Marcus Garvey and the Early
Rastafarians: Continuity and


This chapter examines political aspects of the origins of the Rastafarian movement at a time when the Garvey movement was in decline in the 1930s.  Its main intentions are to underscore ways in which Garveyism has affected the evolution of Rastafari and to identify the many similarities and differences that exist between the two anticolonial ideologies.  Many interpretations of the origins of Rastafari have focused on two events during this period: the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 and Marcus Mosiah Garvey's writings on the significance of this coronation for people of African descent.

In his capacity as president general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Garvey sent a cable to His Majesty Ras Tafari that read "Greetings from Ethiopians of [the] Western World.  May your reign be peaceful, prosperous, progressive.  Long live your Majesty."1  That communique was printed in the New York-based Negro World newspaper on November 8, 1930.  On that same day, Garvey published an article in his Jamaican newspaper, The Blackman, that read:

Last Sunday, a great ceremony took place at Addis Ababa, the capital of Abyssinia.  It was the coronation of the new Emperor of Ethiopia -- Ras Tafari.  From reports and expectations, the scene was one of great splendor, and will long be remembered by those who were present.  Several of the leading nations of Europe sent representatives to the coronation, thereby paying their respects to a rising Negro nation that is destined to play a great part in the future history of the world.  Abyssinia is the land of the blacks and we are glad to learn that even though Europeans have been trying to impress the Abyssinians that they are not belonging to the Negro Race, they have learned the retort that they are, and they are proud to be so.

Ras Tafari has traveled to Europe and America and is therefore no stranger to European hypocrisy and methods; he, therefore, must be regarded as a kind of a modern Emperor, and from what we understand and know of him, he intends to introduce modern methods and systems into his country.  Already he has started to recruit from different sections of the world competent men in different branches of science to help to develop his country to the position that she should occupy among the other nations of the world.

We do hope that Ras Tafari will live long to carry out his wonderful intentions.  From what we have heard and what we do know, he is ready and willing to extend the hand of invitation to any Negro who desires to settle in his kingdom.  We know of many who are gone to Abyssinia and who have given good report of the great possibilities there, which they are striving to take advantage of.

The Psalmist prophesied that Princes would come out of Egypt and Ethiopia would stretch forth her hands unto God.  We have no doubt that the time is now come. Ethiopia is now really stretching forth her hands.  This great kingdom of the East has been hidden for many centuries, but gradually she is rising to take a leading place in the world and it is for us of the Negro race to assist in every way to hold up the hand of Emperor Ras Tafari.2

I have quoted the full text of Garvey's article on the coronation because often commentators refer only to the last paragraph and stress the religious, prophetic dimension, that of a prince coming out of Egypt and Ethiopia stretching out its hands to God (Psalm 68:31), at the expense of other aspects of Garvey's thinking.3   But Garvey addressed many issues: the attempts by Europeans to separate Ethiopia from the rest of Africa, European attendance at the coronation and its impact, the coronation as a symbol of black pride, and, most important, Garvey's expression of hope for a reign based on modernity within the framework of Pan-African solidarity.  In Garvey's thinking and work, Ethiopianism functioned in accordance with his strong modernizing Pan-African outlook.

The emphasis placed on the coronation of Haile Selassie I was important in a colony where the British monarchy was the supreme symbol of power.  In the UNIA, Garvey always emphasized a counterhegemonic perspective against European domination and exploitation of Africa.  Consistent with this approach, he had written and produced a play, in June 1930, titled The Coronation of an African King, which had scenes set in several African, European, and West Indian capitals.  The play was also a dramatic portrayal of the UNIA's work and the attempts by the U.S. and European governments to stem the tide of the Garvey movement.4

Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica in 1914.  It took off in the United States in the period after World War I and became the largest Pan-African movement of the early twentieth century.  The Garvey movement saw its heyday in the early 1920s, but by the late 1920s and early 1930s it was already in decline.  Nonetheless, Garvey and the leaders of the UNIA represented early twentieth-century Black Nationalist leadership that mobilized the masses around a program of cultural, economic, and political modernity.   They advocated an end to colonialism in Africa and the Caribbean and envisioned the eventual development of the African continent into a modern network of nations that would constitute a United States of Africa.  The models for this network of nations were the United States of America and western Europe.  In this respect, the Garveyites were an "African Westernizing elite."  As African descendants, they claimed the heritage of early African civilization, but they also valued the achievements of the world that had enslaved and colonized them (the so-called Babylon), while rejecting its racial assumptions and notions of their subordinate position within that world.


