Haile Selassie: Who was the Rastafarian messiah?
King, God or Redeemer?
In collaboration withProfessor Ellis CashmoreStaffordshire University
Think about Rastafari and you’ll immediately conjure images of the charismatic reggae master Bob Marley and his headful of swirling dreadlocks. Marley is certainly a Rastafari icon, but there is another man at the heart of the Jamaican movement. He is Ras Tafari: that was the birth name of Ethiopia’s 225th and last emperor, who was born on 23 July 1892, and took the regal name Haile Selassie I when he was crowned. For Rastas, he is God (or Jah) incarnate – the redeeming messiah.
Nearly 8,000 miles separate Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and Kingston, Jamaica, but a link between them was forged by a number of poor black Jamaicans who believed Ras Tafari’s coronation was the fulfillment of a prophecy and that he was their redeemer, the messiah written of in the Bible’s Book of Revelation: “King of Kings, Lord of lords”. They believed he would arrange for a deliverance, which, as they saw it, involved a miraculous transformation. They would be spirited away from their lives of poverty in the Caribbean and relocated in Africa, the land of their ancestors and their spiritual epicentre.
Marcus Garvey and the vision of Africa
“Look to Africa when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near.”
This was the prophecy that started it all.
The prophecy was Marcus Garvey’s. Garvey was a Jamaican activist who campaigned for political and social change on an island that had been an important centre for slavery. After the slave trade was abolished in 1833 and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed “all persons held as slaves”, life did not improve dramatically for ex-slaves, their children and successive generations of black people.
It’s unclear whether the “black king” Marcus Garvey had referred to was an actual person; more likely, he meant it as a symbolic figure. But, when news of Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930 reached Jamaica, many of Garvey’s followers made what seemed to them a logical link. Ras Tafari was the king, and so the day of deliverance was imminent. That meant they should prepare themselves for an exodus to Africa.
Although Marcus Garvey was never actually a Rastafarian, he is considered to be one of the religion’s prophets, as his ideals heavily shaped the Rastafarian philosophy.
Only a few years after Haile Selassie’s coronation, Ethiopia became involved in a terrible war.