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May 11, 2013

GLOBAL FAITHS: Rastafari faithful believe Ethiopian emperor is the Messiah

Most Americans have seen dreadlocks, heard of reggae music and heard of cannabis (marijuana). These three are all connected in a Jamaican religious movement called Rastafari.

Jamaica was once a colony of Great Britain, which had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery itself in the British Empire in 1833. But despite abolition, ex-slaves in Jamaica continued to live under social conditions not much different from their earlier ones under slavery.

Historians usually credit Leonard Percival Howell with being the main founder of the Rasta movement. He started preaching around 1933, shortly after the 1930 coronation of Haile Selassie as Emperor of Ethiopia, an event Howell had witnessed. Before his coronation Selassie was called Ras Tafari Makonnen, hence the name of this Jamaican movement.

Howell claimed Haile Selassie was the Messiah returned to earth, and many Rastafarians simply called him God. Reports of the crowning of an African king, one of their own people, boosted the morale of Jamaican blacks, and soon many of them began to hope for an imminent repatriation to Ethiopia.

In his preaching, Howell fostered a hatred for the white colonial government and asserted the superiority of blacks, as a consequence of which he was constantly in trouble with the police and colonial authorities. He was arrested up to 50 times, and police repeatedly raided The Pinnacle, a settlement he had established for Rastas.

Haile Selassie himself welcomed some Jamaicans to settle in Ethiopia. In 1966 he visited Jamaica, though perhaps only partly taken in by the worship of its Rastas.

It was iffy weather when Selassie’s plane approached the Kingston airport, but one Rasta predicted the sun would come out when “God” appeared —and it did!

One hundred thousand devotees mobbed the plane after it landed, preventing Selassie from coming out until again some Rasta leader informed the crowd they would have to fall back to allow Selassie to deplane.

Haile Selassie’s personal visit reinforced the faith of Jamaica’s Rastas, and many of them later believed he never died. Some Rastas took up the language of Ethiopia, Amharic. In fact, some reggae songs are written in Amharic.

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