Origin of Rastafari
The origin of the Rastafari movement is generally accepted as the Coronation of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia on 2nd November 1930. On this date Ras Tafari, Heir Apparent to the Throne of Ethiopia, took the new name of Haile Selassie I, meaning Power of the Trinity.
The Emperor traced an unbroken lineage as the 225th descendant from the throne of King David.
Others contend that Rastafari was born out of a spirit of resistance from the first boatload of enslaved Africans that left the Guinea Coast for serfdom in the west. That spirit was imbued in a succession of freedom fighters such as Nanny of the Maroons, Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle and Alexander Bedward. They all refused to accept the status quo of enslavement and colonisation. Through centuries of oppression that spirit endured and finally surfaced in the context of Ethiopianism, a revived racial memory of African ancestry, spirituality and divinity.
In the late 19th and early 20th century Ethiopianism emerged In Southern Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. Several Black religio-political organisations and Churches sprang up, espousing Ethiopianism. They looked to the last bastion of independence on the African continent as a source of spiritual strength. In Jamaica this trend had occurred a century earlier with the introduction of Black Jamaicans to the Bible. African-Americans George Lisle (or Liele), Moses Baker and George Lewis, emancipated slaves who had fled to Jamaica following the outbreak of the American War of Independence, pioneered this Afrocentric religious trend on the island. (Chevannes 1994: 18). They were inspired by Biblical references to Ethiopia and tried to proselytize enslaved Jamaicans, inducting them by way of the Bible. Through their speeches and activities they paid tribute to Africa, and emphasized the greatness of Africans. George Lisle (1750-1820) founded the Ethiopian Baptist Church in 1784 and contributed greatly to uplifting the black masses by associating Africa and its people with the Promised Land and the Elect, the ‘true Jews’ descended from King Solomon and Makeda, Queen of Sheba.
These strains of consciousness inspired individual forbears of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, who, independently of each other, identified Ras Tafari as the fulfilment of prophecy, the promised Messiah who would break the chains of captivity that had held African descendants in thraldom for centuries. Lay preachers such as Howell, Hinds, Hibbert and Dunkley openly proclaimed Ras Tafari as the Redeemer, quoting Psalm 87; Revelation 5, Vs 5; Revelation 17 Vs 14; Revelation 19 Vs 16; Isiah 9 Vs 6 and other scriptural passages that gave unshakeable proof of His identity, divinity and redemptive power.
The congruent strands of history and prophecy were fused to reveal the Almighty – not through ecclesiastical divination or theosophic scholarship, but through grassroots research of ‘unlettered’ men moved by the zeitgeist of the age and the timeless spirit of Truth that inhabits the human condition. To quote Marcus Garvey: “Many a man was educated outside the schoolroom. It is something you let out, not completely take in. You are part of it, for it is natural; it is dormant simply because you will not develop it, but God creates every man with it knowingly or unknowingly to him who possesses it, that’s the difference. Develop yours and you become as great and full of knowledge as the other fellow without even entering the classroom.”
Rastafari embodied the recovered and reconstituted ‘decency’ of humanity from the dawn of creation. Livity came into being as an archetypal reconstruction of moral life, fashioned by outcasts of humanity, the cut-offs of nations in the bottomless pit of the Caribbean Basin. A precious stone, fired in the ultimate crucible of oppression, became the saving grace of nations.
The Forerunners of Rastafari
Reverend Gordon (1836-1885) – whose words might have been taken from a speech of Marcus Garvey – except that they were delivered in 1875, twelve years before Garvey’s birth:
“Some people…are ashamed to own their connection with Africa, but this should not be, since it must be admitted, that she once held the most prominent and influential position in the world, and that from her, through Greece and Rome, the British Nation received the first elements of civilization.” (Stewart 1983: 280).
Doctor, pastor, journalist, politician and orator Joseph Robert Love (1839-1914), born in the Bahamas, was a key figure in Pan-Africanism between 1890 and 1914, upholding “Africa for the Africans”. (Chevannes 1994: 38). Love was very proud of his blackness and his African roots, and founded two of the main vehicles for Pan-African and anticolonial ideas of his time: the journal Jamaica Advocate (1894-1905) and the Pan-African Association launched in 1901 in association with another Pan-Africanist, Trinidad-born Henry Sylvester-Williams. Unusual for his time, Love also advocated education for women, stating that a people cannot rise above the standards of its womanhood. The young Marcus Garvey was tutored by Dr Love, whom he revered and considered one of his earliest influences. In his ethnographic work on the roots of Rastafari, Professor Barry Chevannes also cites Isaac Uriah Brown, Prince Shrevington and ‘Warrior Higgins’, three religious street-preachers who kept alive the consciousness of Africa among the urban and rural poor in the early twentieth century. (Chevannes 1994: 38).
