The truth about the persecution of Rastafari in Jamaica

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COMMENTARY

The Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) has traditionally been accused of persecuting the Rastafarian Community. But is that true or just propaganda? This article will hopefully clear up some of the misconception and propaganda which was spread by the PNP since the mid 1960s to present day.

It was in fact Norman Washington Manley who started the “ethnic cleansing” of the rastafarians and tried to “crush” the rasta movement when he was Premiere of Jamaica. This propaganda was assisted by PJ Patterson who was at the time working very closely with Norman Manley!! The PNP came to power on January 12, 1955 and won a second term in 1959. Full self-government meant that the Government could make certain decisions with full authority.

This following is an extract from a three part report published last year by the Office of the Public Defender.

 

The emergence of Rastafari: pioneers and repression
Rastafari emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s out of the social, political, economic and religious conditions of colonial Jamaica and the world, which led some to reject the colonial, racial, Eurocentric overlordship of Britain and to positively identify with the Ethiopian monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie I as the King of Kings, the Returned Messiah. Rastafarian pioneers emerged following the coronation of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I as Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930.
Pioneers included Leonard Percival Howell, who is today recognised as the first Rastafarian. He suffered severe and targeted abuse and persecution by the colonial authorities in Jamaica during the 1930s and 40s.

 

His organisational activities, including public speeches, which combined anti-colonial critique with Rastafarian evangelism, were closely monitored by the Jamaican and British governments.
Other Rastafarian pioneers who spread Rastafari beliefs in the streets of Jamaica in the 1930s were Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and Robert Hinds.
Rastafarian efforts at self-determination were repeatedly thwarted by the State. Leonard Howell’s Rastafari commune at Pinnacle at St Jago Hills close to Sligoville in St Catherine was repeatedly raided by police. Howell, on more than one occasion, was prosecuted for treason and sedition, and imprisoned or institutionalised at the Bellevue Mental Hospital as a result. In 1954 Pinnacle was burnt to the ground.
The persecution of the early Rastafarian preachers/leaders by the State is manifested in most of the literature including the governmental communications about them. There were attempts to suppress the individual and collective expressions of Rastafari, including their combination of anti-colonial critique and Ethio-African-inspired spiritual evangelism.
Other interdependent Rastafari communities and camps were established during the 1940s. These included communities in St Catherine, Clarendon, St James, St Thomas, Kingston and St Andrew.
During the 1940s Rastafari camps were established across Kingston and St Andrew at Warieka Hills, Windward Road, Mountain View, Maxfield Avenue, Waterhouse, Jones Town, Back-o-Wall, Foreshore Road, Greenwich Farm, Ackee Walk and Tower Street. In St James, camps were established at Montego Bay, Glendevon and Granville.

 

Other Rastafari camps were established all over the island, nine even after the final invasion and dispersion of Rastafari at Pinnacle by the police in 1954.
The late Professor Barry Chevannes, in Rastafari: Roots and Ideology opined that there is no doubt that historically there has been extremely strong prejudice and discrimination against Rastafari in Jamaica, by the State and by many within the Jamaican society.

 

From as early as 1933 when Leonard Howell started preaching in St Thomas his activities were reported in the Daily Gleaner and under scrutiny of the colonial Government of Jamaica. Indeed, it has been said that “[the] political threat posed by Rastafari agitation was fully recognised by the colonial regime as early as 1933-34. This was confirmed by its attempt to repress the movement’s leadership by arresting Leonard Howell and his lieutenant, Robert Hinds.”
For preaching against the British monarchy and pledging open allegiance to the Ethiopian Emperor, Howell and Hinds were arrested and charged in January 1934 in St Thomas for sedition. The trial of those early Rastafari preachers was heavily reported in the Daily Gleaner and followed by the general populace, as Jamaicans became exposed to public anti-Rastafari sentiment. The Rastafari doctrine and community were on trial and under scrutiny.
It was reported that there was “a great deal of amusement afforded by the fanatical utterances” of Howell and Hinds in court. For expressing his spiritual beliefs and revering HIM Emperor Haile Selassie as the Messiah, Howell and Hinds were convicted and sentenced in March 1934 to two years and one year imprisonment, respectively.