That Rastafari and Garveyism share many similarities is well known among their adherents, as well as among scholars who do research on these movements.  Both movements are Afrocentric and unapologetically defend the beauty and dignity of Africa and people of African ancestry.  While Garvey emphasized Africa's social and political redemption, Rastas include in that agenda a spiritual dimension, which they often clothe in Judeo-Christian thought and African concepts.  Both Garveyism and Rastafari show great respect for the Bible and attempt to distance themselves from biased, Eurocentric interpretations of Scripture that contribute to the oppression of black people.  Ken Post, whose work on Rastafari is well known, has stressed the importance of the Bible in Jamaican culture and Rastafari, pointing out that "the religious factor which Jamaicans of all classes had in common was the King James Version of the Holy Bible.  For the majority of members of the lower and many of the intermediate classes, the contents of this book represented the essential truth.  People were accustomed to search the Bible for answers to their problems."5

His love for and frequent citations of passages from the Bible notwithstanding, Garvey was less interested in giving a theological or religious interpretation to his Afrocentric political ideology than the Rastafarians have shown themselves to be.  Garvey and the Rastafarians, however, both read the Bible with the knowledge that Africa and Africans had been a part of that recorded experience and wisdom; it is not a book that is alien to black people.  The most well known Marcus Garvey scholar in the United States, Robert Hill, has argued that the Holy Piby and the Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy are the two books that provide "the actual interpretative basis of Rastafari ideology."6  These were introduced into Jamaica between 1925 and 1927.7  Along with the Bible and the oral traditions, they are among a variety of sources that have helped to shape Rastafarian beliefs.  Other scholars have examined the history of Rastafari in this context, explored its origins8 in the peasantry, and also emphasized the impact of traditional Afro-Jamaican religions, such as revivalism and Kumina,9 on the evolution of Rastafari.  Maureen Warner-Lewis, an authority on Caribbean culture, has pointed to the wide range of African continuities in the Rastafarian belief system.10

Historically, Garveyism and Rastafari were both started by a person who was unknown and rather insignificant, at first, and both movements were later exported from Jamaica to other countries under the harsh economic and political conditions of the early twentieth century.  Whereas Garveyism first surfaced in Jamaica during World War I, Rastafari came out of the depression years of the 1930s, which gave birth to the 1938 labor rebellion.  As in Garveyism, the Jamaican roots of Rastafari are to be found in the varied cultural, economic, and political struggles of the Jamaican people in the post emancipation years after 1838.  Both movements are committed to an ideology of nationalism that supports political and economic independence for Blacks.  That is, they both demonstrate a strong anticolonial stance and show interest in national independence, although they have very different interpretations of what a black independent nation should be.

Both movements gained their popularity abroad before they were accepted at home by the Jamaican middle class, from whom they received much hostility.  Garveyism got its early support in Harlem before it was endorsed in Jamaica in the 1920s.  Leonard Howell, who is regarded as one of the founders of the Rastafarian movement, first gained a following in the rural parish of St. Thomas and later, in the parish of St. Catherine, set up a commune called Pinnacle, which was constantly under pressure from the authorities in the 1940s and 1950s.  In 1954 the commune was broken up by the police.11   Thus Rastafari's acceptance in Jamaica, especially among the middle class, came only after the university study of 1961, Prime Minister Michael Manley's political interest in and sympathy toward the Rastas, and the reggae explosion of the 1970s.   Both Garvey and Howell were, over the course of their careers, arrested and imprisoned on charges of conspiracy, the former in the United States and the latter in Jamaica.  Yet, despite the hostile attitudes of the Jamaican society to Garveyism and Rastafari, the 1930s ushered in a period of transition between colonialism and the rise of Jamaican nationalism -- due in no small measure to the struggles of both the Rastafarians and the Garveyites.

Rastafarian intellectuals construct a lineage going back beyond the plantation to Ethiopia, and many Rastafarian elders emphasize individual spiritual vision to account for the origins of their conversion.12  Many versions of the 1930s emergence of Rastafari are proffered other than those that have become standard in scholarly works.  However, certain basic facts remain undisputed.  That several of Garvey's followers were involved in the founding of Rastafari is common knowledge.  Leonard Howell, for example, traveled paths similar to Garvey and was a known Garveyite and Africanist.  Coming from a poor rural background, Howell joined the thousands of Jamaicans who migrated to Panama and then to the United States, where he worked with the United States Army as a cook and was said to have had a business in New York.  Garvey did not work with the army but made Harlem, New York, his headquarters.   Hill notes that Howell's return to Jamaica "coincided with the period of marked upsurge in religious revivalism that began during 1930-31."13 The Gleaner of December 1933 alleged that at Howell's meetings, "devilish attacks are made ... on government, both local and imperial, and the whole conduct of the meeting would tend to provoke an insurrection if taken seriously."14


