“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” – HIM Haile-Selassie
Haile-Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia (July 23, 1892 – August 27, 1975) was de jure Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 and de facto from 1916 to 1936 and 1941 to 1974. To Ethiopians he has been known by many names, including Janhoy, Talaqu Meri, Abba Tekel, amongst others.
Haile-Selassie I was born Tafari Makonnen on July 23, 1892, in the village of Ejersa Goro, in the Harar province of Ethiopia, as Lij (literally “child”, usually bestowed upon nobility). His father was Ras Makonnen Woldemikael Gudessa, the governor of Harar, and his mother was Weyziro (Lady) Yeshimebet Ali Abajifar. He inherited his imperial blood through his paternal grandmother, Princess Tenagnework Sahle Selassie, who was an aunt of Emperor Menelik II, and as such, claimed to be a direct descendant of Makeda, the queen of Sheba, and King Solomon of ancient Israel. Emperor Haile-Selassie had an elder half-brother, Dejazmach Yilma Makonnen, who preceded him as governor of Harar, but died not long after taking office.
Tafari became Dejazmach at the age of thirteen. Shortly thereafter, his father Ras Makonnen died at Kulibi. Although it seems that his father had wanted him to inherit his position of governor of Harar, Emperor Menelik found it imprudent to appoint such a young boy to such an important position. Dejazmach Tafari’s older half-brother, Dejazmach Yilma Makonnen was made governor of Harar instead.
Governor of Harar
Tafari was given the titular governorship of Sellale, although he did not administer the district directly. In 1907, he was appointed governor over part of the province of Sidamo. Following the death of his brother Dejazmach Yilma, Harar was granted to Menelik’s loyal general, Dejazmach Balcha Saffo. However, the Dejazmach’s time in Harar was not successful, and so during the last illness of Menelik II, and the brief tenure in power of Empress Taitu Bitul, Tafari Makonnen was made governor of Harar, and entered the city 11 April 1911. On 3 August of that year, he married Menen Asfaw of Ambassel, the niece of the heir to the throne, Lij Iyasu.
Although Dejazmach Tafari played only a minor role in the movement that deposed Lij Iyasu on 27 September 1916, he was its ultimate beneficiary. The primary powers behind the move were the conservatives led by Fitawrari Habte Giorgis Dinagde, Menelik II’s long time war minister. Dejazmach Tafari was included in order to get the progressive elements of the nobility behind the movement, as Lij Iyasu was no longer regarded as the progressives’ best hope for change. However, Iyasu’s increasing flirtation with Islam, his disrespectful attitude to the nobles of his grandfather Menelik II, as well as his scandalous behavior in general, not only outraged the conservative power-brokers of the Empire, but alienated the progressive elements as well. This led to the deposition of Iyasu on grounds of conversion to Islam, and the proclamation of Menelik II’s daughter (Iyasu’s aunt) as Empress Zewditu. Dejazmach Tafari Makonnen was elevated to the rank of Ras, and was made heir apparent. In the power arrangement that followed, Tafari accepted the role of Regent (Inderase), and became the de facto ruler of the Ethiopian Empire.
As regent, the new Crown Prince developed the policy of careful modernisation initiated by Menelik II, securing Ethiopia’s admission to the League of Nations in 1923, re-abolishing slavery in the empire in 1924 (it had already been declared illegal several times by all the Emperors beginning with Tewodros, but with little practical result). He engaged in a tour of Europe that same year, inspecting schools, hospitals, factories, and churches; this left such an impression on the future emperor that he devoted over forty pages of his autobiography to the details of his European journey. Also on this trip, while visiting the Armenian monastery in Jerusalem, the Crown Prince met 40 Armenian orphans (Arba Lijoch, “forty children”) who had escaped from the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Empire. They impressed him so much that he received permission from the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem to adopt and bring them to Ethiopia, where he arranged for them to receive musical instruction, and they formed the Imperial brass band. The 40 teenagers arrived in Addis Ababa on September 6, 1924, and along with their bandleader Kevork Nalbandian became the first official orchestra of the nation. Nalbandian composed the music for the Imperial National Anthem, Marsh Teferi (words by Yoftahé Negusé), which was official in Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
King and Emperor
Empress Zewditu crowned him as negus (“king”, in Amharic) in 1928, under pressure from the progressive party, following a failed attempt to remove him from power by the conservative elements. The crowning of Tafari Makonnen was very controversial, as he occupied the same immediate territory as the Empress, rather than going off to one of the regional areas traditionally known as Kingdoms within the Empire. Two monarchs, even with one being the vassal and the other the Emperor (in this case Empress), had never occupied the same location as their seat in Ethiopian history. Attempts to redress this “insult” to the dignity of the Empress’ crown were attempted by conservatives including Dejazmach Balcha and others. The rebellion of Ras Gugsa Wele, husband of the Empress, was also in this spirit. He marched from his governorate at Gondar towards Addis Ababa but was defeated and killed at the Battle of Anchiem on March 31, 1930. News of Ras Gugsa’s defeat and death had hardly spread through Addis Ababa, when the Empress died suddenly on April 2, 1930. Although it was long rumored that the Empress was poisoned upon the defeat of her husband, or alternately, that she collapsed upon hearing of his death and died herself, it has since been documented that the Empress had succumbed to an intense flu-like fever and complications from diabetes.