 

The conviction and sentence seem not to have been adequate punishment. The police under the leadership of Inspector Walters attended at Howell’s camp in St Thomas and smashed it. Between 1934 and 1935 other early Rastafari leaders were also targeted and prosecuted, including Archibald Dunkley in 1934 and 1935 and Joseph Hibbert in 1935.
The Daily Gleaner subsequently reported in 1935 that the activities of the Rastafari had been successfully suppressed in St Thomas and that the Rastafari had been prohibited from holding public meetings.1 Not only was that not true, but the movement had spread to other areas.

 

After that “Groundation”, numerous Rastafari were arrested for ganja, and were beaten and forcibly trimmed. In May 1958, the police burned down Prince Emmanuel’s Rastafari camp and arrested him.
In June 1958, nine Rastafari families were forcibly evicted from lands in Spanish Town and their homes destroyed. In October 1958, the police raided a Rastafari camp in Westmoreland, imprisoned its leader who was later convicted and sentenced.
Further confrontations between Rastafari and the police occurred in Linstead in 1958, when it was alleged that a group of Rastafarians attacked two police officers. During the incident, the police shot and killed a Rastafarian.

 

Four Rastafarians were arrested but reportedly were never seen again. The 1958 “Groundation” has therefore been described as “the decisive point in the deterioration of relations between the Government and the public on the one hand, and the Ras Tafari movement on the other,” as a result of the heavy public emphasis on the anti-social elements of Rastafari.
Tragedy in Back-o-Wall
In May 1959 there was another confrontation between Rastafari and the police, arising out of a dispute between a Rastafari gatekeeper and a policeman with duties at Coronation Market. The beating of the Rastaman caused a violent reaction by some of the market vendors. The police brought in reinforcements and a police van as well as a fire truck were set afire, allegedly by a group of Rastafarians.
There was a physical confrontation between the police and the crowd at the market. The police brought it under control. They then proceeded to the Rastafari area of the nearby Back-o-Wall; there, approximately 57 Rastafari were arrested, many beaten, forcibly shaved and their houses destroyed.
In 1959, reputed Rastafari leader, Reverend Claudius Henry, was found with a letter to Fidel Castro discussing plans to take over Jamaica. Castro had just successfully overthrown the Batista Government by armed revolution in Cuba.

 

Then in 1960, Reverend Henry’s son, Reynold Henry, led a group of black nationalists in an uprising. He and his co-conspirators were arrested after a large manhunt involving police and soldiers in Sligoville, St Catherine. It was believed that Henry and his group were planning to overthrow the Government of Jamaica.
Premier Norman Manley declared a State of Emergency, and the army subsequently crushed the ‘uprising’. Reynold Henry and his conspirators were convicted for treason and hanged.

 
In the minds of some Jamaicans, the Henry affair was a nefarious attempted Rastafari revolution. In response, the police embarked on island- wide raids and arbitrary arrests of Rastafari. That saga gave some credence to the view that Rastafari was “a potential breeding ground for communists, for violent revolutionaries and…a shelter for criminals”.

 
The Rastafarians at Ackee Walk in Kingston were repeatedly targeted and harassed by the police. At a Rastafari Convention at Ackee Walk in 1960, the police arrested almost 100 Rastafarians in what was described as “a fairly serious confrontation”.

 
Following that incident, it is reported that a group of Rastafarians presented a petition with over 4,000 signatures to the Government, requesting that the concerns of the Rastafari community be addressed.
Strong anti-Rastafari sentiment was shared by many within the Jamaican Government and indeed Rastafari was the subject of many official communications. By October 1962, Brigadier P E Crooks of the Jamaica Defence Force submitted a paper to the governor general, Sir Kenneth Blackburne, for consideration by the Defence Board in which Rastafari was identified as an internal threat to Jamaica’s national security.

