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.

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?

Better CAN come: Interview with Storm Saulter

Interview with Storm Saulter

 

Storm do you plan to subtitle the film when it goes abroad or are you thinking primarily of a diaspora audience who are familiar w Patwa?

We will definitely subtitle the film. We have already done so in standard English. And are working on a Spanish version right now. Anywhere this film can go, we will do what’s necessary for it to be understood. Italian, German, Japanese. This has always been a project with international goals.

I loved when the camera panned to various creatures watching from the sidelines, the dog in the opening sequence, the lovely shot of lizard on banana leaf seen through the leaf, the ubiquitous rooster, I don’t remember all of them but there were several. Do you have a special relationship w animals? Only someone very sensitive to animals would have included their viewpoint…Also it suggests to me that you’re emphasizing the fact that the subjects of the film, i.e. human beings, are just another type of animal? Or maybe I’m reading too much into all this?

Your thoughts are correct. We are all animals living within a social jungle, which can be vicious and deadly, i.e.  Ras David’s brutal murder, or calm and still, i.e. the Lizard on the leaf.  These shots are cut together to illustrate that point. I do love animals, and the simplicity of their motives. They need food, shelter, security, just like humans, minus the ego.

Remarkable set of actors you found. Was it a deliberate move to use relatively unknown ones as opposed to the usual cast of characters we see in play after play and film after film?

It is always a joy for me as a creator, and a viewer, to discover fresh talent. These actors come with no lingering image of a previous performance. The audience will be committed to them that much more, and believe their screen characters to be more real. And of course, these actors were excellent; they all brought something unexpected to their roles. This was the first film for all of them. I am very proud to have worked with them. And I will continue to do so.

The music you used was brilliant, it complemented the film rather than attracted attention to itself. The flute music, was that native American music? it sounded like music I’ve heard by the Native Flute ensemble….you didn’t hesitate to use music from elsewhere right?

The flute was played by my father Bertram Saulter. So was the harmonica, which became a thematic sound in the film. The original Score was created by Wayne Armond and Marlon Stewart-Gaynor. Additional music from Earl “Chinna” Smith, and the internationally renowned Canadian producer Daniel Lanois (U2) blessed us with some experimental tracks. I never wanted in-your-face
Songs, but rather to create subtle soundscapes that would fill the air and build ambience to accompany the visual, rather than compete with it.

I noticed a special focus on Rastafari, btw I found the final scene incredibly poetic and haunting, when Ricky’s spirit swims away shaking his locks, it made a tragic moment, one of hope and optimism of a rebirth. I like the fact that the film wasn’t literal like many other Jamaican films have been. One can’t talk about the end too much because it would act as a spoiler, the film’s power lies in the build-up towards the climax, you really captured your audience and swept it along with you…so have you flirted with Rastafari yourself? Are you sympathetic?

I am sympathetic to the original ideals of Rastafari. The importance of self respect, and seeking knowledge of the true state of things. Though nowadays there are many criminals and degenerates within “Rastaman” ranks, who have completely diluted the potency of the message. My parents were Rastafari, and I believe still are in their hearts. I feel Rasta has had a positive impact worldwide but never truly discovered its potential coming out of the 70’s. There are many confused people claiming to be messengers of Rastafari nowadays. But I do recognize the ability of Rasta philosophy to have positive impact on at-risk youth.

That beautiful coastline the camera looks down on at the beginning and end, where is that? Is it Negril?

No, that is the rocky south coastline, very similar to the conditions in the area of the Green Bay Military Outpost.

Finally the film was shot in Sandy Park and even includes a resident who acted one of the key roles. How did the community fare in the recent rains? Are they ok?

Sandy Park is a very strong community, full of talented people. Typical of almost any Jamaican Community, but there is an undeniable creative spirit thriving in that place. They experienced a serious tragedy in the recent flooding, losing an entire family of 6, including 4 children, when the gully gave way on the morning of Wednesday, September 29th.  As they mourned their loss, they also finally had the opportunity to celebrate this film that we all worked on, and have been anticipating. With the range of emotion they have been going through, the people of Sandy Park are still truly smiling, and rejoicing life, in the face of sudden death, it is something you have to learn to do living in a ghetto reality. Too many Jamaicans have to master that skill. Sandy Park was the backbone of this production, and the young talent rising out of there, particularly Ricardo ‘Flames’ Orgill, and Dwayne ‘Dogheart’ Pusey, is the truly inspiring story in this whole movement.

One concern I have is that foreign audiences might not be familiar enough with events here to follow the story. For instance the trauma of Green Bay may only resonate w Jamaicans. Do you see that as something that might prevent the global success of BMC?

Better Mus’ Come is ultimately a human story, the story of a man faced with hard choices, in a hard time. This is a universal story, and I hope that this will resonate despite the specifics of that event. Millions of people all over the world are interested in Jamaica. For our cultural impact, our impact on sports etc. They all tuned in to follow the events of our recent State of Emergency. This film is the best description of the link between politics and gangs, as well as a study of the root causes of our instability, and the issues that influenced our most successful creative statements ( Bob Marley’s music amongst others). I believe there is ample reason for this film to be an international success.
BETTER MUS COME!