Although the Garveyite secular-religious interpretation of the coronation of Ras Tafari and the Rastafarian religious view of that event both originated from a similar Africa-centered tradition, they are not identical.   Garvey saw in Selassie an African head of state and someone who could be a major player in the Pan-African Black Nationalist movement; but the Rastafarian interpretation of the emperor recognized divinity.  To the Rastafarian way of thinking, no contradiction exists between the secular and the religious elements in Garvey's thinking, nor in his emphases regarding the emperor's coronation.  They interpret the whole of Garvey's thoughts from a theocratic point of view.  In contrast, Garvey privileged a secular approach, with a preference for modernity over theocracy.  So when Garvey later criticized Emperor Haile Selassie for his conduct in Ethiopia's war with Italy, he saw the emperor as a ruler, not as God.  Rastafarians, by contrast, saw God in the emperor; Haile Selassie is God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  The coronation therefore inspired the emergence of the Rastafarian movement in ways that Garvey never envisioned.  Rastas fused ancient Hebrew prophecy, so common in Garvey's speeches, with Africanist ideas15 and gave rise to the most influential cultural and spiritual current to have emerged in the Caribbean in this century.16

The differences between the Garveyites and the Rastafarians involve not only Garvey's ideological stance but also the social character of the movement he led and the religious outlook of the early Rastafarians.   The early Rastas were drawn predominantly from the African Jamaican underclass, and the religious character and cultural and social practices of early Rastafari are characteristic of the Jamaican peasantry.17   The style, organizational structures, and practices of the Garvey movement had the stamp of the emergent black petite bourgeoisie or middle class.  At the same time, the Jamaican government had supporters drawn from the peasantry but did not attract many followers from the UNIA.18   In the UNIA, one felt the energy of a group of Blacks repressed by colonialism and American racism but determined to resist and take its place in the world through conventional means, rather than by way of a radical break with Western culture, as advocated by Rastafari.  Around the black middle-class thinking and leadership, the black masses coalesced.

The anticolonial content of Howell's preaching was clear in his message that black people's only true king was Emperor Haile Selassie.19  But Garvey did not approve of Howell's teaching and rejected his claims that Selassie was God.   As Hill reports, Garvey refused to allow Howell "to sell the Emperor's pictures in Edelweiss Park, the [Jamaican] headquarters of the UNIA."20  Garvey found many of Howell's doctrines embarrassing to his own Christian thought, especially on the issues of God and the Messiah.  There is little evidence that Garvey read Howell's Promised Key, but if he had, he would have found this early Rastafari prophet's interpretation of Bible characters and the Christian church (especially the Roman Catholic Church) highly offensive; Garvey's respect for the Bible is unquestioned.

Another Garveyite associated with the early Rastafarians is Robert Hinds, a follower of Alexander Bedward who was among those arrested on Bedward's 1921 march against oppression and his call for spiritual reform.   Chevannes calls Hinds "the most successful of all early Rastafari, in terms of membership....  Hinds led an organization of over eight hundred members on roll, and turnout at functions of a couple hundred."  Hinds's headquarters was called the King of Kings Mission, and "it was organized along the lines of a Revival group."21   Again, the connection between Bedwardism, revivalism, and early Rastafari is patently clear.  Also, like both Bedward and Garvey, Hinds had the ability to attract a large following.

The 1935 Italian war against Ethiopia gave Rastafari one of its most important impulses.  Not only were Rastafarians and Garveyites protesting publicly in Kingston, but the wider black community was also opposed to Italy's aggression.  The Garvey-oriented newspaper Plain Talk reported that "a group of Jamaicans had decided to launch a series of meetings throughout the Island, for the purpose of getting together a battalion of stalwart men to defend the Ethiopian frontier from the Italian invaders," and that the contingent would be assisted by a black organization in Chicago.22  Amy Jacques Garvey, wife of Marcus Garvey, delivered the main address at a mass meeting in support of Ethiopia at the Kingston Liberty Hall on October 13, 1935.  She concluded that the war would result in the "rising up of the people of Africa in one great effort to emancipate themselves."23  At this rally, "a petition signed by no fewer than 1400 persons was drafted asking the British Government to allow Jamaicans to enlist in the Ethiopian army so as 'to fight to preserve the glories of our ancient and beloved Empire'."24   This petition was sent to the British colonial secretary, who represented the custodian of Jamaica's national and international defense.  However, the British government did not accede to the suggestions of the Jamaica Garveyites; in fact, one British official "wrote contemptuously of the 'bellicose sons of Ham in Jamaica, so anxious to serve two masters'."25

The Rastafarians showed their opposition to the Italians in different ways.  Several Rasta groups demonstrated in Kingston, while others voiced their defiance through a variety of approaches.  According to Randolph Williams, "There were sections that wanted to send a petition to His Majesty the King of England praying that they be allowed to recruit men in Jamaica to be sent to Abyssinia to do service in the Ethiopian ranks, others wished to collect money to send to Ras Tafari to be used for the purchase of arms, some decided upon just praying three times per day for the triumph of Abyssinia."26   In Montego Bay, on the western end of the island, about two thousand persons demonstrated against Italian aggression.  Similar protests took place in Guyana, Barbados, Trinidad, St. Kitts, and other West Indian territories.