Alexander Bedward (about 1859-1930), a great healer with followers all over Jamaica as well as in Cuba and Panama, was the most famous preacher of the time. He sternly denounced the oppression of Blacks in Western society and urged his followers towards a Black revolution. He cited two of Jamaica’s National Heroes Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, who rebelled against the white establishment defending their right to liberty at the cost of their lives. Bedward was arrested many times for ‘subversive activities’. In April1921 he and eight hundred of his followers marched on Kingston, assaulting some people including a census officer along the way. Bedward was arrested and sent to a psychiatric hospital where he died in November 1930. According to Professor Chevannes, “he led his followers directly into Garveyism by finding the appropriate charismatic metaphor: Bedward and Garvey were as Aaron and Moses, one the high priest, the other prophet, both leading the children of Israel out of exile.” (Chevannes 1994: 39)
These forerunners paved the way for Anguillan Robert Athlyi Rogers and others who followed in their wake. In the 1920s Rogers founded an Afrocentric religion, the Afro Athlican Constructive Church, which preached self-reliance and self-determination for Africans. Rogers saw Ethiopians/Africans as the chosen people of God and proclaimed Marcus Garvey an apostle. In 1927 Garvey is reputed to have told a Church audience: “Look to Africa. When you shall see a Black King crowned, know that the day of deliverance is at hand.” Emperor Haile Selassie I’s ascension to the Imperial throne in 1930 was taken as confirmation of Garvey’s prophetic utterance. For the nascent Rastafari movement Garvey was the reincarnation of John the Baptist, pointing towards the returned Messiah.
Between 1913 and 1917 Athlyi Rogers 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 being Black. In 1926, his work was followed by the publication of The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy, by Reverend Fitz Balintine Pettersburgh, who described it as ‘Ethiopia’s Bible-Text’. These two books, which were banned in Jamaica and other Caribbean islands, were templates for Leonard Howell’s The Promised Key, written a decade later around 1935. This trinity of works are the formative texts that propelled Rastafari into an ideological knowledge-system based on the Divinity of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.
In the genealogy of the Rastafari movement we find these antecedents unravelling from a broad cumulative awareness of Ethiopia as the cradle of civilisation, slowly tapering into a pinpoint of identification: firstly, Ethiopia as a generic name for the continent of Africa; secondly, as the ancestral spiritual home of Africans; thirdly as the precise geographical land mass in north-east Africa, the fabled land of the mythical Priest-King Prester John; and finally, the birthplace of the returned Messiah, Christ in His Kingly Character, Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord over all Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of Himself and Light of this world.
Leonard Percival Howell is often acknowledged as ‘the first Rasta’. Howell’s commune, Pinnacle, founded on 400 acres of land purchased in Sligoville, St Catherine in 1940, was an attempt to create heaven on earth – no more, no less – the ‘pinnacle’ of man’s aspirations for a world of justice, independence, peace, security, and love. Against all the odds of time and circumstance, for a fleeting moment Pinnacle gave us a glimpse of an Ethiopian utopia where mankind’s cherished hopes could be realised in the here and now. Howell’s community appropriated the best that could be gleaned from the ‘remnants of nations’ woven into a quilted tapestry of righteous living. As a seaman, his influences spanned a world in turmoil – from the Russian revolution to the Harlem Renaissance and Hindu spirituality in the ‘New World’. All these strains are also to be found in African culture. The Caribbean (‘Carry-beyond’) was already a melting-pot for social and racial outcasts. What Howell attempted was something new. In a fragmented world he dared to postulate a new holistic (yet ancient) reality – one that effectively coalesced the noblest traditions of world history that cascaded into the present. Howell’s astute interpretation of the times brought him into a calculated vision of Majesty and Divinity. The transforming power of man’s spiritual evolution dictated that we are in a time of fulfilment, hence God must manifest in Man – the Alpha and Omega – His Imperial Majesty, (or Their Imperial Majesties – as he put it in The Promised Key, where he describes the ‘cosmic trigger’ on which the foundation of life is set. He identifies the Emperor and Empress as the Paymaster and Pay-mistress, through Whom the healing balm of regeneration gives new life to the universe).
