Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica, Coral Gardens, Kerala and more…

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of a historic moment in Jamaica. On April 21, 1966 His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia visited Jamaica to a tumultuous welcome, thrillingly captured in the film footage above. The Emperor might not have fully grasped what he meant to the Rastafarian community in Jamaica who regard his birth as the Second Coming itself. The passages below from the Wikipedia entry on him convey a sense of the excitement caused by the diminutive Emperor’s arrival in Jamaica:

Ricky Culture Mural of the Emperor and Empress at Ital Restaurant at Three Miles Roundabout

Another Ricky Culture mural depicting Emperor Selassie on horseback trampling the Pope

Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, and approximately one hundred thousand Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Palisadoes Airport in Kingston,[127] having heard that the man whom they considered to be their Messiah was coming to visit them. Spliffs[130] and chalices[131] were openly[132] smoked, causing “a haze of ganja smoke” to drift through the air.[133][134][135] Haile Selassie arrived at the airport but was unable to come down the mobile steps of the airplane, as the crowd rushed the tarmac. He then returned into the plane, disappearing for several more minutes. Finally, Jamaican authorities were obliged to request Ras Mortimer Planno, a well-known Rasta leader, to climb the steps, enter the plane, and negotiate the Emperor’s descent.[136] Planno re-emerged and announced to the crowd: “The Emperor has instructed me to tell you to be calm. Step back and let the Emperor land”.[137] This day is widely held by scholars to be a major turning point for the movement,[138][139][140] and it is still commemorated by Rastafarians as Grounation Day, the anniversary of which is celebrated as the second holiest holiday after 2 November, the Emperor’s Coronation Day.

From then on, as a result of Planno’s actions, the Jamaican authorities were asked to ensure that Rastafarian representatives were present at all state functions attended by His Majesty,[141][142] and Rastafarian elders also ensured that they obtained a private audience with the Emperor,[143] where he reportedly told them that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation”.

Haile Selassie defied expectations of the Jamaican authorities,[144] and never rebuked the Rastafari for their belief in him as the returned Jesus. Instead, he presented the movement’s faithful elders with gold medallions – the only recipients of such an honor on this visit.[145][146] During PNP leader (later Jamaican Prime Minister) Michael Manley’s visit to Ethiopia in October 1969, the Emperor allegedly still recalled his 1966 reception with amazement, and stated that he felt that he had to be respectful of their beliefs.[147] This was the visit when Manley received the Rod of Correction or Rod of Joshua as a present from the Emperor, which is thought to have helped him to win the 1972 election in Jamaica.

You can see from the numerous images of the Emperor on walls in Kingston, how much he is revered in the poorest of neighbourhoods

I find the film footage of Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica and his tour of the Jamaican parliament, the University of the West Indies, Montego Bay and other places in Jamaica tremendously moving. Scholars like Louis Lindsay have claimed that Jamaicans would never recieve African royalty as enthusiastically as they recieved the Queen of England. But the footage above gives the lie to that. It wasn’t only at his arrival by plane that throngs descended to get a view of him, everywhere he went in Jamaica vast numbers of excited people turned out to get a sight of his Imperial Majesty.

Curiously Emperor Haile Selassie also visited the land of my birth, Kerala, India, several times, the first time the year i was born, in 1956. No, he didn’t come to anoint me but came to see for himself the Orthodox Christians of Kerala, the Syrian Christians as they are known, the community that i happen to have been born into. Abraham Varghese, the author of bestseller God’s Own Country described the circumstances of the visit in an Observer article:

Whenever I hear the phrase “geography is destiny” I think of my parents, George and Mariam, schoolteachers from India, arriving in the misty mountain empire of Ethiopia in 1951 within two weeks of each other and not knowing a soul. They were there because another traveller, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, happened to be on a state visit to India shortly after his country was freed from Mussolini’s occupation. Haile Selassie, head of an ancient Christian nation surrounded on all sides by Muslim nations, knew of the legend of Saint Thomas’s arrival in south India, on Kerala’s shores (which took place 1,600 years before the Portuguese brought Catholicism to Goa). Saint Thomas made converts of the Brahmins he encountered. Their descendants, the Syrian Christians (so called because they owed their allegiance to the Church in Antioch) are the community to which my parents belong. The Emperor wanted to see those first churches, and his motorcade happened to drive through Kerala at the hour when the roads were thronged with legions of schoolkids in uniform.

