|"Princes come out of Egypt, Ethiopia stretches forth her hands unto God."|
|Psalm 68, v.31|
The Rastafarians of today are heirs to a
tradition which searched for the glory of the African past in the midst of white western
domination. Because of the totality of the experiences of slavery, racial
discrimination and the partition of Africa, the slogan 'Africa for the Africans' had
emerged as the song of freedom on the continent of Africa and among Africans in the New
Since the bible and biblical ideas were so prominent in the experience of domination, the thrust for self-determination and basic human rights was expressed in the biblical terms of redemption and deliverance. The usage of these terms had been most evident in the USA where the black church was the venue of solidarity and unity.
Far from being an opiate, the religiousity of blacks was a complex phenomenon, with many church leaders standing at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement. During the 18th century a religious force had developed in the USA which looked to the biblical references to Ethiopia as a means of challenging the myth that blacks were destined to be 'beasts of burden'. These blacks were part of the Ethiopian movement.1
Ethiopia was a major centre in the biblical world, along with Jordan, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, and for centuries Europeans referred to the whole of the continent of Africa as Ethiopia, while the region which today bears the name 'Ethiopia' was formerly the Kindom of Abyssinia. The biblical references to Ethiopia were cherished by blacks, and when the Abyssinians defeated the Italians at Adowa in 1896, the black people in the US took the words of the psalm, "Princes come out of Egypt, Ethiopia stretches forth her hands unto God" to mean that the redemption of Africa was near at hand.
The news of the African State under a Christian King defeating a white army excited the blacks, and Jamaicans in their village communities told the stories of Solomon and Sheba with the same zest as they told Anancy stories. They declared that the present rulers of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) could trace their heritage to the union between Solomon and Sheba.
Many Jamaicans who had gone to the USA came into contact with the African Methodist Episcopalian (A.M.E.) Church, which was at the forefront of black church institutions adopting the name 'Africa' when other church leaders were preaching that blacks were afflicted with the curse of Ham. From the time of slavery the Ethiopian movement was a force in the black church movement and William Scott, who studied the impact of Ethiopianism on Afro-American thought, said that:
"Stimulated mainly by references to ancient Ethiopia in the Scriptures and Sermons, Afro-Americans often perceived that African territory, however defined, as the salvation of the race. Some thought that one day a black messiah would emerge from Ethiopia to redeem the African race religiously, socially and politically. So ingrained did these and related views become that New World Africans often thought of themselves as Ethiopians, using that term to describe themselves and their organisations."2
In the midst of the European plunder of
Africa, preachers of the African Episcopal Methodist Church were carrying the idea that
Africa must be saved "for Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto
God". This expression of Pan-African unity was carried further by Martin R.
Delany, who went to the heart of Africa and returned with the cry "Africa for the
The cry was spread in Southern Africa when the Independent Church Movement linked their religion to Ethiopia, and to the freedom of Africa. As soon as it was clear that the missionaries were as much a part of the colonising forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers, the more patriotic Africans who had been trained in the church sought to break with the white church movement.
Many of the African preachers had come to literacy through the mission schools, but were torn between the traditions of African resistance and the cultural influence of Europe, which was embedded within the teachings of the missionaries. Quoting Ephesians - "Servants be obedient to your masters" - the white church stressed humility and docility and acceptance of the colonial order of the world, while equating African ancestral beliefs with the devil, who was depicted as black.
According to the European version of Christianity, God the Father was white, God the Son was white, God the Holy Ghost was white, and Lucifer, the devil, was black. Faced with the virulent racism of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and Independent Church Movement developed and spread rapidly.
This Ethiopianism was a particular brand of black nationalism which opposed white colonial rule and "has its origins in South Africa in the 1870s when colour prejudice had stung so many Africans to set up their own churches rather than face the segregation and humiliation of the white man's place of worship."3
Through the Africa of the labour reserves and settler plantations, from the white highlands of Kenya to the gold mines of Johannesburg, the Pan-African call of "Africa for the Africans" became the sermons of the Ethiopian Church Movement. Europeans could not understand the full force of the nationalism taking a religious form*, and they were even more alert when Bishop Turner of the US-based African Episcopal Methodist Church visited South Africa and made contact with the church leaders of the Ethiopian Movement.
White supremacists, who balked at any movement outside white control, cringed at the rapid growth of the movement and called it a "pernicious revolt against European guidance". Colonial officials saw Ethiopianism as a Pan-African conspiracy - a threat to white supremacy in Africa which seemed part of a deeply laid plan in which Negroes from the New World were heavily involved. What in the eyes of the South African whites made the Ethiopian Movement especially dangerous was that there were over eight hundred different churches, and no established leaders.
Similar to within the Rastafari, there was no hierarchy in the Ethiopian Movement; thus is was difficult for the colonial State to penetrate the movement. The Bambata Revolt of 1906, against the growing Apartheid, involved leaders of the Ethiopian Movement, for religion and politics tended to reinforce each other;4 and in a situation where there was no clear political organisation, the Ethiopian Movement filled a political void, spreading the call "Africa for the Africans". It was only after the formation of the African National Congress in 1912 that the independent churches no longer took the leading role in the struggle.
The cry "Africa for the Africans" was not confined to South Africa, but was to be heard across the Rift Valley and the Congo Basin to as far away as West Africa. S.K.B. Asante, in his study of Ethiopianism in West Africa, remarked:
"After the victory over Italy at Adowa in 1896, Ethiopia acquired a special importance in the eyes of Africans as the only surviving African State. After Adowa, Ethiopia became emblematic of African valour and resistance, the bastion of prestige and hope to thousands of Africans who were experiencing the full shock of European conquest, and were beginning to search for an answer to the myth of African inferiority ... To articulate West African nationalist intelligensia of lawyers, merchants, journalists, doctors and clergymen who had since the turn of the century persistently sought to share political power with the colonial ruler, the role of Ethiopia or Ethiopianism in nationalist thought and politics was great and inspiring ... In separate African churches, Africans did and could protest imperial rule and build articulate leadership to oppose the domineering and discriminating actions of the colonial officials."5
The racial contradictions of Imperialism had given rise to a form of protest which was similar in the US, the Caribbean and Africa. Shorn of its religious and idealist underpinnings, the concept of Africa for the Africans was to become the cry of the Pan-African Movement.
Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney, by Horace Campbell (African World Press 1987), pp. 47-50.