The Garveyite newspaper Plain Talk was commended by Dr. Malaku Bayen,27 Haile Selassie's personal representative in the United States, who was in charge of organizing the Ethiopian World Federation.  Early Rastafarian leaders Joseph Nathaniel Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley, and many other Rastas were foundation members of the first local branch of the Ethiopian World Federation to be set up in Jamaica.  But Garvey himself was very hostile in his criticism of Haile Selassie.  As early as October 1935, Garvey had argued that the Italo-Ethiopian war "affords only another example of what unpreparedness means to a people."  Less than two years later he stated the following in his main critique of the emperor:

He kept his country unprepared for modern civilization, whose policy was strictly aggressive.  He resorted sentimentally to prayer and to feasting and fasting, not consistent with the policy that secures the existence of present-day freedom for people whilst other nations and rulers are building up armaments of the most destructive kind as the only means of securing peace ... and protection....  The results show that God had nothing to do with the campaign of Italy in Abyssinia, for on the one side we had the Pope of the Catholic Church blessing the Crusade, and the other, the Coptic Church fasting and praying with confidence of victory....  It is logical therefore that God did not take sides, but left the matter to be settled by the strongest human battalion.28

At the very beginning of the Rastafarian movement, Garvey challenged Leonard Howell's claim that Selassie was divine.  Garvey respected the emperor only for the important role he saw him playing in African politics at the time; but he criticized Selassie openly for his political ineptitude and his defense of his Semitic ancestry at the expense of his African heritage.  Not surprisingly, Garvey's attitude toward Haile Selassie was bitterly criticized by his opponents, as well as by some of his supporters, in correspondence and articles to Plain Talk.29  Some of the opposition to Garvey derived from the view that the emperor was a descendant of King Solomon and therefore untouchable.  The power of the Hebrew Bible record was often invoked in the interpretation of the Emperor's ancient lineage.  Others felt that Garvey's criticisms were simply unfair.30   No doubt exists that Garvey lost support among his followers as a result of his criticisms.  However, his work and his reputation after his death caused him to become a prophet to Rastafarians and a national hero in Jamaican society.31

Although the Garveyites and the early Rastafarians were minority groups in Jamaica in the 1930s, they were at the forefront of the challenge to Jamaica's colonial mentality.  Rastafari therefore represents an important dimension of popular resistance to British colonialism, the plantation system, as well as the authority of British-oriented mulatto and black middle-class values.   However, to frame the oppositionist posture of Rastafari in relation to the more privileged classes is to see it conveniently in a one-sided way, when, in fact, it has challenged the values not only of the privileged but also of the underprivileged who accept colonial values.  The Rastafarian's "chanting down Babylon" is, therefore, directed at all segments of the Jamaican society that cradle and foster the beliefs that sustain black subordination.

Garveyism and Rastafari are the results of distinct social movements that overlap on certain ideas and personalities and differ in other respects.  For example, while Garveyites shared a similar perspective on Africa to that of the Rastafarians, they differed over Selassie's divinity.  For Garvey, Selassie was a secular figure, not a religious one, and absolutely not God.   Garveyism was broader than Rastafari in social appeal and included a strong element of middle-class Blacks of that era, though it also attracted a strong working-class and rural following.  By contrast, Rastafari was definitely rooted in the lower socioeconomic classes.  It was a movement among the Jamaican poor, unmediated.   The infusion of the middle class into Rastafari came with Black Power in the 1960s.   In this regard, the theme of nationhood articulated by Garvey and other nationalists came into conflict with the theme of repatriation that was strongly held by Rastafarians.

The imperative of repatriation among Rastafarians reflected trends all over the Americas, as witnessed in both the mythic and the physical return of Brazilian and Cuban Blacks to West Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,32 as well as in the repatriationist efforts in the United States during the same period.   This trend was also strong in Garvey's successful efforts in establishing UNIA branches in Lesotho, Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Namibia, and South Africa.33  In 1961 the government of Jamaica appointed a mission to Africa that included Garveyites such as Z. Munroe Scarlett and Rastafarians Mortimo Planno, D. Mack, and Filmore Alvaranga.   Their report helped to shape the policy of the Jamaican government in setting up diplomatic relations with independent African states, in providing solidarity in the struggle against colonial rule, and in securing land in Ethiopia, where a Jamaican settlement still exists.

The religious character of Rastafari is partly due to the way Jamaican people have identified with and appropriated the Hebrew Scriptures and have seen themselves as the Israelites.  The oppression of the Middle Passage, slavery, and the brutal postemancipation treatment of the peasantry, when linked to Africa-centered traditions of racial consciousness, led some Jamaicans to identify themselves strongly with the suffering ancient Israelites.  While sharing in this religious perspective and drawing on it, Garvey was more secular in his program, policy positions, and outlook than that theological tradition.  Garveyism was a program of political, economic, social, and cultural modernity.  While incorporating basic fundamental Christian principles, it had to admit to more than one belief system because the Pan-African movement that the UNIA represented had believers drawn from different religious and spiritual persuasions.  Among the Garveyites were adherents of the many varieties of African Caribbean and African American Christian religions, as well as of orthodox Christian religions and of Islam.  Garvey himself was brought up as a Methodist and had some association with Catholicism.  During his heyday, Garvey was a Christian,34 albeit a nondenominational one, who advocated the perception of God in our own image.  This contrasts sharply with the Rastafarian belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie.

