"Rastafari has extended from a small and formerly undesirable cult into a dominant force which influences all levels of national life; and it has done so against formidable odds, political harassment and general condemnation.  The Rastafari has dramatised the question that has always been uncomfortable in Caribbean history, and the question is where you stand in relation to blackness."

George Lamming, 1980

In his commentary on the Rastafari, George Lamming joined the ranks of those members of the Caribbean community who correctly noted that the Rastafari movement carried with it a certain continuity from the days of slavery, a continuity of resistance and confrontation with white racism.1  The Rastafari movement, in all its contemporary manifestations, challenges not only the Caribbean but the entire Western World to come to terms with the history of slavery, the reality of white racism and the permanent thrust for dignity and self-respect by black people.  The racial consciousness which was stamped yesterday in the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and which is today encrusted in the locks and beards of the Rastafari, stands as a potent force in the struggle for justice.
    Race consciousness remains an integral part of the class consciousness of African peoples as long as Euro-American culture seeks to harmonise the economic and political domination of black peoples with attempts at destroying their cultural personality.  Such a harmonising project of dehumanisation started in the era of the slave trade, when the day-to-day atrocities were unified by a cultural assault - whether French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese or British - to impose European ideas and values on the dominated Africans.
    In the face of cultural resistance - manifest in religious practices, the preservation of African languages, African medicinal and healing crafts, and musical forms of communication - and open slave revolts, the slavers deepened their racist theories, building upon the original biblical justification for racial inferiority with the kind of pseudo-science which led to the theories of Arthur Jensen (that black people were genetically inferior to white people).
    This study of the Rastafari spans the past fifty years, properly linking the emergence of Rasta to the roots of resistance to slavery.  A recourse to the world of slavery, where the cultural and spiritual expressions of the slaves were preludes to armed revolts, begins in the analysis of resistance, centralising the role of religion among the slaves and their children, highlighting the importance of religious leaders such as Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogel.
    Bogle's strident defence of the black poor, the Morant Bay Rebellion and the song 'Colour for Colour' laid the foundations for the development of Garveyism in the society.  The incomplete crystallisation of the Jamaican working class, their dispersal by capital to Central and North America, the deformed racial hierarchy of whites, mulattoes and blacks, provided the background for the ideas of African redemption and deliverance which were to be so clearly articulated by Marcus Garvey.  The convergence of the heritage of the Maroons, the religious movement - called Ethiopianism - and the emergent Pan-African movement which culminated in the U.N.I.A., were some of the forces which merged in the formation called Rastafari.
   Rastafarians in Jamaica today see themselves as the conscious heirs of Garveyism.  One Rastafari expressed this fact in the following manner:

"Many say Garvey is dead, yet it is clear that I and I sons of Marcus Garvey are still here making his philosophies a reality in 1980.  Garvey was the undisputed champion of the black race, of the poor, of the working class and the downpressed.  For this he was vigorously opposed in the land of his birth . . . I and I have been safeguarding Garvey's work for fifty years in an attempt to keep the predicted bloodshed within limits and to help the successors of Father Manley and Busta to solve the host of problems they take on their heads when they assume political power in Jamaica."2

