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Mythical Pasts: Ethiopianism as a Revitalization Movement

Caitlin O’Neill

Throughout history, identification with Ethiopian heritage has been a familiar concept to the Jamaicans who have suffered under slavery, colonialism and social oppression. This concept of "Ethiopianism" includes the appreciation of Ethiopia’s ancient civilization as well as its profound role in the Bible and world history. It has long been manifested in Jamaican culture as a means to identify with a glorious, righteous, and perhaps the earliest of all human civilization. Anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace has focused much of his research on the phenomena of Revitalization Movements throughout social history. He has recognized that such movements are characterized by a uniform process and can be defined as "a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture" (Wallace 265). Considering the centuries of severe struggle amongst Jamaican society, from the inhumane conditions of slavery to modern neocolonialism on the island, it seems evident as to why the revitalization of the Ethiopian homeland would be present in the culture and even accelerated within the Rastafarian Movement. Prominent leaders and the circumstances of the times have allowed Ethiopianism to flourish amongst the oppressed masses of Jamaica and gain popular recognition through the lyrics of reggae music. There is no doubt that this identification with historical Ethiopia has served as a Revitalization Movement for Rastafarians within Jamaican culture and society.

It would be impossible to understand the Rastafarian connection to Ethiopianism without first exploring at least a brief history of this ancient civilization. This historical root in a thriving civilization is especially important to discover as Blacks have unjustifiably been regarded as "uncivilized" throughout the centuries. I hope that the following will prove that today, Africans all over the world are descendents of what was once a very highly developed civilization in what is now Ethiopia. However, white populations have attempted throughout history to deny this fact. European scholars of the nineteenth century claimed that those who occupied the area in ancient times were not Negroes but Hamites; this attempt was made in hope of scientifically proving that whites are the origin and basis of all civilization (Barrett 70). African descendents have suffered for centuries due to this "de-negrification" of Blacks and those confusing racial classifications assigned by Whites. The fact that the Ethiopian civilization was indeed a Black one is strongly supported with a quick insight into ancient Hebrew language. Cushite, the term used consistently by the Hebrews to refer to Africans of the time, derives from the Hebrew word Cush, which can clearly be translated to the English word "black." When the Old Testament was translated from Hebrew to Greek, "cush" was changed to "ethiop," the Greek word for "burnt" or "black" that gave rise to the more recent name for the land. Furthermore, when the Greek traveler and writer Herodotus served as an early eyewitness to the Ethiopians in the fifth century BC, he described both "the natives of the country were black with the heat" and that "they are black-skinned and have wooly hair" (Barrett 72). Early accounts such as these hold high proof that those who made up the ancient Ethiopian civilization were Black indeed.

It is also evident that this civilization flourished as highly developed, knowledgeable and successful. The roots of humanity were planted in this area under the hot African sun and Equator, where life was most likely to thrive and proliferate at the earliest. It is here in Ethiopia that archaeologist Donald Johansen encountered the incredibly intact remains of "Lucy," the earliest hominid remains to be discovered (Howe 29). It is in this same area in which the Ethiopian civilization would evolve many thousands of years later. Many people believe the identification of Ethiopians to be the originators of the arts, sciences, technologies and political organizations.

Ethiopians were the instructors of Music, founders of Arts, Science and Philosophy…The Ethiopians were the architects that laid the plans and measured the spaces and laid the foundations of the Pyramids of Egypt…and put the finishing touches on the Sphinx. (Howe 73).

It is difficult to decipher where the Egyptian and Ethiopian civilizations differentiate historically, but many argue that those of Ethiopia proceeded all else. "Europeans have conspired to credit Ethiopian accomplishments to Egypt, entirely ignoring Ethiopia’s…status as the birthplace of all knowledge" (Howe 48). This is quite consistent with the argument that civilization spread from Ethiopia to Egypt and thence onward. A Black Church lecturer of the 1920s professed that Ethiopians were:

…the first people to throw the flashlight of knowledge upon the shores of Egypt. Egypt handed it to Babylon, Babylon handed it to Greece, Greece handed it to Rome, and Rome handed it down to the western world. (Howe 47).

