Ethiopian and Afro-Caribbean Relations
By Andrew Laurence
“All peoples of African descent whether they live in North or South America, the Caribbean or in other parts of the world, are Africans and belong to the African nation.” – Kwame Nkrumah
Much has been written extensively about Ethiopian and African American relations revealing little known information that was otherwise neglected in mainstream historical texts. Also barely mentioned has been other African diaspora historical relations that is needed to balance the story. In fact, there is an extraordinary amount of history between Ethiopia and the Caribbean (West Indian) relations that is rarely touched on by various news and information sources. Following Haiti’s overthrow of France, led by Toussiant L’Ouverture, there was a growing realization in the African diaspora that change was coming. This article gives just a glimpse of this relationship and provides a jumping off point for further research. Keep in mind that there are 28 Caribbean nations, each with their own separate colonial histories. I focus on mainly the Afro-Caribbean community and Ethiopia in this article although demands for freedom from colonialism coincided with other Caribbean leaders like Fidel Castro and Che Guevera.
Although many early independent African American churches referenced Africa in their names, there was a strong religious movement in the Caribbean that recognized Ethiopia. Starting in 1783, a slave preacher from Georgia named George Liele founded the Ethiopian Baptist church in Jamaica. The King Solomon and Queen of Sheba saga and other texts relating to Ethiopia in the Bible would reveal to Caribbean people that the Christian religion was part of their history. This Ethiopian inspired form of religion led to a pan-African spiritual movement that would spread to southern and western Africa. The success of Ethiopia against European colonialism further linked African spiritual consciousness that would have profound effects on the future for African freedom and identity.
Similar to the African American slaves, the Caribbean slaves found in the European Bible allusions to Ethiopia, especially in the Old Testament and recognized themselves in the passages. Many formed a spiritual connection with Ethiopia. As Caribbean peoples were migrating to America, especially New York City and Miami, there were many well trained and educated people coming from the islands. At about the same time of the Adwa War between Italy and Ethiopia, Caribbeans were becoming more radicalized than even there African American counterparts. This intersection of religion, colonialism and demographic changes ignited the Ethiopianism Movement that became a broader pan-African movement. Having not lived under American style restrictive laws, many Caribbean scholars, trade unionists and skilled professionals would go on to lead and deeply influence the African American response to activism on all fronts concerning black people for decades to come.
Of all the Caribbeans who came to America, the most important to Ethiopian and African relations was Marcus Garvey who was from Jamaica. He ignited the spirit of Ethiopianism more than anyone. His Back to Africa movement and United Negro Improvement Association solidified the diverse group of Africans as never before. The coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie was seen as a sign throughout the African diaspora as divinely inspired. Dr. Melaku Bayen created the Ethiopian World Federation that attracted significant numbers of Caribbean members. From this environment rose the Rastafarian movement which was a spiritual awakening that spread even to this day a positive and message of love and peace amongst all peoples in the world especially through their highly regarded Reggae music led by Bob Marley.
The disenchantment that developed form Euro-Christianity helped turn many to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Having now established African and Caribbean branches of this new Ethiopian inspired church, a delegation of Caribbean clergy invited Father Gebre-Yesus Hailu who was visiting New York on a diplomatic mission to Trinidad and Guyana in 1951. He inspired the delegation to go to Addis Ababa with a letter of introduction from Ras Imru, the Ethiopian Ambassador in the US. They met with the Emperor Haile Selaisse who in a spirit of pan-Africanism, agreed to send Ato Abera Jembere and Father Gebre-Yesus Meshesha. They travelled through Trinidad and Guyana preaching, baptizing and even teaching Amharic classes.
From the early 1900s, the Caribbean became a hot bed of activism. From the Afro-Cuban movement to Puerto Rican radicals, their effect on America often meshed with the African American activists who were inspired by Barbadians, Jamaicans, West Indians, etc. A long line of activists and scholars from Afro-Caribbeans Demark Vesey, Edward Blyden and George Padmore to influential Puerto Rican writers Arturo Shomburg and Jesus Colon to Trinidadian organizers C.L.R. James and Guyanese Ras Makonnen. With the help of thinkers and writers such as Martiniquais Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, Claude McKay from Jamaica and Cyril Briggs from Nevis the groundwork was laid for a world-wide revolution for black and brown people.
Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew from St. Kitts, British West Indies, founded the “Commandment Keepers: Holy Church of the Living God” a sect of Black Jews in 1919 in Harlem. They claim Ethiopian descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba as their ancestors, and believe the biblical patriarchs to have been black. They numbered in the hundreds of thousands in numerous US cities at their height. Arnold Josiah Ford from Barbados was the first black Rabbi in America and music director of Garvey’s UNIA. He would take up an offer by visiting Ethiopian dignitaries to migrate to Ethiopia. His future wife Mignon Ford, also from Barbados, would join him. They established a thriving expatriate community in Ethiopia. Mignon would create the first secondary school for girls in Ethiopia and serve as the virtual ambassador for all African diaspora newcomers to the country. Hundreds of Caribbean people have moved to Shashemene, Ethiopia on the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie as a new home for oppressed Africans in the Diaspora.
In the following years clergy was sent to the US and Caribbean to set up permanent Ethiopian Orthodox churches. Visits by Archbishop Theophilis, His Grace Abuna Athanasius and others helped to grow the church throughout the Caribbean. The 1960’s were the heyday of the Ethiopian Orthodox church in the Caribbean. When African and Caribbean independence finally became a reality, and with the visit of Emperor Haile Selassie to Trinidad, relations between Ethiopia and the Caribbean could not have been stronger. Unfortunately, as time went on, African and Caribbean leaders failed to live up to the great expectations of their people Although Ethiopia was eventually able to regain control of the country from Italy, famine and political conflict dimmed their image. Both African and Caribbean countries would see the rise of corrupt leaders damaging their hopes and dreams for a prosperous future.
Now that both Ethiopians and Afro-Caribbeans have acculturated themselves very successfully in America, it is incumbent on them to continue to find mutual understanding amongst themselves and the African American community. Besides the religious and colonial history, there are the cultural connections, be it music, dance, art, food or literature that we can focus on. We must now also include other African and Afro-South American immigrants in the mix. As we all respond to our own indigenous origins, we recognize there are still many institutional obstacles regarding class, race, religion and gender to take on together in a spirit of solidarity and justice. Understanding our historical past connections should guide us both spiritually and materialistically to work together to find solutions to enhance the dignity of all humankind!
(Primary Sources: Bond without Blood: A History of Ethiopian and New World Black Relations, 1896-1991, Fikru Negash Gebrekidan 2005. Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America, Winston James, 1998.)