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The story of Amha Selassie, who is regarded as the last emperor of Ethiopia

Amha Selassie in 1932. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Historians say he was proclaimed ruler of Ethiopia three times. The first was in 1960, the second in 1975 and the third in 1989 while in exile. Regarded as the last emperor of Ethiopia, Amha Selassie was born Asfaw Wossen Tafari in Harar, Ethiopia, in August 1916 to Dejazmach Tafari Makonnen (later Emperor Haile Selassie) and his wife, Menen Asfaw. He became Crown Prince Asfaw Wossen of Ethiopia after his father was crowned emperor on November 2, 1930.

Growing up, Amha Selassie was first taught by a tutor in the palace and later enrolled in Teferi Makonnen School before continuing his higher education at Liverpool University, in the UK, where he received his degree in Political Science and Public Administration. He married twice, first to Princess Wolete Israel, which produced a daughter. His second marriage was to Princess Medferiash Work Abebe, and that produced four children.

Amha Selassie never shunned his duties as Crown Prince and heir to the throne. He also served his country as governor of the provinces of Begémdir, Tigré and Wollo at different times, leading various development projects such as the building of hospitals, schools and orphanages as well as the construction of roads, according to author Gregory Copley in his book “Ethiopia Reaches Her Hand Unto God: Imperial Ethiopia’s Unique Symbols, Structures, and Role in the Modern World”.

Copley adds that Amha Selassie also served on the Crown Council, usually acting as President in the Emperor’s absence, and as Chairman of the Ethiopian Red Cross.

“In the war against Italian occupation (1935-1941), the young Crown Prince acted as the right hand of the Emperor in every international diplomatic campaign to get material and moral support for the resistance. At the age of 20, he was leading his own troops in battle. During some of this period, when the Italians occupied the country, Crown Prince Asfa Wossen and his father organized the resistance from Jerusalem, and then from a home in Bath, England,” according to Copley.

It was while Amha Selassie was in exile that he attended Liverpool University. He and his father Emperor Haile Selassie later returned to Ethiopia. In December 1960, while Emperor Haile Selassie was on a visit to Brazil, the Imperial Guard organized a coup and took over power in Ethiopia. The leaders of the coup then forced crown prince Amha Selassie to read a statement on radio accepting the crown in his father’s place and beginning a government of reform to address what the coup leaders said were economic and social problems of the country.

But the regular army and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church did not accept the new government, and the leader of the church, Patriarch Abune Baslios, issued an anathema against all those who worked with the coup leaders, according to BlackPast. Emperor Haile Selassie later came back to Ethiopia and the army besieged the palace. The rebels were driven back, and soon, Haile Selassie regained control.

But in 1973 when Amha Selassie suffered a massive stroke and was evacuated to Switzerland for medical treatment, the Derg, a committee of Ethiopian Army officers, deposed Emperor Haile Selassie on September 12, 1974. BlackPast reports that the crown prince came back to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to lead the new government but his reign lasted only a few months. He was deposed and exiled by the Derg after they abolished the Ethiopian monarchy in March 1975.

Amha Selassie and his family fled the country and settled in London, UK, where he formed a Government-in-Exile. In April 1989, he was proclaimed “Emperor of Ethiopia” at his home in London by members of the exiled Ethiopian community. Some historians say that it was the Government-in-Exile he formed in London along with the Crown Council which proclaimed him Emperor. He took the throne name Amha Selassie I.

At the time, the monarchy had been abolished and so Amha Selassie had no dominion and he never actually took power. The brutal Marxist Dergue regime in Ethiopia however ended with President Mengistu Haile Mariam’s overthrow by rebels in 1991.

Partially paralyzed, Amha Selassie moved to the United States, which had a large Ethiopian community. He died there at age 80 on February 17, 1997. A large crowd attended the Memorial Service for the Emperor in Washington, D.C. before his body was flown to Addis Ababa and buried in the Imperial family vaults at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa in a huge ceremonial funeral.