Pinnacle was an agrarian community where every nutritional food-crop was grown and shared by its members, known as ‘Howellites’. Ganja/marijuana was the main cash crop. Pinnacle’s popularity and prosperity were largely established through the trade in herbs, vegetables and ‘ground provisions’. The community also developed ritualised forms of worship involving drums, prayers and chanting. Pinnacle operated as an alternative otherworldly society (conformable to the Essenes) with engrained principles of communal love, fellowship and fraternity. It was conceived and constructed on the ideal of collective security and independence, totally at odds with the western mode of Babylonian lifestyle. Pinnacle was an oasis of African life in a desert of colonial oppression. The world was not ready for Pinnacle and its message of Peace and Love, the salutation of the early ‘locksmen’ and women who populated it. Howell swore fealty to the African Emperor of Ethiopia. He urged his followers not to pay taxes to the imposter, King George of England. His defiant Rastafari stronghold represented a final outpost of African culture, identity and resistance in the West.
It was inevitable that Pinnacle would be vilified, constantly raided and ransacked by agents of the colonial state. Eventually the community (numbering thousands) was crushed by police action in 1954. Yet, out of Pinnacle came a spreading gospel, an empowering re-enactment of righteous life, a recovered way of decent living that shaped the Rastafari movement. Today Pinnacle is up for grabs by rich landowners. An Occupy Pinnacle Movement is in place as a militant new generation of Rastafari seek to preserve their sacred heritage from the encroachment of Babylonian forces. In revisiting the roots of this essentially Pan-African phenomenon we can ‘over-stand’ the universal attraction of this way of life (livity) for a world desperately seeking a way out of the fallout, rubble and detritus of global conflicts that threatened life on this planet.
Here in Pinnacle the origins of livity, (a word coined to describe the Rastafari way of life), began to take shape. Significantly, language was one of the first barriers to be dismantled. ‘I-and-I’ replaced ‘you and me’. The dictum of ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ was codified and reflected in this simple reformation of language and human relationship. From this pivotal axiom a new idiosyncratic tongue was developed (or ‘i-veloped’). In one fell swoop the prefix ‘I’ released the new movement from the bondage of the oppressor’s tongue and mindset, emphasizing the centrality of love in the conduct of life’s relationships.
Food, vital for life, became ‘i-tal’. Control became ‘man-trol’ or ‘i-trol’. Understanding became ‘over-standing’ or ‘i-verstanding’. Freedom became ‘freeman’, since ‘free’ was incompatible with the sound of ‘dom’ (dumb). A new vocabulary was initiated and popularised to fit a new creation (or ‘i-ration’), based on word-sound and power. The Word of Rastafari was made flesh, invested with vibrational power, purpose and intent. Grammar was rendered fallacious, seductive and irrelevant. The ‘I-talk’ of Rastafari (Iyaric) became a distinguishing feature of livity, marking a total rejection of the constraining word-sound of Babylon. The world was redefined in relation to the ‘I-man’. Its tenor was given new value through positivity, confidence and self-knowledge. Conversation was replaced by reasoning. The Rastafari voice dispelled all lukewarm ‘Christian’ expression. Its strength of utterance emanated from the heart, rather than the head.
Alignment with Nature was another crucial facet of livity. At a time when Black populations worldwide trekked to the cities for social and economic uplift Rastafari bucked the trend by celebrating the joys of nature and ‘country living’. Babylon’s gross materialism and one-upmanship was based on city-life and the pursuit of wealth rather than peace and contentment. Capitalism had created a toxic, hostile, polluted environment where human decency and natural affection were sacrificed on altars to Mammon. A return to Nature’s way sustained mankind physically and morally, away from the crass waste, hate and lust of Babylonian society. Livity was diametrically opposed to the values of upward mobility projected by Western civilisation. The human body was a temple to be cleansed for the in-dwelling of the Most High.
The abhorrence of meat in the ital diet became another tenet of livity. The blood sacrifice of animals to sustain man’s greed for nourishment was seen as unnatural and unnecessary. As in Genesis 1, Vs 29, God had given man all manner of herbs for meat. The movement generally adhered to this guidance, though many Rastafari earned their living as fishermen. Hence the eating of fish was deemed acceptable to some.