Another important difference between Garvey and Rastafarians lies in their views on ganja, which is used ritually and socially by Rastafarians.35  An editorial titled "The Dangerous Weed" that appeared in Garvey's New Jamaican on August 13, 1932, leaves the reader in no doubt as to where he stood on this matter:

Ganja is a dangerous weed.  It has been pronounced so by responsible authorities.  The smoking of it does a great deal of harm or injury to the smoker; we understand it has the same effect on the subject as opium has.  Every day we hear of cases of ganja sellers being brought before the Court -- fines, small and heavy, have been inflicted with the object of destroying the trade, but yet it grows.  The other day a man was found in possession of ninety pounds of ganja, this was enough deadly weed to destroy a thousand men.  That our people are being destroyed by the use of ganja there is absolutely no doubt.  We have come in contact with young men and middle aged men who have become a menace to society through the smoking of ganja.  Sometimes they perform in such a crazy manner as to frighten us.   Aren't we playing with the danger by not more severely putting it down?

Most of the people who smoke ganja do so as a means of getting themselves in such a state or condition as to forget their troubles and worries -- troubles and worries brought upon them by the bad conditions that exist in the country....  It would be good that more serious steps be taken to suppress this ganja habit....  Between ganja and fanatical religion, we are developing a large population of half-crazy people who may not only injure themselves but injure us.  Some will do it in the name of the "Lord" and others may do it under the influence of the evil weed.36

This position brought Garvey into conflict with those who advocated and practiced the ritual, sacramental use of ganja, as well as with those who traded in it. (Jamaica had several herbalists who sold many herbs for various maladies and not as drug dealers.)  But while Garveyism inspired the prophetic and Ethiopianist vision of the Rastafarians, who hail Garvey as a great hero and prophet of Rastafari, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist stood in strong opposition to the Rastas' fundamental beliefs and practices.  He saw their rituals and livity as un-Christian and degrading to the true African personality.

Another significant difference between the Rastafari and the Garvey movement is that the latter was institutionalized and centralized through the UNIA, while the Rastafarian movement is not an institutionalized and centralized establishment.  Attempts by Rastafarians to centralize the movement have proven dismal failures, although no doubt efforts will continue to be made in that direction.  There is no central leadership or hierarchy that makes decisions for the movement, and the various groups exercise a tremendous measure of independence.   Perhaps their only uniting principle is the belief in Selassie and Ethiopianism.

On the one hand, Garvey does have the status of a prophet in the Rastafarian worldview, and in some ways, Garveyism has influenced the Rastafarian ideology.  Indeed, Garveyism is said to be one of the ideological foundations of the Rastafari religion,37 a result of the cross-pollination that occurred between the Garvey movement and those who have been identified by scholars as the founders of Rastafari.  On the other hand, Rastafari was not a product of the Garvey movement.  The spread of Garveyism corresponds with black militancy after World War I -- as seen, for example, in the labor movements among the Oil Fields Workers Trades Union, led by Uriah Buzz Butler and Captain Author Cipriani of Trinidad and Tobago -- and depended on the success of Garvey in organizing and channeling that radicalism in Jamaica and parts of the United States.   The spread of Rastafari outside of Jamaica in the late twentieth century has a different vehicle -- that of reggae music and the dreadlocks images associated with Bob Marley.

Given Jamaica's class, color, and race structure, some Garveyites from the middle class held Rastafarians in contempt, and certainly did not subscribe to any notion of the divinity of Haile Selassie.  Garvey further differentiated himself from Bedwardism38 and revivalism.  Bedwardism took the name of its founder, Alexander Bedward (1859-1930), a revival preacher who had been a migrant in Panama and whose headquarters were in August Town (near the Mona sugar estate).  The crucial years for Bedwardism were the 1890s to the 1920s, and its primary supporters were the poor underclass.  The Garvey movement, by contrast, was multiclass in its social composition and drew from the black petite bourgeoisie or the emergent middle class: teachers, journalists, small businesspeople, black industrial workers in the United States, and sugar plantation and banana workers in Cuba and the Caribbean, most of whom were peasants.  Each of these groups brought to the Garvey movement their view of the world, their distinct interests, and their common experiences of racial oppression.