“I hoped he would come back alive”, a mourner told the Independent. “I would like to see Ethiopia continue as a constitutional monarchy like Britain. But I don’t suppose I’ll see the day when the monarchy is reinstated.”


The religion of the Rastafari


While “rastas” (the RASTAFARI) are well known throughout the world both for their look (most famously symbolized by their dreadlocks) and their influence on music (most famously through reggae music) little is actually known about their beliefs by outsiders, beyond their use of cannabis in religious sacraments. The Rastafari religion is a monotheistic, Abrahamic,  religion that arose from a mostly Christian culture in Jamaica around the 1930’s from people that were originally the decedents of enslave Afro-Jamaican. Rastafari developed among poor Jamaicans of African descent who felt they were oppressed and that Western society was apathetic to their problems. I wrote on this subject a few years ago, what is written here is an expansion on the subject, that’s partly why it’s so long.

Adherents to Rastafari (which I’ll often just call the shortened “Rastas”) worship Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (Emperor of Ethiopia 1930–1936 and 1941–1974), as the Second Advent. They self identify as RASTAFARI  but are known as Rastafarians in popular culture, or simply Rastas (which they will often call themselves as well). The movement is sometimes referred to as “Rastafarianism”, but this term is considered derogatory and offensive by most Rastafari, who dislike being labeled as an “ism”. Rastas are taught to reject all “ism” and “scisms” as part of their religious belief system, so anything ending in the suffix “ISM” (capitalism, socialism, radicalism, etc) are generally seen as poor descriptions for Rastas.

The key religious and cultural text of the Rastafari are the following:

Rastafari tend to use the old imperial Ethiopian flag as their symbo


The sects of rastafari

Rastafari is not a highly organized religion, as it is many ways more of a movement or ideology, but it does have different sects. The different sects of rastafari are known as mansions. Surprisingly many Rastas themselves argue Rastafari is not a “religion”, but rather a “Way of Life” or “spiritual movement”. It should be noted that there are some rather large divides among Rastas on their basic beliefs and religious tenants. As such many Rastas do not claim a sect or denomination, and instead simply encourage each Rasta to find faith and inspiration within themselves. Other Rastas strongly identify with one of the “mansions of Rastafari” — the three most prominent of these being the Nyahbinghi, the Bobo Ashanti and theTwelve Tribes of Israel.  On a personal level most of my Jamaican family who are Rastas are non-aligned or Bobo Ashantis. Bob Marley who may be the most famous Rastafari internationally, was a member of the 12 Tribes Mansion.

The Nyahbinghi Order officially known as Haile Selassie I’s Theocratical Order of the Nyahbinghi

Nyahbinghi rastafari











Reign is named for Queen Nyahbinghi of Uganda, who fought against British colonialists in the 19th century. The Nyahbinghi Order holds steadfast to ancient biblical values. They consume nothing that harms their body (salt, alcohol, caffeine, etc) because they view the body as a temple and the temple is the church. The Nyahbinghi Order is a non-violent order that calls upon God’s power to execute judgement upon all black and white “downpressors” (oppressors). This is the oldest of the orders and it focuses mainly on Haile Selassie, Ethiopia, and the eventual return to Africa. It is overseen by an Assembly of Elders

Bobo Ashanti was founded by Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards in Jamaica in the 1950s. “Bobo” means black and “Shanti” refers to the Ashanti tribe in Ghana, from which this sect believes Jamaican slaves are descended. Many Jamaican patois words like “nam” meaning “to eat” are Ashanti words. Members of the Bobo Shanti are also known as Bobo Dreads.

