Evening Sun Can’t Dry Clothes…

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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.

The Rastafari Report: An Academic Betrayal?

RRep1960

Ever since I heard Robert A. Hill’s lecture in April this year titled ‘The University Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, Jamaica: The half that has never been told’ I’ve wanted to blog about it. I started a post soon after but it remained a draft all this time because I felt quite inadequate to the task of conveying the brunt of what Bobby, a friend of many years standing, was saying.

Robert A. Hill, Professor Emeritus, UCLA; Director, Marcus Garvey Papers Project
Robert A. Hill, Professor Emeritus, UCLA; Director, Marcus Garvey Papers Project

That talk, sponsored by the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies (SALISES), where I happen to work, began with Bobby announcing:

What I’m going to talk about this evening might be rephrased as the hidden history of the University Report on the Rastafari Movement. It is hidden because in my view the report was based on considerable deception.  This was not my view going into this research, I’ve spent 6 years probing, researching, trying to understand how this report came to be. It’s only in the last two months that I felt ready to go public with my findings and this evening is the first time an audience will hear the findings and I leave it to you to make your own interpretations.

After that dramatic opening Professor Hill handed out timeline worksheets, essentially Xerox copies of  calendar pages with cells displaying the months April–October 1960 along with pens for those who didn’t have their own. It was important  Hill said, to keep track of the dates he was  going to talk about, the chronology being  important, “so that we are all, not just figuratively on the same page, but literally on the same page.”

The impact, influence and staying power of the Rastafari Report, he pointed out, has far outweighed any of the other reports emanating from the University, most of which are collecting dust today. Hill remembered seeing the report for the first time as a 17-year old. “It was like a meteor had crashed into the whole world. Jamaica has never been the same since that August day when i first saw it. ”

JPEG 1968 REPRINT OF REPORT ras daniel hartman cover - Copy

Although first published in August 1960 when Rastafari was spelt as two words ‘Ras Tafari’ most people are familiar with the ‘edited, redacted’ version reprinted in 1968 with a Ras Daniel Heartman image on the cover. There were many reprints thereafter with different covers like the one below, reprinted in 1975. What the reprints all have in common is that they spell ‘Rastafari’ as one word, again something pointed out by Hill in the course of his lecture.

RRep1975

The Report was a triumph for the Rastafari movement, Hill claimed. “I’m going to say very carefully that the Report was a propaganda victory for the Rastafari Movement…but I’m not using propaganda in its sinister sense, I’m using it in its classic sense, namely the propagation of one’s beliefs.” Hill then went on to recount how the Report ‘armed the mission’ sent by the Jamaican government to Addis Ababa in 1966 to initiate conversations about the repatriation of Rastafari to Africa.

The first date Hill asked his audience to note on their worksheets was the date renowned Nobel Laureate Arthur Lewis took up his position as Principal of the University of the West Indies. April 16, 1960.

This was where I gave up, unable as i said before, to succinctly convey the gravamen of what Robert Hill was suggesting. Months later I decided to ask Bobby for an interview thinking that would be the best way to capture the sensational charges he was making against the University of the West Indies. He obliged. The interview started modestly but soon swelled to 40 pages. I agonized again over how best to present such a long document here. Finally I realized the simplest way to accomplish this was to publish it as a WordPress ‘page’.

To fully understand some of the points Bobby raises in the interview its important to remember how feared, reviled and despised Rastafarians once were. You can get a good sense of this by reading Roger Mais’s Brotherman, a novel written in the 50s or from Deborah Thomas and Junior Wedderburn’s film Bad Friday, about the Coral Gardens massacre in the 60s. Even VS Naipaul, writing of his visit to Jamaica in 1960, in The Middle Passage, talks about the fear caused by militant Niyabinghi groups pledging ‘death to the whites.’

We’ve certainly come a long way from those days especially when you consider sentiments expressed at the opening of the Rastafari exhibition at the Institute of Jamaica on July 21, 2013.  “Rastafari is deeply connected to Brand Jamaica” said Lisa Hanna, Minister of Culture.  And at the closing ceremony of the Kingston-leg of the Rastafari Studies Conference and General Assembly, held on the campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, on August 15 Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said that Rastafari was “an important part of the image of brand Jamaica.”

