Welcome to The Rastafari Chronicles, a series of articles, utterances, links from the archives of Rastafari history. This is an encouragement to all Rastafari worldwide to revive memories of InI glorious trod.
Give thanks to ones and ones for helping to uplift this initiative, to share and exchange works, greetings, stories, memorabilia, reminiscences, and ephemera of Rastafari. Let InI rise up a thunderous orchestration of Ises to the Majesty and elevation of the Movement.
One perfect love in His Imperial Majesty and Empress Menen.
1. ORIGINS OF MOVEMENT: THE FOUR GOSPELLERS
4. REPORT ON RASTAFARI
5. CORAL GARDENS
6. HIS MAJESTY’s VISIT
7. GLOBAL SPREAD
The Rastafari movement originated in the 1930s, inspired by the Coronation of Ras Tafari as Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on November 2nd 1930.
Marcus Garvey, the renowned Jamaican orator and activist, is held in high esteem by members of the movement. His prophetic utterance in 1927 proved pivotal in raising the expectations of the poor, unlettered masses at the roots of Jamaican society: “Look to Africa”, he urged. “When you shall see a Black King crowned, know that the day of redemption is at hand.” Ras Tafari’s enthronement as Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, was seen as the fulfillment of Garvey’s prophecy. Street preachers and lay scholars searched the Bible for evidence of His divinity, finding it in passages such as Revelation 5, vs 5:
“Weep not; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the Book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.”
The four gospellers of Rastafari, Howell, Hinds, Hibbert and Dunkley began to preach the divinity of Haile Selassie I independently of each other in the early 1930s. All four had travelled outside of Jamaica, either as seamen or seasonal workers in the United Fruit Company of Central America, where Garvey too had served as an overseer. Howell had been a member of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in the USA.
Their missions were prompted by several antecedents. In the 1920s Athly-i Rogers of Anguilla founded an Afrocentric religion, the Afro Athlican Constructive Church, which preached self-reliance and self-determination for Africans. Rogers saw Africans (Ethiopians) as the chosen people of God and proclaimed Marcus Garvey an apostle.
Between 1913 and 1917 he wrote The Holy Piby, also known as ‘the Blackman’s Bible’. First published in 1924, The Holy Piby includes rules of conduct, religious doctrine, references to Ethiopia and Egypt as well as to apostles and saints of God, who are all depicted as Africans.
In 1926, his work was followed by Reverend Fitz Balintine Petersburgh’s, Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy, described as ‘Ethiopia’s Bible-Text’. Along with The Holy Piby this work was banned in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. These texts were templates for Howell’s The Promised Key, written a decade later around 1935. The trinity of works propelled Rastafari into an ideological belief-system based on the divinity of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. These esoteric writings did not emerge in a vacuum. They came out of a broad context of spiritual revival that surfaced in Africa and the Diaspora in the 19th century under the banner of Ethiopianism. They reflected the culmination of a 400-year struggle for African freedom, liberty and renaissance that began when the first slave-ships left the shores of the Guinea Coast. They were a culmination of the heroic struggles of Nanny, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle, Alexander Bedward, and the long-list of heroes who sacrificed their lives – along with the lives of millions of enslaved Africans – in the cause of Black liberation.
In 1940 Leonard P. Howell established Pinnacle, an eclectic commune on a tract of land he bought near Sligoville in St Catherine. Pinnacle evolved as a self-supporting community founded on African principles and culture. Many crafts-folk and independent thinkers were attracted to the commune. Its economy was derived from sale of vegetables and ground provisions of all kinds, ‘ganja’ being the main cash crop. Pinnacle’s spiritual practice was influenced by Hindu rituals and chants. Howell was the self-styled Gong, Ganganguru Maragh, undisputed founder and head of the commune. His followers were sometimes known as Howellites.
