The originating impulse of the Rastafari millenarian vision is often said to be Marcus Garvey's directive 'Look to Africa where a divine black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near' - a prophecy supposedly fulfilled by Haile Selassie's coronation as emperor of Ethiopia in 1930. Yet Garvey never uttered such words.


In 'Rastafari Roots and Ideology', Barry Chevannes gives a possible source of the 'divine black king' legend. In 1929 Garvey held a UNIA convention in Jamaica for the first time. In addition to political activities, Garvey held non-denominational religious services and organized cultural activities, including plays. One of these was 'The Coronation of the King and Queen of Africa', a dramatization of UNIA work which mixed fact and fiction and ended with the crowning of an African king. Most poor Jamaicans were then illiterate, and there was no radio or television to interpret events. So it is not surprising that many associated this play with Selassie's coronation only a year later.


Yet Rastafarians who insist that Garvey was their prophet are correct in spirit, if not in letter. As a spirit God can have no colour, he stated in his 'Universal Negro Catechism'. But if whites worshipped a white God, why should not blacks should worship a black one?


It required only a minor extrapolation of this eminently reasonable argument to see a black earthly representative of God in the newly crowned Ethiopian emperor. For Ethiopia, an independent sovereignty for over 2,000 years and the only traditional African empire to survive the colonial partition, was a symbol of African freedom long before Selassie's crowning. The battle of Adowa, where Emperor Menelik II destroyed the invading Italian army on March 1 1896, was a key rallying point not only for African blacks but their descendants in the new world.


Ethiopia's ancient Christian tradition enhanced its mystique, and Ethiopianism suffused practically all black redemptive ideologies. Haile Selassie's coronation on November 11, 1930 provided a new justification for political and spiritual faith in Ethiopia, which fused with Garvey's doctrine of racial redemption, black unity and a free Africa.


Selassie claimed to be 225th in a line of kings tracing to Menelik, son of Solomon and Sheba. His honorifics included 'King of Kings', 'Lord of Lords' and 'Conquering Lion of The Tribe of Judah'. Some Jamaican preachers used biblical reference to buttress their belief in Selassie's divinity, including Revelation 5: 2-5, Revelation 19:16, and Psalm 68: 31. Ras Tafari, the emperor's pre-coronation name, translates as 'Prince of Peace'. Haile Selassie means 'Power of The Trinity'.


Among the earliest Rastafarian exponents were Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and Leonard Howell. They had all travelled widely and undoubtedly came in contact with the pan-African ideas of black writers like Ottobah Cugoano and P.K. Isaka Seme. A good deal of Rastafarian ideology is based on two books, 'The Holy Piby' and 'The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy'. 'The Holy Piby', known as 'the Black Man's Bible', was published in the U.S. in 1924 by Robert Athlyi Roberts, whose 'Afro-Athlican Constructive Gaathly' had a Jamaican branch called the Hamatic Church. 'The Royal Parchment' was published in Jamaica in 1926 by Fitz Balintine Pettersburgh who called it 'Ethiopia's Bible Text'. In 1935 it was extensively plagiarized in 'The Promised Key' by Leonard Howell, who became the central figure in Rastafarianism's development.


Howell, born 16 June 1898 in Clarendon, claimed to have joined the 1918 Jamaican war contingent in Panama, served on American merchant ships, and then resided in the U.S. His return to Jamaica in 1932 coincided with an upsurge of religious revivalism and he held his first public meetings in Kingston on 'Ras Tafari, King of Abyssinia' in January 1933. Citing Selassie's coronation attended by 72 nations paying homage, Howell spoke of Selassie as 'Christ returned to earth to kill Nebuchadnezzar's image'. Blacks in the west, he said, were really Jews, the Biblical lost tribe of Israel.


Many of Howell's initial converts, including his lieutenant Robert Hinds, were former disciples of Alexander Bedward, whose movement had affiliated groups all over Jamaica and in Colon, Panama. At one time a migrant worker in Panama, he first came to public attention in 1895 and commanded a large following centred around August Town. His preaching mixed orthodox religion with African-Jamaican revivalist traditions. He became famous as a healer and attracted huge crowds, baptizing throngs in the Hope River. (Bedward was immortalized in two songs - ‘Dip Them Bedward In The Healing Stream’ and  ‘Slide Mongoose’. “Mongoose thief inna Bedward kitchen / Thief out one a him righteous chicken” refers to the supposed seduction of one of his virginal followers.)


While not overtly political, Bedward was often critical of whites, describing them as 'Pharisees and Sadducees'. Not surprisingly the authorities viewed his activities with concern, and eventually he was placed in a lunatic asylum.  On release he continued his activities in August Town until in 1921 he organized a march to Kingston 'to do battle with his enemies'. He and 800 of his followers, who included Robert Hinds, were arrested and put away. It would be simplistic to see Howellism as a continuation of Bedwardism, but there was undoubtedly a connecting thread.


A key development in Rastafarianism was Howell's move in early 1933 to Trinityville in St. Thomas, where an influx of over 8,000 indentured BaKongo labourers after 1840 had produced strong African retentions. These BaKongo considered themselves Africans in exile and looked to the Congo region as their ancestral homeland. Their most prominent cultural legacy was Kumina-Revivalism. Howell incorporated many aspects of Revivalism into his ceremonies, though he rejected the dancing, rejoicing and possession features.


Many Rastafarian customs can be traced directly to Kumina. And research has shown Kumina and Nyabinghi drumming to be musically indistinguishable. Many claim ‘Nyabinghi’ is an Ethiopian battle cry meaning ‘Death to oppressors’. But it comes from an East African religio-political cult that resisted colonialism from about 1890 to 1928. The word’s origin is uncertain, but it may be the name of a Ruandaise princess killed in the resistance and possibly means ‘She who possesses many things’.

(For sources see Reggae Routes : The Story of Jamaican Music)

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