Article by Stephen Woodward. Edited by Antony Lowe. Additional Research by Lauren Puckey
Any GCSE History student worth his or her salt would be familiar with the name Haile Selassie. Renowned as the Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) who stood up in front of the world at the League of Nations in 1936 delivering a polemical speech against the Italian invasion of his country and the reluctance of other nations to maintain his nation’s sovereignty. Undoubtedly he was a major figure amongst interwar statesmen as the leader of the only independent African country left on the continent. But in one corner of the world Haile Selassie became more than just another foreign head of state, Haile Selassie became God.
In Jamaica Haile Selassie took on an unexpected importance, he was hailed as the Messiah, his coronation the second coming, a belief which formed the foundations of the Rastafarian faith. The Rastafarian faith even takes its name from Selassie’s pre imperial title, Ras- meaning Duke, Tafari Makonen- his pre imperial name.
The question you are no doubt pondering is: why? Why was it that Rastas latched onto Selassie in particular and heralded him as the saviour of all men on earth? There appear to be several reasons behind the Rastafarian belief in Haile Selassie’s divinity. Firstly the belief that Ethiopia is the site of the proclaimed holy promised land of Zion, especially centring on the sacred city of Lalibella. Furthermore Selassie was the last in a line of monarchs supposedly descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. These combined with the fact that at his coronation Selassie took the title of King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah signalled to some Jamaicans that he was indeed the messiah.
The rise of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica began when Haile Selassie’s coronation was given extensive coverage in 1930 over two issues of Time magazine. The magazine brought the coronation of the leader of the only independent non-colonial nation at the time to the attention of Jamaica and the world. It was mainly the coronation titles with their biblical allusions that attracted the Rastafarians to Haile Selassie, that combined with the fact he was the leader of a nation steeped through the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in biblical myths. Thus Rastafarianism was born, a movement which would come to incorporate many of Selassie’s own personal philosophies.
Haile Selassie himself neither confirmed or denied his divinity. Many Rasta’s would no doubt assert that the real Christ would never confirm his divinity. Selassie was however keen to foster good relations with the people who had taken to him so strongly. His state visit to Jamaica in 1966 was a huge event for Rastafarians everywhere. So large was the crowd, some several thousands had assembled at the airport to witness their messiah’s arrival, that he had to send a messenger from the aircraft for the crowd to thin so he could disembark. The day of his arrival in Jamaica, April 21st, ‘Grounation Day’ is now the second major holiday of the Rastafarian faith, following his own coronation. Haile Selassie was even keen to indulge the wishes of Rastafarians hoping to emigrate to their promised land. In 1948 he allocated 500 acres of his private estate for Rastafari immigrants to settle on at Shashamene. Actual widescale Rastafarian immigration did not take place till the mid-1960s but at one point Rastafarian settlers at Shashamene numbered over 2000 (though now have sunk below 300). One devoted Rastafarian is said to have hitchhiked the entire journey from London to Shashahmene to live in the promised land provided by his messiah.
Haile Selassie met his end when a military coup, called the Derg, ousted him from power in 1974. He died in prison in August 1975, supposedly from respiratory failure arising from complications during a prostate operation, though many including his personal doctor rejected this version of events citing assassination as the real cause of death. His remains were not discovered until 1992, hidden under a concrete slab in the palace grounds. When his funeral took place eventually in 2000 following a protracted court case around the mysterious circumstances of his death, it was attended by many Rastafari including Rita Marley, the widow of Bob. However to this day many Rastafari are adamant that Haile Selassie did not actually die in 1975, seemingly believing that as he was the Son of God he has immortality. He may never have confirmed his divinity, but for Rastafarians Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia was the messiah, the one independent African leader in a world dominated by white men, a man who allowed them to return and settle in Zion.
“By the Rivers of Babylon we sat down; there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
Rastafarians refer to Psalm 137 verse 1 to develop the belief that Ethiopia is regarded as the homeland; a happy place prior to the days of oppression. It is therefore believed that it is in fact Heaven.
Approximately five to ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafari.
Rastafari are monotheists, worshipping a singular God whom they call Jah.
Rastafari has its roots in the philosophy of Marcus Garvey and his teachings of black self empowerment are regarded as the foundations of the religion.
Bob Marley’s song ‘Iron Lion Zion’ refers to Haile Selassie.