At its highpoint Pinnacle was home to more than four thousand inhabitants. It operated as an oasis of African life in the colonial desert of Jamaica. Here the culture of Rastafari began to take shape: the ritual drum-chant, the health and healing customs, the ital (vegan) diet, and recovery of African lifestyle. The commune was constantly raided by Police, who confiscated cash, ransacked dwellings and destroyed personal possessions. Howell himself served several terms of imprisonment on charges of sedition. He is often described as the first Rasta. In The Promised Key he describes the ‘cosmic trigger’ on which the foundation of the world is set, the Paymaster and Pay-mistress being His Imperial Majesty and Empress Menen, through whom the healing balm of regeneration gives new life to the universe. He urged his followers not to pay taxes to a King in England when in fact they were subjects of an Emperor in Ethiopia. In 1954, Pinnacle was finally destroyed and razed to the ground by Police action.
The Howellites had by then morphed into more militant formations such as The Youth Black Faith. Dreadlocks became the identifiable mark of the movement. The Youth Black Faith were self-styled warriors for King Rastafari, mirroring the dreaded Nya Binghi – a fierce anti-colonial movement in the region of the Great Lakes of East Africa. They were precursors of the Nyahbinghi House, who preached “Death to Black and White oppressors” and Theocratic reign of Good over Evil. Nyahbinghi is described as the first ‘Mansion’ or ‘House’ of Rastafari and has gained a massive following worldwide.
With the break-up of Pinnacle members of the commune dispersed into St Thomas, Clarendon, and other regions of Jamaica. Many relocated in the ‘Dungle’, otherwise known as ‘Back-o-Wall’ in West Kingston. This became a main Rastafari enclave. The brethren were caricatured by ‘decent Christian’ citizens as demonic ‘Blackheart Men’ who would kidnap young children and eat their hearts! Their fearsome appearance was in stark contrast to a lifestyle based on peaceful co-existence and harmony with Nature. Their defining mantra and greeting was ‘Peace and Love’; but criminal elements infiltrated the loosely structured domain of Rastafari and were used to discredit the entire movement.
In 1955 Mamie Richardson, a resident of America, brought news of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF) to Jamaica. Modeled on Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, and comprising many ex-UNIA members, the EWF drew support from the splintered masses of Rastafari. Several groups organized themselves as ‘locals’ of the EWF and accepted its Constitution as their formal administrative instrument. The EWF’s announcement that His Majesty had granted several hectares of fertile land in Southern Ethiopia for those who wished to return to Africa, uplifted the movement’s cherished hopes of Repatriation. [In 1970 the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) was established in Jamaica.]
In 1958 Charles Edwards, a prominent Rastafari leader, convened a 21-day national gathering at Back-o-Wall. Known as Prince Emmanuel, Edwards established the Ethiopia African Black International Congress with its Headquarters in Bull Bay, 10 miles outside of Kingston. Popularly called the Bobo Ashanti dreads, Prince Emmanuel’s followers wore turbans and distinctive flowing robes. Their economy was derived from selling brooms, mats and Rastafari emblems. They practiced strict observance of the Sabbath and sexual abstinence throughout the menstrual cycle. The brethren addressed each other as ‘Priest’ and ‘Prophet’. Repatriation to Africa remains the central tenet of this House of Rastafari, which has spread throughout the Caribbean, the Americas, Europe and Africa. Rastafari singers such as Junior Reid, Anthony B and Capleton have popularized the Bobo Ashanti as their chosen ‘Mansion’.
4. THE REPORT ON RASTAFARI
In 1960 a Report on the Rastafari movement was commissioned and carried out by University-based professors Rex Nettleford, Roy Augier and M.G. Smith. By this time Rastafari had attracted growing interest from the rank and file of the Jamaican populace. The Report was intended to give a public face to a ‘cult’ that had grown alarmingly since the 1950s. Rastafari, with its fiery Biblical rhetoric and imprecations against Babylon, was widely misunderstood by the society. The authoritative Report was meant to give for the first time an authentic summary of Rastafari beliefs, aims and worldview.
One of the main recommendations of the Report was that a fact-finding mission should be sent urgently to Africa to assess the feasibility of repatriation. In mid-1961 a nine-man delegation including four Rastafari members visited five African countries: Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. Responses to the delegation were uniformly positive in all the countries visited. In Ethiopia, His Imperial Majesty said that Ethiopia could absorb all the African descendants in the West who wished to return to the homeland!