Held strong in the modern movement of Ethiopianism is the idea that Europe has produced no indigenous culture but has drawn all it knows from Africa. The accounts of Herodotus describe the many ways in which the Greeks took from Ethiopian civilization, ranging from the worshipping and naming of the gods to the division of the seasons and yearly calendar (Herodotus 8-14). Herodotus additionally noted of the Ethiopians:

…they existed always, ever since the human race came into being, and that as their land advanced forwards, many of them were left in their first abodes and many came down gradually to the lower parts. (Herodotus 14).

This account is supportive of the theory that all of Africa has origin in the Meroitic Civilization of the Nile, from which both the Ethiopians and Egyptians evolved (Barrett 72). However, with the threat of the close proximity of the Mediterranean Basin, these civilizations would soon be encroached upon by the conquering armies from the north. This pattern of imperialism would begin with the Persians and continue with the Greeks under Alexander, then the Romans, and finally with the Arabs. Over the centuries, the African blood would be mixed with these various peoples of the conquering Eurasian armies (Barrett 72-3). It is during this era of outside influence when the Black civilization lost power, and thereafter was to be oppressed by all races. Migration to the south and west created the spread of African civilization from its origins of the Nile.

It is perhaps the Biblical references to Ethiopia that have instigated the most momentum in the movement of Ethiopianism within Rastafarianism. Being the only religious text accessible to Jamaican slaves and speaking of the origins of Africa as being in Ethiopia and extremely important in the history of civilization, it is no wonder that the early African inhabitants of the island took to the glory of their homeland so strongly. It is those references to the Black race in the Bible that have created the mythology of the Ethiopianism movement in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas. The Old Testament speaks: "Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch her hands unto God" (Barrett 69). Such a powerful reference to the homeland has empowered Africans all over the world to identify with the land of their ancient ancestors. In the Black tradition today, the word "Ethiopia" has come to represent all of Africa, including Egypt (Barrett 74). In one word, it encompasses the origin of all human life today.

It is now possible to see why Ethiopia has taken on an eschatological dimension in Jamaican society over the centuries. Yet such faith in the homeland would not have emerged if it were not for the social and racial struggles that occurred on the island with the subhuman institutions of slavery and British colonialism. Centuries of humiliation of the African race have created a concept of Ethiopia as a "…vision of a golden past…that revitalized the hope of an oppressed people" (Barrett 75). Indeed, those Africans taken to Jamaica during the slave trade–beginning in 1655–faced one of the harshest struggles to survive under the British Empire. Being the richest of all British colonies, Jamaica contained half the population of the British West Indies and functioned with almost one thousand sugar growing estates (Craton 162). Absentee plantation owners were the norm, with exploitative managers left to control plantation affairs while being completely uninterested in the slaves as human beings. Although Blacks outnumbered the British in a ration of ten to one, they were regarded absolutely as chattel property until 1787 (Craton 169). The earliest slaves must have experienced an extreme sense of isolation from both their homeland and families, as it was not until 1788 that an act was passed forbidding the breakup of families (Craton 169).

Slave plantations were laws unto themselves. Hardly dominated by official law, owners applied draconian controls against the threat of violence, the carrying of weapons, the right to assembly, travel without a pass, running away and the participation in traditional African practices and customs (Craton 170). The majority of slave populations would have suffered emotionally and mentally from the extreme deprivation of their heritage and absolute depersonalization. Although the Jamaican slave population was derived from hundreds of separate cultures with unique languages, music, folklore and spiritual beliefs, they were heaped into a generically African and homogenous group. They were further acculturated with the modifications of West Indian, European and Christian influences. It was a struggle within itself to retain individual cultures within slave communities. Besides their ignorance of the African background, British plantation owners deprived slaves of any ounce of dignity by forbidding the ownership of even the simplest property and discouraging sexual and familial relations (Craton 173). Although many Africans could have been quite highly skilled craftsmen, their individualities were belittled as they were forced to perform rudimentary work under inhumane treatment.