Here I. Jabulari Tafari was pointing to the role of the Rastas in the political life of the Jamaican society; and it is the continuity in the assertive racial identification of Garvey and the Rastafari which is the main thrust of this study.
    The limitations of the all-class racial appeal of Garveyism were to emerge in the Rastafari movement, and nowhere clearer than when in 1980 a 'white' Rasta formation joined the white ruling class of Jamaica in quoting the anticommunist statements of Garvey during the 1980 electoral struggle.  The problems of the racial divisions of the society are elaborated within the context of the capitalist depression of the thirties, which led to the massive revolt of 1938.  The origins and growth of the Rastafari movement are explored against the background of the social conditions of colonial Jamaica, which led some of the rural poor to reject the British overlordship by identifying positively with the Ethiopian monarch, Haile Selassie.
   This analysis of the Rastafari is developed to show the identification with Ethiopia as a profound response to the racial repression of capitalism.  Rural Jamaicans were only one section of the black world which welcomed the crowning of this African King in an independent African Kingdom.  This welcome had been preceded for a hundred years previously by an Ethiopian Movement which took the words of the Psalms - "Princes come out of Egypt, Ethiopia stretches forth her hands unto God" - to mean that Ethiopia would literally help in the emancipation of all blacks.  Rastafari, who proclaimed that Haile Selassie was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, was taking the Ethiopian Movement one step further by centralising the person of Haile Selassie as the vehicle of liberation.
    That the first Rastafaians were not madmen was clear to the society when both Rastas and non-Rastas raised their voices against the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.  Leonard Howell, and those who sang that "The Lion of Judah shall break every chain and bring us victory again and again", found an international outlet for their ideas through the Ethiopian World Federation.  The first doctrines of this young movement were linked, in this analysis of the Rastafari, to the writings of the Voice of Ethiopia (the widely circulated paper of the E.W.F.) to further underline the assertion that the ideas expressed by black Jamaicans that Haile Selassie was King of Kings (Ras over Rasses) was no mere millenarian escapism.  The question which could be posed is: What made Jamaicans who positively identified with Haile Selassie millenarian, and those who identified with the images of the British King well-adjusted?   The answer to this question is explored in the context of the idealism of the society.
    The effects of this idealism could clearly be seen after the 1938 revolt, when the ideas of the Rastafari could not carry the sufferers forward.  After the 1938 uprising, the working people of Jamaica were willing to downplay the strength of racial identification to accept the 'brown man leadership' of the fledgling two-party system.  This compromise was a holding action which the working people accepted in order to oust the British overlords from the politico-constitutional sphere.
    The continued wretchedness of the poor, the incipient political violence which was becoming a part of the political culture, and the leaderism and competition of the two-party system, had a debilitating effect on the unity and purpose of the working people.  Membership of the Rasta groups increased in the fifties, accompanied by a strident call for repatriation, a call issued in protest against the massive population movement of the society.  For between 1943 and 1970 the biggest movement of the population took place since the time of slavery, when over 560,000 rural Jamaicans were uprooted from their provision grounds by the bauxite tractors and earthmovers.
    Herein lay the roots for the growth of the Rastafari movement inside Jamaica in the fifties.  Because of the range of influences - Garveyism, anti-slavery resistance, Nyabingi, Ethiopianism - which came to bear on the growth of the movement, this study seeks to illuminate the elements which were paramount and does not seek to recount the history of Jamaica in this period.  The richness of the pre-World War II struggles is captured by Ken Post in his book Arise Ye Starvelings; but the work has the limitations of representing the sufferers as Quashie and the Rasta as millenarian.   Post's use of this formulation showed how pervasive the stamp of millenarianism had become.  Both Marxists and non-Marxists took similar attitudes to this new force among the black poor of Jamaica, leaving behind a barrage of studies which have helped to create an image of the Rastafarians as 'escapists'.
    Amilcar Cabral's notion of culture and resistance provides the theoretical foundation for this study in an attempt to bring a new approach to the analysis of the Rastafari.  This African freedom fighter, who struggled for the highest form of cultural liberation, captured the essence of cultural resistance in the process of armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism, observing that:

"The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation of the ideological plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated.  Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people's history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of the relationship between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as different societies.  Ignorance of this fact may explain the failure of several attempts at foreign domination - as well as the failure of some liberation movements."3