It was that sight, so my parents say, that so impressed Haile Selassie that he hired all 400 of his first batch of teachers for the new schools he was building across the empire from this one state in India. To this day, almost every Ethiopian you meet abroad who is over 40 years of age will tell you that they had an Indian teacher in their school, someone with an Old Testament name such as Thomas, or Jacob, or Zachariah, or Verghese (the latter derived from Giorgis, or George). A change in their geography allowed Mariam Abraham and George Verghese to meet a few weeks after they arrived in Ethiopia and they eventually married. But it all began with what the emperor saw on a morning drive. The world turns on the smallest of things.

Teachers from Kerala are still imported into Ethiopia (one of my cousins taught there for many years) though i don’t know if they’re greeted with the gift of a gold sovereign anymore, as they used to be when Selassie ruled. Interestingly another Syrian Christian, Paul Verghese, who went on to become a Bishop (the Archbishop of Delhi of the Malankara Orthodox Church of India), was the Emperor’s personal aide for several years. In a long article chronicling the career of the Bishop there is an account of the relationship between the Emperor and the young man from Kerala who became his aide. In it I came across the passage below which i’m assuming refers to Jamaica and the Rastafarian community although some of the details seem hard to believe. Was there such a rebellion? Could it be a reference to the Coral Gardens Rebellion of 1963? Who was the Chief who chopped off the head of an orange and supposedly threatened the future Bishop? Will we ever know? At any rate its interesting to see how histories get garbled if not lost in translation:

But the average Ethiopian loved him, adored him, and one sect of people even believed that Hailie Sellassie was their prophet. Hailie Sellassie repeatedly told them that he was only an ordinary human being, but they wouldn’t accept it. They insisted that the prophecy specifically said that the prophet would deny that he was the prophet. Everything about Hailie Sellassis’s life fit the story of their Prophet. A group of such ‘believers’ rebelled against their government in an island state. They said that the Governor of that state had no authority over them; only Hailie Sellassie was their god-king. The Emperor sent Paul Verghese to this island state to tell them that Hailie Sellassie wanted them to know that the Emperor was not a prophet, as they had believed. After they heard the emissary, their Chief held an orange and a knife in his hands, chopped off the top of the orange, and threatened the messenger that his head could be chopped off just like that for bringing this ‘heresy!’ No, the Truth never appeals to blind fanatics! However, Paul Verghese wasn’t intimidated. He persisted and negotiated an end to the rebellion against the governor.

The Coral Gardens Rebellion (which happened on Good Friday, 1963), also referred to as the Coral Gardens Massacre because of the Jamaican State’s mass detention and torture of Rastafarians in its wake, was the subject of a public lecture yesterday by QC Hugh Small, just emerging from a starring role in the infamous Manatt Commission. It’s also the subject of a film called Bad Friday by Deborah Thomas, Junior Wedderburn and John Jackson. Listen to my interview with Deborah Thomas this Sunday at 10 am on The Silo, Newstalk 93 to learn more about Coral Gardens and what took place there nearly 50 years ago. There is also a book by a former policeman, Retired Detective Selbourne Reid, who gives an eyewitness account of the Rebellion.

I wonder if the survivors of the Coral Gardens Massacre, referred to as ‘the government-led pogrom’ by one testimonial, might have the right to claim compensation/reparation from the Jamaican government in the same way that the surviving Mau-Mau in Kenya are considering suing the UK government for the abuse meted out to them in the 1950s?

18 thoughts on “Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica, Coral Gardens, Kerala and more…

  1. Does anyone know if the Winston Rodney credited for sound at the beginning of the clip is THE Winston Rodney, known as Burning Spear? That would be an interesting postscript to Selassie’s visit. Probably not, there were probably no Rastas working for Jamaica Information Service in the ’60s, but it caught my eye.

    • it’s very unlikely, i’m pretty sure Winston Rodney was still up in St. Ann’s – it was a couple of years later in 1969-1970 before he came to Kingston to audition at Studio One at the suggestion of Bob Marley, another St. Ann’s native.

      i would imagine the name would be a fairly common one in Jamaica.

    • Winston Rodney of the Jamaica Information Service is/was not Burning Spear. I am a Rastafari elder who used to work with the Film Unit of the JIS and knew Winston Rodney, Muir and the crew. I used to be a script writer for JIS Radio and Film.

