Jone look was enough. In 1974, Prince Philip was returning from vacation in the South Pacific when he became a god. Midway through the voyage, the royal yacht Britannia was anchored off the island of Aneityum. Villagers from Tanna, a nearby island, paddled in their canoes to catch a glimpse of him. “I saw him standing on the bridge in his white uniform,” said Jack Naiva, the leader of the Yaohnanen people until 2009, in a later interview. “I knew then that he was the true messiah.”
Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian king, did not even need to be seen to be perceived as divine. In 1931, National Geographic published a 68-page report of his coronation in Addis Ababa. Preachers and pamphleteers read the article in faraway colonial Jamaica and proclaimed him their ordained saviour, a manifestation of the “black divine.” A baroque magazine article – written by, above all, the then US Consul General to Ethiopia – has become gospel to generations of believers who have called themselves “Rastafarians” after Selassie’s birth name: Tafari Makonnen (“Ras”, a title, was granted later). In the 1950s, anthropologist George Eaton Simpson reported that men were proselytizing on the streets of Kingston with the Bible in one hand and an “altered copy” of the magazine in the other. Never mind that Selassie did not consider himself “black”, or the fact that National Geographic regularly published articles that referred to indigenous peoples as “savages”, and that African Americans were prohibited from membership or use. his library in Washington DC. As Anna Della Subin notes in Accidental Gods, the cult of utopian Rastas was born in a cradle of contradictions, “among those of the new world living in the obscenity of injustice.”
Subin comprehensively traces the great stories of these unwilling deities: Koreans worshiping statues of General MacArthur after the 1950 war; Hawaiian tribesmen revere Captain Cook as a supernatural being after bludgeoning him to death; residents of Papua and New Guinea voting for US President Lyndon B Johnson in an election. Again and again, a connection is made between the effects of modernity – rudderless secularism, ruthless empires and capitalism – and the fervor with which, in response, these men end up being immortalized. The accidental deity scenario remains the same over the centuries: an outsider, usually white or powerful, becomes a symbol, then an object of worship, part of an ongoing local power struggle, a conduit for an idea that is not necessarily his. Faith, for Subin, is invariably an allegory for something else.
This approach may go too far. A group described by a contemporary observer as “Maratha simpletons”, for example, would have worshiped a statue of Lord Wellesley on an elephant in colonial Bombay. What seems more plausible, however, is that they simply worshiped the elephant. Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, is, after all, a household deity in the region, and pilgrims flock to Mumbai’s beaches every September to immerse effigies.
Subin discerns anti-imperial resistance in everything from Sudanese jinns, or supernatural beings (“a means of fighting against the invasion of a foreign force”), to shamanic rituals in colonial Ghana (a counterpart to “the rhetoric of the politicians, colonial discourse”), and even the notion of being possessed by spirits (an idea “born at the crossroads of slavery and enlightenment”). Deification, she repeatedly asserts , is a “form of defiance”.History and hysteria coalesce in oral accounts of MacArthur appearing in the dreams of Koreans years after his death, and French colonial officials mysteriously foaming at the mouth in Niger.In India , Subin unearths 18th-century reports of the graves of British soldiers in India being ‘consecrated’ by Hindu rituals, and of teenage widows allegedly dissenting against the Raj by campaigning for their right to set themselves on fire at their funeral pyres. rs husbands.
But is everything as it seems? At least two older white writers tell Subin that they visited an isolated community or tribe and were confused for someone celestial. What might as well be traditional gestures of curiosity and hospitality – being asked endless questions, for example, or being greeted with offerings of food and incense – are written by Western travelers as signs of their own cosmic importance, and Subin accepts these accounts without criticism. That said, his portrayal of the Rastafarian movement is wonderfully suited to the transformative power of belief. Despite their obsession with Selassie, Rasta activists propelled Michael Manley to power in Jamaica, and it was Manley who first introduced the reforms – labor rights, free education, universal health care – needed for a colony effectively transitions to democracy. Another chapter on Theosophist Annie Besant and her protege, Jiddu Krishnamurti, brilliantly unpacks their troubled relationship. In India, when Subin does not interpret the slightest presence of “turmeric and lime” on colonial-era tombstones as evidence of deification, or insist that it was Besant who the first called Gandhi a mahatma or “great soul” (actually it was either the poet Rabindranath Tagore or an anonymous Indian journalist), she can convincingly describe how British historical writing repeated the same stories of revered colonels and viceroys in shrines – how the idea of the white deity mattered more to the empire than to the natives.
But the overall thesis doesn’t quite impress. The problem with positing divinity as a defense against encroaching modernity is that it only reinforces outdated dichotomies: one scientifically advanced west, one permanently backward east. Belief, in this view, is still the exclusive domain of the oppressed and slaves; India is still a land of gods and serpents. It’s very good to dwell on it Bussa Krishnaan Indian villager who quit eating after Donald Trump contracted Covid-19 in 2020, but how does Subin avoid mentioning the mostly white QAnon followers in the US, who believe that John F Kennedy Jr will come back to life? Subin can portray individual white gods as narcissists, racists, and delusional imperialists, but white people, as a whole, still seem oddly less deluded. Their superior skepticism is a myth that goes somewhat unchallenged in this otherwise subversive book.
Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine by Anna Della Subin is published by Granta (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.