Rastafarianism was strongly influenced by Kumina-Revivalism. But Revivalists’ main concerns remained personal salvation and ritual observance. In contrast Rastafarians protested loudly about economic hardships and racial discrimination. Rastafarianism was not a movement isolated from place, time and history. Rather it was an integral aspect of a continuous matrix of black nationalism, folk religion and peasant resistance to the Jamaican plantation economy.
The Rastafari movement was infused with the same spirit as the Tacky Rebellion in 1760, the Sam Sharpe Rebellion in 1831 and Paul Bogle’s Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. (Tacky, Sharpe and Bogle were all religious leaders.) While Rastafarianism was gaining prominence, Jamaica was undergoing fundamental social upheaval which culminated in the 1938 Frome riots, a main spark of the independence movement. Rastafari is perhaps best understood as a differing expression of the continuing demand for freedom, a spiritual emancipation from what was perceived as mental slavery.
British colonial authorities saw the Rastafarian cry of black liberation as a political threat, and in January 1934 Leonard Howell was charged with sedition and blasphemy for selling postcards of Emperor Haile Selassie as passports to Ethiopia. He was jailed for two years, but continued his activities on release. Police continued to harass the movement and in 1940 Howell moved his followers to an old estate in the St. Catherine mountains called Pinnacle, which became a Rastafarian commune and ganja plantation. Howell styled himself a prophet, and later a messiah. He took the name ‘Gong’ or ‘Gangunguru Maragh’ which combined the Hindi words for wisdom’, ‘virtue’, ‘teacher’ and ‘king of kings’, another indication of Revivalist influence. Revivalist magical beliefs of obeah, or ‘science’, are based on books published by the de Laurence Company of Chicago. The most popular of these is ‘The Great Book Of Magical Arts, Hindu Magic And Indian Occultism’.
At first Rastafarian doctrines were obscure, but a firm core of beliefs emerged – Selassie was the living God, his crowning foretold African redemption, and Marcus Garvey was his prophet. (Ironically Marcus Garvey, who emphasized black upliftment through education and presented himself neither as preacher or prophet, was no friend of Rastafarianism. He refused to allow Howell to distribute the Selassie’s picture in UNIA headquarters in Edelweiss Park. In 1934 a newspaper reported that ‘Mr. Garvey also referred to the Ras Tafari cult…speaking of them with contempt’. Garvey roundly criticized the Emperor during the 1936 Italian invasion, blaming him for Ethiopia’s lack of preparation. Another irony is that Garvey was likely a Roman Catholic. He was at least sympathetic to the faith and was buried under its rites.)
It’s often said, though no definite date is ever cited, that Selassie publicly denied his divinity. Hector Wynter told of asking him during his 1966 visit to Jamaica when he was going to tell Rastafarians he was not God. ‘Who am I to disturb their belief?’ replied the emperor.
There are varying stories about the origin of ‘dreadlocks’. Some trace the style to news photos of Ethiopian warriors fighting the 1936 Italian invasion. Others say it was inspired by East African Masai who gained media prominence during the early 1950s Mau Mau rebellion. Barry Chevannes says the dreadlock trend began in the late 1940s when some young Rastafarians formed the Youth Black Faith in Trenchtown. Rastas cite biblical admonitions against the use of the razor as reason for not cutting their hair, as Tony Rebel sang in ‘Nazarite’ Vow’.
Rastafarians shunned alcohol and observed many biblical food taboos, eating only fruits, roots, grains, vegetables and sometimes fish. Their food was always unsalted, or ‘ital’. This salt avoidance has been linked to a belief among the indentured BaKongo, who came to Jamaica after emancipation, that eating salt prevented them from flying back to Africa.
The Pinnacle commune, the largest Rastafarian movement of its day, grew ganja and baked bread and marketed both in Kingston. So there was a considerable intercourse and exchange of ideas between other Rastas and Howellites, who originated several important features of modern Rastafarianism, including the smoking of ganja as a spiritual rite. But ‘the sacrament of the herb’ brought conflict with the law. Howell was the island’s first large scale ganja farmer and Pinnacle became famous island wide for the quality and quantity of its product. This precipitated a 1954 police raid which closed down it down for good. Louise Bennett gave a common man’s view of the Ras Tafari In her poem ‘Pinnacle’.
Many Pinnacle Rastas moved to the Kingston slums, mostly into Back O Wall and Moonlight City. In time Howell and a few followers drifted back to Tredigar Park, a few miles from Pinnacle. In later years, as Rastafarianism became prominent worldwide, Howell gained a minor sort of fame. In December 1980 the television programme ’60 Minutes’ featured he and his congregation in a segment titled ‘The Rastafarians’. Howell died in February 1981.
Whatever his personal failings, Howell’s legacy was a positive one. Rastafarianism may have its irrational aspects, but which religion is without a mystical side accessible only to true believers? Some say Haile Selassie as a man did not prove altogether worthy of the veneration accorded him, but in the end he was only a symbol. In essence Rastafarianism replaced the traditional white Christian image of the Saviour with a black one. Ethiopia and Africa became not so much a physical destination as a conception of paradise.
Given the physical and mental oppression they endured and the sense of hopelessness in which their creed evolved, Rastafarians must be admired for not only creating a lasting sense of black pride, but for developing one which did not revile other races. Despite a strong anti-papal streak, ironically a legacy in part of British rule, Rastafarianism is an essentially tolerant faith and must be given some credit for the relatively good race relations which Jamaica enjoys today. The avoidance of racial animosity in Rasta beliefs was not inevitable. And the great triumph of Rastafarianism is to have channeled understandable feelings of frustration, resentment and dispossession not into a creed of hate, violence and destruction but into one preaching peace, love and the brotherhood of man.
Written by Kevin O’Brien Chang