Emperor Haile Selassie I’s visit 55 years ago
CONSIDERED a champion in Africa, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I received a rapturous welcome from the Rastafarian community when he arrived at Palisadoes Airport in Jamaica on April 21, 1966, 55 years ago today. One of the stops on his three-day state visit was at a school with strong ties to the country’s gentry.
Jamaica College (JC) was one of Jamaica’s elite institutions. It produced several noted figures including Norman Manley, former premier and the Caribbean’s leading barrister; and Rhodes Scholar and economist Noel Nethersole.
In April 1966 the school’s head boy was Bruce Golding, who entered JC in January, 1963 after attending St George’s College for five years. He, along with Prime Minister Sir Donald Sangster and Minister of Education Edwin Allen were members of the party that welcomed Selassie.
“In my day, the head boy had significant authority as well as responsibility in terms of discipline. Not only was I informed [of the visit] but I was involved and we greeted His Imperial Majesty as he stepped out of his vehicle,” Golding recalled in an interview with the Jamaica Observer last week.
He had more than passing knowledge of the diminutive Selassie, whose defeat of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini’s forces in the 1930s made him a hero throughout Africa. His visit to Jamaica coincided with the civil rights movement in the United States, which Golding said was a hot topic among senior students at JC, including deputy head boy Ward Mills and Ivan Coore (son of senior lawyer/politician David Coore).
Past students Garth White and Robin “Jerry” Small, had helped ignite a sense of black awareness on the campus.
Peter Phillips, then a student in lower sixth form at JC, was at school the day Selassie came. His knowledge of the Ethiopian monarch was “very, very minimal”. He entered JC as a second-former in 1962 and saw its student body change from “white and high brown” to include boys from diverse backgrounds.
Selassie’s visit had an immediate impact on Phillips who grew up in nearby Mona Heights.
“We were just there mesmerised by the very powerful presence of this African monarch. One of the things that the visit did was to impel us to learn more, and part of the learning more was through contact with Rastafarians in Jamaica,” he said.
There was widespread ignorance of Selassie among JC’s so-called “gardener boys” like Roger Lewis. He was one of many black students who entered the school in 1962.
“I remember a whole heap of Rasta outside the school gate that day. The principal told us to wear our tie and badge because the Ethiopian Emperor was coming,” he remembered. “When I saw this little man (Selassie), I said to myself, ‘a dis dem mek wi dress up fa?’. We just never grasped the magnitude of the occasion.”
Golding described the Selassie JC stop as “very brief”.
“He didn’t spend a long time. As a matter of fact, he was on his way to the university (of the West Indies). He inspected a guard of honour of the cadet corps and when he was leaving, I said, ‘Three cheers for the Emperor!’,” he recalled.
Haile Selassie I’s historic visit to Jamaica followed a similar trip to Trinidad and Tobago. He also visited Haiti and Barbados.
By the 1970s, Jamaica was in the midst of a full-blown Rasta revolution, led by reggae artistes such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear. Roger Lewis became, and remains, a member of the Inner Circle Band.
Bruce Golding, a member of the Jamaica Labour Party, served as Jamaica’s prime minister from 2007 to 2011. Emperor Haile Selassie I died in August 1975 in Ethiopia, one year after he was overthrown in a coup.
Peter Phillips became a Rastafarian shortly after leaving JC. He became a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Cabinet minister in the People’s National Party government and was its leader until last year.
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