Boboshanti family worshiping

In belief, Bobo Dreads are distinguished by their worship of Prince Emmanuel (in addition to Haile Selassie) as a reincarnation of Christ and embodiment of Jah; their emphasis on the return to Africa “repatriation” and their demands for monetary reimbursement for slavery.  Members of the Bobo Ashanti order wear long robes and tightly wrapped turbans around their dreads. They adhere closely to the Jewish Law, including the observance of the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and hygiene laws for menstruating women. They live separately from Jamaican society and other Rastafarians, growing their own produce and selling straw hats and brooms. They often carry brooms with them to symbolize their cleanliness. More Reggae singers come this tradition than any other.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel sect was founded in 1968 by Dr. Vernon “Prophet Gad” Carrington. It is the most liberal of the Rastafarian orders and members are free to worship in a church of their choosing. Each member of this sect belongs to one of the 12 Tribes (or Houses), which is determined by birth month and is represented by a color. The Standard Israelite calendar begins in April. Bob Marley was from the tribe of Joseph, and Haile Selassie from the tribe of Judah.  Rastafari encompasses themes such as the rejection of western society (called Babylon, in reference more to the metaphoric Babylon of Christianity than to the historical city). Rastafari proclaim Africa (also “Zion”) as the original birthplace of mankind, encourages the spiritual use of cannabis and embraces various Afrocentric social and political aspirations such as the sociopolitical views and teachings of Jamaican publicist, organizer, and black nationalist Marcus Garvey (also often regarded as a prophet).

12 tribes of israel rastafari










There are estimated to be well over two million Rastafari faithful worldwide. Another misconception is how many Jamaicans are actually rastafari, only about five to ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafari. People who simply wear dreadlocks because they like the style will refer to themselves “fashion dreads” as opposed to “notty dreads” who follow rasta laws.

No matter what sect they do (or don’t)  belong to, all rastas worship a singular God whom they call Jah. Rastas see Jah as being in the form of the Holy Trinity, that is, God being the God the Father, God the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Rastas say that Jah, in the form of the Holy Spirit (incarnate), lives within the human, and for this reason they often refer to themselves as “I and I”. Furthermore in everyday speach rastas, “I and I” is used instead of “We”, and is used in this way to emphasise the equality between all people, in the recognition that the Holy Spirit within us all makes us essentially one and the same.

Some Rastas accept the Christian doctrine that God incarnated onto the Earth in the form of Jesus Christ, to give his teachings to humanity. However, they feel his teachings were corrupted by Babylon. Babylon in this sense to mean the government and churches of the western world . Many Rastas, in accordance with their assertion that “word, sound is power”, also object specifically to the English pronunciation of his name as impure, preferring instead to use the forms in Hebrew (Yeshu) or Amharic (‘Iyesus).

More traditionally Rasta doctrines concerning the Holy Trinity include stressing the significance of the name “Haile Selassie” (“word, sound is power”), meaning “Power of the Trinity” or “Might of the Trinity” in Ge’ez — the name given to Ras Tafari upon his baptism, and later assumed as part of his regal name at his November 2, 1930 coronation by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Acceptance of the God-incarnate status of Jesus is central in Rastafari doctrine, as is the notion of the corruption of his teachings by secular, Western society, figuratively referred to as Babylon. For this reason, they believe, it was prophesied in the Book of Revelation – “And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.” – that Jesus would return with a new name that would be inscribed on the foreheads of 144,000 of his most devoted servants. Rastas hold that this was fulfilled when Haile Selassie was crowned King of Kings on 2 November 1930, whom they see as the second coming of Jesus or the coming of the holy spirit, and therefore Jah, onto the Earth. Rastas say that Jesus was black, and that Western Society (or Babylon) has commonly depicted him as white for centuries in order to suppress the truth and gain dominion over all peoples.

Rastas claim that Haile Selassie I is the root of Jesus (Yahshua) Christ and therefore an incarnation of Jah (Jehovah) onto the Earth. They also claim that he will lead the righteous into creating a perfect world, called “Zion.” Zion would be the ultimate paradise for Rastas. The future capital city of Zion is sometimes put forward as the New Jerusalem (Lalibela, Ethiopia), the very Habitation of the Godhead (Trinity) creator, Rastafari. Prophetic verses of the Hebrew Bible such as Zephaniah 3:10 “From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings” have been interpreted as subtly hinting that the messianic king will be in Ethiopia, and the people will come from the rest of the world “beyond” its rivers.