Additionally, the African slaves suffered physically under the British. Poor health amongst the populations resulted from a combination of maltreatment, geographical location and the harshness of working conditions. Crowded living situations and negligence led to insufficient and unbalanced diets along with the proliferation of disease (Craton 176). Birth and fertility rates were extremely low, and in 1788 the excess of deaths over births was at two percent, with forty deaths per one thousand slaves (Craton 176). Around the same time that the African slave trade ceased in 1807, plantation productivity slowed due to poor management and low economic productivity. The decline of the industry meant the greater exploitation and hardship of the slaves (Craton 188). By the time of Emancipation in1834, the half million slaves brought to Jamaica had "suffered the most frustrating and oppressive slavery experienced in a British colony" (Barrett 29). The prominence of slave rebellion and the "fight and flight" reaction amongst Jamaican slaves are entirely supportive of this statement.

The basis of social stratification in Jamaica was laid down in the early institution of slavery. With a lack of British women on the island, sexual relations between slave masters and African women were exacerbated. This created a ten-percent population of "mixed," "creole," "coloured" or "Jamaican Whites" by the time of Emancipation (Craton 172). This racial stratification derived from slave society led to the categorization of Jamaica in later years into three groups: white, brown and black. Here they are represented in the order of dominance, but the exact reverse of relative numerical strength (Kuper 48). This concept of "lightening of the skin" for social reasons has long had a confusing and belittling role in Jamaican history (Craton 173). Nonetheless, its capacity to influence social circumstances is unsurpassed by all other influencing factors on the island. It is understandable why more and more Jamaicans would aspire to identify as truly African with the Ethiopianism Movement. The need to do so becomes more clear in a society where race is the sole determinant of social status, yet remains variable and ambiguous in criteria for identification.

The state of Jamaican society following Emancipation went largely unchanged for some time. The attempt to replace slave labor with "apprentices" was frustrating for Black Jamaicans and fairly unsuccessful (Kuper 4). For the most part, the radically unbalanced distribution of wealth continues to prevail to this day. Such economic and social oppression against Black Jamaicans accounts for why so many people have turned towards the faith and pride of Ethiopia.

The derivative for much of the social frustration amongst Jamaicans is the state of employment on the island. Foreign investors, multinational corporations, the tourism industry and a small sector of the population occupy the majority of the land (Kuper 16). The economy was supposed to have experienced "rapid economic growth" in the past several decades, yet most money has gone towards the mining of bauxite by Coca-Cola, tourism and foreign plantations and industry (Kuper 16). Domestically, the agricultural sector remains very poor, with an "absolute decline in the viability of peasant holding" (Kuper 22). The alienation of farmland to large corporations and the industrialization of agriculture have led to a decline in demand for rural labor, as well. There is no doubt that foreign economic control is leading to a downfall in the quality of life for the average Jamaican. Urbanization has been extreme in Jamaica throughout the twentieth century due to these factors of neocolonialism and foreign domination. Because the rural areas and small landholdings cannot support the population growth without a substantial drop in the standard of living, more and more people are migrating to the cities with the hope for opportunity. The population of the capitol of Kingston went from eighteen percent of the national number in 1940 to twenty seven percent in 1970. It is evident that the numbers in urbanization have increased proportionately with the growth of foreign investment (Kuper 9). Although unemployment in the cities is extremely high, there is at least a little hope for intermittent employment. Employment tends to be casual and seasonal; and while twenty percent of the population is unemployed, the amount of underemployed is just as great (Kuper 27). In this era of post-colonialism, eighty percent of Jamaican unskilled laborers earn less than twenty-five dollars a week when they actually do encounter work (Barrett 12).

The desperate and crowded living conditions of the cities are substantially unwelcoming for the majority of rural migrants. Along with the difficulty in finding employment, people face the harshness of life in self-help housing, or "shantytowns," and criminal activity. An excerpt from a poem by Rastafarian Sam Brown gives a personal insight to life in the "Slum Condition:"

Tin-can houses, old and young, meangy dogs, rats, inhuman stench,

Unthinkable conditions that cause the stoutest heart wrench.

Tracks and little lanes like human veins, emaciated people,

Many giving up the ghost, their spirits broken, their gloom deepens.

Precocious boys and girls, yet adults, police, thieves, conglomerates,

Generally disjointed, sexually abandoned masters of their fate…

(Barrett 9).

