This year marks the Fiftieth anniversary since the Visit of the Negus Nagast Hail Selassie I to Jamaica and the Caribbean (the visit having taken him first to Trinidad for four day, transiting Barbados for a few hours enroute to Jamaica where he remained for four days before departing for Haiti for a similar stay). The Emperor is unprecedented as the first Pan-African global figure to have stood respected and victorious within the concept of ‘collective security’, over issues of human rights, especially as articulated by acts of racism and colonialism in Ethiopia and Africa. Courageously this African leader had managed to be the only enduring voice that would bridge the gap between the colonial era and the final battles to free nations from their yolks of alien bondage. The Emperor began his touring career from 1924 when he led a delegation of young statesmen on a multilateral tour that took him to North Africa and Europe. At the time of that trip the then 31 year old Prince was to earn the first of many honorary Doctorate degree, on this occasion Cambridge University refers the future Emperor as “the hope of the African peoples”; a self-educated Prince who had in charge of his peoples governance for almost two decades who after his coronation as Emperor in November 1930 takes the helm of leading Africa and the colonialised world towards decolonialisation.
The genius of the Emperor was his modern antiquity in relation to the effective usage of the magic carpet as his veritable roving Palace / mobile Embassy, and in this regard the Conquering Lion made way for the achievement of tremendous advances in the Human Rights of people just by the weight of the reputation he bore and the protocols surrounding his arrival.Perhaps the most famous instance of this was the first visit of the Emperor to United States, shortly prior to his arrival a landmark Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The decision overturned the previous 1896, which allowed state-sponsored segregation, and was a major victory of the Civil Rights Movement.
The visit to the Caribbean was to straddle many a personal and public diplomatic objective, largely warranted as reciprocal to the interests and activities of West Indian leaders in seeking to serve and honouring the achievements of Ethiopia. Even Marcus Garvey received a glimmer of this new light around the Ethiopian throne. As early as 1922 as Prince regent, then known as Ras Tafari, this sovereign had begun to reach out to the potential seen in the African Diaspora, and through his emissary sends a message of invitation for members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, to come to Ethiopia to better employ themselves in the task of African redevelopment. Just prior to independence Jamaica sent two Missions to Africa and Ethiopia in particular, Trinidad took it a step further where her Prime Minister personally led a Mission in the same year of her independence and extended an invitation to the Emperor to visit. When this reciprocal trip came together the Palace in Addis Ababa had been well acquainted with the African Caribbean representation, with Jamaica been innovatively vociferous through the Rastafari who had made official and unofficial attempts to establish relations with Ethiopia (with a total of four Missions between 1961-1965).Prior to this time Caribbean people had been related in the close circles of the Throne, having been taught French as a boy by a Guadeloupian Physician, later Una Marson of Jamaica, Abeye Ford of Barbados and Helen and James Piper of Montserrat’s were to be various factors in the diasporic linkages. The visit to the Caribbean thus was a part of an enduring commitment shared between Ethiopia and the concretely grounded souls in the Diaspora who understood themselves within visionary. The Emperor is said to have told the Mission we can accommodate all who wish to come to Ethiopia, intrigued by the Rastafarians and their sense of the significance Ethiopia to the balancing of human Earthly existence. The Emperor as far as he was located on his mountain top in Eastern African, became a true source of appeal for those who felt unheard and unrepresented in the West. His visit to the region thus became a sign of acknowledgement of an existence and support of a cause that can only be demonstrated by the action of a state visit. The Emperor having been early in achievement of a pilot licence, and introducing aviation training and an airline in Ethiopia, was completely sold on the importance of modern travel as a way of binding ideas, individual and incidents indelibly into action. His arrival in the West Indies, placed the official system of administration into a tail spin; having only had knowledge of this great Emperor through the often mesmerizing rhetoric of the Rastafari, a pariah to civil society, it now had to scurry to learn how to receive this one whom they had paid little attention to because of their fixations on placating the centres of white