Following the Empress Zewditu’s sudden death, Tafari Makonnen was made Emperor and proclaimed Neguse Negest ze-‘Ityopp’ya (“King of Kings of Ethiopia”). He was crowned on November 2 as Emperor Haile-Selassie I at Addis Ababa’s Cathedral of St. George, in front of representatives from 12 countries. (Haile-Selassie had been the baptismal name given to Tafari at his christening as an infant meaning “Power of the Holy Trinity.”) The representatives included Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester (son of British King George V, and brother to Kings Edward VIII, and George VI), Marshal Franchet d’Esperey of France, and the Prince of Udine representing Italy. Evelyn Waugh was also present and wrote a contemporary report about the coronation and the events leading up to it (Remote People, 1931).
Upon his coronation as emperor and in keeping with the traditions of the Solomonic dynasty that had reigned in highland Ethiopia since 1297, Haile-Selassie’s throne name and title were joined to the imperial motto, so that all court documents and seals bore the inscription: “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered! Haile-Selassie I, Elect of God King of Kings of Ethiopia”. The use of this formula dates to the dynasty’s Solomonic origins, as well as to the Christianized throne from the period of Ezana; all monarchs being required to trace their lineage back to Menelik I, who in the Ethiopian tradition was the offspring of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.
By Empress Menen, the Emperor had six children: Princess Tenagnework, Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen, Princess Tsehai, Princess Zenebework, Prince Makonnen and Prince Sahle Selassie.
Emperor Haile-Selassie I also had an older daughter, Princess Romanework Haile-Selassie, who was born from an earlier alleged union to Woizero Altayech. Little is known about his relationship with Altayech beyond that it allegedly occurred when the Emperor was in his late teens. His Majesty never once mentioned any previous marriage, either in his Autobiography or in any other writings. The Princess is listed among the Emperor’s children in the official Imperial Family Tree published after his coronation, and in every version since. She was granted the title of Princess and given the dignity of “Imperial Highness” upon the Emperor’s coronation along with his other children, not something that would have been granted an illegitimate or adopted child.
The Emperor introduced Ethiopia’s first written constitution on July 16, 1931, providing for an appointed bicameral legislature. It was the first time that non-noble subjects had any role in official government policy. However, the League’s failure to stop Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 led him to five years in exile. The constitution also limited the succession to the throne to the descendants of Emperor Haile-Selassie — a detail that caused considerable unhappiness with other dynastic princes, such as the princes of Tigrai, and even his loyal cousin Ras Kassa Hailu.
Haile-Selassie in 1942
Following the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, Emperor Haile-Selassie I made an attempt at fighting back the invaders personally. He joined the northern front by setting up headquarters at Desse in Wollo province. He issued his famous mobilization order on 3 October 1935:
On 19 October 1935 he gave more precise orders for his army to his Commander-in-Chief, Ras Kassa:
- When you set up tents, it is to be in caves and by trees and in a wood, if the place happens to be adjoining to these―and separated in the various platoons. Tents are to be set up at a distance of 30 cubits from each other.
- When an aeroplane is sighted, one should leave large open roads and wide meadows and march in valleys and trenches and by zigzag routes, along places which have trees and woods.