In the Nyahbinghi ritual, a Rastafari celebration of divine worship to the Creator, a trinity of drums is used: bass, funde and repeater (akete). The huge booming bass single-note drum is the ‘Pope-Smasher’, the two-note funde represents the heartbeat, saying “Do good! Do good!” repeatedly. The repeater (peetah) is polyrhythmic, speaking in intricate patterns that enliven the free-stepping dances of the congregation. The chants are often reworked versions of Church hymns, such as Bob Marley’s Rastaman Chant:
One bright mornin’
When my work is over
I will fly away home
Ras Tafari is the lily of the valley
He’s the bright and morning star
Ras Tafari is the fairest of ten thousand
Everybody should a know
Others are original lyrics composed by members of the movement and are charged with political comment:
Black liberation day (repeat)
What a great day dat must be
When Africa is free
I-demption yodding, Hail Fari! (Redemption trodding)
What a wonderful iwa (iwa = hour, time)
Glory to the King
Jah-Jah take I outa bondage into Jah freeman
I-demption yodding, Hail Fari!
The Psalms of David and other Biblical passages are essential readings during the ‘Binghi. The Sacred Herb (ganja) is imbibed liberally by the congregation.
Indeed, reggae music with its hypnotic, soothing rhythms and fervent lyrics evolved from the ‘harps’ of the ‘binghi. Reggae became the popular purveyor of the Rastafari message and ethos – often to the letter – as in Marley’s musical reprise of His Majesty’s utterance: “Until the philosophy that holds one man superior and another inferior…” Today reggae is perhaps the most widely known and imitated musical genre globally.
The smoking of ganja (marijuana) has been long been accepted as an essential feature of livity. Decriminalization in Jamaica and other parts of the world poses new challenges for the movement. Is sacramental use of the herb being diluted to accommodate global popularity? Or will Rastafari maintain priestly observance of the herb – despite its widespread use as a recreational high?
Livity effectively combines spirituality and political awareness in a seamless expression of everyday life. In this process the roles of priest and warrior are evenly weighted and entwined. “Peace and love” is balanced by the strident call for Equal Rights and Justice as in:
Get up, Stand up!
Stand up for your rights!
The Nyahbinghi warrior’s credo states, “Death to Black and White oppressors!” It also prescribes, “InI war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers and the workers of iniquity in high and low places.” The Rastafari Creed invokes “that the hungry be fed, the naked clothed, the sick nourished, the aged protected and the infants cared for.”
The words, works and speeches of His Imperial Majesty are studiously regarded as a ‘Third Testament’, an updated addendum to the Old and New Testaments in this Dispensation in which the final battle is enjoined, and in which InI confidence is in the victory of Good over evil. His Majesty’s historic appeal to the League of Nations in Geneva in 1935 was a watershed moment for international morality. His warning to the Great Powers had gone unheeded: “You have lit a match in Ethiopia, but it shall burn throughout Europe.” His subsequent defeat of Fascism gave hope to smaller nations and to the ‘wretched of earth’ who had supported Ethiopia’s cause against the overwhelmingly aggressive military might of Italy. As He Himself declared after returning to Ethiopia in triumph: “People who see this throughout the world will realise that even in the 20th century with faith, courage and a just cause David will still beat Goliath.”
Livity repudiates the notion of freedom (freeman) as licence. In fact, livity defines a lived holistic discipline where mind, body and spirit are enjoined in a singular purpose and commitment to the liberation of the self and of the human condition – primarily, but not solely, for Africa and Africans. In livity the Word is liberated, realized and fulfilled in action. The injunction to do good invests InI with an aura of divinity as sons and dawtas of the Almighty, created (i-rated) in His image and likeness to perform His work on earth, i.e. to promote and secure the victory of Good over evil. The writ of Christianity having fallen into disrepute, a new dispensation was ushered in by the Rastafari movement, firstly by His Imperial Majesty; secondly by His progeny, the Rastafari nation, with a solemn promise and obligation for peace and prosperity in the global community.
Ultimately, Rastafari livity is moulded on the indomitable spirit of Majesty and Divinity, in which Justice and Mercy abide for the healing of nations. Livity overcomes all obstacles through strategy, patience, endurance, determination and consummate confidence in the power of Right over Might, enshrined in the philosophy of One Love. The outlandish sect that was hounded out of polite society, ostracised, brutalized, scorned, defamed, threatened with genocide and counted at nought in the 1930s, has now become a flowering tree spreading its knotty (natty) branches in every nook and cranny of today’s world. This too, is the triumph of livity.
Ras Shango Baku