Unfortunately, the mission’s report was not followed up. This, and a subsequent technical report on Repatriation, were lost in the furore of Independence (1962) and overlooked as a backburner item in the following decades – much to the dismay of succeeding generations of Rastafari.
5. CORAL GARDENS
On the contrary, the persecution of the movement continued apace. Confrontations with Police became frequent and routinized. In 1963 one such skirmish escalated into a full-blown incident, resulting in the death of two policemen and six civilians in the area of Coral Gardens in St James. The upshot was an edict from Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante to the State militia that all Rastafari were to be rounded up and imprisoned. Those who could not be imprisoned should be disposed of in Bogue Hill (a well-known cemetery in Montego Bay). What followed was a reign of terror that engulfed the movement. Thousands were arrested, brutalized, incarcerated. Many were killed, not only by the Police and Army, but by civilian vigilante groups who joined in the search, capture and murder of Rastafari. Known as the Coral Gardens Massacre, the Rastafari holocaust is recorded in the documentary film Bad Friday (2011), in which survivors recount their experiences of attempted genocide by the newly independent state of Jamaica. [The title (Bad Friday) refers to the fact that the atrocities began during the Easter celebrations of 1963 on April 12th, known in the Christian calendar as ‘Good Friday’.]
Many Rastafari trimmed or cut their locks and beards in the aftermath of the national pogrom. Others took to the hills in the Jamaican hinterland to escape the wrath of their persecutors. In the years that followed Rastafari were hunted, stigmatized, and criminalized, particularly for cultivation and use of the Sacred Herb (cannabis) which was outlawed.
6. THE EMPEROR’S VISIT
The visit of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I to the Caribbean in April 1966 provided a watershed for Rastafari in Jamaica. Thousands of the faithful descended on Palisadoes airport by foot, horse, cart, bicycle, and any means of transport available to welcome their God and King. This was a day of amnesty for the herb-smoking community. As His Majesty’s plane landed the rampant throngs broke through barricades of official protocol to surround the aircraft with drums, flags, conch-shell trumpets and hot smoking chalices – so much so that some feared the thunderous welcome would ignite and explode the aircraft as it stood on the tarmac, enveloped by a teeming multitude of jubilant worshippers. The Rastafari welcome has become legendary in the annals of the movement. Never before or since has any visiting Head of State received such an ecstatic reception. During His Majesty’s three-day visit, He insisted on the Rastafari presence at all functions, gave private audience to members of the movement, and presented gold medals to worthy elders.
The status and profile of the movement rose dramatically thereafter. Rastafari was soon attracting followers from the privileged echelons of a stratified society. Never again would the movement be despised and disparaged as a ‘low-life’ outgrowth, the object of scorn, ostracism and public disesteem.
In 1968 Vernon Carrington, known as Prophet Gad or ‘Gadman’ founded the Twelve Tribes of Israel (TTI), one of several Houses of Rastafari based on the constitution of the EWF. Prophet Gad saw His Majesty as Christ Returned ‘in His Kingly Character’, and led his followers to revive the tradition of the 12 sons of Jacob, each member being designated a tribal name (eg. Dan, Joseph, Asher, Issachar) depending on their date of birth. Each TTI member was also accorded a particular colour and characteristic of his/her tribe. Reading a chapter of the Bible a day and payment of monthly dues are strict injunctions for members. The importance of the family: man, woman and child is celebrated. The TTI has spread to far-flung corners of the globe. It is perhaps the most economically stable of all the Mansions of Rastafari. The TTI accepts all nations into its fold and has constituencies throughout the Caribbean, Europe, the Americas and New Zealand. Early members included Bob Marley, Jacob Miller, Denis Brown and other well-known singers and players of instruments.
7. GLOBAL SPREAD
The 1970s witnessed the spread of Rastafari beyond the shores of Jamaica, initially to other Caribbean islands, then to the Americas, Europe, Africa, and further afield. Reggae, a product of the heartbeat music of Rastafari, was the main purveyor of the scriptural messages and lifestyle of the movement. Iconic figures such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer and Toots Hibbert have today been succeeded by a younger generation of singers and players. The likes of Szzla Kalonji, Chronixx and Midnight continue to tour and promote the unique livity of Rastafari through their live gigs and albums in every part of the world.
