Haile Selassie’s visit was a momentous occasion
ON the eve of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I’s arrival in Jamaica 50 years ago, 19-year-old Denzil Williams and friends in Trench Town anxiously awaited the big day.
“For us, as Rasta, it was a expectation fulfilled... a joy. There was great anticipation for the arrival,” said Williams, who is popularly known as ‘Dipstick Wadadah’.
Haile Selassie arrived in Kingston on April 21, 1966 for a three-day state visit. It remains, arguably, the most momentous of its kind in Jamaica.
The spiritual head of Jamaica’s growing but marginalised Rastafarian community, he was welcomed by exuberant crowds wherever he went.
The greatest reception was at the Palisadoes Airport (now the Norman Manley International Airport), where he was greeted by dignitaries, including Governor General Sir Clifford Campbell.
The presence of the Jamaican head of State was overshadowed by hordes of Rastafarians, led by the inspirational Mortimo Planno, who descended on the tarmac to see their diminutive leader.
Michael Henry, who later found fame as Nyahbinghi drummer Ras Michael, was 21 years old at the time. He travelled to the airport that day and recalls the ‘joyous occasion’.
“Everybody jump up and seh ‘Yes! Jah come!’. Man walk, drive come a di airport... Mi si a bredrin pon a horse in a white suit. It was spectacular,” he said.
According to Ras Michael, so raucous was the Rasta throng, that “protocol was in disarray”.
“Man a smoke herb all over the place. I hear a police seh, ’lef dem. Fi dem day dis’,” he told the
Selassie’s visit to Jamaica was the second stop in a four-country Caribbean trip that also included stops in Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, and Barbados.
During his stay, he met acting Prime Minister Sir Donald Sangster and prime minister Sir Alexander Bustamante; was awarded an honorary degree from the University of the West Indies (UWI), and addressed Parliament.
He also visited Payne Lands in Kingston, and made stops in rural areas like Magotty, St Elizabeth and Montego Bay, St James.
The Emperor visited Jamaica during a period of prejudice and persecution for Rastafarians. On Good Friday 1963, six civilians (including three Rastafarians) and two policemen died in the Coral Gardens incident on the outskirts of Montego Bay.
Many believed the affair was sparked by discrimination against Rasta. In its aftermath, over 150 Rastafarians were arrested.
Three years earlier, Rasta leaders contacted UWI academics M G Smith, Roy Augier and Rex Nettleford to conduct a study on their group which had its origins in west Kingston during the 1930s.
In 1960, three Rastafarians — Planno, Douglas Mack and Philmore Alvaranga — were members of a government-appointed team that went on a fact-finding tour of Africa. A technical mission, again funded by the Jamaican Government, also visited the continent that year.
At the time of the Emperor’s visit, Ras Michael hosted the Lion Of Judah Hour on the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation’s radio station. It not only showcased music with Rasta themes, but snippets of African culture as well.
He said mainstream Jamaica got to see “what Rasta was telling them for years”.
“It was a recognition of the people’s African heritage. When His Majesty came, it gave the people a chance to learn about their African history.“
Haile Selassie I died in August 1975, one year after he was overthrown by a coup. He was 83 years old.
Fifty years after his visit, Rasta is a pivotal part of Jamaican culture. Reggae and its most famous exponent, Bob Marley, are synonymous with the country.
Hundreds of Jamaicans and their families live in the Shashamane region of Ethiopia. Some have been there for over 50 years, settling on land pledged to Caribbean people in 1948 by the Emperor.
Meanwhile, Haile Selassie’s grandson, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie is expected to arrive in the island today to participate in 50th anniversary celebrations of his grandfather’s visit.
He will be accompanied by his wife, Princess Saba Kebede, and an Ethiopian delegation.