 

The brigadier reasoned that ‘…the internal threat is well known to readers of this paper and does not require much elaboration. Briefly, Communism will try to infiltrate by all possible means and may make active use of the following: (i) Extreme racial organisations, eg,

 

The Rastafarians approx strength 3,000-5,000, not organised but a potential danger’.

Official documents of the Government of Jamaica, as well as the fact that State agents and resources were brought to bear so heavily and pointedly on the Rastafari community, forcefully suggest the existence of a systematic State policy aimed at the harassment, undermining and suppression of the Rastafari. The nature of that antagonistic relationship between the State and the Rastafari worsened in the 1960s.

 
A 1960 report, by University of the West Indies lecturers, M G Smith, Roy Augier and Rex Nettleford, is telling: It reported that “the general public believes in a stereotype Ras Tafarian, who wears a beard, avoids work, steals, smokes ganja, and is liable to sudden violence”.

 

However, the report noted that that stereotype was applicable only to a minority, recognising that “the great majority of Ras Tafari brethren are peaceful citizens who do not believe in violence”. Further, the authors of the report concluded that “the general public who are quite out of sympathy with the Ras Tafari seem to have ranged themselves on the side of Government and the police”.

 
The authors of the report observed that “relations between Ras Tafari brethren and the police have deteriorated sharply over the last few years…even more sharply in the last four months, in the course of which the police have carried out extensive raids, made numerous arrests, and, in the heat of the moment, have indulged in many arbitrary acts against Rastafarians.”

 
In conclusion, the 1960 report recommended that positive action should be taken by the Government of Jamaica to meet the reasonable demands of the Rastafari community and therefore recommended, inter alia, that:

 

The freedom of speech and freedom of movement of the Ras Tafari should be respected; the public should cease to stereotype all Ras Tafari; the public should learn to recognise that religious people have a right to wear their hair long if they wish; the minister of education should prohibit teachers from cutting the hair of children without their parent’s permission.

 
The police “should leave innocent Ras Tafari brethren alone, stop cutting off their hair, stop moving them on, stop arresting them on minor pretexts, and stop beating them up”; Ras Tafari brethren should be assisted to establish co-operative workshops; the Government of Jamaica should send a mission to Africa to arrange for immigration of Jamaicans who wish to go; build low-rent houses to reduce squatting for Rastafari and other low-income or unemployed people; and build civic centres and training centres and cooperative workshops, for Rastafari and other low-income or unemployed people, in collaboration with churches and UCWI.
The early literature about Rastafari and their religious beliefs labelled them as uncivilized, cultists, millenarian and escapist, and tended to focus, with negative distorted characterizations and aspersions, on symbols of Rastafari such as locks, beards, ganja and the divinity of Haile Selassie.

 
State violence against Rastafari was sustained continuously over several decades prior to the Coral Gardens incident of 1963 and perpetuated after Coral Gardens. Amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Law was the State’s primary tool employed to criminalize a whole section of the Jamaican community.

 
As Retired Detective Selbourne Reid explained in the film Bad Friday, police while at training school often used images of Rastafarians as targets for shooting practice at the shooting range.

 
By the 1950s and 60s when the outward appearance of dreadlocks became prevalent among Rastafari, many people were afraid of them.
Generally, Rastafarians in Jamaican society were feared and scorned, often stoned, ridiculed and beaten by civilians. They were branded as cannibals and as “Black Heart Men”. Rastafari, thus, had to live and function underground for the most part, avoiding public places, streets, transports, and living and travelling in gullies and bushes.

 
Rastafari resistance to the status quo has been expressed through song, most notably through reggae, food, language, fashion, art, craft, religion, rituals, customs and communal living. It is within the foregoing socio-political, cultural and religious context of the historical relationship between the State and the Rastafari community that the subject matter of this report and the recommendations herein are considered.
Blood ran at Coral Gardens

 
The events at Coral Gardens in April 1963 marked a significant watershed in the relationship between the Rastafari community and the State. The discrimination against that community was inflicted by the citizenry as well. Indeed, “Rastafari had to contend with hostility from many quarters”.

