A Brief History of Rastafarianism

By Crispin Sartwell



From very early on, perhaps basically since slaves were introduced to the Caribbean, or in the next generations, Africa came to be regarded as a garden from which the slaves had fallen (or rather, been pushed). That is an element in the traditional Africanist religions, such as the Voodoo of Haiti and New Orleans, Santeria in Cuba, Macumba in Brazil, and Obeah and Myal in Jamaica. It is, one must say, an understandable response. These religious movements were also, of course, influenced by Biblical Christianity, and there may have been also from early a slight undertone of African Islam: scriptural religions dedicated to the power of texts, with a hint of messianism and apocalypse. (An analogy to some of these movements would be the Ghost Dance cult of American Indians, designed to return the continent to a pristine pre-genocide condition.)

Jamaica itself, like Haiti, has a long, distinguished history of political rebellion mixed with religious elements (Cudjoe and Sam Sharpe must be mentioned here). The island is particularly suited to these developments: settled and planted along the coasts, it has a relatively huge, inaccessible, mountainous interior, and bands of escaped maroons settled there very early.

The Pan-Africanist movement of the late nineteenth century was explicit in Jamaica, which had a Pan-Africanist organization and newspaper by 1895, led by Robert Love. A number of Jamaican street preachers of the time mixed metaphors of the return with Christianity and Judaism, and particularly drew the attention of their followers to references to Ethiopia in the old testament. The most successful of these, by far, was Alexander Bedward, who led a mass movement both in Jamaica and in Panama (where many Jamaicans of the time went to find work). He taught black revolution, and was arrested a number of times. (It is worth pointing out that at this time and later, similar developments, with perhaps a slightly more cosmopolitan flavor, took place in the US: The Moorish Science Temple, for example, and later the Nation of Islam.) By the time the Jamaican Marcus Mosiah Garvey's (he was from St. Ann's parish, born in 1887) movement gained steam (1920 or so) Bedward collapsed his movement into Garvey's, and took to calling them "Aaron and Moses."

Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was a stunning success all over the black world, particularly in the United States, and was essentially the first mass movement for black self-determination. Garvey himself tended toward pomp and ceremony, and was perhaps not the greatest financial manager. But in my view he was honest, sincere, and stunningly effective. He preached back to Africa, and though he used religious metaphors constantly, he basically taught a kind of qualified Christianity and tried to stay out of religious disputes. But he did teach a "black" interpretation of Christianity, focused especially on Psalm 68: "Princes shall come out of Egypt, and Ethiopia shall stretch forth his hands to God." Garvey used the term "Ethiopia" constantly, using it essentially as a name for Africa, for the promised land, a heaven from which black folks had been exiled.

An oral tradition grew up around the teachings of Garvey, one of which concerned the appearance of a black African messiah, which Garvey supposedly predicted. Ras Tasfari Makonen was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, and took the title "King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah." One might picture the way this was understood in Jamaica.

The Garvey movement itself, however, was in eclipse, and Marcus had been imprisoned on tax charges in and then exiled from the US. It is worth saying clearly that Garvey was in essence a political prisoner. He ended up in England, where he died in a sad obscurity in 1940. But a number of preachers in Jamaica started teaching the divinity of Ras Tafari: these would include Leonard Howell (who had been a Garveyite), Archibald Dunkley ( who preached the coming apocalypse), Joseph Hibbert, and Robert Hinds. They made use of a number of more or less apocryphal scriptures, including the Holy Piby of Robert Athlyi Rogers. Meanwhile, Mussolini attacked Ethiopia in 1935, and resistance took on the urgency of a holy war in the African Caribbean, with some men even volunteering to go fight in Africa.

Helene Lee, in her amazing book (perhaps the first real revelation of the origins of Rastafarianism) "The First Rasta" traces the moment the whole thing began very specifically to the moment, early in 1933, when Howell, who had established a personal friendship with Garvey, started distributing pictures of Selassie and teaching his divinity. That is when the Ethiopianism, black pride, repatriation, and Pan-Africanist teachings merged into a religious system. Howell, though born and raised in Jamaica, had been living in Harlem at the height of Garvey's influence, and the two apparently became friends in Kingston after Garvey's exile.

Lee also emphasized South Asian influences in Rastafarianism, due in part no doubt to a pretty large immigrant population in Jamaica. But India is the source of the ganja, and perhaps of the dreadlocks: similar grooming lapses are typical of Indian holy men in a variety of sects. There are also possibly elements of Hinduism in Rasta ceremony.

