The Rastafari Delegates Who Paved the Way for His Majesty's Visit
The Rastafari community recently celebrated one of our most important holidays, Groundation Day. It commemorates the historical arrival of Emperor Haile Selassie to Jamaica on April 21, 1966. In this article, Shamou Oladiipo offers a bit of background information about what made His Majesty's visit possible.
uring the late 1920's, a new spiritual vibration began to spread among the descendants of the African prisoners of war who were carried beyond (Caribbean) the Atlantic ocean and enslaved on the island of Jamaica. It was the genesis of the Rastafari movement.
Mental and Physical Bondage
Jamaicans of African descent had previously been taught from a "Negro Slave Bible." This Bible excluded the book of Revelation, or any other verses that authorities thought might incite rebellion. This clearly illustrates that the institution of slavery was just as much mental as it was physical.
In direct opposition to the repressive colonial laws of the island, they soon got ahold of the full, unedited version of the Bible. Studying it carefully, they read a number of revelatory verses which had previously been hidden from them, such as those which say the Messiah's hair was like wool and His feet like burned brass.2 This fed their spirit and gave them hope.
An individual named Leonard Howell was one of the most noteworthy proponents of the early Rastafari doctrine. Howell, and other preachers like him, began to preach an Afrocentric interpretation of Biblical prophecy. They proudly displayed newspaper clippings of the Ethiopian monarch, Ras Tafari Makonnen, whom they had already connected with their new philosophy.
Ras Tafari Crowned
On November 2nd 1930, Ras Tafari was crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie I and given the Biblical titles "King of Kings" and "Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah." His Coronation was a spectacular event witnessed by the entire world and reported in newspapers from every major nation. The Coronation was especially significant for people of African descent throughout the western hemisphere, but in Jamaica specifically, where the early Rastafarians started to see their redemption in the person of the newly crowned King of Kings.
Persecution of Rastafari
The new Rastafari movement, sparked by the likes of Leonard Howell and other leaders of the time, began to threaten the religious structure and political operation of the island. Many Rastafarians faced major persecution. The group led by Howell successfully built a self-sufficient community which developed its own version of the "Black Wall Street" in America at the time. Unfortunately, the village was burned down by the Jamaican police, on order of the government.
Eventually, Leonard Howell was forced into a mental asylum by the authorities because of his idea of a Black Messiah. Anyone who held such notions about Haile Selassie I was considered a lunatic by the Jamaican government. Nevertheless, the Rastafari movement began to spread throughout the island, as did the continued abuse of its adherents by the authorities.
Rastafari Delegation to Africa
In 1961, a few brave men from the Jamaican Rastafari community - including Douglas Mack, Mortimo Planno and Philomore Alvaranga - were able to make an official visit to Ethiopia. The mission was to inquire about the prospects of repatriation to Ethiopia. This was inspired by the land grant that Haile Selassie I offered to people of African descent in the western hemisphere after the successful defeat of Italy during World War II.
During his trip to Jamaica in 1966, His Majesty remembered many of those who had visited Ethiopia years before as a part of the delegation. After the formal meeting, the Emperor even conducted an informal discussion with them in English. Douglas Mack records in his book, "From Babylon to Rastafari," that Haile Selassie said that the Jamaicans and Ethiopians are blood brothers, providing confirmation towards their innate identification as being Ethiopians. 2
Continued Persecution Before His Majesty's Visit
Returning to Jamaica in 1961, however, the delegation had to face the harsh reality of the continued persecution of Rastafarians on the island by Jamaican authorities. After a tragic event blamed falsely on the Rastafarians, the government issued a statement which said, "BRING IN ALL RASTA DEAD OR ALIVE".3 This would spark the event at Coral Gardens known as Bad Friday, which happened on the Christian Holiday "Good Friday," in 1963.
In November of 1964, the Rastafari delegates returned to Ethiopia for a follow-up meeting about repatriation. Haile Selassie I hosted them with an extended stay in Ethiopia, so they could see what life was like in His country. The delegates asked if His Majesty could visit Jamaica, and He gladly agreed.
The First Groundation Day
On April 21, 1966, just 3 years after the Coral Garden incident, Emperor Haile Selassie I traveled to Jamaica. His Majesty was welcomed by an enormous crowd of Jamaicans, both Rastafarian and non-Rastafarian. While in Jamaica, He defended the Rastafarians by refusing to "disturb their belief."4 Instead, His Majesty suggested Jamaicans strengthen their link with the African continent and be included as part of the Organization of African Unity.
His Majesty's visit came to be known as Groundation Day, one of the most important holidays of the year to Rastafarians.
None of this would have been possible if not for the foundation laid by Leonard Howell, and the work of Rastafari elders like Douglas Mack, Mortimo Planno, Philmore Alvaranga and Brother Samuel Clayton who paved the way with their trip to Ethiopia, and their due diligence in requesting the Emperors presence in Jamaica.