 

There are several accounts as to what provoked the Coral Gardens incident. In addition to the written statements and audio-visual interviews collected during the investigation by the public defender, accounts were culled from The Gleaner newspaper, as well as from academic and other historically researched publications.

 

The public defender also obtained a copy of the book Rastafarians’ Uprising at Coral Gardens, Jamaica: 8 Killed and Hundreds Injured. An Eye Witness Account, written by Retired Police Detective Selbourne Reid who was also interviewed on the Bad Friday DVD.

 

According to Ret Detective Selbourne Reid, he and other police at the Barnett Street Police Station in Montego Bay, received a report on Good Friday, April 12, 1963 that the gas station in Coral Gardens was on fire. Six rifles were distributed among them.

 

Under the command of inspector John Fisher the police party boarded a vehicle and headed for Coral Gardens. The Inspector in charge of the detail carried the ammunition.
Former Police Constable Errol Campbell was a 23-year-old rookie cop stationed at the Barnett Street Police Station. He was off-duty but when the call came he joined the other police officers deployed in response to the report of the fire at Coral Gardens.

 
Upon arrival at Coral Gardens, he recounted that he saw a group of Rastas waving spears, hatchets and machetes. The police ordered them to drop their weapons. The Rastas complied but upon realising that the police guns were not loaded, they proceeded to retrieve the spears, hatchets and machetes and attacked the police.

 

During the encounter, Inspector John Francis who was himself wounded threw out some ammunition to the police officers to defend themselves from the attacking group of men.
On a Star investigator’s account: “It was not until a young cop, Constable Albert Victor Nelson, shouted harsh words to the inspector to let him have ammunition that Inspector John Fisher who was on the ground struggling to escape being chopped, finally threw out some of the cartridges.”
Constable Campbell ran and fell. He was set upon and chopped all over his body. Miraculously, he survived and was admitted to UCHWI for an extended period.

 
Benjamin ‘Rudolph’ Franklyn’s daughter explained that Franklyn’s father had left a lot of land for him at Coral Gardens, where he did some farming. According to Rastafari Elder Ras Junior Manning, Rudolph lived at Rose Hall and used to farm above Salt Spring in St James. Many of the Salt Spring residents at the time worked at the Rose Hall property where Rudolph regularly burnt coal.

 
The first encounter between Rudolph and the police occurred when the police raided Rudolph’s farm about the time when the crops were ready for reaping. The police reaped what they wanted, and chopped down the rest. Rudolph told them that he is not a squatter. The police told him that he was too close to Rose Hall.

 
On a second occasion, the police again raided his farm, reaped what they wanted and chopped down the rest. On the third occasion, Rudolph was on his farm working with his machete. The police told him to drop the machete. He refused. They shot him three times in his stomach.

 
According to Rudolph’s daughter in the Bad Friday film, that was in and about October 1961. Ret Detective Selbourne Reid recounted that the police had gone there to serve a summons on Rudolph to leave the property.
Respected journalist John Maxwell (deceased) in his article in Public Opinion dated April 27, 1963 identifies Rudolph Franklin as the leader of the unlawful events which led to what occurred at Coral Gardens and the confrontation between Rastafari and the police.

 

He wrote:
“Many months ago, Rudolph Franklin, one of the three Rastafarian brethren who was shot dead on Thursday, April 11, occupied a plot of land on the Rose Hall Estate. The headman of the property, Edward Fowler, who also died on April 11, brought a policeman to evict the brother off the land. The unarmed brother was shot six times by the police, and believed to be dead and was not taken to hospital until hours after. The brother recovered after months of medical treatment, although he was told by the doctor that he would live for only a short period. He was immediately sentenced to six months imprisonment on a charge of having ganja.”

