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?

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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.

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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.