- When an aeroplane comes to drop bombs, it will not suit it to do so unless it comes down to about 100 metres; hence when it flies low for such action, one should fire a volley with a good and very long gun and then quickly disperse. When three or four bullets have hit it, the aeroplane is bound to fall down. But let only those fire who have been ordered to shoot with a weapon that has been selected for such firing, for if everyone shoots who possesses a gun, there is no advantage in this except to waste bullets and to disclose the men’s whereabouts.
- Lest the aeroplane, when rising again, should detect the whereabouts of those who are dispersed, it is well to remain cautiously scattered as long as it is still fairly close. In time of war it suits the enemy to aim his guns at adorned shields, ornaments, silver and gold cloaks, silk shirts and all similar things. Whether one possesses a jacket or not, it is best to wear a narrow-sleeved shirt with faded colours. When we return, with God’s help, you can wear your gold and silver decorations then. Now it is time to go and fight. We offer you all these words of advice in the hope that no great harm should befall you through lack of caution. At the same time, We are glad to assure you that in time of war We are ready to shed Our blood in your midst for the sake of Ethiopia’s freedom…”
The Italians had the advantage of much better and a larger number of modern weapons, including a large airforce. The Italians also extensively used chemical warfare and bombed Red Cross tent hospitals, in violation of the Geneva Convention. Following the defeat of the northern armies of Ras Seyoum Mengesha and Ras Imru Haile-Selassie I in Tigray, the Emperor made a stand against them himself at Maychew in southern Tigray. Although giving Italian pilots quite a scare, his army was defeated and retreated in disarray, and he found himself being attacked by rebellious Raya and Azebu tribesmen as well.
The Emperor made a solitary pilgrimage to the churches at Lalibela, at considerable risk of capture, before returning to his capital. After a stormy session of the council of state, it was agreed that because Addis Ababa could not be defended, the government would relocate to the southern town of Gore, and that in the interests of preserving the Imperial house, the Empress and the Imperial family should leave immediately by train for Djibouti and from there to Jerusalem. After further debate over whether the Emperor would also go to Gore or he should take his family into exile, it was agreed that the Emperor should leave Ethiopia with his family, and present the case of Ethiopia to the League of Nations at Geneva. The decision was not unanimous, and several participants angrily objected to the idea that an Ethiopian monarch should flee before an invading force. Some, like the progressive noble, Blatta Takele, an erstwhile ally of the Emperor, were to permanently hold a grudge against him for agreeing to leave the country. The Emperor appointed his cousin Ras Imru Haile-Selassie as Prince Regent in his absence, departing with his family for Djibouti on May 2, 1936.
Marshal Pietro Badoglio led the Italian troops into Addis Ababa on May 5, and Mussolini declared King Victor Emanuel III Emperor of Ethiopia, and Ethiopia an Italian province. On this occasion Badoglio, declared the first Viceroy of Ethiopia and made “Duke of Addis Ababa,” returned to Rome and took with him Haile-Selassie’s throne as a “war trophy,” converting it into his dog’s couch. At Djibouti, the Emperor boarded a British ship bound for Palestine. The Imperial family disembarked at Haifa, and then went on to Jerusalem, where the Emperor and his officials prepared for their presentation at Geneva.
Emperor Haile-Selassie I was the only head of state to address the General Assembly of the League of Nations. When he entered the hall, and the President of the Assembly announced “Sa Majesté Imperiale, l’Empereur d’Ethiopie,” the large number of Italian journalists in the galleries erupted in loud shouts, whistles and catcalls, stamping their feet and clapping their hands. As it turned out, they had earlier been issued whistles by the Italian foreign minister (and Mussolini’s son-in-law) Count Galeazzo Ciano. The Emperor stood in quiet dignity.
The Emperor waited quietly for security to clear the Italian press out of the gallery, before commencing his speech. Although fluent in French, the working language of the League, the Emperor chose to deliver his historic speech in his native Amharic. The Emperor asked the League to live up to its promise of collective security. He spoke eloquently of the need to protect weak nations against the strong. He detailed the death and destruction rained down upon his people by the use of Mussolini’s chemical agents. He reminded the League that “God and History would remember… [their] judgement.” He pleaded for help and asked “What answer am I to take back to my people?”. His eloquent address moved all who heard it, and turned him into an instant world celebrity. He became Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” and an icon for anti-Fascists around the world. He failed, however, in getting what he requested to help his people fight the invasion: the League agreed to only partial and ineffective sanctions on Italy, and several members recognized the Italian conquest.
