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The Rastafarians of Jamaica

One of the more improbable events of the 20th century was the visit of Haile Selassie, then the emperor of Ethiopia, to Jamaica 50 years ago.

These two countries, some 12,000 kilometres apart, one a country on the horn of Africa near the Red Sea, the other a Caribbean island, would seem to have little connection to each other, economically, geographically and historically. So, what was this all about?

The events leading up to the trip revolve around the story of a religious movement born in Jamaica in 1930 known as Rastafarianism.

It was a mixture of Protestant Christianity, mysticism, and pan-African political consciousness, and a response to the miserable economic and social conditions most Jamaicans faced at the time.

Rastafarianism was tied in to the various “back to Africa” movements that were then current among Blacks in the western hemisphere, in particular one led by Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican who believed that all Black people should return to Africa.

Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and soon had almost one million followers in the West Indies and the United States.

“Look to Africa, when a Black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand,” Garvey had declared, and many Jamaicans considered this prophecy to have been fulfilled in 1930, when Ras Tafari Makonnen was crowned the new emperor of Ethiopia.

Calling their own island, then a British crown colony, a corrupt “Babylon,” Rastafarians sought redemption and deliverance by this African ruler in a far-off country that had managed to remain sovereign when most of the continent had come under the control of European colonial powers. Ethiopia was a symbol of Black independence and resistance to colonialism.

Ethiopia was a Christian country. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church had become the established faith of the Ethiopian Axumite kingdom in 333 AD. Ethiopia’s rulers considered themselves the descendants of the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and the country’s flag incorporated the Lion of Judah.

So Ethiopia’s Christian history was woven into the fabric of the Rasta faith, which was rooted in the various Protestant beliefs that Jamaicans had adopted as slaves.

Even after Jamaica became an independent country in 1962, Rastafarians still considered themselves in economic and political bondage, “exiles in Babylon.” (The reggae song “Rivers of Babylon” is a lament that captures this feeling.) For them the emperor had become a messianic figure, and their image of him had little to do with the actual person.

They believed Ras Tafari was their redeemer; he would arrange for them to be spirited away from their lives of poverty in their Caribbean “Babylon” and relocated in Africa, their spiritual epicentre. Ethiopia was the biblical “Zion, our father’s land.”

So 100,000 Rastafarians descended on Kingston on April 21, 1966, having heard that the man whom they considered to be their messiah had come to visit them. The anniversary of his visit is still commemorated by them as Grounation Day.

When the future Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley’s visited Ethiopia in October 1969, the emperor still recalled his 1966 reception with amazement.

Haile Selassie’s own story did not end well. In 1974, the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist committee of military officers, deposed him in a coup d’état. He was executed a year later.

After the Soviet-backed Derg fell in 1991, his remains were given an imperial-style funeral by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in 2000, though the monarchy has never been restored.

Some prominent Rastafarian figures, including reggae singer Bob Marley’s widow Rita, participated in the funeral, and many continue to worship him as a god-like figure.

Marley was baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church six months before his death in 1981. A life-size statue of him stands in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.

Initially a religion of the downtrodden and powerless, in the past few decades Rastafarianism has gained an international following. In Jamaica itself, about five per cent of the population adheres to Rastafarianism.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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