1513: Pietro Boscoli and Agostino Capponi, but not Niccolo Machiavelli 1601: Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

1937: Desta Damtew, Haile Selassie’s son

February 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Ethiopian prince Desta Damtew — the son-in-law of Emperor Haile Selassie — was captured by the Italian troops occupying his country, and summarily executed.

An aristocrat who married Selassie’s eldest daughter, the Ras* Desta Damtew (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) became governor of the southern Sidamo Province upon his father-in-law’s ascent to the Ethiopian throne in 1930.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it committed a disproportionate quantity of its forces to the northern reaches of its target. Consequently, resistance was stronger in the south — and Ras Desta was one of its chiefs. In January 1936 he led Ethipoian forces at the Battle of Ganale Doria.

Though the two sides had forces of similar sizes, Italy’s was the mechanized, industrial army — and the Ras was routed by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. It was a milepost for Graziani on his way to lasting infamy in Ethiopia as the conquered realm’s brutal Viceroy for 1937. (He was recalled at year’s end.) Graziani vowed that Italy would dominate Ethiopia “at whatever cost” and threatened “extreme severity towards anyone who resisted.”

On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 by the Ethiopian calendar — two ethnic Eritreans expressed their resistance by pelting Graziani with grenades. He had shown his viceregal person at a hearts-and-minds almsgiving, and having been received with such cordiality, he returned immediately to the Extreme Severity plan.

While doctors dug shrapnel out of Graziani, somehow saving his life, an aide named Guido Cortese condemned untold numbers of humans to punitive death with a dread order:

Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.

For the next several days, Italian forces delivered a punitive rampage to their new subjects, claiming up to 30,000 lives.**

Desta Damtew, who had been lucky to flee the battlefield slaughter after Ganale Doria, was not directly a casualty off this three days’ bloodbath, but when he was captured in the bush along with fellow insurgent commander Beyene Merid, no-quarter treatment was a given. Both men were immediately shot.

The Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey penned a poetic eulogy for our man:

The flow’r of a nation’s strength
Had thrown their valour and their might
Against the charging hordes of death
In history’s most unequal fight!
One man remained — the last of them —
To stand for Ethiopia:
All else surrendered, died or fled
But, he, the lion-hearted-Ras Desta.

Graziani, Italian butcher
Had valiant Desta quickly shot,
To seal his lips and tie his hands
In fear of what he called a plot.
With death of such a noble man,
A reign has passed to history;
But time will bring to us again
More men to fight for victory.

Ras Desta left a number of children. One of them, Iskinder Desta, became a Rear Admiral in the Ethiopian navy and was among the officials slaughtered in the Derg’s 1974 “Black Saturday” purge.

* Ras is a title, literally meaning “Head” and akin to “Prince” or “Duke”. Before he was royalty, Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen, and then eventually known as Ras Tafari … hence, rastafarianism.

** According to Ethiopian figures. Italy’s numbers put the post-Yekatit 12 casualties “merely” in the hundreds.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cycle of Violence,Ethiopia,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

One thought on “1937: Desta Damtew, Haile Selassie’s son”

  1. J. Bruce Taylor, Jr. says:

    Interesting. My visionary sister recorded an interview with our mother ostensibly to record for posterity our family history. During that recording my mother revealed that she had wanted to name me Ras Desta Damtew after Haile Selassie’s son-in-law, a nobleman and military commander who was executed by the Italians during their invasion of Ethiopia. Through a compromise, here withheld, I became a junior. Thus, my father become a senior, a name that he wore with pride though the rest of his life.

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