  2. Don’t know if Burning Spear ever did any work in film sound. He would have been about 21 at the time. Franklyn St. Juste is listed on camera, wasn’t he a JBC guy back in the ’80s?

    Those clips are remarkable in many ways. Mortimo Planno’s involvement with settling down the crowd at the Kingston airport is conspicuously absent from the coverage.

  3. Perhaps the unnamed rebellion was the plot in 1959 by the Rastas to hand the country over to Fidel Castro and migrate themselves to Africa. According to Barry Chevannes in Rastafari Exorcism and the Ideology of Racism there was even a kind of guerilla camp in Red Hills where they had been training. They were eventually discovered and charged with treason felony.

    • you mean the Claudius Henry Rebellion? good guess, perhaps that’s what it was but it could also have been the Coral Gardens Rebellion…yes, can you imagine, i find the Henry move fascinating, he wrote a letter to Castro asking him to invade Jamaica. amazing!

    • That wasn’t a plot by ‘the Rastas’ that was a very specific conspiracy by a small group of people, Claudius Henry and his sons, who were associated with a number of Black Muslims from Harlem. What was notable was their attempt to mobilise Rastas to rise against the British, and their failure to do so.

  4. In the documentary ‘Coral Gardens – Blowing The Lid’ by Colby Graham(www.reggaefilms.co.uk) you get told of how the Rasta’s held the whole of Kingston under siege and took over the whole city at one point! maybe this was the rebellion.
    The cameraman Franklyn St.Juste AKA Chappie is still working in the Jamaican film industry and has done all his life, you can find him on linked in, or facebook maybe, his sons now work in the industry too. He was one of the first Jamaican cinematographers and worked on many of the early films shot in Jamaica.

      • Whoever claimed the Rastas took over Kingston may have conflated the Coral Gardens massacre (in Montego Bay) with the Barry Street Riots (in 1965) which had nothing to do with Rastas and the Rodney Riots (which had only marginally to do with Rastas) of 1968. Of course, there is the likelihood that ganja was involved with the production of the film. I’ve read books written about Rasta which, while well-meaning, contain ‘information’ that caused me to wonder at exactly how much the author(s) had been smoking.

  5. The Colby Graham film definitely talks shows news articles from the gleaner which talk about how the Rasta’s held the town under seige, they headlines on the paper also have the words something like “Town held under seige”, the film talks about other things at the time linked to the Coral Gardens event so maybe thats why it’s mentioned but it did happen…check the gleaner archives..but i think the paper obviously exagerated the headlines of course, you can imagine a group of rastas moving in on the town armed with machetes but i doubt it was anything more…

    • Oh there actually were killings but the background was never sufficiently explained, instead Rastafari in general was vilified and the Gleaner would definitely have been one of the main disseminators of the anti-Rasta campaign…thanks for commenting btw…

    • Coral Gardens had nothing to do at all with Kingston, it’s all the way across the island near MoBay. there were only ever 6 antagonists and the attack was confined to the gas station, the Edgewater Inn, and the grounds of nearby Rose Hall….. a pretty small area – they were on foot, after all. allegedly in the week before the attack, the same gas station attendant had doused the ringleader with gas when he asked for a glass of water – the police were summoned and repeatedly shot the Rastaman. however, he survived, and after leaving the hospital plotted his revenge with the other sympathizers.

      so, the killings did happen and were precipitated by the incident at the gas station. the government and all levels of Jamaican society at the time regarded Rastafarians as a very dangerous and corrosive subculture and it would not surprise me in the least to see Gleaner headlines of the day sensationalizing the attacks. the police and army routed a number of Rasta settlements all over the north part of the island and arrested hundreds of Rastas who had no involvement at all.

      this was at a time just three years after Claudius Henry’s failed revolt in 1960, in which two soldiers in Kingston were shot and Henry’s cache of arms and the letter to Castro was discovered. Henry’s sons and other participants were hanged. nonetheless, while Henry had a large following, there was little support among other Rastafarians for his revolution to be repatriated back to Africa. Jamaica has a long tradition of uprisings and rebellions, so no doubt there was a sense of high anxiety regarding the Rastas and their rejection of society and governance as usual. the anti-Rasta rhetoric lasted well into the 70′s, i remember it clearly as a kid.

      the battling of the JLP and PNP in West and Central Kingston during the early-mid 60′s and evolving gang wars that began in earnest after that held Kingston under seige far more than any Rastafarian “uprising” could ever have hoped to.

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