Updated: Oct 26
Black History Month UK 2023 'Before Windrush' - exploring the lives and stories of Black Britons who were living in the UK before the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.
Princess Tsehai Selassie, was the youngest child of Menen Asfaw and Ras Tafari, who would later be known as Emperor Haile Selassie I. She was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 13 October 1919.
From age eight, she attended school in England and Switzerland, and during vacations travelled with her royal relatives to France and Germany, learning each country's language as well as English.
Ethiopia, one of only two independent African nations (the other being Liberia) at the time, was invaded on 3 October 1935 by Fascist Italy under Mussolini. He wanted to boost his nation’s prestige which was wounded by its defeat to Ethiopia in the Battle of Adowa in 1896, which saved Ethiopia from Italian colonisation. The Italians committed countless atrocities on the independent African state. Poisonous gas, aerial bombardment, flame throwers, and concentration camps were all employed. They also imposed racial segregation and banned mixed marriage.
When she was only 15, she gave an impassioned speech at the League of Nations on behalf of her besieged home nation of Ethiopia that had been invaded by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. It garnered her international fame. (2)
The Young Historians Project writes:
Prince Tsehai was an irreverent woman who continued to speak on peace and use her status positively. She gave a speech for the Women’s Peace Crusade, and she was the only woman to speak at the Conference on African Peoples, Democracy and World Peace in 1939, held in London. As a sponsor in the creation of the Ethiopian Women’s Welfare Work Association (EWWWA), she worked to ensure the expansion and provision of health and welfare to Ethiopian people.
The Princess and her family were sent to the safety of England by the Emperor after Ethiopia was invaded by Italy in 1935.
After failing to get the League of Nations to condemn Italy and impose sanctions, he left Ethiopia to join his family in Bath, England where they lived in exile for five years (1936-1941).
Princess Tsehai served as an interpreter for her mother and father, and she also became a spokesperson for her country, speaking before both large and small audiences about the plight of her people.
At age 17, Princess Tsehai decided that she wanted to gain an education in nursing and build on the work she had started with the EWWWA. Her father gave his consent. Up until that time, no Ethiopian woman had ever trained as a nurse, and no woman of royal blood had ever worked at a profession. She would eventually return to Ethiopia to open medical centres.
An interview was arranged for the Princess with the matron of London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, where she began training as a resident student nurse in August 1936. (1)
Following three years of training and attaining high marks in her final certificate in December 1939, she qualified as a state registered nurse for sick children. Footage showed the Princess smiling during her training on the ward, a figure treated with kindness by her fellow nurses. (2)
Tsehai asked for no favors or special treatment, working alongside the other student nurses for the required 56 hours a week and earning a year's salary of £20. (1)
On the 25 August 1939, she graduated as a State Registered Children's Nurse, then received permission to continue her studies at London's Guy's Hospital, with the intention of becoming a State Registered General Trained Nurse. (1)
With the outbreak of WW2, the Probationers' School of Guy's had been moved to Pembury Hospital, some 29 miles southeast of London, and it was there that she enrolled in February 1940. The temporary housing for students was primitive, with no central heating and minimal sanitary facilities. The princess accepted a room with five other nurses, and when later offered an opportunity to move to a private nurses' home attached to the main hospital, turned it down. "I would not think of leaving the other nurses," she said. "I must be treated like everyone else." (1)
After a year at Pembury, during which time the Nazis made their first mass air bombing on London, the Princess was transferred to Farnborough, another base hospital. In March 1941, she was transferred again, to Guy's Hospital in London. (1)
She worked at Guy’s Hospital for two years, but on 5 May 1941, months before she was to take her final state examinations, the Princess was ordered by her father to return home with her mother. Three British Red Cross Nurses volunteered to accompany the royal party to help her continue her nursing work in Ethiopia. (2)
On May 5, 1941, just months before she was to take her final state examinations, the Princess was ordered by her father to return home with her mother. Three British Red Cross Nurses volunteered to accompany the royal party to help her continue her nursing work in Ethiopia.
The journey home took three months, during which time the liberation was completed. The Princess immediately went to work with the British Red Cross unit, setting up headquarters in the town of Dessie, which had suffered a massive air raid. They kept their London friends assessed of their progress through letters, one of which was published in the Nursing Mirror:
We are running three large clinics: the largest is at Dessie, where we have an average of 150 patients. The second clinic is at Lake Haik, sixteen miles away—a most lovely place—and the third is at Bartie on the edge of the desert….
The Senior Political officer here at Dessie is quite sure the Unit has been the greatest thing done to help the people, for they were in grave distress. The Princess works in the morning very hard; we do the afternoons and evenings.
She also reactivated the Ethiopian Women's Welfare Work Association, which had been shut down during the occupation.
In April 1942, she married Lieutenant-General (later Brigadier-General) Lij Abiye Abebe, a former member of the emperor's imperial guard, whom she had met in England.
Before leaving to live in the Welega Province, where Abiye was appointed governor there, she told an English journalist that she intended to carry on her work of establishing hospitals and medical service throughout her country. (1)
Princess Tsehai did not have the opportunity to achieve her goals. Less than four months after her marriage, on August 17, 1942, she died from complications during childbirth in Lekempti, Ethiopia. Her baby did not survive. (1)
Her patients and colleagues at GOSH would remember her fondly, providing glowing testimonials. Following her death, they led a memorial at the GOSH chapel. One matron reflected on her passion for nursing, "Practically her last words to me were: One day I shall open a children’s hospital: you must come and see it." (2)
She was buried in the crypt of the Ba'eta Le Mariam Monastery in Addis Ababa that had been built as the mausoleum church of Emperor Menelik II.
Emperor Haile Selassie founded the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in her memory, which also served as a nursing school and received funding from her friends in England.
After the 1974 revolution, the hospital was renamed the Armed Forces General Hospital.