Rastafarianism is a small religion with a big footprint. Its reggae music has reverberated around the world since Bob Marley’s rise to popularity in the 1970s. Reggae beats, styles, and lyrics have since influenced popular music as diverse as Boy George, the Clash, and the popular Reggaeton genre. Yet, what is Rastafarianism? Beyond the romanticized snapshot of their natty dreads and gigantic spliffs, the Rastafari movement originated from the hardships of the African diaspora and the struggle against European colonization. Everything, including the dreadlocks and the spliffs, has meaning within these struggles.
Many people trace the roots of Rastafarianism to Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican union-organizer who traveled widely while he built a philosophy of transnational African solidarity to fight against colonization and racial discrimination. He started the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 with its headquarters in Harlem, New York City. His philosophy promoted African self-reliance, liberation, and development. He believed that whites would never treat blacks as equals and as such, everyone of African descent should become economically and culturally independent, with the goal of building their own society in an Africa free of colonialism. Of course, Garvey’s organization worried the FBI, who eventually deported him in 1927. Back in Jamaica, Garvey set his sights on a new possibility for the global African community: the new crowned emperor of Abyssinia (what is now Ethiopia), Haile Selassie I (otherwise known as Ras Tafari Makonen). Garvey initially proclaimed that all eyes of the African diaspora should turn to Selassie I as a new leader to bring blacks out of white domination.
Although present-day Rastafarians proclaim Garvey as a prophet for first calling notice to Haile Selassie I, Garvey’s ideas formed only one small influence upon the actual belief system of Rastafarianism. A stronger influence was a Jamaican man named 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 he was arrested for having a business without the proper license, he too was deported, and returned to Jamaica in 1932. He immediately started holding public meetings in which he took Garvey’s message one step further. He claimed that Emperor Haile Selassie I was the new Messiah, sent by God. Police immediately began to monitor these meetings. They put him on trial for sedition because he often made statements against the British Empire. However, during Howell’s imprisonment, he published a book called The Promised Key (1935) which was attractive to the poor black community in Jamaica and gained more popularity for his movement. This book drew upon Protestant ideas and biblical passages but claimed Selassie would found a new kingdom of God in Africa and so cause the downfall of the corrupt white Anglo-Saxon civilization, that came to be known as Babylon. It was under Howell’s influence that a system of Rastafari beliefs and morals developed and a separate religious community formed under the influence of Garvey’s black nationalism. That being said, like any religion without a true central authority, there were many other leaders, groups, and communities. Howell’s congregation was simply the largest and most influential for a short time, from about 1835 to 1850.
Howell was a dark-skinned leader in the black community of Jamaica during a time when most of their political and religious leaders were lighter-skinned people of mixed race origin. The parish in which he was born and raised had a particularly large East Indian population and so many Anthropologists are right to point out the influence of Indian language and beliefs on the ideas of Howell. This included the sacramental use of cannabis, or ganja, as Jamaicans adopted the Hindi word for it. From this early stage, ganja became an important tool for spiritual insight amongst the Rastafarians. Howell even published The Promised Key under a Hindi-originated pseudonym, Ganganguru Maragh. By 1940, Howell’s movement had gained enough popularity that he founded a rural community called Pinnacle. At Pinnacle, Rastafarian followers lived communally, earning money through a farm and a bakery. Nevertheless, some people who lived there complained that they lived under a strict hierarchy in which Howell made all decisions.
The police did not lose much time in suppressing Pinnacle. They raided the community under the pretext that a man who illegally owned a gun was living there and imprisoned Howell for assault. When Howell returned in 1943, he decided to start a ganja farm at Pinnacle. The colonial authorities were more concerned with black separatism than ganja. Since Howell became a less powerful leader within the Rastafarian community in the late 1940s, the authorities let his ganja business continue. It wasn’t until 1954 that the police raided the Pinnacle farm. They seized eight tons of ganja and destroyed thousands of “trees” (in Jamaica, cannabis plants often grow to the size of trees). Howell was arrested, but the charges dropped. Yet, he never again regained the same respect in the Rasta community, as he had begun to make claims of his own divinity in the 1950s.
Instead, the Rasta community became more politically radical. In the 1950s a murder committed by a bearded man whom witnesses assumed was a Rasta, prompted another wave of oppression. Old Rastafarian leaders, like Howell, urged self-control and respect for the law in the face of these difficulties. But a new generation of Rastas chafed against this regime. A group called the Youth Black Faith, began to gain more popularity. Youth Black Faith argued against the hierarchical structure of Rastafarian organizations, like Pinnacle, and disagreed with the existing leadership’s adherence to colonial rules. Whereas old leaders, like Howell, preferred short hair, the Youth Black Faith promoted the wearing of dreadlocks both as an African hair style and rebellion against the corrupt values of Babylon. It was only at this time that Rastafarianism began to look more like what it is today.
The 1950s continued to be a time of millenarian excitement for the Rasta community, one of the reasons for their continued radicalization. Different anti-colonial struggles in Africa and the rise of the Soviet Union made it appear that Babylon was close to falling and the new kingdom of God in an independent Africa was at hand. The Rasta community became more diffuse and turned away from its more hierarchical origins. Now there were many more Rasta who were willing to become politically active. Although Howell had vigorously criticized leftist political leaders, now there were many more alliances between some Rastas and the Democratic-Socialist People’s Nationalist Party. It was from this time of increased radicalism that reggae music was born in the 1960s, a mix of Protestant hymns, African beats and styles, and Rastafarian philosophy. Ganja remained the inspiration, through the dreams and visions which it engendered, that helped Rastas to see the path forward for oppressed black people in Jamaica and all over 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)