Coronation of Haile Selassie, 1930

Many photos featured throughout this blog were iconic, some have made or unmade careers, others have changed the course of public opinion and wars. But few have actually started a religion, except these.

In November 1930, National Geographic sent a reporter and a photographer to cover the coronation of Ras Tafari Makonnen as Emperor of Ethiopia – or to be precise, as Haile Selassie, Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God. The story, reported by Addison E. Southard, who was also the United States Consul General in Ethiopia, ran 14,000 words, sixty-eight pages, and was accompanied by with 83 images by W. Robert Moore.

The coronation was a lavish affair, costing three million USD ($60 million in 2022 terms), not least because the emperor’s lavish gifts to the attendees. Five thousand cattle were slaughtered as Haile Selassie made his royal progress to Cathedral of St. George in Addis Ababa in a coach that once belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II. At seven corners of the Cathedral, forty-nine bishops in groups of seven had been reciting the Psalms for seven days and seven nights without ceasing. “The studded doors of the Holy of Holies open ponderously,” wrote Southard as dignitaries paid homage to the Emperor, who allegedly traced his lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Duke of Gloucester, King George V’s son, gifted him a traditional English coronation cake and a trunk of ancient manuscripts formerly stolen from the country. Italy, once and future aggressor, was represented by the Prince of Udine, a cousin of King Victor Emmanuel III, who brought an airplane. From America came President Hoover’s envoy with an electric refrigerator, five hundred rose bushes, and a complete set of National Geographic magazines.

“The centuries seemed to have slipped suddenly backward into Biblical ritual,” Moore wrote in no less purple prose. He also remembered the photos he took:

“The Emperor … kindly consented to pose in his coronation robes, as poor lighting had precluded the possibility of making the photograph on the day of the actual coronation… but to secure adequate time during the strenuous ceremonial days of His Majesty and to select the proper position and lighting for my color plates necessitated many delays. On the late afternoon before I left Addis Ababa, on a last-minute special train which would connect with my steamer at Djibouti, I made the exposures of Their Majesties in the rapidly failing light which all but made color photography impossible.”

Moore and Southard’s story ran in National Geographic of June 1931 – and was immediately a sensation a hemisphere away in Jamaica. For the islanders languishing under abject poverty and racism, the article was a revelation – the mere fact that the princes of the earth “made obeisance on bended knee” before a black man was a revolutionary idea in Jamaica under the British rule. Telling British subjects that they were in fact Ethiopians, since King George’s own son had bowed to the black Messiah, would be even seditious. Yet, the preachers persisted, seizing on earlier prophecies that a black king would be crowned in Africa as the day of redemption drew near. Soon, they would coalesce around a religion, Rastafarianism – proclaiming Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and carrying around the coronation photographs as religion icons.  

For the remainder of his tumultuous life, Haile Selassie himself would repeatedly deny that he was a god. At the invitation of Jamaica’s government, Haile Selassie visited the island in 1966 and met with the Rastafarian leaders to insist that, but these denials made him even more divine in their minds. Although the religion has somewhat faded from popular memory after a coup disposed Haile Selassie and with the 1981 death of its most famous convert, Bob Marley (who came to the religion via his wife), today there are still around one million Rastas worldwide.  

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