In the 1980s the elders also escaped entrapment in Jamaica to make excursions into the Americas, UK and Africa. Wherever they traveled they were lionized by adoring crowds, and were able to spread the gospel of Rastafari first-hand, orally and in the flesh. Many who had embraced the faith in distant lands sought guidance from them in the doctrines and disciplines of the movement and were inspired by their physical presence.
The sistren also came to the fore in this period, bringing a new sense of practicality and purpose to the movement as mothers, teachers, organizers and administrators. The genie had escaped from the bottle. By the 1990s the repatriation trod was afoot, with individuals, families and groups returning to the Promised Land of Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, braving the hazards the early pioneers had endured in returning to the Continent.
His Majesty’s 1966 visit to the Caribbean included Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Haiti, but none of these islands had a Rastafari population at the time. Nonetheless, His Majesty impacted on a wide spectrum of citizens who welcomed the world’s premier statesman with due acclaim. Some had supported Him in the war against Italy. It would take another decade for the faith of Rastafari to take root in the southern Caribbean with the visits of elders in the 1970s. Communities of Nyahbinghi, Bobo Ashanti, EWF and 12 Tribes have existed throughout the Caribbean since the 1980s.
In the late 1960s dreadlocked men were first seen on the streets of Brixton in south London. By the mid-1970s Rastafari had spread like wildfire among Black youths in the inner-city areas of the UK, with marked concentrations in the Midlands, the heartland of Britain where many Caribbean families had resided from the 1950s onward. In search of a new identity thousands of youths rejected the tame Christian ideals of their parents and gravitated towards the militant sounds, symbols and theology of Rastafari. In a replay of Jamaican history, confrontations with police were frequent and intense. As the UK movement grew and blossomed it also impacted the political and social dynamics of Britain. Rastafari was at the forefront of ‘Ban the Bomb’ demonstrations and ‘Rock Against Racism’ rallies. The Ethiopian colours were in evidence everywhere as a sign of protest against the British establishment. UK-based reggae bands such as Aswad, Matumbi, Cimarons, Black Slate, Misty in Roots and Steel Pulse supplied the lyrical power for people’s revolution, creating a cultural beachhead for the invasion of Europe.
Proximity to Jamaica made it possible for the Rastafari message to spread seamlessly northwards to America. The first international conference of Rastafari took place in Toronto, Canada in July 1982. This was followed by the historic Rastafari International Theocratic Assembly in Jamaica in 1983. Visiting delegations of Nyahbinghi elders (1988-1990) helped to strengthen and solidify the North American community, many of whom had never before seen the ancients face to face.
Central and South America
Inevitably, Rastafari also made incursions into Central and South America in the 1980s and 90s, with new communities springing up in Mexico, Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. The emergent movements linked with stalwarts from Garvey’s UNIA half a century earlier, creating a vibrant continuity of Afri-consciousness in the region. In South America, the Guyanas, Brazil and Chile became hubs of Rastafari activism in the 90s, with those of African heritage, indigenous peoples and European descendants finding common cause with Rastafari and adopting the new-found ‘livity’.
New Zealand and Japan
In New Zealand and Japan the syncretic phenomenon was repeated. Rastafari was the common denominator that fused ancient heritage and new-world culture, giving young converts new moral insight and sustenance in very different societies. For many Maori youth, displaced and marginalized in New Zealand, Rastafari was the saving grace that rescued them from criminal enterprises and drug addiction. In Japan, in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Japanese Rastafari community rallied to assist victims with hands-on support and fund-raising musical events entitled ‘Volunteer Ethiopians’, utilizing the Rastafari Creed as their frame of reference.
In the Centenary Year of His Majesty’s birth (1992) the first international Rastafari Assembly was coordinated in Ethiopia. Hundreds of delegates took part in the month-long assembly. The colourful touring entourage seemed to revive the ancient Empire after almost two decades of savage governance under Mengistu’s Marxist regime. The pioneer elders in Shashemane also rejoiced, seeing their fervent hopes for mass repatriation nearing fulfillment. They had long kept the home-fires burning in this lonely, isolated outpost, awaiting a day when the ‘Promised Land’ would reverberate with sounds of joy, mirth and festive celebration. 1992 was an open door that ushered in a new phase of the Repatriation project. A spacious tabernacle now stands on the Nyahbinghi grounds in Shashemane as a rallying-point for the community and a testimony to the power of collective action that brought it into being.
