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Rastafarianism and Cannabis

Rastafarianism is a small religion with a large imprint. Reggae music reverberated all over the world after Bob Marley’s popularity rose in the 1970s. Reggae rhythms, styles and lyrics have since influenced music in genres as diverse as Boy George, Clash and the popular Reggaeton genre. However, what is Rastafianism? Beyond the romantic snapshots of dreadlocks and giant spliffs, the Rastafari movement stemmed from the hardships of the African diaspora and the struggle against European colonialism. Everything, including dreadlocks and spliffs, makes sense within these races.


Many people trace the roots of Rastafarianism to Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican trade unionist/organizer, who traveled widely, building the philosophy of supranational African solidarity, to combat colonization and racial discrimination. He started the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914, based in Harlem, New York. His philosophy promoted African self-confidence, liberation and development. He believed that whites would never regard blacks as equals, and therefore, all Of African descent should become economically and culturally independent, with the aim of building their own society, in an Africa free from colonialism. Of course, the Garvey organization was concerned about the FBI, which eventually deported him in 1927. Back in Jamaica, Garvey focused on a new possibility for the global African community: the new emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), Haile Selassie I (aka Ras Tafari Makonen). Garvey initially proclaimed that all eyes of the African diaspora should turn to Selassie I, as a new leader who will free blacks from white supremacy.


Although today’s Rastafarians proclaim Garvey as a prophet for their first notice of Haile Selassie I, Garvey’s ideas formed only a small effect on the true belief system of Rastafarianism. A stronger influence was a Jamaican, Leonard Percival Howell, who had joined Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association when he had immigrated to New York and lived there during the 1920s. After being arrested for having a business without proper permission, he was also deported and returned to Jamaica in 1932. He immediately began public rallies, in which Garvey’s message went a step further. He claimed that emperor Haile Selassie I was the new Messiah, sent by God. The police immediately began to monitor these gatherings. He was convicted of mutiny because he often made statements against the British Empire. However, during his imprisonment, Howell published a book called The Promised Key (1935), which was appealing to jamaica’s poor black community and gained more popularity for his movement. This book drew from Protestant ideas and biblical passages, but claimed that Selassie I would establish a new kingdom of God in Africa and thus cause the fall of the corrupt white Anglo-Saxon civilization, known as Babylon. It was under the influence of Howell that the Rastafari system of beliefs and morals developed and a separate religious community was formed, under the influence of Garvey’s black nationalism. Like any religion without true central authority, there were many other leaders, groups, and communities. Howell’s church was simply the largest and most influential for a short time, about 1835 to 1850.


Howell was a dark-skinned leader in Jamaica’s black community, at a time when most political and religious leaders were people with lighter – mixed-race- skin. The parish in which he was born and raised had a particularly large population of East India, and many anthropologists rightly point out the influence of the Indian language and beliefs on Howell’s ideas. This included the mystical use of cannabis or ganja, as Jamaicans adopted the word Hindi for it. From this early stage, the ganja became an important tool for spiritual knowledge in the Rastafari. Howell even published “The Promised Key” under the Hindi pseudonym Ganganguru Maragh. By 1940, Howell’s movement had gained so much popularity that it founded a farming community called Pinnacle. In Pinnacle, Rastafari’s fans lived together, earning money through a farm and a bakery. However, some who lived there complain that they lived under a strict hierarchy, in which Howell made all the decisions.


The police didn’t waste much time suppressing Pinnacle. They entered the community on the pretext that a man holding an illegal weapon was living there and imprisoned Howell for assault. When Howell returned in 1943, he decided to start a ganja farm in Pinnacle. The colonial authorities were more concerned about black segregation than about the ganja. Ever since Howell became a less powerful leader in the Rastafari community in the late 1940s, authorities have let his work continue. But in 1954 the police returned to pinnacle farm. They seized eight tons of ganja and destroyed thousands of “trees” (in Jamaica, cannabis plants often grow in tree size). Howell was arrested, but the charges were dropped. However, he did not regain the same respect in the Rasta community, as he had begun to claim his own deification in the 1950s.


Instead, the Rasta community became more politically radical. In the 1950s, a murder, committed by a bearded man, whom witnesses assumed to be Rasta, caused another wave of oppression. The old Rastafari leaders, such as Howell, urged self-control and respect for the law in the face of these difficulties. But a new generation of Rasta was indignant against this regime. A group called The Youth Black Faith began to gain more popularity. The Youth Black Faith was against the hierarchical structure of Rastafarian organizations, such as Pinnacle, and disagreed with the existence of existing leadership in colonial norms. While old leaders like Howell preferred short hair, the Youth Black Faith promoted dreadlocks both as an African style and as a rebellion against the corrupt values of Babylon. It was only at that moment that Rastafarianism began to look more like what it is today.


The 1950s continued to be a period of excitement for the Rasta community, one of the reasons for their continued radicalisation. The different anti-colonial struggles in Africa and the rise of the Soviet Union showed that Babylon was close to fall and that the “new kingdom of God”, in an independent Africa, was near. The Rasta community became more pervasive and moved away from its hierarchical origins. Now there have been many more Rasta who were willing to become politically active. Although Howell sharply criticized left-wing political leaders, now there were many alliances between some Rasta and the Nationalist Democratic-Socialist People’s Party. It was from this era of increased radicalism that reggae music was born, in the 1960s, a mixture of Protestant hymns, African beats and styles and Rastafarian philosophy. Ganja remained the inspiration, through the dreams and visions she evoked, that helped the Rasta see the way forward, for the oppressed black people in Jamaica and around the world.




D.A. Dunkley, “The Suppression of Leonard Howell in late Colonial Jamaica, 1932-1954,” NWIG, Vol. 87, no. 1/2 (2013), pp. 62-93.


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


Frank Jan van Dijk, “Sociological Means: Colonial Reactions to the Radicalization of Rastafari in Jamaica, 1956-1959,” NWIG, Vol. 69, No. 1/2 (1995), pp. 67-101 (35 pages)

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