Jamaica supposedly has a long tradition of self-help housing, in which residents contribute all or most of the construction input through self-help methods, that dates back to the slave plantation (Potter 77). The absolute numbers of those living in the shantytowns of Kingston are some of the largest in the Caribbean, with low incomes in society making self-help housing a necessity for many (Potter 78). The situation has become an anxiety of the government, demonstrated in April of 1994 when the National Housing Trust in Jamaica bulldozed a substantial amount of homes in Rosemont, St. James (Potter 80). Such action supports the widespread fear of government and police brutality amongst shantytown populations. The oppressed masses of these areas are dealing with issues of crime on a daily basis. Though quite frightening, the fact that more and more people are turning to crime is seen as understandable by many. Barrett supports this:

The history of Jamaica is one long tale of exploitation by a few rich families whose privileges were never questioned. But with independence, Jamaica was thrust into the arena of the underdeveloped nations with little or no aid from those who benefited from the island…They were on the island but not of it. (Barrett 13).

Black Jamaicans, those who occupy the majority of the population, have suffered for centuries through slavery, colonialism and now neocolonialism. They have been existing in a society where the minority incessantly demands without the least bit of reciprocation. Beginning with the inhumane treatment by the British and carried through the years of racial stratification, extreme misdistribution of wealth, and a low standard of living, many Jamaicans are now seeking the revitalization of their unique heritage. Ethiopianism has served this purpose: through hundreds of years of severe social stress, Jamaicans look to the glory of their homeland, of Ethiopia or Africa, in order to restore their faith and dignity as a society, a culture, and as individuals. While the eschatological aspect of Ethiopia first appeared in Jamaica during the eighteenth century, this faith was carried out for centuries until it finally accelerated with the birth of Rastafarianism. Only the social circumstances of the times and the extensive oppression of the people would have allowed the movement to become so widely accepted in Jamaica.

It is impossible to know exactly when and how Ethiopianism became part of Black Religion in the "New World," but it is evident that African heritage has always been a priority to the culture. The actual term was introduced by American Baptist slave preacher George Liele, who founded the Ethiopian Baptist Church on the island in 1784 (Barrett 76). However, the movement could never have gained such momentum if it were not for the inspirational voices of its early leaders. The eschatological dimension of Ethiopia was first publicly recognized by the Reverend Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832-1912), a West Indian-born man who attempted to grapple with the fundamental problems of his race through literature. In his published writings, he continuously dealt with such questions as "How to dispel the lingering myth of European peoples of the inferiority of the Negro?" and "How to ameliorate the condition of African people in the New World" (Lynch xi)? He was later to publicly recognize that the great West African civilization, from which the slaves were taken in the sixteenth century, had originated from what was once the glorious Ethiopian Civilization (Barrett 76). He wrote, "…thus, Ethiopians have always served…the world…The Empire of the one is more widespread than that of any other nation" (Lynch 35). Much of Blyden’s work focused on the destruction caused by what Rastafarians today entitle "Babylon": European culture, the Christian religion, and most derivatives of the Roman Empire. His movement against these social sectors revolutionized thinking for the Black masses throughout the New World with the claim that Christianity had been the destroyer of Black dignity (Barrett 76). His claims were made entirely justified through his literature, which expressed the fact that Africa had become deservedly distinguished throughout history as having served and suffered for the comfort of others. "Having been made perfect through suffering…then we see the position which Africa and the Africans must ultimately occupy" (Lynch 37). In his attempt to educate the people of his race of their profound role in history, E.W. Blyden broke ground in the movement of Ethiopianism. In 1872, he helped to find The Ethiopian, a monthly journal that was devoted to the educational matters concerning Africans all over the world (Lynch xxv). His inspirational voice chartered the course that would later be taken towards the Ethiopian homeland, the repatriation movement, and eventually Rastafarianism.

I look forward to the day when black men in this country, roused to a sense of their duty to Africa, will rush to those shores to bless that benighted continent. ‘Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.’ The almighty hath decreed it…Ethiopia, in all her length and breadth, shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Lynch 20).