Pariahs no more…the hidden history of the Rastafari and their relationship to the nation of Jamaica certainly is the perfect illustration of the biblical sentiment Bob Marley made so famous, “The stone that the builder refused, shall be the head cornerstone…

Well folks, it gives me great pleasure to present my interview with Professor Robert Hill, aptly titled Our Man in Mona. As Bobby said at the beginning of his SALISES lecture “I leave it to you to make your own interpretations.”  I find Bobby’s research and findings quite persuasive but I’m also willing to be persuaded by a counter-explanation of events that is as painstakingly researched and presented as his. In the meantime I thought it important to make this provocative hypothesis widely available to keep alive that spark of agonistic engagement so lacking in the public sphere today.

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?

Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica, Coral Gardens, Kerala and more…

Reflections on Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica, Coral Gardens, Kerala, India with some amazing film footage of the Jamaican visit.

Yesterday was the 45th anniversary of a historic moment in Jamaica. On April 21, 1966 His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia visited Jamaica to a tumultuous welcome, thrillingly captured in the film footage above. The Emperor might not have fully grasped what he meant to the Rastafarian community in Jamaica who regard his birth as the Second Coming itself. The passages below from the Wikipedia entry on him convey a sense of the excitement caused by the diminutive Emperor’s arrival in Jamaica:

Ricky Culture Mural of the Emperor and Empress at Ital Restaurant at Three Miles Roundabout
Another Ricky Culture mural depicting Emperor Selassie on horseback trampling the Pope

Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, and approximately one hundred thousand Rastafari from all over Jamaica descended on Palisadoes Airport in Kingston,[127] having heard that the man whom they considered to be their Messiah was coming to visit them. Spliffs[130] and chalices[131] were openly[132] smoked, causing “a haze of ganja smoke” to drift through the air.[133][134][135] Haile Selassie arrived at the airport but was unable to come down the mobile steps of the airplane, as the crowd rushed the tarmac. He then returned into the plane, disappearing for several more minutes. Finally, Jamaican authorities were obliged to request Ras Mortimer Planno, a well-known Rasta leader, to climb the steps, enter the plane, and negotiate the Emperor’s descent.[136] Planno re-emerged and announced to the crowd: “The Emperor has instructed me to tell you to be calm. Step back and let the Emperor land”.[137] This day is widely held by scholars to be a major turning point for the movement,[138][139][140] and it is still commemorated by Rastafarians as Grounation Day, the anniversary of which is celebrated as the second holiest holiday after 2 November, the Emperor’s Coronation Day.

From then on, as a result of Planno’s actions, the Jamaican authorities were asked to ensure that Rastafarian representatives were present at all state functions attended by His Majesty,[141][142] and Rastafarian elders also ensured that they obtained a private audience with the Emperor,[143] where he reportedly told them that they should not emigrate to Ethiopia until they had first liberated the people of Jamaica. This dictum came to be known as “liberation before repatriation”.

Haile Selassie defied expectations of the Jamaican authorities,[144] and never rebuked the Rastafari for their belief in him as the returned Jesus. Instead, he presented the movement’s faithful elders with gold medallions – the only recipients of such an honor on this visit.[145][146] During PNP leader (later Jamaican Prime Minister) Michael Manley’s visit to Ethiopia in October 1969, the Emperor allegedly still recalled his 1966 reception with amazement, and stated that he felt that he had to be respectful of their beliefs.[147] This was the visit when Manley received the Rod of Correction or Rod of Joshua as a present from the Emperor, which is thought to have helped him to win the 1972 election in Jamaica.

You can see from the numerous images of the Emperor on walls in Kingston, how much he is revered in the poorest of neighbourhoods

I find the film footage of Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica and his tour of the Jamaican parliament, the University of the West Indies, Montego Bay and other places in Jamaica tremendously moving. Scholars like Louis Lindsay have claimed that Jamaicans would never recieve African royalty as enthusiastically as they recieved the Queen of England. But the footage above gives the lie to that. It wasn’t only at his arrival by plane that throngs descended to get a view of him, everywhere he went in Jamaica vast numbers of excited people turned out to get a sight of his Imperial Majesty.

