My Gleaner column of April 12, 2017
Reparation begins at home and last week’s unprecedented government apology to Rastafari for the Coral Gardens ‘incident’—really an attempted pogrom or ethnic cleansing by the state—is a good beginning. In the years just before independence there was a worry that Marxist extremists, emboldened by Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista in Cuba in 1959, might influence militant Rastas to do the same in Jamaica.
It might seem preposterous today but in 1960 a Rastafarian elder named Reverend Claudius Henry wrote a letter to Castro asking for help in overthrowing the “oppressors” in Jamaica. This was followed by his son, a Black nationalist activist from the USA, Ronald Henry, and members of his First Afrika Corps who had established a military training camp in a remote area in the Red Hills, ambushing and killing two Royal Hampshire Marines. In an interview I did with Professor Robert Hill some years ago he said that for the next six days they were hunted down in the largest search operation that Jamaica had ever witnessed with close to a thousand military and police taking part in the search.
Norman Manley was then the Premier of Jamaica and his security adviser was the noted anthropologist MG Smith. According to Hill Smith viewed the Rastafari as a serious security threat, describing the situation thus in a letter: “Revolution becomes Redemption with Repatriation as the issue provoking bloodshed. The Marxist vanguard wears a Niyabingi cloak.”
Of course anyone who knows Rastafari today realizes how remote such an eventuality really was. But in those days Rastas were seen as disreputable, dangerous thieves and murderers both by the PNP, the JLP and the middle and upper classes generally, mainly because with their dreadlocks, their vernacular speech and smoking of ganja the brethren violated every aspect of the codes of respectability and faux gentility the upper crust lived by.
The persecution of Rastafari by the state started way back in the 30s when according to the Observer: “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…The police 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.”
By the time of the Coral Gardens events in 1963, the Jamaica Labour Party was in power and plans were afoot to develop prime St James properties into exclusive enclaves for tourists.The problem was that these were areas co-inhabited by Rastas and it was feared tourists might be alarmed by sightings of the unshorn bredren. On April 11, 1963, there was a series of incidents in Coral Gardens resulting in the burning down of a gas station and the death of 8 people, including two policemen. According to Professor Horace Campbell the Jamaican state used the altercation at Coral Gardens, to mount a violent campaign against the Rastafarian community in Western Jamaica.
“The brethren had claimed freedom of movement for themselves and for other oppressed Jamaicans. They were being prevented from walking along the areas of the Coast close to the Half Moon Bay Hotel. These areas were being segregated in order to make the Montego Bay area ready for international investments in tourism.”
The biggest landowner in St James in those days was Sir Francis Moncrieff Kerr-Jarrett. “He continuously petitioned the Governor and the colonial office to clamp down on the Rastafari who he described as ‘an undesirable sect’ saying that the governor should do everything to discourage their activities During the latter years of the fifties, Kerr Jarrett was behind one of the conservative movements to appear in Jamaica under the guise of Moral Rearmament. In the years 1951-1960 he was the principal patron of this conservative cold war pseudo-religious movement. Through the activism of Kerr Jarrett, the colonial special branch police had placed numerous Rastafari camps under surveillance and had used the Vagrancy laws of the period of enslavement against the camps of the Rastafari.”
This is the background to the explosion that took place at Coral Gardens that fateful day in April 1963. It is surely one of the finest ironies that 55 years later the Jamaican tourist product is inconceivable without the accompanying image and sound of Rastafari. We have lived long enough to see Bob Marley’s words come true: “the stone that the builder refused, shall be the head cornerstone.”
The government’s apology comes not a moment too late but the accompanying offer of reparation in the sum of $10 million dollars seems paltry. It is too little, too late and exemplifies that wonderful saying “Evening sun can’t dry clothes.”
As Bunny Wailer exclaimed on Facebook:
“AFTER RASTAFARI CREATE BILLIONS OF WEALTH FOR BRAND JAMAICA, THEM WANT OFFER RASTA $10,000,000 DOLLARS? $10,000,000 DOLLARS is what its costing just to produce my One Love Tribute Show! Its A Disgrace When I First Heard It & It’s No Less Now!”
What the Rastafari always wanted was land to live and grow on. If money is in short supply, why can’t the Government make up the shortfall by apportioning land to them? There’s certainly plenty of land lying idle all around the island; this would go much further toward repairing the wounds of yesterday and also prove that the apology is sincere.