June 18, 2024

Despite its humble origins in 1930s Jamaica, Rastafarianism has evolved into a global liberation movement. Rastafarianism’s impact on popular culture has been phenomenal, its message of resistance resonating with people across the globe. Even in death, Bob Marley, probably the most famous symbol of Rastafarianism, continues to inspire the world with his revolutionary music. Today, anthropologists officially recognize Rastafarianism as a religion.

But outside the hallowed halls of academia, few appreciate Rastafarianism’s antistate ethos. Rastafarianism emerged in direct response to the injustices perpetuated by a colonial state in Jamaica. Blacks constituted most of Jamaica’s population, yet they were consigned to a life of penury. In 1898, fifty years after emancipation, there was just one doctor for every 19,400 Jamaicans, and although people classified as paupers were entitled to free healthcare, this privilege was never expanded to poor blacks.

Life for black Jamaicans, who primarily resided in rural areas, was drudgery. So, to abate their harsh living conditions, many relocated to urban settlements in the 1920s. However, opportunities for social mobility were marginal, and by the 1930s, the Great Depression had compounded the hardships of West Indian life. Sugar prices plummeted, businesses folded, and workers transitioned to unemployment. Moreover, the government’s handling of these crises, with scant regard for human suffering, exacerbated hardships.

To illustrate colonial authorities’ indifference, historian James G. Cantres shares the damning findings of the Moyne Commission:

There is not nearly enough accommodation for the children who attend school … accommodation is frequently … in a chronic state of despair and insanitation … teachers are inadequate in numbers … not well paid … training is largely or non-existent.

In Jamaica and the British Caribbean more broadly, a growing consciousness of social injustice led working citizens to agitate for better labor conditions and living standards. The genesis of Rastafarianism must be understood in the context of the oppression that plagued Caribbean societies. Leonard Howell, who is credited with founding Rastafarianism, designed the movement as an alternative to the oppressive narrative of colonialism.

Howellian thought falls in a venerable tradition of anticolonial critique by Caribbean intellectuals. As a young man in the 1920s, Howell became acquainted with Garveyism and joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Marcus Garvey’s philosophy of black economic empowerment mesmerized people of African descent and spawned many social movements.

Howell returned to Jamaica in 1932 with the intention to initiate change by delegitimizing the colonial state in the eyes of black Jamaicans. As an energetic orator, his meetings in St. Thomas quickly attracted the attention of the working classes. Howell lobbied for the dismantling of the racist infrastructure that ignored the plight of working-class blacks and sidelined competent black professionals. Howell’s sermons also berated colonial authorities for their flagrant abuse of power, earning him the ire of elites. 

Powerful players recognized that Howell’s philosophy dethroned the racist undertones that legitimated colonial authority. By delivering sermons on Ethiopia, Howell taught blacks that like whites, they also have a glorious history and cannot be inferior. Jamaica’s gatekeepers feared that Howell’s liberatory gospel could incite insurrection, so in 1933, The Daily Gleaner concluded that “devilish attacks are made at these meetings on government, both local and imperial, and the whole conduct of the meeting would intend to provoke an insurrection if taken seriously.”

Dianne Stewart in The Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience argues that the Jamaican state sought to tame the influence of Rastafarianism by using the law to discredit its leading personalities:

The most political Rasta leaders were incarcerated, stigmatized as insane, and quarantined in asylums. Even after Jamaicans gained independence in Britain in 1962, Rastas experienced harassment, repression, and condemnation from the establishment—“the Babylon system” and from the general public.

From inception, Rastafarianism proved to be a countercultural movement that disputed the legitimacy of a corrupt colonial state. Rastafarians remained unwavering in their quest to combat this state. Leonard Howell energized working-class Jamaicans in St. Thomas; however, the best-known Rastafarian settlement is Pinnacle, in the hills of St. Catherine. To the libertarian mind, Pinnacle is a classic example of success without the state.

Howell built a dynamic community that according to Myles Osborne was recognized as a separate sphere by the attorney general’s 1944 report. Pinnacle was an entrepreneurial black community, where residents cultivated a plethora of crops for sale in major urban centers and received no support from the state. In fact, black people in Pinnacle enjoyed a superior quality of life relative to their peers in the squalor of Kingston.

However, to undermine the project, the Gleaner maliciously reported in 1940 that conditions in Pinnacle were unsanitary, so to correct this erroneous reporting, Howell invited government officials to inspect the community. In describing the report’s findings, Osborne notes that on the contrary, Pinnacle’s facilities were extravagant relative to those of the broader working population:

The subsequent report revealed that 275 followers resided at the camp. They occupied 35 wattle and thatch houses, each of which had four doors. Rooms contained one to two beds, and the fly-proof latrines, drums of boiled water, and “good natural drainage” impressed the official.

Around the encampment, residents grew cassava, peas, and corn, and by the 1950s, would supplement their income with ganja sales. Howell was—in short—providing all the facilities to permit the settlement to operate independently, and in provisioning clean water was doing more than the government could in some parts of Kingston.

Similarly, through the efforts of the Ethiopia Salvation Society, Pinnacle operated a social security scheme that assisted members, insuring them against risks. For example, an individual who had served six months as a member would get one pound for the first week of his ailment; a maximum of 15 shillings for the two weeks that followed; and a maximum of 10 shillings per week for the following six.

Further, despite the newspaper’s allegations, Pinnacle was never a communist plot. Writing about the economics of Pinnacle, Barry Chevannes reveals that private property was valued: “This community might seem like a commune, but a young informant who grew up in Pinnacle said that each household provided for itself by working private plots of land granted by the “Gong,” “Counsellor or “Prince Regent,” as residents variously called Howell.

Pinnacle’s autonomy posed a threat to the conservatism of colonial society. Evidently, in the 1940s, it was unfathomable that black Jamaicans could organize themselves without the leadership of white colonial authorities. Pinnacle represented the unravelling of the colonial state, and its existence angered conservative elements in the trade union movement. Howell fearlessly criticized the trade union movement’s middle-class leadership for failing to address the racism that penalized black workers in the labor market.

Howell’s fierce critiques of the trade union movement made him an enemy of Sir Alexander Bustamante, a labor leader and Jamaica’s first prime minister, who in a 1939 letter recommended that the colonial government place him in an asylum.

Howell was not inaccurate in depicting the trade union movement as an instrument of advancement for middle-class activists because firsthand accounts indicate that many felt sabotaged by Bustamante’s leadership.

Using primary sources, Helene Lee highlights how the Bustamante-led trade union movement betrayed the working class: “Since, the labor disturbances of May last year, I cannot get permanent work. I just drift from place to place, which is actually against my faith,” wrote Frank Warren to the colonial secretary in 1939.

Egbert Charles Smith, another unemployed man, wrote the governor to complain that the autocratic Bustamante victimized workers who failed to support him: “For the past six months, I am totally victimized because I refused to support the dictatorial Bustamante Industrial Trade Union…. We did not know that they were two governors in this island, Sir Arthur and Sir Bustamante.”

In short, Leonard Howell was a frequent target of the colonial state because he was unafraid to expose the defects of elites and their enablers. By employing religion as a tool to enhance the self-esteem of black Jamaicans, Howell directly subverted the authority of an exploitative colonial state. Although, Rastafarianism originated in Jamaica, its rhetoric of liberation inspires downtrodden minorities across the globe to disrupt the conventions of oppressive states.