Rastas say that Haile Selassie’s coming was prophesied from Genesis to the Book of Revelation. Genesis, Chapter 1: “God made man in His own image.” Psalm 2: “Yet I set my Holy king/ On My Holy hill of Zion”, which is identified by them as Jesus Christ. Psalm 87:4-6 is also interpreted as predicting the coronation of Haile Selassie I. During his coronation, Selassie was given many of the same titles used in the Bible: “King of Kings,” “Elect of God,” and “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah the Author of Mankind” are just some of more than 38 titles and anointments. This is one of the primary reasons he is held to be God incarnate. Rastas also refer to Selassie as “His Imperial Majesty” (or the acronym thereof, HIM) and “Jah Rastafari”.

According to tradition, Haile Selassie was the 225th in an unbroken line of Ethiopian monarchs of the Solomonic Dynasty. This dynasty is said to have been founded in the 10th century BC by Menelik I, the son of the Biblical King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, who had visited Solomon in Israel. 1 Kings 10:13 claims “And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.” On the basis of the Ethiopian national epic, the Kebra Negast, Rastas interpret this verse as meaning she conceived his child, and from this, conclude that African people are among the true children of Israel, or Jews. Beta Israel black Jews have lived in Ethiopia for centuries, disconnected from the rest of Judaism; their existence has given some impetus to Rastafari, as they feel it validates their assertion that Ethiopia is Zion.

Regarding the death of Haile Selassie I, Rastafari do not accept that God could die and thus insist that Selassie’s 1975 reported death was a hoax. It is claimed that he entered the monastery and will return to liberate his followers and vanquish all evil, restoring his creation. A few Rastas today consider this a partial fulfillment of prophecy found in the apocalyptic 2 Esdras 7:28.

For Rastafari, Haile Selassie remains their God and their King. They see Selassie as being worthy of worship, and as having stood with great dignity in front of the world’s press and in front of representatives of many of the world’s powerful nations, especially during his appeal to the League of Nations in 1936, when he was still the only independent black monarch in Africa. From the beginning the Rastas decided that their personal loyalty lay with Africa’s only black monarch, Selassie, and that they themselves were in effect as free citizens of Ethiopia, loyal to its Emperor and devoted to its flag.

                              Zion vs. Babylon

Rastas assert that Zion (i.e., Africa, especially Ethiopia) is a land that Jah promised to them. To achieve this, they reject modern western society, calling it “Babylon”, which they see as entirely corrupt. “Babylon” is considered to have been in rebellion against “Earth’s Rightful Ruler” (Jah) ever since the days of the Biblical king Nimrod.

Some Rastas claim themselves to represent the real Children of Israel or children of god, (this may stem from the belief by some scholars that Ethiopia was populated at some stage by one of the “lost” tribes of Israel; modern credence is given to this view with the acknowledgement of the Beta Israel by the Israeli government). Another historical viewpoint which seeks to validate this link between Ethiopia, Israel and the Rastafari belief system can be found under the Lion of Judah and their goal is to repatriate to Africa, or to Zion. (Rasta reggae is peppered with references to Zion; among the best-known examples are the Bob Marley songs ‘”Zion Train” and “Iron Lion Zion”.)

Many Rastafari are physical immortalists who maintain that the chosen few will continue to live forever in their current bodies (Bob Marley sang about “Heaven is a place on Earth”). This is commonly called “Life Everliving”. Everliving in Iyaric replaces the term “everlasting” to avoid the “negative wordsound” of last implying an end. Rastas say their life will never have an end, but will be everliving, with Jah as king and Amharic the official language.