As with any nationalist movement having a cross-class composition, conflict was inevitable in the Garvey movement and emerged when the early Rastafarians objected to Garvey's criticism of Emperor Haile Selassie's style of leadership in the war with Italy in the 1930s.  But even earlier, Garvey had been critical of revivalist practices, Obeah (not in modern Rastafari), and the smoking of ganja.  An editorial in the New Jamaican, commenting on a woman who died after "catching the spirit" in the spirit possession of revivalism," clearly represented Garvey's views: "There is good and there is bad in religion.  Some religions are foolish, and we have a lot of them in Jamaica.  We have religion here, that is running the people crazy....  In different sections of our city, and for that matter, on the island, scheming and wicked persons are promoting all kinds of fanatical religions, and they are finding fertile fields among the unfortunate and ignorant people."39

These elements, as Chevannes and others have pointed out, were all present in early Rastafari.  That was a different phase of the movement, and as such, it is necessary to distinguish among the Howellites, the old supporters of Bedwardites, the revivalists who became Rasta and initiated a campaign to recognize Haile Selassie as God, and the latter-day Rastafarian movement that gained international currency with the music of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer.   Garvey knew the Howellites, the Bedwardites, and the anticolonial milieu, and with these Jamaicans he dialogued.  It is the latter-day Rastafarians, however, who, through reggae, have canonized Garvey and become the most active force in Jamaica for perpetuating aspects of Garvey's philosophy.  Burning Spear was one of the earliest and still is the most persistent of the "Garveyite" reggae-Rasta lyricists.

The Garvey and Rastafarian movements were, of course, not the only trends that were involved in the anticolonial struggle.   Rastafari emerged in a decade of intense social struggle in which the middle classes came to the forefront of nationalist anticolonial politics, stirred into action by the labor movement.  The social context in which Rastafari emerged was a trying one.   In the world of British colonial Jamaica in the 1930s, the racist attitudes of the white landowning and merchant class, the colorist behavior40 of the brown people, and the hankering of black Jamaicans after a lighter skin color formed a dominant ethos that was not only Britain-centered but also monarchyoriented.  Values such as admiration of and loyalty to the plantation owners and the British king or queen were strong even among black peasants, moments of resistance notwithstanding.

The Jamaican political elite continued to favor the British monarch being recognized -- albeit indirectly -- as the head of state in the new Jamaican Constitution.  In planning constitutional reform in the 1950s both major political parties, the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party, agreed to replace the queen of England with a Jamaican president.  However, substantial disagreement remained between the two parties as to whether the final court of appeal should continue to be the British Privy Council.  The People's National Party favored dispensing with the British Privy Council and establishing a Caribbean court of appeal.   The Jamaica Labour Party favored continuing with the British Privy Council, because it felt that local political interference would affect the due process of law in a Caribbean court.  This legal recognition of, and contention over, the British monarchy is a consequence of the extended period of acceptance of the legitimacy of the British sovereign that has been a central part of Jamaica's colonial political culture.   In their advocacy of Ethiopian monarchism over against British monarchism, Jamaican Rastafari challenged the colonial mentality in the national British conception of monarchy, but they were quite at home with the political conception and ideas justifying the Ethiopian monarchy in Africa.  Garvey criticized both monarchies and their support in Jamaica.

British cultural institutions transplanted to Jamaica still make up part of Jamaica's way of life and contribute to the shaping of regional and national norms in the anglophone Caribbean.  A good case in point is the English game of cricket, which not only has been mastered but has been modified in style and substance by the English-speaking Caribbean.  The West Indies cricket team dominated world cricket from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Jamaican middle-class culture was situated at the axis formed by this British cultural-political legacy and its roots in the postemancipation peasantry and working class.  The social and economic trajectory of the middle classes for nearly 160 years has, at best, been characterized by considerable ambivalence toward Africa, on the one hand, and cultural certainty about Britain and Europe, on the other.  I have corrected many undergraduate essays, at the University of the West Indies, in which students automatically refer to Britain as "the mother country."  Rastafari needs to be seen in the context of these social and racial struggles over a Jamaican identity that is heir to both British and African cultures.   Rastafari is therefore the continuation of efforts toward black self-determination on the collective as well as the individual level, and in this respect, it parallels the efforts of the Garvey movement.  Self-determination, in this context, is not restricted to political nationalism but extends to what Rastafarians have called "livity," which covers the totality of one's being in the world.

Garveyites and Rastafarians were active in the anticolonial and labor struggles, but the outcomes of those struggles were determined by other players: the British government; the landed oligarchy, who had been shaken by the events but not defeated; and the political brokers drawn from the middle classes.   Political leadership drawn from the black and brown middle, classes negotiated independence from Britain during the 1960s and, in their nation-building efforts, took some elements of Garvey's program but rejected much of his black assertiveness and pride.   They substituted other notions with which the light-skinned upper classes and the British would be comfortable, and to which the majority of the black population acquiesced.  One example of the negation of Garveyism is frequently referred to in the Jamaican press; some people claim that the color black in the colorful Jamaican flag, which supposedly represents the dominant race in the country, instead symbolizes hardship.   This stereotypes black Jamaicans who would like the flag to represent more positive aspects of their reality, aspirations, and dreams as a nation.  Jamaican scholars such as Rex Nettleford and Phillip Sherlock have been campaigning for a change in this symbolism, which Nettleford links to the recognition of Emancipation Day as a national holiday. (It is so recognized in such Caribbean countries as Trinidad and Tobago.)   Hence, in a letter to the press, Nettleford wrote, "The people in Jamaica House [office of the Prime Minister] need, however, to act -- take the 'hardship' out of the black in the flag (see my Mirror, Mirror of 1970) and restore Emancipation Day allowing Independence Day (August 6) to fall where it will!"41