No African nation is without its quota of Rastafari. Southern Africa alone numerically accounts for a huge percentage of the world’s Rastafari population. Singers and players are very much in evidence throughout. The spread of the faith was initially through Reggae music, and this has continued to define the general perception of the movement. But many Rastafari on the Continent are occupied with farming, food production, health and agribusinesses. Others have pursued careers in the arts and cultural sectors, such as painting, handicraft, carving, performance, media, garment manufacture and design. Today, there are very few areas of public enterprise and entrepreneurship where Rastafari are not represented. The pervasive influence of the movement can be felt at the roots of all African societies, where pride, determination and independence are replacing apathy and the ‘begging-bowl’ syndrome that have become prevailing ills of endemic poverty. Ghana’s Rastafari Council, consisting of representatives from all the major Houses, has set a benchmark for positive intervention in critical national issues.
Africa’s future may be said to be in the hands of Rastafari – a down-top adjustment of equality and social revolution in the face of ineffective, inept and decrepit political leadership. Africa awaits its creators. And who else but the conscious lions – those at home and those returning – can awake the sleeping giant from its perennial amnesia to resume the glories of its ancient past? Who else?
Although the influence of the four main Houses is reflected in the spread of the movement Rastafari continues to recruit adherents from a youthful world population and from ordinary men and women in all walks of life. In less than a century of existence the ‘House of the Unaffiliated’ numbers untold millions worldwide and continues to increase exponentially, with devotees and sympathizers in every nation, race, country, community and family – without a single shot being fired.
The movement has always lacked coherence and hegemony. From earliest times its leaders projected diversely nuanced theologies – even around the central concept of the divinity of His Majesty. Whereas Hibbert was mystical and ‘masonic’ in his interpretation of Rastafari, Howell spoke candidly of ‘Earth’s Rightful Ruler’. Hinds parted company with Howell after their arrest in 1933 and started his own King of Kings mission, sometimes appearing on Dunkley’s platform. Dunkley carried a sword to emphasize the cut and thrust of his aggressive narrative.
No single leader of the movement has ever emerged, and this has been perhaps more of a strength than a hindrance in the global diaspora of Rastafari. The broad appeal of the movement operates on many levels. Some see African pride and redemption as its main message; others, equal rights and justice for one and all. Others look to theocratic rule, moral rearmament and the destruction of Babylonian society. Followers of the Crown Council seek to re-establish the Solomonic dynasty from which His Majesty sprang. The divinity of the Emperor and Repatriation are perhaps the two main pillars that have consistently united the core following.
In the new millennium Rastafari stands predominate as a movement forged in the fires of suffering and affliction, surviving triumphantly over the odds of time, circumstance and adversity – not simply as a religion, but as a way of life combining ancient spirituality with common decency in the modern world.
The Rastafari ethos occupies a fundamental space within the notion of global citizenship. The quest for equal rights and justice resonates among the poor and oppressed masses who make up the vast majority of earth’s inhabitants. The movement’s humanity in the face of Babylon’s materialistic, oppressive 500-year world dominion, has made it the most popular advocate for global social reform in this century. The prophecy of the elders that the word of His Imperial Majesty would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea has indeed come to pass.
In 2016 we celebrate the coming of age of a Nation among nations, fifty years after the historic visit of Emperor Haile Selassie I to the Caribbean and 80 years after His appearance before the League of Nations in Geneva. Here He addressed the assembly of world leaders not only in defense of Ethiopia, but in the cause of international morality, global justice, equity and world peace.
In the words of Isiah 12:
Vs 4. And in that day shall you say, Praise the Most High, call upon His name, declare His doings among the people, make mention that His name is exalted.
Vs 5. Sing unto the Most High; for He hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth.
Give thanks and praise.
Shango Baku [Written and submitted for the First International Conference of Rastafari in Ghana]