Today Rastas around the world praise His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I — who was born this day in 1892, and who led Ethiopia through most of the 20th Century, until his death in 1975.
“Haile Selassie” means “Power of the Trinity”. He was born Tafari Makonnen, the son of an Ethiopian governor and former general, who led troops to victory at the Battle of Adowa in the 1899 Italo-Ethiopian War. After the deaths of his father and brother, the teenage Makonnen became governor in 1911. Then Regent of Ethiopia in 1916, and Emperor in 1930.
In the Rastafarian movement, Haile Selassie is considered to have been a living incarnation of God. His many titles, such as Lion of Judah and “Jah” (from the Hebrew Yahweh), refer to this.
The word Rastafarian itself comes from Haile Selassie’s title Ras, Ethiopian for ‘Prince’, literally, ‘Head’.
In North America and Europe, Haile Selassie’s fame spread via reggae music and Rasta culture. Bob Marley is often pictured wearing the late Emperor’s ring…
Marley’s song “War” quotes Haile Selassie’s 1963 address to the United Nations…
That until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; That until there are no longer first-class and second class citizens of any nation; That until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes; That until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; That until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained;
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed; Until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will; Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven; Until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.
In that speech Haile Selassie also alluded to an address he delivered 27 years earlier to the UN’s forerunner, the defunct League of Nations. It would be remembered as the most moving and prophetic speech in that bodies’ history.
In 1935 Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was determined to conquer Ethiopia to resurrect the glory of the former Roman Empire. Just as Selassie’s father fought against Italy in 1899, Selassie himself now found himself facing a first-world power with far greater resources, manpower, and technology.
The Emperor’s speech began…
“I, Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to it eight months ago, when fifty nations asserted that aggression had been committed in violation of international treaties.
“There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But..there has never before been an example of any Government proceeding to the systematic extermination of a nation by barbarous means, in violation of the most solemn promises made by the nations of the earth that there should not be used against innocent human beings the terrible poison of harmful gases.”
After describing the heinous mustard gas attacks on his people–poisons that had been banned by the League of Nations, the Emperor appealed to the nations that had guaranteed Ethiopia its security…
“In October 1935, the 52 nations who are listening to me today gave me an assurance that the aggressor would not triumph, that the resources of the Covenant would be employed in order to ensure the reign of right and the failure of violence.
“I ask the fifty-two nations not to forget today the policy upon which they embarked eight months ago, and on faith of which I directed the resistance of my people against the aggressor whom they had denounced to the world. Despite the inferiority of my weapons, the complete lack of aircraft, artillery, munitions, hospital services, my confidence in the League was absolute. I thought it to be impossible that fifty-two nations, including the most powerful in the world, should be successfully opposed by a single aggressor. Counting on the faith due to treaties, I had made no preparation for war, and that is the case with certain small countries in Europe.
“…It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression. It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations…God and history will remember your judgment.”
His predictions were spot on. Mussolini’s actions–and the League of Nations’ impotence–inspired Adolf Hitler to expand his own German empire. And the League continued to appease the dictators at the expense of the smaller countries of Europe until a full-scale world war was unavoidable.