Leonard Howell is widely considered to have been the first, in 1932, to proclaim that Haile Selassie was the Supreme Being, though several Jamaicans had the same idea almost simultaneously. The charismatic evangelist sold five thousand coronation photographs of the Emperor to be used as passports to Ethiopia, and told his clergy that the ships were near. People said the sea would part for them, as if in restitution for that voyage in the other direction—the Middle Passage—whose agony was still vivid in Jamaica’s memory. It was, in its way, an idea that National Geographic
itself had cultivated, that a photograph could be a passport to another place. In 1934, Howell was charged in Kingston with sedition for calling Queen Victoria a ‘harlot’, and convincing British subjects that they were in fact Ethiopians. At his trial, Howell invoked the spectacle of the coronation in his defence. Hadn’t the powers of the earth sent diplomats bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Locked away in prison, he compiled his thoughts in the cryptic pamphlet, The Promised Key
. ‘Instead of saying Civilization hereafter we all shall say Black Supremacy,’ Howell wrote. ‘Black People Black People arise and shine for the light has come.’
Accounts of Haile Selassie’s coronation in other publications had painted a vastly different scene from that of National Geographic. In Harper’s, the journalist Ellen La Motte—in a bad mood after a night spent in a renovated cowshed, besieged by ants—decried the poverty and filth of the country. Abyssinia was a cesspool where slavery flourished and nearly everyone had a venereal disease. There was no art or culture here, let alone any seraphic splendour, La Motte declared: ‘A primitive people like the Abyssinians, without genius, has created nothing.’ At the ceremony, there were a hundred chairs reserved for foreigners that went empty—the Ethiopians who had spent weeks walking barefoot across the country to reach the capitol were not permitted to sit in them. Time magazine wondered aloud whether Ras Tafari had poisoned his predecessor, Empress Zauditu, with ‘bad coffee’. Many newspapers reported that the Emperor had bankrupted his country to pay for the celebrations, levying tax after tax while crooked officials skimmed off the top. In one of the more florid sections of the National Geographic coverage, Southard described the majestic ‘review of the troops’ ritual, in which Ethiopia’s tribal chieftains and their warriors were given the chance to show off their military prowess in traditional costume. Harper’s reported that during the mock battle there appeared to be a mutiny: suddenly, combatants began to charge the stage, threatening Haile Selassie with sharpened spears, as the foreign guests overturned their chairs in fear and confusion. From the varied reports, it is clear that the press had little idea what was going on. But in keeping with its sensibility, National Geographic had focused on the wild beauty of the event, glossing over the rest: ‘How many elephants, how many lions, how many men…!’
For National Geographic, the diversity of the planet was glorious—so long as it remained at a distance, like a picture in a book. From its founding in 1888 through the 1940s, the National Geographic Society excluded blacks from membership, forbade them from using the library at their headquarters in Washington D.C., and enforced a whites-only policy at lectures. Haile Selassie, an enthusiastic member of the Society and avid collector of the magazine, was a rare exception to the rule. Yet the Emperor did not consider himself ‘black,’ and National Geographic concurred that he was ‘decidedly Semitic.’ The belief was that Ethiopians were the descendants of Noah’s son Shem, whereas ‘black’ Africans were descended from Ham, allegedly cursed in a notorious passage from Genesis often invoked to justify slavery. For the most part, the magazine avoided writing about America’s own black population, and published pieces that took stances against immigration and in support of the burgeoning eugenics movement. Its policy of printing photographs of topless African women—in the name of science—provided the first glimpse of a breast for generations of enthralled American schoolboys. In 1937, after Italy invaded Ethiopia, desecrated its land with poison gases, exiled Haile Selassie and killed hundreds of thousands, National Geographic published a glowing panegyric to Mussolini that congratulated the achievement, and proclaimed the rebirth of the Roman Empire. Its author was on safari with a new Lion: ‘As we lunched informally with Il Duce in a little Littoria restaurant, I learned upon what meat this modern Caesar feeds.’
A magazine that condoned racist policies and supported the wrong side in the war would inadvertently serve as foundational text in the apotheosis of a black man. ‘God is the grief of irony,’ wrote the philosopher Emil Cioran. The Rastafari religion, with disciples from New York to London to Japan, would attain the sort of global reach that would give National Geographic a thrill. Perhaps there is irony attendant at the birth of every god, but, searching in the dark waters of the past, we usually do not have enough light to see it. The nature magazine was not the only periodical that would serve as improbable scripture for the Rastafarians. In 1935, the Jamaica Times reprinted a piece of virulent Italian propaganda that had been circulating in European newspapers. It claimed that Haile Selassie had gathered together a secret confederation of twenty million blacks, with the goal of igniting a race war. The ‘black peril,’ which had vast resources of gold and counted all the black soldiers serving in Europe’s armies as members, called itself ‘Nyabinghi,’ or ‘Death to Whites.’ The article’s author, under the pseudonym ‘Frederico Philos,’ wrote, ‘Haile Selassie is regarded as a veritable messiah, a saviour to coloured people everywhere, the Emperor of the Negro Kingdom. Whenever one mentions the word ‘Negus’, the eyes of the blacks gleam with mad fanaticism. They worship him as an idol. He is their God. To die for the Negus is to ensure admission to paradise.’ The text attempted to muster support for the Italian mission to depose this dangerous demiurge. But for preachers such as Howell and their followers, the article was an uncanny, astoundingly public confirmation of their own beliefs. Instantly, everyone wanted to join the mysterious league. The appropriation of this second, unlikely text marked the creation of the first major branch within the Rastafari religion—the House of Nyabinghi.
God is, by nature, impervious to irony, whatever the circumstances of His birth. In the 1940s, in gratitude for the overwhelming outpouring of support by the African diaspora during Italy’s attack, Haile Selassie set aside a land grant of five hundred acres for anyone who wished to repatriate to Ethiopia. The territory, located in Shashamane, a fertile area in the Rift valley, initially received only a small number of settlers from the diaspora. But in the early 1960s, as the Rastafari religion grew and suffered increasing persecution, the Jamaican government began to pursue the idea of relocating the feared and loathed community. In 1961, the year before Jamaica gained independence, a state-sponsored delegation including three Rastas travelled to Ethiopia to meet the living God face-to-face. In the official mission report, the ‘Apostles of the Negus’, Mortimo Planno, D. Mack, and Filmore Alvaranga wrote: ‘Our meeting with H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I is likened spiritually to the visit of the three wise men who journeyed from the West to the East to visit the Baby Jesus, bringing with them gold, frankincense and myrrh to offer H.I.M.’ Though he did not reproach his Magi, for his own part Haile Selassie rejected his divinity, and confided to his advisors his hope that they would find the true God—the one he venerated in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. But in private, the Emperor would sometimes ask the palace secretary to read aloud the letters mailed to him from the Rastafarians, and he would listen, profoundly moved.