Emperor Haile-Selassie I spent his five years of exile (1936–1941) mainly in Bath, United Kingdom, in Fairfield House, which he bought. After his return to Ethiopia, he donated it to the city of Bath as a residence for the aged, and it remains so to this day. There are numerous accounts of “Haile-Selassie was my next-door neighbour” among people who were children in the Bath area during his residence, and he attended Holy Trinity Church in Malvern (with the same dedication as Trinity Cathedral back in Ethiopia). The Emperor also spent extended periods in Jerusalem.
During this period, Emperor Haile-Selassie I suffered several personal tragedies. His two sons-in-law, Ras Desta Damtew and Dejazmach Beyene Merid, were both executed by the Italians. His daughter Princess Romanework, along with her children, was taken in captivity to Italy, where she died in 1941. His grandson Lij Amha Desta died in Britain just before the restoration, and his daughter Princess Tsehai died shortly after.
Haile-Selassie I returned to Ethiopia in 1941, after Italy’s defeat in Ethiopia by United Kingdom and Ethiopian patriot forces. After the war, Ethiopia became a charter member of the United Nations (UN). In 1951, after a lengthy fact-finding inquiry by the allied powers and then the UN, the former Italian colony of Eritrea was federated to Ethiopia as a compromise between the sizable factions that wanted complete Union with the Empire, and those who wanted complete independence from it.
Despite his centralization policies that had been made before WWII, he still found himself unable to push for all the programs he wanted. In 1942, Haile-Selassie attempted to institute a progressive tax scheme, but this failed due to opposition from the nobility, and only a flat tax was passed; in 1951 he agreed to reduce this as well. In addition, the land tax was generally passed by the land owners to the peasants. Despite his wishes, the tax burden remained primarily on the peasants.
Between 1948 and 1956, Haile-Selassie took steps to establish the autocephaly of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This was accomplished by obtaining permission from the native Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa Cyril VI in 1959, to appoint the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, instead of the traditional system, where the head could only be appointed by the patriarch of Alexandria. The Ethiopian Church remained affiliated, however, with the Alexandrian Church. Selassie also created enough new bishoprics so that Ethiopians could elect their own patriarch. In addition to this, he changed the Ethiopian church-state relationship by introducing taxation of church lands, and by taking away the privilege of clergy to be tried in their own courts for civil offenses.
In keeping with the principle of collective security, for which he was an outspoken proponent, he sent a contingent under General Mulugueta Bulli, known as the Kagnew Battalion, to take part in the UN Conflict in Korea. It was attached to the American 7th Infantry Division, and fought in a number of engagements including the Battle of Pork Chop Hill.
During the celebrations of his Silver Jubilee in November 1955, Haile-Selassie I introduced a revised constitution, whereby he retained effective power, while extending political participation to the people by allowing the lower house of parliament to become an elected body. Party politics were not provided for. Modern educational methods were more widely spread throughout the Empire, and the country embarked on a development scheme and plans for modernization, tempered by Ethiopian traditions, and within the framework of the ancient monarchical structure of the state.
Haile-Selassie compromised when practical with the traditionalists in the nobility and church. He also tried to improve relations between the state and ethnic groups, and granted autonomy to Afar lands that were difficult to control. Still, his reforms to end feudalism were slow and weakened by the compromises he made with the entrenched aristocracy. This would be a key factor in the downfall of his regime.
His international fame and acceptance also grew. In 1954, he visited the then West Germany to become the first head of state to do so after the end of the second world war. Many elderly Germans still vividly remember and are inspired by this visit by an African king as it signalled their acceptance back to the world, as a peaceful nation. He donated blankets produced by the Debre Birhan Blanket Factory, in Ethiopia, to the then war torn Germany.
Haile-Selassie on a state visit to Washington, 1963
On December 13, 1960, while the emperor was on a state visit to Brazil, his Imperial Guard forces staged an unsuccessful coup attempt, briefly proclaiming Haile-Selassie I’s eldest son Asfa Wossen as the new Emperor. The coup d’état was crushed by the regular Army and police forces. The coup attempt (although lacking wide popular support, denounced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and crushed by the Army, Air and Police forces) gained support among students of the University and elements of the young educated technocrats in the country. It marked the beginning of an increased radicalization of Ethiopia’s student population, and the University was in an almost constant state of protest against the regime for the next decade.