Afrocentrism and Black Pride

Afrocentrism is another central facet of the Rastafari culture. They teach that Africa, in particular Ethiopia, is where Zion, or paradise, shall be created. As such, Rastafari orients itself around Pan-African culture. Rastafari holds that an evil Western society, or “Babylon”, has always been white-dominated, and has committed acts of aggression against the African people such as the Atlantic slave trade. Marcus Garvey, who is viewed as a prophet of Jah, was a keen proponent of the “back to Africa” movement, advocating that all people of the black race should return to their ancestral homeland of Africa. Despite this Afrocentrism and focus on people of the black race, members of other races, including whites, are found and accepted by Blacks among the movement, for they believe Rasta is for all people.


Many early Rastas for a time believed in black supremacy. Widespread advocacy of this belief was short-lived, at least partly because of Haile Selassie’s explicit condemnation of racism in an October 1963 speech before the United Nations. Most Rastas now espouse the doctrine that racial animosities must be set aside, with world peace and harmony being common themes. One of the three major modern houses of Rastafari—the Twelve Tribes of Israel—has specifically condemned all types of racism, and declared that the teachings of the Bible are the route to spiritual liberation for people of any racial or ethnic background. During his famous UN address (which provided the lyrics for the Carlton Barrett and Bob Marley song “War”), Haile Selassie made the following statement:

“We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.”

Ganja (Marijuana)

For Rastas, smoking cannabis, usually known as “herb”, “sinsemilla”, or “ganja”, is a spiritual act, often accompanied by Bible study. Rastas consider it a sacrament that cleanses the body, mind, and heals the soul. It also exalts the consciousness, facilitates peacefulness, brings pleasure, and brings them closer to Jah. Many will often burn “the herb” when in need of insight from Jah when facing difficult life decisions. The burning of the herb is often said to be essential “for it will sting in the hearts of those that promote and perform evil and wrongs.” On a side note by the 8th century, cannabis had been introduced by Arab traders to Central and Southern Africa, where it is known as “dagga” and many Rastas say it is a part of their African culture that they are reclaiming. (this word Dagga has been creeping into many reggae songs of late). Ganja is sometimes also referred to as “the healing of the nation”, a phraseology adapted from Revelation 22:2.











Many anthropoligist point to the migration of many thousands of Hindus from India to the Caribbean in the 20th century which may have brought this culture to Jamaica. Many academics point to Indo-Caribbean origins for the ganjah sacrament resulting from the importation of Indian migrant workers in a post-abolition Jamaican landscape. Dreadlocked mystics, often ascetic, known as sadhus, have smoked cannabis in India for centuries.

According to many Rastas, the illegality of cannabis in many nations is evidence that persecution of Rastafari is a reality. They are not surprised that it is illegal, seeing it as a powerful substance that opens people’s minds to the truth — something the Babylon system, they reason, clearly does not want. They contrast it to alcohol and other drugs, which they feel destroy the mind.

They hold that the smoking of cannabis enjoys Biblical sanction, and is an aid to meditation and religious observance.

Among Biblical verses Rastas quote as justifying the use of cannabis:

* Genesis 1:11 “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.”

* Genesis 1:29 “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.”

* Genesis 3:18 “… thou shalt eat the herb of the field.”

* Proverbs 15:17 “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

* Psalms 104:14 “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man.”

* Revalation 22:2 ” the river of life proceeded to flow from the throne of God, and on either side of the bank there was the tree of life, and the leaf from that tree is for the healing of the nations”

According to some Rastafari ganja is one of the herbs God commanded Moses to include in his preparation of sacred anointing perfume in Exodus 30:23; the Hebrew term also appears in Isaiah 43:24; Jeremiah 6:20; Ezekiel 27:19; and Song of Songs 4:14. Deuterocanonical and canonical references to the patriarchs Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses “burning incense before the Lord” are also applied, and many Rastas today refer to cannabis by the term “ishence” — a slightly changed form of the English word “incense”. It is said by tradition, that cannabis was the first plant to grow on King Solomon’s grave.