Sensational newspaper accounts in 1935 described a supposed black organization called "Nyahbingi" ("death to whites") emerging from the Congo and headed by Haile Selassie. It was some sort of crazed white conspiracy theory (specifically Italian propaganda), but was accepted in some form by many blacks, who took it as a sign of the coming race war and perhaps of the apocalypse. Howell, who had been arrested for teaching sedition, was freed, and by 1940 had established a rural commune outside Kingston called the Pinnacle, which was modeled after Maroon communities during slavery, and perhaps ultimately on African village life. Up to 1,500 people may have lived there at its height. The cultivated marijuana on a large scale and funded themselves by its sale, and probably began its employment in ritual contexts.

The commune was broken up and Howell arrested, but the Pinnacle was later re-established. A kind of reformation took place in the early fifties, in which a number of aspects we associate with Rastafarianism were established, including dreadlocks and Ital, the dietary strictures under which Rastas operate. These should probably be considered attempts to live simply and naturally, in connection to the land and outside polluting white cultural influences. The preaching centrally included the idea of "Babylon," the power structure that had yanked people from Africa and enslaved them, and still ran the Western world, including Jamaica. From the beginning, of course, there had been a variety of essentially Jewish imagery: of the "Zion" oposed to Babylon, the Twelve Tribes of Irael, and so on. And Rastafarian movement was from the beginning millennial, and predicted the destruction of Babylon at the hands of an angry god, and the redemption of his chosen. Eventually, the Pinnacle was busted again, and the dreads who remained free spread the word in Kingston particularly in the Back-o-Wall neighborhood, from which so many rastas and reggae artists have emerged. Howell died, probably in a mental hospital (where the Jamaican government, like the Soviets, had a policy of placing dissidents), in the 60s.

Count Ossie is a key figure in a number of respects. He led a kind of study/community center in East Kingston in the fifties and sixties. This was associated with the "beards" (as opposed to the younger "dreads of West Kingston). Ossie essentially invented Rasta ceremonial drumming, and was a serious influence on Jamaican music of all kinds, providing rhythms under some of the earliest ska recordings. The basic association of Rastafarianism and music was estabvlished by him.

Selassie was to some extent aware of this movement and by the late fifties had promised some land to repatriated Jamaicans ("Shashamone"). In 1958 the Rastas held a universal "grounation" or nyahbingi: evidently they had begun to think of themselves as a considerable and unified movement: people came from all over Jamaica. Leaders in attendance included Prince Edward Emanuel and Claudius Henry. The symbology of the movement was used in Jamaican electoral politics, and Garvey's remains were brought to Jamaica in 1964. Selassie visited Jamaica in 1966, an event of extraordinary religious significance to rastas: indeed Rita Marley reports seeing stigmata on his hands as he waved to a crowd from a motorcade. By that time there were rasta communities all over Jamaica.

Rastafarianism was carried to the world under the auspices of reggae music, and small rasta movements were established almost everywhere that Bob Marley played on his world tours and elsewhere, including London, New York, various places in Africa, and even, apparently, among the Hopi of Arizona, the Maori of New Zealand, aboriginal Australians, and in Nepal. There are even white rastas here and there. Rasta color schemes, hairstyles, ganja, and music have been fads all over the world at one time or another. It is truly a world religious movement, and though it apparently lost its God in 1975 with the death of Selassie, such contretemps have been overcome by religions before. Some Rastas confidently predicted the apocalypse for 1977 (as told in Culture's song "Two Sevens Clash"), and then again in the early eighties. Meanwhile it is well on the way to adding Marley to the pantheon of Garvey and Selassie.

In my own view, which is that of a white American, er, intellectual, Rastafarianism could use a bit more philosophy or theology: I'd like people to tackle some of the history and conceptual difficulties in a general way. I don't think that the idea that Selassie is God is any less plausible than Jesus, Odin, Allah etc., but some work is in order. Maybe it's out there, actually, but if so I don't know it.

links:
ras adam: rasta links
the holy piby
the kebra negast


Sources include:

Barry Chevannes, Rastafari: Roots and Ideology (Syracuse University Press, 1994).

Leonard Barrett, The Rastafarians (Beacon, 1977).

E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey (University of Wisconsin Press, 1969)

Helene Lee The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism (Lawrence Hill, 2003).

reggae