Visit of Emperor Haile Selassie I To Jamaica


HE HEAT that rose from the tarmac of Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport was nothing compared to the level of expectation that was seeping through the thousands gathered on the tarmac that 21st day of April, 1966. The day was declared a public holiday in honour of the Emperor and people had started arriving from Wednesday night from places near and far, to form the largest crowd to have ever assembled at the Norman Manley International Airport. They came to the airport any way they could ­ by car, by truck, by bus, by bicycle, by foot. Drum beats and chants were heard almost non-stop, providing an almost hypnotic rhythm. The smell of ganja wafted through the air completing a welcome unprecedented in size and expectation for the Emperor on his first state visit to Jamaica.

Interpreter at right translates the speech of Emperor Haile Selassie, given in Arabic, as he addressed both houses of Parliament at Gordon House. On the throne with His Imperial Majesty is Governor-General Sir Clifford Campbell. Seated at left is Lady Campbell.

Brother George Huggins of Accompong, explained the enthusiastic welcome, “it is hard to put in words what seeing this man, this great man, the Lord of lords, in Jamaica meant to us in the Rastafarian community. We had heard so much about him for so long.” On the tarmac, some waved palm leaves, some red, green and gold Ethiopian flags, and some blew the Maroon cowhorn known as the abeng in welcome. Everyone kept their eyes on the sky wondering when the plane carrying His Imperial Majesty from Trinidad and Tobago would arrive. Rain began to fall and the crowd continued to wait, hoping even for just a glimpse of the plane through the thick clouds that had formed.

When the insignia of a roaring lion and stripes of red, green and gold finally came into view, the rain stopped. People shouted, “See how God stop de rain.” The sound from the crowd was deafening as masses of people rushed to get closer to the island’s distinguished visitor. The crowd simply broke down any barriers that stood in their way in their eagerness to position themselves as close as possible to the “King of Kings.” But the Lion of Judah did not appear immediately as expected. Instead the plane stood there, silent in a sea of activity and sound. No movement could be seen from within the cabin. The door to the plane finally opened forty-five minutes later, close to 2:15 p.m., and His Imperial Majesty came to the top of the stairs to deplane. The crowd responded with a roar that “was louder than the sound of thunder rolling, louder even than an explosion” recalls Mitsy Seaga who accompanied her husband, Edward Seaga, the then Minister of Development and Welfare. Seaga himself remembers the event as awesome in every sense of the word.

Start of the stampede of Rastafarians who surrounded the Emperor’s plane. Their enthusiasm kept the door from opening for forty-five minutes.

The sight must have surpassed even the Emperor’s wildest imagination, as tears came to his eyes as he held up his hands in what could have been half a royal gesture and half a call for calm. The crowd, thrilled beyond reason, continued to cry out, ” God is with us. Mek me touch his garment,” paying no heed to the call for calm.

Mr. Mortimer Planno, A Ras Tafarian leader, mounted the landing steps at the request of officials, bowed to the Emperor and also beseeched the crowd to be calm and let the Emperor pass. With assistance from the military and the police, the Emperor, his daughter and the rest of his entourage were able to leave the airport. They were whisked away to a 5 p.m. civic reception at the National Stadium where another large, excited crowd awaited. The Ethiopian and Jamaican National Anthems were played and the Emperor was presented with the keys to the city by then Commissioner of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC), Mr. Eustace Bird. The Emperor was welcomed by acting Prime Minister, Sir Donald Sangster. The Emperor replied in Amharic calling the visit the fulfilment of a lifelong desire, and thanking the people of Jamaica for their outpouring of affection. The ceremony was, however, marked my human rights protestors bearing large placards with anti-government slogans. The Emperor later attended a state dinner at Kings House where extra police were placed on duty, in response to the enthusiasm of the people of Jamaica.

The next day the Emperor embarked on a packed schedule that included visits to downtown Kingston where he would lay a wreath at the War Memorial in what was then King George VI Memorial Park and attend a sitting of Parliament, again speaking through a translator. He told a small gathering of the press at Kings House that he was particularly happy to be in Jamaica so soon after the island had gained independence. That afternoon the Emperor also visited Vale Royal to see an exhibition of local craft by the Rastafarian Brethren Association which he was advised were his to take back to Ethiopia should he so desire, and that evening he received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of the West Indies in a special ceremony.

