“A poem containing history,” Ezra Pound called his unfinished magnum opus. Accidental Gods is a book of history that sometimes reads like a poem, a rangy modernist one, with that tradition’s eye for imagery, juxtaposition, and paradox. Unlike the modernist poets, however, Anna Della Subin writes from an anticolonial perspective as she traces the ways that deification has revealed and responded to power all over the globe. Accidental Gods begins in Ethiopia, where Ras Tafari Makonnen, known from then on as Haile Selassie, was crowned emperor in 1930. Almost eight thousand miles away in Jamaica, prophecies had been spreading about a Black divinity who would arise from that singular African nation, the only country on the continent not to be colonized. (Psalm 68:31 provided a biblical foundation for Ethiopianism, which fed into many Black nationalist movements of the time.) Over the next several decades, despite the best efforts of Jamaica’s British occupiers and ultimately Selassie himself, Rastafarianism (“Ras” means “head” in Amharic) gained hundreds of thousands of followers.
Selassie’s deification functioned as an act of resistance against colonization, a “way to insist against the white supremacist that black people were human,” Subin writes. By the 1972 elections in Jamaica, the opposition party candidate, Michael Manley, was playing to the “dread” movement during his speeches, wielding an ivory-tipped scepter gifted to him by Selassie. The country elected Manley in a large majority, and his three terms introduced progressive measures such as free education and maternity leave. So it was that “the adoration of a distant Ethiopian autocrat had served, in a concrete and effectual way, as a democratizing force” for a decolonizing island in a different hemisphere.
That’s one way to tell the story of Selassie’s apotheosis, but with any god there is never just one story to tell. Another history of the Rastafari movement might zero in on the fact that Selassie would at times disclaim his Blackness and adopt a strictly “Semitic” racial identity. Determining that Selassie was “decidedly Semitic,” National Geographic, a racist and imperialist publication in the 1930s, commissioned an extravagant story that celebrated his coronation as an exotic continuation of biblical lineage, “descended from the dynasty of Menelik the First, who was born of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.” But the magazine’s Selassie issue circulated, and to the Jamaican readership who took the emperor’s Blackness for granted, the lavish sixty-eight-page spread became sacred scripture: “By the 1950s, men in Kingston were preaching with the Bible in one hand and a copy of National Geographic in the other.” Selassie tried to disabuse his followers in person, but his presence only fanned the flames of their devotion. At Selassie’s invitation, two thousand Rastafarians from Jamaica eventually immigrated to Ethiopia. Granted land allotments, they settled in a place called Shashame, where they displaced some of the native Oromo people. “For the pilgrims, there was only space for one struggle, only one map of redemption for their own centuries of loss,” Subin writes, nodding toward other settlements of our past and present. Thousands of Ethiopians starved to death in famines during Selassie’s divine tenure.
Somewhat abruptly, Subin’s narrative shifts from Selassie to the deification of the British Prince Phillip (in the South Pacific) and the American General Douglas MacArthur (in Panama, Japan, and elsewhere). The middle chapters of Accidental Gods visit India, where imperialists like the Irish Protestant soldier John Nicholson (a candidate for the most horrifying deity in the book, though it’s not easy to choose) share space with liberators like Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The book’s final section, “White Gods,” focuses on the Americas. Unraveling the deifications of Hernán Cortés and Francis Drake, and, in a vivid chapter, detailing the Hawaiians’ worship and subsequent murder of Captain James Cook, Subin presents the “origin story of how whiteness became divine.”
It’s understandable that Gandhi might be deified. But why would anyone worship her oppressor? For communities in India, accustomed to a pantheon of deities and unconcerned with a strict division between human and divine, “the deification of a British officer was proof of the daily terrors of colonial life,” Subin writes. “Colonialism was so inhumane it could only be understood by the colonized as something supernatural.” To venerate such an oppressor was to arrogate his power. For the Hauka mediums of Niger, who would become involuntarily possessed by spirits of the French generals who terrorized their land, “deification was a means of dissidence…. It was painful and unwilled—but it was precisely in the fact of its unwantedness that its power lay.”