Curiously Emperor Haile Selassie also visited the land of my birth, Kerala, India, several times, the first time the year i was born, in 1956. No, he didn’t come to anoint me but came to see for himself the Orthodox Christians of Kerala, the Syrian Christians as they are known, the community that i happen to have been born into. Abraham Varghese, the author of bestseller God’s Own Country described the circumstances of the visit in an Observer article:

Whenever I hear the phrase “geography is destiny” I think of my parents, George and Mariam, schoolteachers from India, arriving in the misty mountain empire of Ethiopia in 1951 within two weeks of each other and not knowing a soul. They were there because another traveller, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, happened to be on a state visit to India shortly after his country was freed from Mussolini’s occupation. Haile Selassie, head of an ancient Christian nation surrounded on all sides by Muslim nations, knew of the legend of Saint Thomas’s arrival in south India, on Kerala’s shores (which took place 1,600 years before the Portuguese brought Catholicism to Goa). Saint Thomas made converts of the Brahmins he encountered. Their descendants, the Syrian Christians (so called because they owed their allegiance to the Church in Antioch) are the community to which my parents belong. The Emperor wanted to see those first churches, and his motorcade happened to drive through Kerala at the hour when the roads were thronged with legions of schoolkids in uniform.

It was that sight, so my parents say, that so impressed Haile Selassie that he hired all 400 of his first batch of teachers for the new schools he was building across the empire from this one state in India. To this day, almost every Ethiopian you meet abroad who is over 40 years of age will tell you that they had an Indian teacher in their school, someone with an Old Testament name such as Thomas, or Jacob, or Zachariah, or Verghese (the latter derived from Giorgis, or George). A change in their geography allowed Mariam Abraham and George Verghese to meet a few weeks after they arrived in Ethiopia and they eventually married. But it all began with what the emperor saw on a morning drive. The world turns on the smallest of things.

Teachers from Kerala are still imported into Ethiopia (one of my cousins taught there for many years) though i don’t know if they’re greeted with the gift of a gold sovereign anymore, as they used to be when Selassie ruled. Interestingly another Syrian Christian, Paul Verghese, who went on to become a Bishop (the Archbishop of Delhi of the Malankara Orthodox Church of India), was the Emperor’s personal aide for several years. In a long article chronicling the career of the Bishop there is an account of the relationship between the Emperor and the young man from Kerala who became his aide. In it I came across the passage below which i’m assuming refers to Jamaica and the Rastafarian community although some of the details seem hard to believe. Was there such a rebellion? Could it be a reference to the Coral Gardens Rebellion of 1963? Who was the Chief who chopped off the head of an orange and supposedly threatened the future Bishop? Will we ever know? At any rate its interesting to see how histories get garbled if not lost in translation:

But the average Ethiopian loved him, adored him, and one sect of people even believed that Hailie Sellassie was their prophet. Hailie Sellassie repeatedly told them that he was only an ordinary human being, but they wouldn’t accept it. They insisted that the prophecy specifically said that the prophet would deny that he was the prophet. Everything about Hailie Sellassis’s life fit the story of their Prophet. A group of such ‘believers’ rebelled against their government in an island state. They said that the Governor of that state had no authority over them; only Hailie Sellassie was their god-king. The Emperor sent Paul Verghese to this island state to tell them that Hailie Sellassie wanted them to know that the Emperor was not a prophet, as they had believed. After they heard the emissary, their Chief held an orange and a knife in his hands, chopped off the top of the orange, and threatened the messenger that his head could be chopped off just like that for bringing this ‘heresy!’ No, the Truth never appeals to blind fanatics! However, Paul Verghese wasn’t intimidated. He persisted and negotiated an end to the rebellion against the governor.

The Coral Gardens Rebellion (which happened on Good Friday, 1963), also referred to as the Coral Gardens Massacre because of the Jamaican State’s mass detention and torture of Rastafarians in its wake, was the subject of a public lecture yesterday by QC Hugh Small, just emerging from a starring role in the infamous Manatt Commission. It’s also the subject of a film called Bad Friday by Deborah Thomas, Junior Wedderburn and John Jackson. Listen to my interview with Deborah Thomas this Sunday at 10 am on The Silo, Newstalk 93 to learn more about Coral Gardens and what took place there nearly 50 years ago. There is also a book by a former policeman, Retired Detective Selbourne Reid, who gives an eyewitness account of the Rebellion.

I wonder if the survivors of the Coral Gardens Massacre, referred to as ‘the government-led pogrom’ by one testimonial, might have the right to claim compensation/reparation from the Jamaican government in the same way that the surviving Mau-Mau in Kenya are considering suing the UK government for the abuse meted out to them in the 1950s?