A religious movement that accepts Haile Selassie I,
as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah as Jahy.
A religious movement that emerged in Jamaica in the early 1930s,
arising from an interpretation of Biblical prophecy.
History of the Rastafari movement
Rastas see Marcus Garvey as a prophet, even a second John the Baptist according to some. One of the most famous prophecies attributed to him involving the coronation of Haile Selassie I was the 1927 pronouncement “Look
to Africa, for there a king shall be crowned,” though an associate of Garvey’s, James Morris Webb, had made very similar public statements as early as 1921.
Marcus Garvey promoted Pan-Africanism, the belief that all black people of the world should join in brotherhood and work to decolonize the continent of Africa, then still controlled by the white colonialist powers. He promoted his cause of black pride throughout the twenties and thirties, and was particularly successful and influential among lower-class blacks in Jamaica and in rural communities.
Although his ideas have been hugely influential in the development of Rastafari culture, Garvey never identified himself with the movement, and even wrote an article critical of Haile Selassie for leaving Ethiopia at the time of the Fascist occupation. In addition, his Universal Negro Improvement Association disagreed with Leonard P. Howell over Howell’s teaching that Haile Selassie was the Messiah. The first Rastas had been Garveyites, so Rastafari can be seen as an extension of Garveyism. In early Rasta folklore, it is the Black Star Liner (a ship bought by Garvey to encourage repatriation to Liberia) that takes them home to Africa.
The Holy Piby written by Robert Athlyi Rogers from Anguilla in 1928, is acclaimed by many Rastafarians as a primary source. Robert Athlyi Rogers founded an Afrocentric religion in the US and West Indies in the 1920s. Rogers’ religious movement, the Afro Athlican Constructive Church, saw Ethiopians (in the Biblical sense of all Black Africans) as the chosen people of God, and proclaimed Marcus Garvey, the prominent Black Nationalist, an apostle. The church preached selfreliance and self-determination for Africans.
The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy, written during the 1920s by a preacher called Fitz Balintine Pettersburg, is a surrealistic stream-ofconsciousness polemic against the white colonial power structure, a palimpsest of Afrocentric thought, brimming with rage and energy.
The first document to appear that can be labelled as truly Rastafari was Leonard P. Howell’s The Promise Key, written using the pen name G.G. [for GangunGuru] Maragh, in the early 1930s. In it, he claims to have witnessed the Coronation of the Emperor and Empress on Nov. 2, 1930 in Addis Ababa, and proclaims the doctrine that H.M. Ras Tafari is the true Head of Creation and that the King of England is an imposter. It was for writing this tract that Howell was jailed on charges of sedition. However, it seems that several other street
preachers in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean had all independently come to this same conclusion, at roughly the same time (1930); therefore Howell cannot be credited with being the sole founder of the movement.
Emperor Haile Selassie I, whom the Rastafarians call Jah, was crowned “King of Kings, Elect of God, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah” in Addis Ababa on November 2, 1930. The event created great publicity throughout the world, including in Jamaica, and particularly through two consecutive Time magazine articles about the coronation (he was later named Time’s Man of the Year for 1935). Haile Selassie almost immediately gained a following as both God and King amongst poor Jamaicans, who came to be known as Rastafarians, and who looked to their Bibles, and saw what they believed to be the fulfilling of many prophecies from the book of Revelation. As Ethiopia was the only African country to escape colonialism, and Haile Selassie was the only black leader accepted among the kings and queens of Europe, the early Rastas viewed him with great reverence.
In 1934 Leonard Howell was the first Rasta to be charged with sedition for refusing loyalty to the King of England George V. The British government would not tolerate Jamaicans loyal to Haile Selassie in what was then their colony.
Howell was among the most prominent of the early leaders of Rastafari. He was imprisoned for two years, and then founded the Pinnacle commune.
In 1954, the Pinnacle commune was destroyed by Jamaican authorities. By the 1950s, Rastafari’s message of racial pride and unity had unnerved the ruling class of Jamaica, and confrontations between the poor black Rastas and middle-class police were common. Many Rastas were beaten, and some killed. Others were humiliated by having their sacred dreadlocks cut off.
On October 4, 1963, Haile Selassie addressed the United Nations with his famous peace speech, that Bob Marley later used as the basis for the lyrics to his song ‘War’.
Haile Selassie I had already met with several Rasta elders in Addis Ababa, and had allowed Rastafarians and other people of African descent to settle on his personal land in Shashamane.
Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966. Somewhere between one and two hundred thousand Rastafarians from all over Jamaica descended on Kingston airport having heard that the man whom they considered to be God was coming to visit them. They waited at the airport smoking lots of cannabis and playing
drums. When Haile Selassie arrived at the airport he delayed disembarking from the aeroplane for an hour until Mortimer Planner, a well-known Rasta, personally welcomed him. From then on, the visit was a success. Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife converted to the Rastafarian faith after seeing Haile Selassie.
The great significance of this event in the development of the Rastafarian religion
should not be underestimated. Having been outcasts in society, they gained a temporary respectability for the first time. By making Rasta more acceptable, it opened the way for the commercialization of reggae, leading in turn to the further global spread of Rastafari.
Because of Haile Selassie’s visit, April 21 is celebrated as Grounation Day. It was during this visit that Selassie I famously told the Rastafarian community leaders that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.”
In 1968, Walter Rodney, an author and professor at the University of the West Indies, published a pamphlet on his experiences with the Rastafarians titled Groundings with My Brothers. It became a benchmark in the Caribbean Black Power movement. Combined with Rastafarian teachings, both philosophies spread rapidly to various Caribbean nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, and Grenada.