The writings of Blyden were to have a deep posthumous impact on Ethiopianism, most especially on the life of the revolutionary thinker Marcus Garvey and, henceforth, on the whole of Rastafarianism. Garvey once spoke of E.W. Blyden as "one of our historians and chroniclers who has done so much to retrieve the lost prestige of our race" (Lynch xxxiv). Himself a Jamaican, Garvey was soon to spread the concept of Ethiopianism throughout the culture that would eventually give rise to the Rastafarians.

In The Rastafarians, the author expresses that "In Marcus Garvey, Ethiopianism reached its highest development" (Barrett 79). Indeed, such a statement is supported by the fact that Garvey was the first to make popular the historical role of Ethiopia to the Jamaican culture. Born in St. Ann, Jamaica in 1887, he set out on a future that would revitalize the hope and dignity of the black race throughout the Americas (Barrett 65). Raised in a newly Emancipated society when racial suppression was at its worst, Garvey became eager early on in making a change in the European domination of political and social affairs. Several years of travel made clear to him the similar state of imperialism in much of the Americas. Garvey would go on to express his ideas through his many publications; his most successful, the Negro World, came to promote his nationalist ideals and represent his founding organization: the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Howe 75). In 1924, Garvey justified his movement at the Madison Square Garden in New York City:

Our desire is for a place in the world; not to disturb the tranquility of other men, but to lay down our burden and rest our weary backs and feet by the banks of the Niger and sing our songs and chant our hymns to the God of Ethiopia. (Barrett 77)

He professed to his race that African history should be a source of inspiration and emotional uplift to blacks, coupled with the systematic derogation of European claims of the past (Howe 76). Viewing African civilization as anterior to all others, Garvey later went on to inspire Black God Movements in his insistence of "worshipping God through the spectacles of Ethiopia" (Barrett 77). With the powerful work of Marcus Garvey, Ethiopianism developed from a mere concept to an actual historical movement in which he served as "The Provisional President of Africa" (Barrett 79). His repatriation project was officially launched with the Back-to-Africa Movement and its philosophy: "Africa for the African at home and abroad" (Barrett 67). This movement was to gain speed in a messianic aspect when, on the eve of his departure to the United States in 1916, Garvey supposedly said: "Look to Africa for the crowning of a Black King; He shall be the redeemer" (Barrett 81). The power of such a statement shall never be underestimated. With the crowning of the Ethiopian King Haile Salassie, "King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah," in 1930, the prophecies of both Garvey and the Bible had been fulfilled.

Besides the teachings and prophecies of the movement’s early leaders, the "incubation period" in the Kingston slums that followed the crowning of Haile Salassie allowed the nurturing of early Rastafarianism. There were originally four "Garveyites" who took the crowning seriously and were to become ministers and founders of separate groups. Those "claiming to have received revelation" that Salassie was the Messiah were Leonard Howell, Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and Robert Hinds (Barrett 81). Howell’s movement during the years 1930 to 1933 was to have an incredible impact on the Kingston shantytowns. This took root in his early Pinnacle Commune, set within the hills of Jamaica with the hope of escaping both society and the police. Perhaps the most important phase in the cultivation of Rastafarianism, this era set the stage for the future in its characteristics of communal living and the use of ganja, along with the original establishment of the movement’s rites and practices (Barrett 86-7). Following the death of Howell and the collapse of the Pinnacle, the movement’s leaders took to the streets of Kingston’s shantytowns. Pointing out the disgraceful living conditions and the massive social gap, the hopeful faith of Haile Salassie was eagerly spread about (Barrett 88). It was here that the concept and actual term of Babylon was first established; with the recognition of social disparities and a strong defiance to the white establishment, the movement grew naturally and rapidly. Innate to the early characteristics of Rastafarianism was the indentured ideal of the Ethiopian homeland. The fact that the recently crowned Ethiopian King was native to their own roots was no coincidence to the Rasta faith. The hope for salvation and the faith in their African heritage resonated in such cries as "Repatriation now!" and "Ethiopia! Yes! England! No! Let my people go!" (Barrett 90). It was during this period in which the official adoption of Ethiopianism took place. Although it was an ideology already prominent in Jamaican society–due to their historical struggle and very inspirational leaders–Ethiopianism took on a new meaning within Rastafarianism. As prisoners to a society that had become increasingly insensitive to the needs of the masses, Rastafarians gave Ethiopianism a new shape and a revolutionary transformation.

