Rabbi Sharon Shalom
Rabbi Sharon Shalom

Echoes of Ethiopia in Caribbean memories

By Lennox Farrell Friday April 13 2012 in Opinion
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What memories and historical parallels might Ethiopian Orthodox Rabbi Sharon Shalom, visiting from Israel, stir among Caribbean peoples in Toronto? For one thing, the old people usually referred more to the country as ‘Abyssinia’ than ‘Ethiopia’.



My earliest memories as a boy in Trinidad with our grandparents and parents was their speaking prophetically of Ethiopia “… stretching forth her hands …”.



They were quoting the popular Psalm 38. In it, reference is made to several Black countries and peoples, for example Cush, Egypt etc. My folk would also cite from Scripture, the example of the Ethiopian Eunuch. He was the treasurer for Queen Candace. On one occasion of his leaving Jerusalem following a Passover, he had read from the book of Isaiah. Given an explanation of what he read by the evangelist, Philip, he was baptized.



One theory is that through him, and the Queen carrying a child by King Solomon, was Beta Israel introduced into Ethiopia. Other theories claim that this Judaic religious practice arrived by other means, for example by Jews fleeing south into Africa following the sacking of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Romans. The Lemba, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews are among others in Central and North Africa today.



What is certain is that by the 4th century following, Christianity had spread through the Axum dynasty. By the 7th century, however, Islam surpassed Christianity, separating Ethiopia from its Christian African neighbours.



Even before this, the Beta Israel had enjoyed relative independence through the Middle Ages. Their reign was threatened in the 13th century under the Solomonic Empire.



In 1624, the Beta Israel fought what would be their last battle to maintain their autonomy against the colonizing Portuguese. According to descriptions of this battle, “Falasha men and women fought to the death from the steep heights of their fortress… they threw themselves over the precipice or cut each other’s throats rather than be taken prisoner – it was a Falasha Masada.”



It was, also by comparison, another example of African resistance to enslavement. For example, in Cap Haitien, a NE sea-coast town in Haiti, former slaves, but now the fighting Black forces of Henri Christophe, had been surrounded and cut off by the French general, LeClerc, brother-in-law to Napoleon Bonaparte.



The French sent an order to Christophe: “Surrender or the town burns to the ground.”



Christophe, in the presence of the envoy, took a flambeau (a burning torch), set fire to a nearby building and replied: “Before we surrender again to slavery, we blow like ashes in the wind.”



Ethiopia has probably had a more significant impact on our historic and religious consciousness than has any other African nation. An explanation for this has surely come through the political example, religious practices, and music from such luminaries as the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey in the early 20th century; the Rastafarians in mid-century; and Bob Marley in the last quarter century.



This consciousness became an integral part of Caribbean culture, especially after 1966. This was the year of the historic State visit, first to Trinidad, then to Jamaica and, finally, Haiti by the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.



The old people recalled his valiant stand against the invasion of Ethiopia during the pre-WWII period by Mussolini’s Italian shock troops.



The Fascist Italian forces were equipped with modern weapons. The half-million Ethiopian troops included many armed with spears, and fighting barefooted. The Italians were in pursuit of Mussolini’s desire for another Italian Empire. This had been three millennia in the making since the Visigoths had destroyed Rome in 276 AD. Now, to achieve their aims for glory, they used poison gases raining down on the populace from aircraft and killing everything in their path.



Despite the Italian superiority in firepower, the Ethiopians, fighting guerrilla warfare against them, never surrendered. In fact, this was not the first time Italy had invaded Ethiopia, biting off more than they could chew. For example, under Emperor Menelik II, Italian invading forces had been defeated in the Battle of Adova in 1896. In 1996, I was among an African Canadian contingent invited to attend celebrations commemorating this victory.



This Sunday, April 15; 7:30 p.m. at the Congregation Darchei Noam Synagogue at 864 Sheppard Ave. West, we will have an opportunity to hear more from Rabbi Shalom about Beta Israel in Ethiopia, in Israel, and elsewhere.


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