I’d like to use today’s column to feature some history of the birth and rise of Rastafarianism, a socio-religious movement which began around 1930 in Jamaica, shortly after Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the Jamaican founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), had been framed and incarcerated in the United States, then deported. The internationally acclaimed reggay music, incidentally, had its roots in Rastafarianism.
The histories of Jamaica and the Settlement of Belize (British Honduras) had been very much entwined, as far back as the Battle of St. George’s Caye in 1798. Even before that, the fact is that the majority of African slaves in Belize had first landed in Jamaica following their voyage across the Atlantic in the bowels of British slave ships. The British used Jamaica, which they captured from the Spanish in 1655, as their administrative base for the British Caribbean.
As late as perhaps the early 1960s, there had been regular, direct steamship (Caymania) and airline (British West Indian Airways – BWIA) contact between Jamaica and British Honduras.
The following material is extracted from a University Press of Florida publication (2014) entitled Black Power in the Caribbean. The publication features essays edited by one Kate Quinn. The excerpt is from pages 57 and 58 of an essay by Rupert Lewis entitled JAMAICAN BLACK POWER IN THE 1960s.
Garvey is seen as the prophet of the emergence of Ethiopian leader RasTafari as Emperor Haile Selassie in November 1930. A group of Jamaicans came to identify RasTafari as their king and god, articulating a philosophy that was not only critical of the British monarchy but also switched allegiance to the Ethiopian king and gave him godlike status.
They also asserted the right of repatriation to Ethiopia. These subversive ideas were never accepted by the majority of the African Jamaican population, most of whom were loyal to the British monarchy. Rastafari was therefore a profound act of alienation from colonial Jamaica with its slave and colonial legacies.
Gaining many new recruits after Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Rastafari became part of a wider anti-colonial movement against European colonialism. Perceived by the authorities and by large segments of the middle class as a dangerous sect, Rastafarians were subject to stringent measures of repression and humiliation, including prison sentences for minor offenses such as the smoking of marijuana, placement in the lunatic asylum for public utterances deemed seditious, the cutting of sacred hair locks, and whipping with the cat-o’-nine tails.
One of the leading figures in the early Rastafari movement was Leonard Howell, who attracted hundreds of supporters from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the 1950s and 1960s, adherents of Rastafari grew “locks,” or matted hair in the style of the Kenyan Mau Mau fighters. By the 1960s, Ras Planno in West Kingston and Ras Negus in East Kingston were among the most influential leaders. They were to play important roles in the awakening of black consciousness among youth, and particularly among musicians and singers: Ras Planno, for example, had a significant influence on Bob Marley’s Rastafarian outlook and consequently on his music.
Part of the appeal of Rastafari was its delegitimizing of the colonial system and critique of the continuation of the system in the period after political independence. In designating the colonial system and modern capitalism as “Babylon,” Rastafari offered an anti-systemic critique of modern capitalism and developed its own type of postcolonial thought. It delegitimized the Christian God, deified “I and I” (the self), and provided an alternative”levity,” or way of living.
Being among the people in their daily life, especially within the poorest rural and urban communities, Rastafarians have been able to challenge fundamental premises of human existence derived from the colonial period, such as the innate inferiority and subhuman status of people of African descent. They have also engaged their fellow citizens in dialogues about what they eat and drink, how they dress, who they worship, and how they live.
Rastafari therefore became an existential and epistemic type of Black Power embedded in and arguing from within the mass of the population. Rastafari also challenged the hegemony of the church, which adherents argued was based on the theology of the Church of England and the Pope of Rome, instead purveying a different hermeneutic of the Bible that highlighted the importance of Ethiopia in early Christianity.
However, while Rastafari developed this new type of spirituality, there was some resistance to engage in politics. Debates on political activism frequently took place, with some Rastafari withdrawing from all aspects of political life, while others emerged as political activists, especially during the turbulent months of 1968.
The decade of the 1960s saw the growth of Rastafarianism as an important social force. Rastafarians’ contribution was a vision away from Jamaica,like Garvey looking to Africa, but simultaneously creating an indigenous black consciousness movement that would reshape Jamaican spirituality, language, aesthetics, and music.
(NOTE: On page 61 of the previously mentioned essay by Rupert Lewis, the following paragraphs should also interest you:
In 1967 a Black Power group was formed at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, loosely structured around the four Halls of Residence that formed the core of campus life. Its aims, as outlined in an early pamphlet, were: “1. To create an awareness of what it means to be black; 2. To mobilize and unify Black people to act in their own interest; 3. To reject white cultural imperialism; 4. To seek to ensure the rule of Blacks in a black society.”
Among those associated with this group were students from across the Anglophone Caribbean, including Peter Phillips, Garth White, Keith Noel (based at Irvine Hall), Bernard Marshall, Arnold Bertram, Edwin Jones, (Chancellor Hall), Jackie Vernon, Maureen Stephenson (Mary Seacole Hall), Wyck Williams, Marva Henry, and John Dowie (Taylor Hall). A subset of this group, which included Peter Phillips, Jerry Small, Garth White, and Minion Phillips, connected the UWI campus with inner-city Afrocentric cultural and political activism. This network included lecturer Walter Rodney’s “reasonings,” especially in poor communities in Kingston. No single grouping, however, can claim the movement, which was broad and amorphous, not coalescing around any one group or individual.)