After the coup, Haile-Selassie attempted to increase reform, especially in the form of land grants to military and police officials, however there was little organization to this effort.
Following this, he continued to be a staunch ally of the West, while pursuing a firm policy of decolonisation in Africa, which was still largely under European colonial rule at this time. The United Nations conducted a lengthy inquiry regarding the status of Eritrea, with the superpowers each vying for a stake in the state’s future. Britain the last administrator at the time put forth the suggestion to partition Eritrea between Sudan and Ethiopia, separating christians and moslems. It was instantly rejected by Eritrean political parties as well as the UN. The United States point of view was expressed by its then chief foreign policy advisor John Foster Dulles who said:
“From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] has to be linked with our ally, Ethiopia,” — John Foster Dulles, 1952.
A UN plebiscite voted 46 to 10 to have Eritrea be federated with Ethiopia which was later stipulated on December 2 of 1950 in resolution 390 (V). Eritrea would have its own parliament and administration and would be represented in what had been the Ethiopian parliament and was now the federal parliament. In 1961 the 30-year Eritrean Struggle for Independence, began after years of peaceful student protests against Ethiopian violation of Eritrean democratic rights and autonomy had culminated in violent repression and the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile-Selassie I’s dissolution of the federation in 1961 followed by shutting down the parliament and declaring Eritrea the 14th province of Ethiopia in 1962.
In 1963, the Emperor presided over the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, with the new organisation setting up its headquarters in Addis Ababa. As more and more African states won their independence, he played a pivotal role as a Pan-Africanist, and along with Modibo Keïta of Mali, was successful in negotiating the Bamako Accords, which brought an end to a border conflict between Morocco and Algeria.
In 1966, the Emperor attempted to create a more modern, progressive tax that included registration of land that would significantly weaken the nobility. Even with alterations, this law led to a revolt in Gojam which was repressed although enforcement of the tax was abandoned. This encouraged other landowners to defy the emperor, though on a lesser scale.
As in other countries, the increasingly radical student movement took hold in Haile-Selassie University and high school campuses in the late 60s and early 70s, and student unrest became a regular feature of Ethiopian life. Marxism took root in large segments of the Ethiopian intelligentsia, particularly among those who had studied abroad and had been exposed to radical and left-wing sentiments that were becoming fashionable in other parts of the globe. Resistance by conservative elements at the Imperial Court and Parliament, in addition to within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made the Emperor’s proposals of widespread land reform policies difficult to implement, and also damaged the standing of the government. This bred resentment among the peasant population. Efforts to weaken unions also hurt his image. As these issues began to pile up, Haile-Selassie left much of domestic governance to his Prime Minister, Aklilu Habte Wold, and concentrated more on foreign affairs.
Outside of Ethiopia, however, the Emperor continued to enjoy enormous prestige and respect. As the longest serving Head of State then in power, the Emperor was usually given precedence over all other leaders at most international state events, such as the celebration of the 2500 years of the Persian Empire, the summits of the Non-aligned movement, and the state funerals of John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle. His frequent travels around the world raised Ethiopia’s international image.
Famine mostly in Wollo, northeastern Ethiopia, as well as in some parts of Tigray is estimated to have killed up to 200,000 Ethiopians between 1972-73. Even though this region is famous for having recurrent crop failures with continuous food shortage and risk of starvation, the death of around 200,000 people in 1973 became one of the worst famines in African history. It led to the 1973 production of a BBC programme labeled “The Unknown Famine” by Jonathan Dimbleby, along with a team of ITV broadcasters. It was dubbed the world’s first “television catastrophe” of a famine. Some studies showed that the small food produced in the famine-stricken Wollo area was moved out, thus strengthening the argument of a government attempt to use food as a weapon against pro-rebel regions. In addition to a backward social system, the attempt to cover-up the famine by the imperial government contributed to the popular uprising that led to its down fall and the rise of Mengistu Haile Mariam to power.