Some of the sharpest critiques of the neocolonial conceptions of the nation have come from old Garvey activists and Rastafarians who had articulated varied conceptions of Jamaica as a black nation and of its relationship to Africa.  The brown and black middle class, who benefited considerably from the transition to independence-given the expansion of education and the opening up of the civil service as well as of the executive and legislative areas of government -- tended to turn its back on Garvey or used his ideas as a means of social control.  In this context, from the 1940s to 1960s, Garveyism tended to be equated with Rastafari, since the Rastafarians embraced Garvey as their prophet.  In the thinking of the Rastafarians, after Garvey's death in 1940, he assumed mythic proportions, second only to Emperor Haile Selassie.  Barry Chevannes has identified four themes in his Rastafarian informants' understanding of Garvey: Africa for the Africans, black unity, self-reliance, and racial pride.  He has also exposed the myths that have developed about Garvey, which he groups into the categories "Garvey as divine," "Garvey as John the Baptist," and "Garvey as prophet."  These understandings stand in sharp contrast to what are referred to as "Garvey's curses": financial disaster with the purchase of the worthless Black Star Line and his poor management skills as a leader and financial planner.42

Pressures from the rest of society against Rastafari, in the years leading up and subsequent to political independence, have created closer bonds between Rastafari and Garveyism while not eroding differences in outlook among their followers.  Moreover, while Rastafari as a movement has grown and spread internationally, no Garvey movement exists, in an organic sense,43 at the end of the twentieth century.  But Garvey's ideas and views remain important and are a point of reference at the popular level as well as in Jamaican state and local politics, due to his status as one of Jamaica's national heroes.  An appropriate question to raise is: What will be the future of Rastafari?  Might it suffer the fate of Garveyism, maintaining a legacy without a movement?  Might it become organized into a political force that would cause it to lose its cultural dynamics and forget its roots and ethos?  Perhaps its decentralized and less organized (than Garveyism) nature will prove to be Rastafari's own salvation.


1.  Cited in Robert Hill, ed., Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, vol. 7: November 1927 - August 1940 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 442.

2.  Ibid., 440-41.

3.  The quotation from Psalm 68:31 -- "Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God" (KJV) -- was used by Garvey in developing his Pan-African message.   See Robert Hill, "Leonard P. Howell and Millenarian Visions in Early Rastafari," Jamaica Journal 16, 1 (1983): 24-39.

4.  For a review of The Coronation of an African King, see The Blackman, June 21, 1930, 3.  See also Beverley Hamilton, "Marcus Garvey: Cultural Activist," Jamaica Journal 20, 3 (1987): 21-30, for discussion of Garvey's cultural activities in Jamaica.

5.  K.W.J. Post, Arise Ye Starvelings: The Jamaican Labour Rebellion of 1938 and Its Aftermath (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), 160.

6.  According to Robert Hill, the Holy Piby was written and published by Robert Athlyi Rogers in 1924, in Newark, New Jersey. The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy was published by the Reverend Fitz Balintine Pettersburgh.  See Hill, "Leonard P. Howell," 27.

7.  Leonard Howell is said to have plagiarized the Holy Piby in his 1935 text titled The Promised Key.   See Chapter 21 on The Promised Key in this book.

8.  Rastafarian writer E.S.P. McPherson argues that Rastafari had pre-Columbian roots in that Ethiopian people came here before the Spaniards.  He does not provide any evidence other than the oral tradition of certain Rastafarian elders.  See E.S.P. McPherson, Rastafari and Politics -- Sixty Years of a Developing Cultural Ideology: A Sociology of Development Perspective (Kingston: Black International Iyahbinghi Press Production, 1991), 22.

9.  On Kumina, see an interesting article by Kenneth Bilby and Elliott Leib, "Kumina, the Howellite Church and the Emergence of Rastafarian Traditional Music in Jamaica," Jamaica Journal 19, 3 (1986): 22-28.

10.  Maureen Warner-Lewis, "African Continuities in the Rastafari Belief System," Caribbean Quarterly 39, 3-4 (1993): 108-23.  Garvey, of course, would have had less respect than most Rastas for revivalism and Kumina.