supremacists and their rulers. Through the convention of extra-ordinary meeting the University of the West Indies agreed that it would need to order an extra-ordinary graduation ceremony to present the Institution’s highest honour the Doctorate of Laws to the Emperor while citing him a part of the one great society on earth, and a privilege accounting him among its own. The same truth of this expression is reflected in the over exuberance demonstrated by Rastafari to the Emperor. This brought the reality of Rastafari as a substantive leadership base that had been inspiring Africans for almost four decades to closer microscopic scrutiny, the outcome being immediately in the wake of the visit to Jamaica – a wider opening up of the demographic characteristics of the Rastafari, with less black or what is described as brown elements taking hold of the faith. With this also came a heightened interest for local academics, middle-class Jamaicans and also from women in general. The appearance of The Emperor in flesh had significantly substantiated a vision that hitherto had only been just words. The Emperor made “somebody” of the ordinary Jamaicans and perhaps is the first instance of what Nettleford subsequently identifies as “smaddification”, or to elevate from nonentity to someone, the philosophical task of ones like Garvey and Leonard Howell. Rastafari was made visible at the time of the visit in ways that no one could have imagined that the movement existed with up to that time, and added to the visibility was the seeming legitimacy: A public holiday declared because of the visit; Black and Rastafari takeover of the attendant protocol – If the plane on which the Emperor travelled was the Palace / embassy there was an abandonment of the Jamaican state and the multitudes were gathered at the borders of Ethiopia; carrying palm branches and blazing coals of fire with incenses especially Ganja, this unprecedented reception of anyone anywhere, captures the essence of the Emperors character and the affect of his brand of diplomacy. The Westminster placating state, made marginal by the peoples takeover of their event, would learn from this how deep rooted the spirit of the African was constantly moving through the hearts and minds of the population, and what power existed in that coming together of desire and fulfilment under appropriate leadership. By November Barbados was to fulfil the wish expressed by the then Premier Mr. Barrow that the Emperor’s visit would add momentum in the achievement of Independence for the island.
The Rastafari movement has been the core grassroots pan African forum within Jamaica from its inception in the early 1930. From a focus on the Negus Nagast Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia over the decades, a worldview has been spawned represented as the Rastafari faith anchored within a trajectory of Ethiopian attention, training and strategizing especially as inspired by Emperor Haile Selassie I’s words and deeds. This cadre of individual predate the opportunism that later emerges within the framework of the political system and the ‘parties’ emergent: People National Party and Jamaica Labour Party. Indeed the children of Marcus Garvey rose to adopt a new Father, seen through the lenses of Africa, the new Emperor Haile Selassie I. They were being taught the reality of self-reliance through his benevolence and embrace of their plight – even located as far away as they were in the West Indies. The first official overtures from the state to help the movement of reparation of the African diaspora inclined to Ethiopia was operationalized under Premier Norman Manley in 1960 using the recommendation of the Principal of the then University College of the West Indies to send a fact finding mission to Africa. Missions went to Africa towards this objective in 1961 and 1962, the latter being truncated because of the rapid developments toward Jamaican independence achieved August 1962. Independence was achieved under a Jamaica Labour Party administration though some might say its architects were the People National Party’s (PNP) technocrats. This year 2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the visit of the Emperor to the region and once more plans are rife among the Rastafari sons and daughter as to how to symbolically receive the moment and honour its legacy. Made more significant by governmental actions on issues of reparation and more recently specifically ganja, the tracks for the engagement of a Rastafari agenda for critical post-colonial dialogue and repair has been ironically prepared, with quantum leaps having been made in recent years by the PNP lead governments. Fortuitously perhaps the stage has been reset, with the recent Jamaican national elections bringing to power the JLP, on the eve of our celebration of the 50th anniversary of the visit – let us see how the tracks now in place service and expand the goals central to the Rastafari concerns and philosophies.
Written by: Bongo Jahlani