Last of the Monarch
A devastating drought in the Province of Wollo in 1972–73 that caused a large famine, which was covered up by the officials and correlated with Haile-Selassie’s 80th birthday with much pomp and ceremony, led to more dissent in the country. When a BBC documentary narrated by British journalist Jonathan Dimbleby exposed the existence and scope of the famine, the government was seriously undermined, and the Emperor’s once unassailable personal popularity fell. Simultaneously, economic hardship caused by high oil prices and widespread military mutinies in the country further weakened him. Enlisted men began to seize their senior officers and held them hostage, demanding higher pay, better living conditions, and investigation of alleged widespread corruption in the higher ranks of the military. The Derg, a committee of low ranking military officers and enlisted men, set up to investigate the military’s demands, took advantage of the government’s disarray to depose Emperor Haile-Selassie I on September 12, 1974. General Aman Michael Andom served briefly as provisional head of state pending the return of the Crown Prince from abroad where he was receiving medical treatment. The Emperor was placed under house arrest briefly at the 4th Army Division in Addis Ababa, while most of his family were detained at the late Duke of Harrar‘s residence in the north of the capital. The Emperor was then moved to a house on the grounds of the old Imperial Palace where the new government set up its headquarters. Later, most of the Imperial family were imprisoned in the Central prison in Addis Ababa known as “Alem Bekagn”, or “I am finished with the world”. On November 23, 1974, 61 former high officials of the Imperial government known as “the Sixty”, were executed without trial. The executed included the Emperor’s grandson, Rear Admiral Iskinder Desta, two former Prime Ministers, Lij Endelkachew Makonnen and Tsehafi Taezaz Aklilu Haptewold, former provisional Head of State, General Aman Michael Andom and others.
On August 28, 1975, the state media reported that the “ex-monarch” Haile-Selassie I had died on August 27, of “respiratory failure” following complications from a prostate operation. His doctor, Professor Asrat Woldeyes denied that complications had occurred and rejected the government version of his death. Some believe that he was suffocated in his sleep. Witnesses came forward after the fall of the Marxist government in 1991, to reveal that the Emperor’s remains had been buried beneath the president’s personal office. On November 5, 2000 Emperor Haile-Selassie I was given an Imperial funeral by the Ethiopian Orthodox church. The current post-communist government refused to give it the status of a state funeral. Although such prominent Rastafari figures such as Rita Marley and others participated in the grand funeral, most Rastafari rejected the event, and refused to accept that the bones unearthed from under Mengistu Haile Mariam‘s office were the remains of the Emperor.
incarnate among followers of the Rastafari movement, which emerged in Jamaica during the 1930s under the influence of Marcus Garvey‘s “Back to Africa” movement, and as the Black Messiah who will lead the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora to freedom. He has been greatly popularised through reggae music and also the distinctive dreadlocks of the Rastafari, along with their worship of him using cannabis as a sacred herb which they believe brings them closer to him and has become the basis for claims of religious persecution against the Rastafari movement. His official titles, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God, and his traditional lineage from Solomon and Sheba, are seen to be confirmation of the titles of the returned Messiah in the prophetic Book of Revelation in the New Testament: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Root of David. The faith in the incarnate divinity of Emperor Haile-Selassie I began after news reports of his coronation reached Jamaica, particularly via the two Time magazine articles about the coronation the week before and the week after the event. He is considered to be the King and God before whom no other shall stand. Selassie’s own spiritual teachings permeate the philosophy of the movement.
When Haile-Selassie I visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, somewhere between one and two hundred thousand Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, having heard that the man whom they considered to be God was coming to visit them. Cannabis was widely and openly smoked. When Haile-Selassie I arrived at the airport he refused to get off the aeroplane for an hour until Mortimer Planner, a well known Rasta, persuaded him that it was safe to do so. From then on the visit was a success. Rita Marley, Bob Marley‘s wife, converted to the Rastafarian faith after seeing Haile-Selassie I. She claimed, in interviews, that she saw scars on the palms of Selassie’s hands (as he waved to the crowd) that resembled the envisioned markings on Christ’s hands from being nailed to the cross — a claim that was never supported by other sources, but nonetheless, a claim that was used as evidence for her and other Rastafarians to suggest that Selassie I was indeed their Messiah.
Haile-Selassie I’s attitude to the Rastafarians
Haile-Selassie I had no role in organising or promoting the Rastafari movement, which for many Rastas is seen as proof of his divinity, in that he was no false prophet claiming to be God in order to enjoy the benefits of being a cult leader. He was a devout member of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as demanded by his political role in Ethiopia, and it was to his role as Emperor of Ethiopia that he devoted his life. His publicly known views towards the Rastafarians varied from sympathy to polite interest reinforced by the fact that his political inclinations, including African emancipation, were those of the Rastafari movement.