11.  Joseph Owens, Dread: The Rastafarians of Jamaica (Kingston: Sangster's Book Stores, 1976), 18-19.

12.  Barbara Makeda Lee, Rastafari: The New Creation (London: Jamaica Media Productions, 1982), 14-15.

13.  In the 1920s, Garveyites in New York described Howell "as being a 'con-man' but also 'a samfie [Obeah] man'" (Hill, "Leonard P. Howell," 30).

14.  Cited in Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (London: Hansib Publishing, 1985), 71.

15.  For an insightful discussion of the Rastafarian use of the Old Testament, see Dennis Forsythe, Rastafari: For the Healing of the Nation (Kingston: Zaika Publications, 1983); and Post, Arise Ye Starvelings.

16.  On the worldwide spread of Rastafari, see Neil Savishinsky, "Transnational Popular Culture and the Global Spread of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement," New West Indian Guide 68, 3-4 (1994): 259-81.  See also Chapter 7 by Savishinsky in this anthology.

17.  Barry Chevannes, Rastafari: Roots and Ideology (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994); idem, "Introducing the Native Religions of Jamaica," in Barry Chevannes, ed., Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews (The Hague: Macmillan Publishers/Institute of Social Studies, 1995).

18.  The Rastafarian movement developed an urban character with the drift to Kingston in the 1940s-1950s, and only during the 1960s did it gain significant numbers of adherents among the middle class.

19.  For more information on Howell and his role in Rastafari, see William David Spencer's commentary on The Promised Key in Chapter 21, below.

20.  Hill, "Leonard P. Howell," 32.

21.  Chevannes, Rastafari, 127.

22.  Editorial, Plain Talk, July 20, 1935.

23.  Editorial, Plain Talk, October 26, 1935.

24.  Robert Weisboard, "British West Indian Reaction to the Italian-Ethiopian War: An Episode in Pan-Africanism," Caribbean Studies 10, 1 (1970): 35-36.

25.  Ibid.

26. Jamaica Standard, January 14, 1939, 24.

27. Plain Talk, August 7, 1937, 7.

28.  Cited in Rupert Lewis, Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1992), 172.

29.  Robert E. Hood, Must God Remain Greek? Afro Cultures and God-Talk (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 91. See Plain Talk, April 10, 1937, 7; May 1, 1937, 10.  See also Hill, ed., Marcus Garvey, 7:698-703, for correspondence between Garvey and Una Brown of New York City over Garvey's criticisms of Selassie.

30.  Una Brown wrote, "I feel like a lot of others that you have been quite unfair in your writing" (in Hill, ed., Marcus Garvey, 7:699).

31.  Virtually all the scholarly and popular literature on Rastafari accords Garvey this status.  See Jabulani I. Tafari, "The Rastafari: Successors of Marcus Garvey," in Rex Nettleford, ed., Caribbean Quarterly Monograph: Rastafari (Kingston: Carribean Quarterly, University of the West Indies, 1985), 1-12, for a statement on Rastafari as successors of Marcus Garvey.

32.  Rodolfo Sarracino, Los que volvieron a Africa (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1988).

33.  Hill, ed., Marcus Garvey, 7:997-1000.

34.  See Philip Potter, "The Religious Thought of Marcus Garvey," in Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, eds., Garvey: His Work and Impact (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1991), 145-163.

35.  Scholars are divided on whether ganja was brought on the plantations by indentured Indian laborers or by enslaved Africans (see Bilby and Leib, "Kumina," 23).  See Neil Savishinsky's "African Dimensions of the Jamaican Rastafarian Movement," Chapter 7 in this book, for details.

36.  Marcus Garvey, Editorial, "The Dangerous Weed," New Jamaican, 13 August 1932.

37.  Chevannes, Rastafari, 87.

38.  See Chevannes, Rastafari, 39, 126-27, 78-80, for the impact of Bedward on early Rastafari.  For the political impact of Bedwardism, see Lewis, Marcus Garvey.

39.  Marcus Garvey, "The Death of a Fanatic," New Jamaican, 11 August 1932, 2; The editorial is very critical of "bad religion."

40.  Jamaican novelist Erna Brodber used the term colorist behavior in her 199 5 emancipation commemoration lecture "Emancipation --The Lesson and the Legacy: . . . As We Forgive Those Who Trespass against Us . . ." (lecture presented at the Bethel Baptist Church, Kingston, Jamaica, on Sunday, July 30, 1995; Kingston Emancipation Commemoration Committee).

41.  See Rex Nettleford, "Letter to the Editor," Daily Observer, August 5, 1995, 8.

42.  Chevannes, Rastafari, 87-99, 100-110.

43.  By "organic sense" I mean that a social movement has to be an expression of a particular moment and has to grow and change in ways corresponding to the interests and agendas of its members.  Research on the Rastafarian movement shows an organic change.   However, there is no comparable evidence among those who call themselves Garveyites.

Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader, Edited by Nathaniel Samuel Murrell, William David Spencer, and Adrian Anthony McFarlane (Temple University Press 1998), pp. 145-158.

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