 
It is said that upon his release from prison, Rudolph vowed revenge. He had had plastic surgery done to his stomach and reportedly had been told by the doctor that anytime the plastic rotted, he would die. This account was related several times and also by 76-year-old Isaac Wright (Bongo Isaac).
Rudolph felt very angry that he had been maliciously prosecuted, shot, seriously injured, tried, convicted and sentenced, for doing nothing wrong on his assessment.

 
Walter Brissett, one of the headmen of the Rose Hall property, in his interview in Bad Friday stated that Rudolph did nothing wrong.
On Friday, April 12, 1963 a gas station at Coral Gardens was burnt to the ground allegedly by “a group of Ras Tafarians”. The following day, Saturday, April 13, The Gleaner front-page headline read: “8 Killed after attack on gas station: Two policemen, three Ras Tafarians among the dead”.

 
From that report, the people killed were Assistant Superintendent Bertie Scott, Detective Corporal Clifford Melbourne, Kenneth Marsh, Edward Fowler (property headman at Rose Hall estate) and Albert Causewell (assistant in-bond shop manager).

 
Allegedly the group of Rastafari attacked and killed Edward Fowler while he was tying his goats. They allowed the attendant to flee, before dousing the station with gasoline from the pumps. A bystander and travelling salesman, Marsh went to look what was happening but was chased into a nearby motel where he had been staying and killed.

 
The police party which included civilians travelled in seven vehicles in search of the wanted Rastafarians. A violent confrontation ensued, resulting in the death of civilian Albert Causewell and Detective Corporal Clifford Melbourne. Later, a second police party went in hunt of the wanted Rastafarians. That encounter resulted in the death of Superintendent Scott and another Rastafarian from the group.

 
The response from the political directorate was immediate. A plane was commissioned to fly several people from Kingston to Montego Bay, including the Minister of Home Affairs, Roy McNeil, Member of Parliament for the area Dr Herbert Eldemire, Chief of Staff of the Jamaica Defence Force Brigadier Paul Crook, Commissioner of Police Noel Croswell, Senior Superintendent of Police Vincent Bunting, Superintendent of Police George Mullen, several top CID detectives and a detachment of the recently established Police Striking Force.

 
Later that day, nine motor units of the JDF which included two armoured vehicles, travelled to Montego Bay and a large contingent of soldiers were deployed to assist the police in the planned response to the events. Police officers were deployed from neighbouring parishes including Trelawny, Westmoreland and Hanover.

 
Civilians with private planes, namely Bobsie Henry and L L McGhie, joined the hunt. Private parties of civilians joined in the search for the wanted Rastafarians. One such party from Flower Hill was led by Holness Rhoden, who, it is said, shot one of the wanted Rastafarians (see Randal Mullings,

 

“The Demons of Rose Hall”, The Daily Gleaner, 28 March 1964, p 4).
The first media reports out of the incident called it an “uprising”. That was the term used by both JBC and RJR. The then Jamaica Labour Party-led Government took great offence at the description of the incident as an “uprising”, as it saw the use of that word as anti-Government.

 

 
Then Prime Minister Alexander Bustamante was flown to Montego Bay where he issued a statement calling for calm and explained that the situation was not an “uprising” but the outcome of a robbery attempt on a gas station (Voice newspaper, April 20, 1963). The then Minister of Development and Welfare Edward Seaga wrote to the chairmen of both JBC radio and RJR threatening that he would restrict broadcasts if they did not correct their “irresponsible statements” that the Coral Gardens affair was an uprising.

 

This led the JBC to issue an apology on April 29 for using the word “uprising”.

 
The Voice newspaper also reported that as at April 20, 1963, one week after the events, the police had already arrested over 160 Rastafarians following raids in four parishes. Rastafarians were also detained in Falmouth, Lucea and Cambridge. It is to be remembered that by that time, the police had already shot and killed three of the wanted men, and had already arrested Leabert Jarrett on April 11, and Clifton Larman and Carlton Bowen on April 13, 1963 and who were two of whom were later hanged.

 

 

 

 

 

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