Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin – strange deities

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Just one glance was enough. In 1974, Prince Philip was returning from a holiday in the south Pacific when he became a god. Midway through the journey, the royal yacht Britannia was anchored off the island of Aneityum. Villagers from Tanna, a neighbouring island, paddled out in their canoes to catch a glimpse of him. “I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform,” Jack Naiva, the chief of the Yaohnanen people until 2009, said in a later interview. “I knew then that he was the true messiah.”

Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian king, didn’t even need to be seen to be perceived as divine. In 1931, National Geographic ran a 68-page report on 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 piece – written by, of all people, the then US consul-general to Ethiopia – became a gospel for generations of believers who called themselves “Rastafarians” after Selassie’s birth name: Tafari Makonnen (“Ras”, a title, was bestowed later). By the 1950s, the anthropologist George Eaton Simpson reported that men were proselytising on the streets of Kingston with the Bible in one hand and a “weathered copy” of the magazine in another. Never mind that Selassie didn’t consider himself “black”, or the fact that National Geographic routinely ran pieces that referred to indigenous people as “savages”, and African Americans were forbidden from becoming members or using its library in Washington DC. As Anna Della Subin notes in Accidental Gods, the cult of the utopian Rastas was born in a crib of contradictions, “among those in the new world living in the obscenity of injustice”.

How does Subin avoid mentioning the overwhelmingly white followers of QAnon in the US?

Subin traces tall tales of these inadvertent deities at exhaustive length: Koreans worshipping statues of General MacArthur after the 1950 war; Hawaiian tribesmen revering Captain Cook as a supernatural being after bludgeoning him to death; residents of Papua and New Guinea voting for the US president Lyndon B Johnson in an election. Again and again, a link is made between the effects of modernity – rudderless secularism, ruthless empires and capitalism – and the fervour with which, in reaction, these men end up being immortalised. The script of accidental divinity remains the same over centuries: a stranger, usually white or powerful, becomes a symbol, then an object of veneration, part of an ongoing local power struggle, a conduit for an idea not necessarily his own. Faith, for Subin, is invariably an allegory for something else.

This approach can be taken too far. A group described by one contemporary observer as “Maratha simpletons”, for instance, might have been worshipping a statue of Lord Wellesley on an elephant in colonial Bombay. What seems more plausible, however, is that they were just worshipping 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 djinns, or supernatural beings (“a way to contend with the invasion of a foreign force”), to shamanic rituals in colonial Ghana (a counterpart to “the rhetoric of politicians, of colonial discourse”), and even the notion of being possessed by spirits (an idea “born at the crossroads of enslavement and enlightenment”). Deification, she repeatedly asserts, is a “form of defiance”. History and hysteria coalesce in oral testimonies of MacArthur appearing in Koreans’ dreams years after his death, and French colonial officials mysteriously frothing at the mouth in Niger. In India, Subin digs up 18th-century reports of British soldiers’ graves in India being “consecrated” by Hindu rituals, and teenage widows purportedly dissenting against the Raj by campaigning for their right to immolate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres.

But is all as it seems? At least two older white writers tell Subin about visiting an isolated community or tribe and being confused for someone celestial. What might just as well be traditional gestures of curiosity and hospitality – being asked endless questions, say, or being welcomed with offerings of food and incense – are written up by western travellers as signs of their own cosmic importance, and Subin accepts these accounts uncritically.That said, her portrait of the Rastafarian movement is wonderfully attuned to the transformative power of belief. Despite their obsession with Selassie, Rasta activists did propel Michael Manley to power in Jamaica, and it was Manley who first ushered in the reforms – labour rights, free education, universal healthcare – necessary for a colony to effectively transition to democracy. Another chapter on the theosophist Annie Besant and her protege, Jiddu Krishnamurti, brilliantly dissects their troubled relationship. In India, when Subin isn’t construing the slightest presence of “turmeric and lime” on colonial-era tombstones as evidence of deification, or insisting that it was Besant who first called Gandhi a mahatma or “great soul” (actually, it was either the poet Rabindranath Tagore or an anonymous Indian journalist), she can persuasively describe how British historical writing repeated the same stories of colonels and viceroys being worshipped in shrines – how the idea of white divinity mattered more to the empire than to the natives.

But the overarching thesis doesn’t quite impress. The problem with positing divinity as a defence against encroaching modernity is that it only reinforces stale dichotomies: a scientifically advanced west, a permanently backward east. Belief, in this vision, is still the exclusive domain of the oppressed and the enslaved; India is still a land of gods and snakes. It’s all very well dwelling on Bussa Krishna, an Indian villager who stopped eating after Donald Trump contracted Covid-19 in 2020, but how does Subin avoid mentioning the overwhelmingly white followers of QAnon in the US, who believe that John F Kennedy Jr will come back to life? Subin may portray individual white gods as delusional narcissists and racists and imperialists, but white people, in the aggregate, still come across as oddly less deceived. Their superior scepticism is a myth that remains 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.

Related: Top 10 goddesses in fiction | E Foley and B Coates

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