ORIGINS—Beginnings were meager for this emperor-to-be, born in a mud hut in Ethiopia, in 1892. Selassie—originally named Tafari Makonnen—was a governor’s son, assuming the throne of Ethiopia in a complex struggle for succession. The nation’s leaders favored Tafari for the role of emperor—and, in 1930, he was crowned. Selassie would become Ethiopia’s last emperor, and today, he is viewed as the messiah of the Rastafari. (Biography.com has more on Selassie’s life.)
Years prior to Haile Selassie’s enthronement, American black-nationalist leader Marcus Garvey began preaching of a coming messiah who would lead the peoples of Africa, and the African diaspora, into freedom. When news of Selassie’s coronation reached Jamaica, it became evident to some that Selassie was this foretold of messiah. (Wikipedia has details.) Beyond the prophesies in the Book of Revelation and New Testament that Rastafari point to as proof of Selassie’s status, the emperor also could trace his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Rastafari pointed to Selassie as the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David and the King of Kings.
Selassie remained a lifelong Christian, but never reproached the Rastafari for their beliefs in him as the returned messiah. To this day, Rastafari rejoice on July 23, the anniversary of his birth.
Did you know? The Rastafari receive their name from the combination of Ras—an honorific title, meaning “head”—and Tafari, part of Selassie’s birth name.
SELASSIE’S BITTERSWEET STORY
LEAGUE OF NATIONS—One of the most poignant chapters in Selassie’s life—and a key reason that he came to global attention—was an impassioned appeal for help that Selassie delivered to the League of Nations in 1936. It’s also the 80th anniversary of TIME magazine naming him its Man of the Year.
The magazine’s “honor,” today, looks like nothing but ridicule for what TIME editors regarded as a foolish figure on the global stage. Dripping with sarcasm and openly racist, the TIME profile of Selassie included this description of him:
The astounding marvel is that Africa’s unique Museum of Peoples has produced a businessman—with high-pressure publicity, compelling sales talk, the morals of a patent medicine advertisement, a grasp of both savage and diplomatic mentality, and finally with plenty of what Hollywood calls “it.”
Selassie was in a life-and-death struggle with Italian aggression in his homeland. The TIME cover story appeared in January 1936. International opinions of Selassie changed dramatically that summer when he made a passionate plea for help in a personal appearance before the League of Nations in Europe. His plea did not result in the help he sought, but the appeal now is considered a milestone in 20th century history. William Safire included the League address in his book, Great Speeches in American History.
After January, when TIME made fun of Selassie in its openly racist cover story, the world witnessed Italian armed forces brutally crushing Selassie’s Ethiopian army and conquering his country, declaring the nation to be the property of Italy. Selassie did not want to flee the country but did so for his own safety at the urging of Ethiopian leaders. He arrived in Geneva and delivered the plea to the League, excerpts of which were carried in newsreels around the world.
At one point, he declared:
I pray to Almighty God that He may spare nations the terrible sufferings that have just been inflicted on my people, and of which the chiefs who accompany me here have been the horrified witnesses.
The tragic aftermath of this speech was that the League did not help him, Fascists continued to take power in Europe and soon all of Europe was experiencing the “terrible sufferings” Selassie described.
GROUNDATION DAY—Each spring, Rastafari celebrate Groundation Day, marking Selassie’s triumphant visit to Jamaica in 1966—50 years ago this year. Some remarkable LIFE magazine photographs from that event are on display in the TIME website. They’re worth a look, partly because these photos by Lynn Pelham never ran in the American edition of LIFE. Now, we are able to look back at what the magazine describes this way:
The images capture something of the fervor and delight, as well as the barely restrained chaos, among thousands of believers upon seeing the man they considered a messiah—and whom countless others still view as a power-hungry fraud. Informal observations made by LIFE staffers who were there provide some fascinating insights into how the proceedings were viewed—hint: negatively—by at least some in the national press.
In notes that accompanied Pelham’s rolls of Ektachrome film to LIFE’s offices in New York just days after Selassie’s visit, for example, an editor for the magazine wrote privately to his colleagues that “the Rastafarians went wild on Selassie’s arrival. They broke police lines and swarmed around the emperor’s DC-6 [plane]. They kept touching his plane, yelling ‘God is here,’ and knocking down photographer Pelham, who got smacked. The Rastafarians fouled up the visit, as far as most Jamaicans were concerned. But Selassie seemed to love the attention these strange, wild-eyed, lawless and feared Jamaicans gave him.”
Interested in more? View a modern Rastafari celebration for Haile Selassie’s birthday here.