Rasta Vocabulary

Some Rastafari learn Amharic the most widely spoken language in Ethiopia, which Rastas consider to be closest to the original language of humanity. Others do it because this was the language of Haile Selassie I, and they feel it furthers their identity as Ethiopians. There are reggae songs written in Amharic, and most “root and culture” reggae songs get translated into by Rasta elders.

But all Rastas assert that their original African languages were stolen from them when they were taken into captivity as part of the slave trade, and that English is an imposed colonial language. Their remedy has been the creation of a modified vocabulary and dialect known as “Iyaric”, reflecting their desire to take language forward and to confront the society they call Babylon.

Some examples of “Rasta talk” are:

“I-tal”, derived from the word vital and used to describe the diet of the movement which is taken mainly from Hebrew dietary laws.

“Overstanding”, which replaces “understanding” to denote an enlightenment which places one in a better position.

“Irie” (pronounced “eye-ree”), a term used to denote acceptance, positive feelings, or to describe something that is good.

“Upfulness”, a positive term for being helpful

“Livication”, substituted for the word “dedication” because Rastas associate dedication with death.

“Downpression”, used in place of “oppression,” the logic being that the pressure is being applied from a position of power to put down the victim.

One of the most distinctive modifications in Iyaric is the substitution of the pronoun “I-and-I” for other pronouns, usually the first person. “I”, as used in the examples above, refers to Jah; therefore, “I-and-I” in the first person includes the presence of the divine within the individual. As “I-and-I” can also refer to “us,” “them,” or even “you,” it is used as a practical linguistic rejection of the separation of the individual from the larger Rastafari community, and Jah himself.

Rastafari say that they reject “-isms”. They see a wide range of “-isms and schisms” in modern society, for example communism and capitalism, and want no part in them. They especially reject the word “Rastafarianism”, because they see themselves as “having transcended -isms and schisms.” This has created conflict between some Rastas and some members of the academic community studying Rastafari, who insist on calling this faith “Rastafarianism” in spite of the disapproval this generates within the Rastafari movement. Nevertheless, the practice continues among scholars, though there are also instances of the study of Rastafari using its own terms, The Ital Diet of the Rastafari in National Geographic.

Many Rastas eat only very limited types of meat in accordance with the dietary Laws of the Old Testament; they do not eat shellfish or pork. Others abstain from all meat and flesh whatsoever, asserting that to touch meat is to touch death, and is therefore a violation of the Nazirite vow. A few make a special exception allowing fish, while abstaining from all other forms of flesh. I have personally witness fierce fights over the eating of fish, and many songs “debate” this contention. However, the prohibition against meat only applies to those who are currently fulfilling a Nazirite vow (“Dreadlocks Priesthood”), for the duration of the vow. Many Rastafari maintain a vegan or vegetarian diet all of the time. Food approved for Rastfari is called ital. The purpose of fasting (abstaining from meat and dairy) is to cleanse the body in accordance to serving in the presence of the “Ark of the Covenent”.

Ital food all vegan, tomatoes, ackie (the yellow “egg” looking vegetable), avocado, green plantains, callaloo, squash, and potatoes   

Usage of alcohol is also generally deemed unhealthy to the Rastafari way of life, partly because it is seen as a tool of Babylon to confuse people, and partly because placing something that is pickled and fermented within oneself is felt to be much like turning the body (the Temple) into a “cemetery”.

In consequence, a rich alternative cuisine has developed in association with Rastafari tenets, eschewing most synthetic additives, and preferring more natural vegetables and fruits such as coconut and mango. This cuisine can be found throughout the Caribbean and in some restaurants throughout the western world.

Some of the Houses (or “Mansions”) of the Rastafari culture, such as the Twelve Tribes of Israel, do not specify diet beyond that which, to quote Christ in the New Testament, “Is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defile him, but what come out of it”. Wine is seen as a “mocker” and strong drink especially rum is “raging”. However the simple consumption of beer or the very common roots wine are not systematically rejected or seen as part of Rastafari culture, many Rastas will only drink roots wine. Separating from Jamaican culture, different interpretations on the role of food and drink within the religion remains up for debate. At official state banquets Haile Selassie would encourage guests to “eat and drink in your own way”.


