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  1. World
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16 October 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

Fi Wi Story

From Marcus Mosiah Garvey to the ghettos of Kingston town...Tony Randon relates the Rastafari story

By Tony Randon

The term Rastaman was first used in 1930 to describe a group of about 1900 settlers. They had moved from the Jamaican countryside, to settle in an old sugar plantation in the parish of St Thomas.

Their leader Leonard Howell had been a follower of Marcus Garvey, and member of his New York based UNIA organization, during the early 1920s. Garvey, born in the parish of St Ann’s in Jamaica, was a powerful speaker and organiser.

Having cut his political teeth in Kingston, as a print union shop steward, he headed for America in 1916 with a vision to emancipate the black people of the western world.

Through force of personality, character and immense self belief, he built the UNIA into the biggest black owned organisation in the United States.

His movement gave hope to black Americans at a time of great depression, when unemployment was hurting them the most. He instilled a sense of pride into people who had been brainwashed into believing they were inferior.

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As a speaker, Garvey’s speeches inspired many future black leaders, including Malcolm X.
He had many powerful quotes including ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad’ and ‘A people without knowledge of their history is like a tree without roots, it will wither and die’.

Garvey’s ideologies, based on self love, self reliance and self belief, provide the blueprint for Rasta philosophy and thought.

He taught us to see ourselves as an integral part of the human race, and therefore entitled to the same respect enjoyed by other races, primarily in the west. And he believed that the only way we could love other races was by loving ourselves first.

Black people were the only race of people who did not have a deity in their own image. He realised that the black man’s deity had to be a positive and royal image. Not one of an ex-slave, but a black image the black man would proudly adhere to.

Howell, and another follower of Garvey, Shepherd Athlyi Rogers, were the men whose works addressed this, and it is through them that the philosophies and spirituality of rastafari were manifested.

Shepherd Athlyi Rogers’ book the Holy Piby, written in 1927, remains the basis to understanding the mindset of the rastaman.

One of the significant statements of the Holy Piby is-

“Verily I say unto you first seek ye righteousness towards men and all things will be added unto you even the kingdom of God.”

Righteousness forms the backbone of Rasta thinking. This means treating others as one would treat oneself, recognising that everyone has the ability for empowerment and self development. As Bunny Wailer says, “wisdom is found in the simplest of places”.

Howell and Rogers had to create the state of mind that would make the attainment of the free thinking mind possible, among their followers. If not in the physical reality of actual repatriation back to Africa, then in the spiritual and cultural livity, within the land of their captors.

In attempting to climb back up the ladder of racial and self dignity, the blacks needed to recognise that their history was a wonderful and glorious history. They needed to know that they were the descendants of many of the Bible’s patriarchs, including Moses and Jesus. Proof was needed to achieve this.

Living proof came on November 2, 1930 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Ras Tafari Makonnan was crowned Kings of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judea, light of the world, elect of God.

His coronation, lasting 10 days and attended by 72 nations, marked the beginning of the tradition of the bearded man, later to be known as the Rastaman.

Ras Tafar I Makonnen belongs to the Abyssinian dynasty which dates back to biblical times- the union of Queen Makeda of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel.

According to the Maccabee bible, she brought his religion (Judaism) back to her homeland. She also had his son Menalik. Ethiopian history states that Rasta far I Makonnen is the 225th succession of this manifestation.

After Rogers’ death, Howell, along with two other founders, Archibald Dunkley and Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert, set up the now famous Pinnacle camp. This was the commune or livity which would form the basis for later Rasta camps.

The followers were given plots of land and encouraged to be self sufficient. Among them were East Indian servants who introduced Howell, who was also a herbalist and self proclaimed bush doctor, to the Hindu religion- in particular vegetarianism, meditation and marijuana.

The Indians had brought the ganjee as they called it, with them from India. They saw it as a sacred plant with healing as well as spiritual properties.

In 1930, ganja, as it came to be known, was legal in Jamaica. In fact, the British authorities imported it and sanctioned its use because they believed it would pacify a restless population.

It wasn’t until Howell and his people made it into a cash crop, and started selling it in the Kingston markets, that jealous and greedy individuals sought to break up his growing, prosperous kingdom.

Jamaica, like most British colonies, was run on racial lines. The majority (people of African descent) were controlled by the minority- people of English, Syrian, Lebanese, Chinese and Mullato origins.

Howell and his community were constantly attacked by the police and over zealous Christian landowners, offended by statements he made concerning the Queen and the Church. He openly condemned them as enemies of the black race, for their role in the slave trade.

Even after he had been committed to a metal asylum (the punishment for the early Black Nationalist), his community grew and prospered. When it was finally destroyed in 1954, by a conglomerate of police, Christian landowners and British solders, the numbers living on Pinnacle hill had risen to over 5000. It was after this dispersal, that Kingston ghettoes and shanty towns became home to the faith.

This, for me, is the embodiment of the true rastaman. These men were driven by a sense of trying to ‘right the wrong’ they believed their people had been victims of. They did it for the right to express their African spirituality, which was fundamental to keeping their identity alive.

Self worth through self reliance, and righteousness in the face of the oppressor is seen as the key to happiness. The Piby describes it as the green pastures. After being freed from the chains of mental slavery, the sheep must then be fed.

This spiritual food could only be obtained by setting a black curriculum. Black education, black culture, black enterprise and black religion. Only then, could the Africans of the Diaspora constructively contribute to western society, on equal terms.

They were still in conflict with the authorities, mainly because Rasta was wrongly deemed subversive by the affluent class. But in 1959, a significant occurrence was taking place. The Jamaican music industry was developing, and local businessmen and entrepreneurs were building studios.

They had been competing against each other, with records bought mainly from the States- New Orleans, in particular. They now needed to create there own music and sound.

The sound they created was called Ska, later to be known as Reggae.

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