Cornish town remembers its little princess
An intriguing chapter linking the last emperor of a 3,000-year-old African dynasty and a West Cornwall town has come to a close with the death of Ethiopian princess, Aida Desta.
Aida Desta was the granddaughter of Haile Selassie, the 225th Emperor of Abyssinia and direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Known as the Lion of Judah and revered by Rastafarians as God incarnate, Haile Selassie died in prison following a Marxist coup in 1975.
His granddaughter, who died in America last week, is still remembered in Penzance, where she and her sister Ruth attended the School of St Clare during the 1930s. After the communist revolution in 1974, Cornish people joined local MP David Harris in calling for the release of Aida and other members of the Ethiopian Royal Family. They were eventually freed in 1988, following years of campaigning.
John Fleet, of the Centre for European Research within Cornwall, recalls the protests. He said: "When Aida Desta and her family was imprisoned following the Mengistu revolution, there was a long and finally successful campaign to secure her release. It was a campaign in which some of us in Cornwall were closely involved and in which David Harris – then MP for St Ives – played a prominent part."
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Aida Desta and her family endured 14 years in cramped cells. They were not allowed visitors, proper toilets, warm clothes or shoes, but received parcels of food and other necessities from friends in Cornwall, Clarendon School and Newnham College Cambridge, where Aida studied in the 1940s.
"Cornwall played a key part in the efforts to secure the prisoners' release," added Mr Fleet. "So it was appropriate – and remarkable – that news of its success came through dramatically during a conference at Perranporth, when a member of the former imperial family was present."
After their release, Princess Aida split her time between Virginia and Addis Ababa.
Born in 1927 to Princess Tenagnework Haile Selassie and Ras Desta Damtew, Aida Desta spent much of her early life on the move. Her father was a hero of Ethiopia's resistance movement which fought Italian occupation. He was captured and executed by fascists in 1937. After his death, Princess Aida and her siblings accompanied their mother into exile and lived with Emperor Haile Selassie in Bath. She was educated at the School of St Clare in Penzance and Cambridge University, before returning to Ethiopia.
Today, few people in Cornwall will remember the slender young girl seen walking on Penzance promenade, the visits of her esteemed mother, or the day Emperor Haile Selassie himself "came to tea". On that occasion he was visiting the home of a Camborne solicitor to sign legal documents relating to his granddaughters' education. The solicitor's son, who still cherishes the autograph given to him by the king, said recently: "It was one day in June 1936 and it had been like any other. I had been to school as usual, but when I came home with my brother, there in the front room stood the emperor. He was robed and smelled of scent, was dignified and very friendly."
It is 75 years since Haile Selassie's visits to Cornwall with Aida Desta and Ruth. Did you see them – or even meet them? If you have any memories, please write to Simon Parker, WMN, 17 Brest Road, Plymouth PL6 5AA or email firstname.lastname@example.org