The wearing of dreadlocks is very closely associated with the movement, though not universal among, or exclusive to, its adherents. Rastas maintain that locks are supported by Leviticus 21:5 (“They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in the flesh.”) and the Nazirite vow in Numbers 6:5 (“All the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head: until the days be fulfilled, in the which he separateth himself unto the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow.”).


It has often been suggested (e.g., Campbell 1985) that the first Rasta locks were copied from images from Kenya in 1953, when the independence struggle of the feared mau mau insurgents, who grew their “dreaded locks” while hiding in the mountains, appeared in newsreels and other publications that reached Jamaica. However, a more recent study by Barry Chevannes has traced the first Hairlocked Rastas to a subgroup first appearing in 1949, known as Youth Black Faith. Man with thick locks.

The length of a Rasta’s locks is a measure of wisdom, maturity, and knowledge in that it can indicate not only the Rasta’s age, but also his/her time as a Rasta.

Also, according to the Bible, Samson was a Nazarite who had “seven locks”. Rastas argue that these “seven locks” could only have been dreadlocks, as it is unlikely to refer to seven strands of hair.

Locks have also come to symbolize the Lion of Judah (its mane) and rebellion against Babylon. In the United States, several public schools and workplaces have lost lawsuits as the result of banning locks. Safeway is an early example, and the victory of eight children in a suit against their Lafayette, Louisiana school was a landmark decision in favor of Rastafari rights. More recently, a group of Rastafarians settled a federal lawsuit with the Grand Central Partnership in New York City, allowing them to wear their locks in neat ponytails, rather than be forced to “painfully tuck in their long hair” in their uniform caps.

Rastafari associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey that one takes in the process of locking their hair (growing hairlocks). It is taught that patience is the key to growing locks, a journey of the mind, soul and spirituality. Its spiritual pattern is aligned with the Rastafari movement. The way to form natural dreadlocks is to allow hair to grow in its natural pattern, without cutting, combing or brushing, but simply to wash it with pure water.

For the Rastas the razor, the scissors and the comb are the three Babylonian or Roman inventions. So close is the association between dreadlocks and Rastafari, that the two are sometimes used synonymously. In reggae music, a follower of Rastafari may be referred to simply as a “hairlocks”, “dreadlocks” or “natty (natural) dread”, whilst those non-believers who cut their hair are referred to as baldheads.

As important and connected with the movement as the wearing of locks is, though, it is not deemed necessary for, or equivalent to, true faith. Popular slogans, often incorporated within Reggae lyrics, include: “Not every dread is a Rasta and not every Rasta is a dread…”; “It’s not the dread upon your head, but the love inna your heart, that mek ya Rastaman” (Sugar Minott); and as Morgan Heritage sings: “You don’t haffi dread to be Rasta…,” and “Children of Selassie I, don’t lose your faith; whether you do or don’t have your locks ‘pon your head…”

Rasta purists also sometimes refer to non-Rasta dreadlocked individuals as “wolves,” as in “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” especially when they are seen as trouble-makers who might potentially discredit or infiltrate Rastafari.

The Foundation

There had been two major circumstances that proved conducive to the conditions that established a fertile ground for the incubation of Rastafari in Jamaica: the history of resistance, exemplified by the Maroons, and the forming of an Afrocentric, Ethiopian world view with the spread of such religious movements as Bedwardism, which flourished from the 1890s to the 1920s. These groups had long carried a tradition of what musician Bob Marley referred to as “resisting against the system.”

Rastas see Marcus Mosiah Garvey as a prophet, with his philosophy fundamentally shaping the movement, and with many of the early Rastas having started out as Garveyites. He is often seen as a second John the Baptist. 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,” although an associate of Garvey’s, James Morris Webb, had made very similar public statements as early as 1921. Marcus Garvey promoted Black Nationalism, black separatism, and Pan-Africanism: the belief that all black people of the world should join in brotherhood and work to decolonise the continent of Africa — then still controlled by the white colonialist powers.















