A visit to Rev Claudius Henry’s church, Sandy Bay, Jamaica

In which i visit a small church steeped in Jamaican history, which once attempted to mount the only modern-day guerilla activity in independent Jamaica

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On Saturday I accompanied my friend Deborah Thomas, author of Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica and Modern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, to a church service in Sandy Bay, Clarendon. Deb is now researching the International Peacemakers’ Association of the African Reform Church which once ran one of the island’s black-owned bakeries, making their communities self-sufficient until political interference forced their closure. Although they don’t wear the customary locks and other outward symbols of Rastafari the roots of this Church are firmly entwined with the history of Rasta.

The leader of the church was one Reverend Claudius Henry, who also led the so-called Henry Rebellion in 1959, the only full-fledged guerilla movement to be found in independent Jamaica. Today a handful of his aged supporters keep the faith alive. According to one narrative:

“This religious group was linked with the First Africa Corps, a militant group from New York that got its weapons from bank robberies that were masterminded by a black policeman. The First Africa Corps and the ARC-militants joined forces in a guerrilla training camp in the Red Hills of Jamaica. Overcoming a preemptive police raid in which Claudius was arrested (based on intelligence from New York handed over to British authorities), Claudius’s son took over the movement. His armed group had one violent confrontation with the police, in which two British soldiers were killed.”

In his book about Walter Rodney’s intellectual and political thought Professor Rupert Lewis writes of accompanying Rodney on a visit to Henry’s church in 1968. By then according to Lewis Henry had  shifted his ‘Back to Africa’ position to one that emphasized ‘building Africa in Jamaica’. In this context the black nationalist evangelist leader (who had been released from prison in 1966) had turned his church into a religious and entrepreneurial centre with a blockmaking factory, a farm and a bakery. Lewis writes:

“Henry’s lieutenants gave Rodney a tour of the premises. The church was packed and the drumming was powerfu. Henry was not a moving speaker but he was held in respect and the fact that he had been to prison and been a target of political harassment gave him standing as a prophet among his followers. At that time Henry claimed some 4000 followers, of whom, 1000 were active members in his organisation.”

In a letter written after Rodney was exiled from Jamaica, he wrote:

“At Kemp’s Hill…Rev. Henry has gathered together a number of black brothers and sisters, and they have turned themselves into an independent black community. In less than a year they built themselves an attractive church and several dwelling houses, all of concrete for they make the concrete building blocks. They have proper plumbing and electricity and in case the local supplies are inadequate they have their own water tanks and electrical generator. They operated a fish shop from the outset and later they set up a bakery. In spite of massive persecution by the government, the police and the army, the Henry community has extended to several other parts of the island…”

Other scholars who’ve written about Claudius Henry are Brian Meeks in his book Narratives of Resistance and Anthony Bogues in Black Heretics, Black Prophets. The question is who will keep his memory alive once the small band of followers left in Sandy Bay are no more?

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

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