From a historical Pan-African perspective, Emperor Selassie’s visit was well within the period when the excitement around the independence of African countries had not died.
Selassie’s own Ethiopia had never been colonized but after 1960, so-called The Year of Africa, there was no dialing down the focus and ferocity with which Africans demanded self-government.
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Jamaica, on the other side of the world, had gained independence in 1962. The country did not become a republic until 1981.
The personhood, or better still, the myth of the personhood of Selassie, as well as the apparent divinity of where he came from, was important to his visit.
Haile Selassie was born Lij Tafari into the Ethiopian royal family in 1892. As a prince and an heir, he took the title Ras.
The name Haile Selassie, what he assumed upon his consecration as king of the Ethiopians, meant “Power of the Trinity”. He was a Christian of the denomination of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
But Haile Selassie had inspired a faith movement beginning in the 1930s in Jamaica. The Rastafari (Ras Tafari) movement was founded on a belief that pioneering Pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey, had prophesied of the crowning of a “black king” in Africa.
This black king was supposed to usher in “the day of deliverance” for Africans in the diaspora and on the mother continent.
The authenticity of the Garvey prophecy has been called into question. However, the mystique of Ethiopia, known in ancient times as Abyssinia or Cush, lingers.
The Biblical prophecy at Psalm 68:31 is interpreted by Rastafarians as a declaration of the manifest destiny of Ethiopia. The verse says, “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.”
Apart from that Bible verse, Ethiopia appears in fairly a lot of ancient records of Near Easterners and Middle Easterners’ interaction with Africans of the past.
Add that to the fact Ethiopia was never colonized and you have a decent understanding of what feeds the mystique Rastafarians feel about Ethiopia.
The highly-expectant crowd that gathered at the now Norman Manley International Airport was a huge one. Men, women and children waited for several hours to welcome the man whose existence fed a faith.
Although reggae music was only at its dawn in 1966, it is reported that the sounds of the genre could be heard at what was a near-carnival at the airport.
Perhaps, a better description of the merrymaking on that day comes from a letter the British Commissioner in Jamaica sent to the British Secretary of Commonwealth Relations.
“Official arrangements for the visit were considerably disrupted by the Rastafarians who believed the Emperor to be God,” said the letter.
Emperor Selassie’s visit is thought to have placed Rastafarianism on firm grounds in Jamaica, from where it has spread across the world through reggae music.
The monarch became a symbol of Rastafarians but Selassie himself was not enthused about that. “Do not worship me, I am not God. I’m only a man. I worship Jesus Christ,” he said to the movement of men and women that honored him.
Since Emperor Selassie’s visit to Jamaica, Rastafarians have celebrated April 21 as a holy day.