Yet in his speeches and writings there is substantial material about the spiritual life, and he often addressed his audience in the tone of a spiritual teacher. For instance, he wrote “Knowing that material and spiritual progress are essential to man, we must work ceaselessly for the attainment of both… No one should question the faith of others, for no human can judge the ways of God”. During the Emperor’s visit to Jamaica, he told Rastafari community leaders that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had liberated the people of Jamaica. On another occasion Selassie said “We have been a child, a boy, a youth, an adult, and finally an old man. Like everyone else. Our Lord the Creator made us like everyone else,” (in an interview with Oriana Fallaci, Chicago Tribune, June 24, 1973) and the Rastafarians do see Selassie as man or flesh incarnate. On numerous occasions Selassie expressed his belief in his faith, stating that one is doomed apart from faith in Christ, who in the Tewahido faith is considered both man and God: “A rudderless ship is at the mercy of the waves and the wind, drifts wherever they take it and if there arises a whirlwind it is smashed against the rocks and becomes as if it has never existed. It is our firm belief that a soul without Christ is bound to meet with no better fate.” (One Race, One Gospel, One Task, address to the World Evangelical Congress, Berlin, October 28, 1966). He also encouraged religious freedom and tolerance. “Since nobody can interfere in the realm of God we should tolerate and live side by side with those of other faiths… We wish to recall here the spirit of tolerance shown by Our Lord Jesus Christ when He gave forgiveness to all including those that crucified Him.”
In order to help the Rastas and their aspirations of returning to Africa the Emperor donated a piece of land at Shashamane, 250 km south of Addis Ababa, for the use of Jamaican Rastafarians and there is a community there to this day.
The Rastafarians’ attitude towards Haile-Selassie I
Rastas say that they know Haile-Selassie I is God, and therefore do not need to believe it; belief to them implies doubt, and they state they have no doubts about his divinity. He is a central theme and presence within the life of Rastafarians. He is seen as a symbol of black pride, and as a king for African people. The Rastafarians use his full name, Haile-Selassie I, pronouncing the Roman numeral that indicates “the first” as the word “I”, that being the first person pronoun, thus emphasising both the personal relationship they have with him and also that God is to be found within the human being; he is also called “Jah Rastafari Selassie I,” and affectionately “Jah Jah”. They are very proud of knowing and declaring that he is their God. They have never been worried by Haile-Selassie never claiming to be God, arguing that the real God would never claim to be so just to get worldly acclaim and power. Roots reggae is full of thanks and praises towards “Selassie I”. The Rastas say that Haile-Selassie I will one day call the day of judgement, calling the righteous and the faithful to live with him forever on a new Earth ruled from Holy Mount Zion, said to be a place in Africa. Some Rastas state that “Zion is a state of mind”, emphasising that Zion is a current earth reality and not some place in the sky only to be experienced after one has died.
The first Rastafari to appear in front of a court was Leonard Howell, who was charged with sedition against the state and its King George V of the United Kingdom. Howell declared himself a loyal subject not of the King of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth, but of Haile-Selassie I and of his country Ethiopia. When Emperor Haile-Selassie I came before the League of Nations to plead his case, and having it rejected by the League, this event confirmed their belief because the nations of Babylon, in reference to the ancient biblical place, will turn their backs to messiah on his return. They see their own rejection within the societies in which they live as being because they worship Selassie I. Many equated the Second Italo-Abyssinian War with the fight in the Book of Revelation between the returned messiah and the antichrist. The Emperor’s restoration to power in 1941 strengthened the Rastafari faith that he was Almighty God.
Rastas say that Haile-Selassie I is still alive, and that his purported death was part of a conspiracy to discredit their spiritual movement, and Selassie himself. In addition to being a political and historical figure, Haile-Selassie I has become a popular culture symbol for God through the Rastafari movement. Many Rastas are concerned that the world does not see Haile-Selassie I in a positive light due to negative and unproven rumours about large bank accounts that the Marxist government in Ethiopia claimed he had used to salt away the wealth of the country.
Haile-Selassie’s core beliefs of ethnic integration, a united Africa and the following of a moral path are at the heart of Rasta philosophy and vision as are Selassie I’s own teachings on morality and spirituality.