Today, the ideals of Ethiopianism are strongly expressed through the words of Reggae music. First and foremost to make this movement popular through his music was Bob Marley. He identifies with the cultural frustration that gave rise to the movement in the song So Much Trouble in the World with his lyrics "We the street people talking, we the people struggling…" Marley expresses the Ethiopian ideology with such songs as Exodus:

We know where we’re going,

We know where we’re from,

We’re leaving Babylon

We’re going to the fatherland…

In Rastaman Chant Bob professes the eschatological aspect of his Ethiopian homeland with "…fly away home to Zion, fly away home…One bright morning when my work is over I will fly away home." In the lyrics of Africa Unite, he attempts to bring together the concept of Ethiopia and the African heritage to the people of his race everywhere:

Africa unite

‘Cause we’re moving right out of Babylon

And we’re going to our father’s land.

Africa, you’re my forefather cornerstone

Unite for the Africans abroad…

With an inspirational voice of poetic persuasion, Bob Marley made familiar the concept of Ethiopianism to people of all different ages, races and backgrounds throughout the world. His insistence that "we’ve got to fulfill the book" was to have a phenomenal impact upon Rastafarian movement and the lyrics and music of future Reggae artists. This is evident with the song African With African Pride by Buju Banton and the lyrics of Fire Pon Rome by Anthony B:

Fi’ Pope Paul an’ him scissors an’ comb

Black people waan go home

A Mount Zion a di righteous throne.

There is no doubt that Reggae music has had an impressive impact on the Ethiopianism Movement, and its increasing popularity throughout the world is allowing the message to bring pride to an oppressed race.

This has substantially been the purpose of the message all along. There is no denying that the people of Africa and their ancestors have suffered some of the harshest abuses in the history of the world. From the earliest contact with White civilizations, the Africans have struggled against the racial prejudices that would continue throughout history. Through the force of physical seizure, these people were removed from their native lands for the mere service of White civilization, to later exist in a society where the discrimination and racial manipulation would continue well beyond Emancipation. For centuries, the numerically minor British population of Jamaica has gained immensely at the expense of these African descendents. Such oppressive social and political circumstances, combined with inspirational leaders, were what gave rise to the faith of Ethiopianism. It was within this movement that the African pride was rediscovered and the Rastafarian faith put forth. It is in this that Barrett recognized the arrival of the movement "at the fullness of time:"

Jamaica in 1930 was at low tide economically and socially. Socially, people experienced the brunt of the Depression as well as disaster due to a devastating hurricane. Politically, colonialism gripped the country and the future of the masses looked hopeless. Any doctrine that promised a better hope and a better day was ripe for hearing. (Barrett 84)

It is entirely evident that the conditions of Jamaica over the past several centuries have nurtured the growth of Ethiopianism. The human society of Jamaica–the cultural organism–has become increasing dissatisfied with its surrounding characteristics. It is here that that we recognize anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace’s theory of the Jamaican effort "to construct a more satisfying culture." There is no doubt that the presence of Ethiopianism within Jamaican culture has fulfilled the act of revitalizing and restoring the dignity of the African race after so many years of suffering.

Works Cited

Barrett, Leonard E. The Rastafarians. Boston, MA. Beacon Press: 1997.

Craton, Michael. Empire, Enslavement and Freedom in the Caribbean. Kingston,

Jamaica. Ian Randle Publishers, 1997.

Herodotus, Tacitus, Drake, Raleigh and Others. "An Account of Egypt." USA.

P.F. Collier and Son Corporation, 1938.

Howe, Stephen. Afrocentrism. New York, NY. Verso: 1999.

Kuper, Adam. Changing Jamaica. Boston, MA. Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1976.

Lynch, Hollis R. ed. Black Spokesman: Selected Published Writings of Edward Wilmot

Blyden. London, England. Frank Cass and Company, Ltd: 1971.

Potter, Robert and Dennis Conway, eds. Self-Help Housing, the Poor and the State in

the Caribbean. Knoxville, TN. University of Tennessee Press: 1997.

Wallace, Anthony F.C. "Revitalization Movements." American Anthropologist, 264-81.