He promoted his cause of black pride throughout the 1920s and 1930s, 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 Howell over Howell’s teaching that Haile Selassie was the Messiah. Rastafari nonetheless may be seen as an extension of Garveyism. In early Rasta folklore, it is the Black Star Liner (actually a shipping company bought by Garvey to encourage repatriation to Liberia) that takes them home to Africa.

Although not strictly speaking a “Rastafari” document, the Holy Piby, written by Robert Athlyi Rogers from Anguilla in the 1920s, is acclaimed by many Rastafarians as a formative and primary source. Robert Athlyi Rogers founded an Afrocentric religion known as “Athlicanism” 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 self-reliance 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-of-consciousness polemic against the white colonial power structure that is also considered formative, a palimpsest of Afrocentric thought. But after Haile Selassie rejected black supremacy it’s use has mostly been discontinued.

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 Gangun-Guru] Maragh, in the early 1930s. In it, he claims to have witnessed the Coronation of the Emperor and Empress on 2 November 1930 in Addis Ababa, and proclaims the doctrine that H.I.M. Ras Tafari is the true Head of Creation and that the King of England is an impostor. This tract was written while Howell was jailed on charges of sedition.

The Rise of Rastafari

Emperor Haile Selassie I, whom some of 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 Person of the Year for 1935, the first Black person to appear on the cover), as well as two consecutive National Geographic issues around the same time. 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 be free from 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.


Over the next two years, three Jamaicans who all happened to be overseas at the time of the coronation, each returned home and independently began, as street preachers, to proclaim the divinity of the newly crowned Emperor as the returned Christ, arising from their interpretations of Biblical prophecy and based partly on Haile Selassie’s status as the only African monarch of a fully independent state, with the titles King of Kings and Conquering Lion of Judah.


First, on 8 December 1930, Archibald Dunkley, formerly a seaman, landed at Port Antonio and soon began his ministry; in 1933, he relocated to Kingston where the King of Kings Ethiopian Mission was founded. Joseph Hibbert returned from Costa Rica in 1931 and started spreading his own conviction of the Emperor’s divinity in Benoah district, Saint Andrew Parish, through his own ministry, called Ethiopian Coptic Faith; he too moved to Kingston the next year, to find Leonard Howell already teaching many of these same doctrines, having returned to Jamaica around the same time. With the addition of Robert Hinds, himself a Garveyite and former Bedwardite, these four preachers soon began to attract a following among Jamaica’s poorer classes, who were already beginning to look to Ethiopia for moral leadership.

Leonard Howell, who has been described as the “first Rasta”, became the first to be persecuted, 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 a British colony. When he was released, he formed a commune which grew as large as 2,000 people at a place called Pinnacle, at St. Catherine in Jamaica.

He was charged with “Hatred and revenge on the Whites, the negation, persecution and humiliation of the government, and legal bodies, and the raising up of the blacks.”

Visit of Selassie I to Jamaica

Haile Selassie I had already met with several Rasta elders in Addis Ababa in 1961, giving them gold medals, and had allowed West Indians of African descent to settle on his personal land in Shashamane in the 1950s. The first actual Rastafarian settler, Papa Noel Dyer, arrived in September 1965, having hitch-hiked all the way from England.

Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966. Somewhere between one and two hundred thousand Rastafari 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 a great amount of cannabis and playing drums. When Haile Selassie arrived at the airport he delayed disembarking from the aeroplane for an hour until Mortimer Planno, a well-known Rasta, personally welcomed him. From then on, the visit was a success. Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, converted to the Rastafari faith after seeing Haile Selassie; she has stated that she saw stigmata appear on his person, and was instantly convinced of his divinity.

The great significance of this event in the development of the Rastafari movement 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 Groundation Day. It was during this visit that Selassie I famously told the Rastafari community leaders that they should not immigrate to Ethiopia until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation.”