On Saturday, April 23, the Emperor and his entourage embarked on a train trip to see the western side of the island. Crowds turned out to greet him along the eight-hour journey where stops were made at Denbigh, Williamsfield, Maggotty and Montpelier before ending in Montego Bay close to 4 p.m. At Spanish Town, when officials tried to hold a presentation ceremony involving the Emperor, a schoolboy and a few policemen were injured and a police car damaged in a stone and bottle throwing incident that may have resulted from one of two reasons according to The Gleaner report of that day: (i) a general sense that police were trying to keep Rastafarians away from the immediate vicinity of the Emperor and (ii) a rumour that the Emperor was not Haile Selassie at all but an impostor foisted on the Jamaican people by the government. The police were forced to resort to the use of tear gas to regain control.

At around 4:15 p.m. the Emperor’s car came into view, cheers from the crowd gathered to welcome the Emperor in a 30 minute civic reception in what was then called Charles Square (now known as Sam Sharpe Square). Emperor Selassie I left Jamaica on Sunday, April 24 at 9 a.m. for a state visit to Haiti after inspecting a guard of honour mounted by the First Battalion, the Jamaica Regiment. In contrast to his boisterous welcome, his departure was a sombre scene, with only a few hundred solemn-faced persons on hand to say farewell at the Montego Bay Airport.

Rebecca Tortello

According to Rastafarian belief, Emperor Haile Selassie I is the only true God (originally known as Ras Tafari), and Ethiopia is their spiritual homeland, the true Zion.

Haile Selassie I (1892-1975) was the last emperor of Ethiopia (1930-1974). Born near Harar on July 23, 1892, Selassie’s original name was Lij Tafari Makonnen.  He was a grandnephew of Emperor Menelik II.  In 1916, when he was 24-years-old, he ousted Lij, Iyasu, Menelik’s successor, replacing him with Zauditu, the old emperor’s daughter.  Selassie made himself regent. When Zauditu died in 1930, he succeeded her, taking the name Haile Selassie I, which means “Might of the Trinity.” His other titles included Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, and King of Kings. 

In 1935 the Italians invaded Ethiopia.  Selassie made an impressive plea for help before the League of Nations, but was unsuccessful.  He went into exile in England in May 1936 and from there he helped the British plan a campaign that led to the liberation of Ethiopia.  He returned to power in 1942.  Another attempt to overthrow Selassie was made in 1960 but was quickly stopped.  By 1974, however, worsening conditions in Ethiopia— government corruption, inflation, drought, starvation, and Selassie’s perceived hesitancy in dealing with these and other issues — led the army to revolt.  Once again, Selassie was removed from power. He was formally deposed in September 1974 and died in Addis Abeba on August 27, 1975.  He was 83 years old.  Today, some Rastafarians say they are looking forward to the worlds they know he is laying down on their behalf.

Among Selassie’s accomplishments were major land reform, (1942 and 1944), emancipation of slaves (1942), and a revised and somewhat broadened constitution (1955) that provided for universal suffrage.  He also played a leading role in the formation of the Organization of African Unity in the 1960s.

Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia, is a republic in eastern Africa, bounded on the northeast by Eritrea and Djibouti, on the east and southeast by Somalia, on the southwest by Kenya, and on the west and northwest by Sudan. The area of the country is 1,128,176 sq km (435,606 sq mi).

While in Jamaica the Emperor received many gifts including portraits, maps, scrolls and a sculpture presented to him the artist himself, Mallica ‘Kapo’ Reynolds.  The Emperor, so touched by the gift, thanked Kapo in English, one of the few occasions in which he did not speak his native Amharic while in Jamaica.  Selassie also gave many gifts including gold coins that bore his head, gold cigarette cases and a school at Delacree Pen in Kingston’s west end.  WHAT IS IT CALLED? While on his way to Montego Bay, he stopped en route to the Spanish Town Railway Station and laid a stone for the school.  In response the Jamaican government announced the award of a scholarship for an Ethiopian tenable at the University of the West Indies.

Other distinguished royal visitors to Jamaica include: Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip (who came most recently in Feb 2002), Princess Margaret (1962), Princess Anne (1966), Prince Charles (1966, 2000).

Other distinguished visitors include: Fidel Castro (1998, 2000), The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1965), Pele (1971), Pope John Paul II (1993), Bishop Desmond Tutu (1986), Nelson and Winnie Mandela (1991), Mohammed Ali (1967), Margaret Thatcher (1987) and Mother Teresa (1966, 1986).

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