Blessings from an Emperor

On the day Emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, a powerful storm broke out. The country, prior to the Emperor’s arrival, had been ravaged by famine and starvation. There had been no rain to water the crops for decades. The first time, in a long time, that it rained was when the Emperor set foot out of his aeroplane in that country. Jamaicans, from that time on, started to see the Emperor in a new light, they started to assume that maybe he was not just a person, but a messiah of some kind. Maybe even the messiah himself.

Of course, the above is only a legend Ethiopians tell each other to explain away Emperor Haile Selassie’s prominence in Rastafarian religion. Although many do respect the Emperor, and do find in him that air of kingly stature that has been missing in Ethiopian leadership ever since (for better or worse since the nation is striving for egalitarianism), we have never gone as far as to consider him a God, or a messiah.

The day Haile Selassie visited Jamaica was far from rainy. It has actually been carefully documented and recorded. (After all, it was the 20th century, and video cameras had already become abundant.) From the moment the Emperor set foot in Jamaica to the second he left, the day remained warm and sunny.

So what explains the Rastafarian movement?

Haile Selassie’s visit to the Central American nation is purportedly the single most important event Jamaicans have ever witnessed to this day. But not because it rained that day (it did not), or any other preposterous event took place. Rastafarianism has been a central religion since at least 1930 when Empress Zauditu’s regent Ras Tafari Makonnen became emperor, crowned in a name the world now knows him by.

The issue was much publicized around the world, and Haile Selassie’s ascension to the throne was covered on the cover of Time magazine. In fact, six years later, when Haile Selassie was traveling around the world lobbying against the invasion of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy, the same magazine had bestowed upon him the highly coveted Person of the Year moniker.

It is important to note that by this time almost all of Africa was colonized by Europeans. It was hard to find an African nation ruled by an African person. Black identity was in crisis, Haile Selassie was that extraordinary exception, the type of black person who got to visit the White House.

Years ago, black nationalist Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican by origin, had told his followers to look to Africa where a king would be crowned. That king would redeem all the black people of the world, give them back their pride, and emancipate them from a world of degradation and segregation.

Europe’s so called Scramble for Africa and Garvey’s sermons coincided to make Haile Selassie the central figure of an international religion. At a time when the black man needed hope, any aura of significance, a king in the Horn of Africa was crowned to become the King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

But it would be remiss to neglect the personality of Haile Selassie himself. It is somewhat hard to believe that any other Ethiopian leader could have shouldered the burden (and it is a burden) of being god in much the suave manner Haile Selassie did.

The Emperor may not have been an articulate English speaker, but he was indeed fluent. He seemed soft spoken and calm under pressure. Indeed, intellectually, Haile Selassie was one of the most sophisticated emperors, especially in contrast to Zauditu, who was illiterate.

He was a man who knew he was a king at a time when kings were being renounced by revolutions all around the world. Realizing that Western culture and Eastern culture, both of which were either into communism or capitalism, but neither of them into monarchy, are already too big to fend off, he moved to endear himself to the West. It kind of worked.

Physically, Haile Selassie was actually short and thin, but he also had excellent bone structure, the type that distinguished the well-nourished nobility from the under-nourished lower class that made up most of Africa. The king of kings was exceptionally photogenic, his pauses obviously calculated and studied to give the impression of extreme prominence bordering on divinity.

Haile Selassie had what I could only describe as the “cool” factor. He was a classic figure, one of those historical individuals who never actually become dated.

He might have never given Ethiopia democracy, and some of his deeds might have been immoral, but the guy stands above righteousness in many quarters. It was just like him to never say anything to dissuade Rastafarians from believing he was a god. He knew it would figure positively into his absolute rule of Ethiopia. He also knew it would make him legendary. Ideological or political leaders fade with time and the evolution of society, but religious figures easily outlast politics and idea as long as humans need someone to pray to.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is a writer/film critic whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Aug 05,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 901]



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