and successor, who became a Muslim convert, and in 1916 compelled his deposition and established Menelik's daughter Zauditu as empress with himself as regent.
In 1928, Tafari was crowned king of Ethiopia, and in 1930, after the empress's mysterious death, he became emperor as Haile Selassie, claiming to be a direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. He attempted internal reforms and took great pride in the suppression of slavery. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, he personally led defending troops in the field, but in 1936 he was forced to flee to British protection. Twice (1936, 1938) he vainly appealed to the League of Nations for effective action against Italy. In 1940, after Italy entered World War II, he returned to Africa with British aid, and in 1941 he reentered Ethiopia and regained his throne.
In the postwar period he instituted social and political reforms, such as establishing (1955) a national assembly. In the 1960s and 70s he worked for pan-African aims, particularly through the Organization of African Unity. In 1960 a revolt by a group of young intellectuals and army officers was crushed. Their demands were an end to oppression and poverty. In 1974, however, the army was successful in seizing control. Haile Selassie was progressively stripped of his powers and finally, on Sept. 12, 1974, deposed. He died while under house arrest in 1975.
See Peter Schwab, ed., Ethiopia and Haile Selassie (1972); Edward Ullendorf, ed. and tr., The Autobiography of Haile Selassie I (1976); H. G. Marcus, Haile Selassie I: The Formative Years (1987).