    The resistance of the Rastafari to the neo-colonial society of Jamaica is examined against the background of positive and negative influences which this movement has exerted on Jamaica and Caribbean society.  The rejection of the superstructural analysis of locks, beard and the chillum pipe is an effort to grasp the process and ideas which led to the development of the particular symbols of the Rastafari.  Those studies which have been preoccupied with the external phenomenon of locks, beard and the divinity of Haile Selassie represent a particular world view, a view which supported the existing social order.  This much was evident from the first major study of the Rastafari in 1960, which was seen as a "palliative to an explosive situation".  The first Report on the Rastafari, published in 1960, set the agenda for future distortions of the Pinnacle settlement.  Further research on the growth and the development of the Rastafari will help to correct some of the distortions, especially when the research is carried out from a perspective which is not anti-people .4
    Efforts towards control of the Rastafari ranged from the ideological to the coercive, with the use of the Dangerous Drugs Law as the most prominent.  At the ideological level, the incorporation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as a Church of State, subsequent to the visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica in 1966, showed the failure of outright police harassment.  It was not possible to keep on cutting the locks of the Rastamen and putting them behind bars; thus the sociology of 'political cultism' was taken off the library shelf to see if the movement could be isolated into the realm of an obscure 'sect'.  But the movement kept on growing.  The original spate of studies which stamped the movement with the 'escapist cult of outcasts' failed to explain the massive spread of the culture inside Jamaica, in the English-speaking Caribbean, and ultimately as the most dynamic force among the children of black immigrants in the United Kingdom.
    There is no doubt that whatever the limitations of the cultural pluralist analysis, the emphasis on locks, ganja and Haile Selassie in this literature has had an impact on the development of the ideas of the movement.  One only has to read the writings of the Rastafari in the fifties and the present organs of some Rastafari, such as the Voice of Rasta, to see the results of bourgeois sociology and anthropology.
    Another of the original distortions of the movement which has gained currency is the stamp of criminality on the movement.  From the original police harassment in the hills of Sligoville to the British police attitude towards the 'criminalised dreadlocks subculture', the ideas of those works which linked ganja to crime has given sustenance to State violence against the Rastafari.  Rastafari confrontation with the State over the usage of ganja is examined to show the folly of the attempt to outlaw a popular custom, viz., the smoking of the chillurn pipe.
    However, as in all aspects of Rasta life, the dialectic of the positive and negative emerges in the form of the Coptics and the international trade in ganja.   Similarities can be drawn between the takeover of the kola-nut trade in West Africa by the Afro-Portuguese in the era of the slave trade, and the intervention of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church in the new circuit of capitalist trade in ganja.  The sophisticated methods of transport, procurement and harvesting of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church are a far cry from the original system of small farmers planting the weed as a crop to provide additional income.  But, because the State has systematically used the Dangerous Drugs Law against the Rastafari, imperialism hoped to bind the brethren in a united bond with the Coptics, who wanted the weed legalised as a 'holy sacrament'.
    The boast of the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church in 1980 that "ganja saved Jamaica from Communism" raises further questions on the purpose of this 'white Rasta' formation which emanated from Star Island, Florida.  The experiment in subversion by a pseudo-popular group had been duplicated in the other regions of the Caribbean, with the opposition elements in Grenada attempting to bind Rastafarians into supporting their international trading activities.  From Handsworth, Birmingham, to St. Thomas, Jamaica; from the Turks and Caicos Islands to Soweto, imperialism has used the trade in this commodity to lure young blacks into the commodity fetishism of the capitalist order.  Inside Jamaica the trade in ganja in the early sixties had provided the surpluses necessary for the growth of a lumpen stratum which was part of the ganja/gun/crime complex.
    The Rastafari who had rejected the two-party competition were not aloof from the political struggles of the society.  Instead of becoming pawns in the political game they used the medium of the Rasta song - reggae - to mobilise the people.   Despite the promotion of religious forms, despite the distortions by the media and the infiltration of the ranks by lumpens (who wore locks), the Rastafari had begun to promote the cultural and musical forms in the search for a popular culture.  Ras Daniel Hartman's depiction of the Rasta - as a lionhearted man - complemented Count Ossie's use of the drum to fashion and deepen the music as a tool of communication, and become the Rastafari form of cultural resistance.
    In analysing the culture of resistance, called reggae, it becomes clear that the conscious efforts to internationalise this music stemmed from the fact that the Rastafarians understood that in the neo-colonial society of Jamaica it was only the attainment of international recognition which would lead the music to become the music of Jamaica.  Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff and other reggae artists who took the music of the poor around the world were in the process of producing their music to contribute to a new anti-imperialist culture.  Mastering the skills and technology of modern communication, the Rastafari song of defiance and inspiration took root in the world, spreading the anti-racist doctrines of the Jamaican movement to the Eastern Caribbean, and to the capitalist metropoles.  Bob Marley's intervention on the side of the Zimbabwean guerillas, and his historic appearance at the Zimbabwean Independence Celebrations, signalled a shift in emphasis of the movement from the preoccupation with Haile Selassie and Ethiopia to the battles for liberation in Southern Africa.  Peter Tosh, who as a youth had been arrested for demonstrating against Ian Smith in Jamaica, simply put the words to song in "We Must Fight Against Apartheid".
    The Rastafari song - reggae - was the highest form of self-expression, an expression which was simultaneously an act of social commentary and a manifestation of deep racial memory.  This memory had been kept alive by the attempt of the Rasta to build upon the foundations of the Jamaican language with their own contribution, called Rasta talk.  The question of cultural resistance could not be examined simply within the context of music, since the food policy - called ital food - the language, and efforts at communal practices were as much a part of the rasta culture as the song of mobilisation which said "Get Up, Stand Up, Stand Up For Your Rights".
    Walter Rodney's Groundings are analysed as part of the positive experience of a black intellectual who sought to "attach himself to the activity of the black masses".  Rodney had perceived correctly that the Rastafari were "the leading force of the expression of black consciousness in the Caribbean", but he did not trail behind the movement; instead he brought his training as a historian to the movement, in an effort to lift the movement beyond the myths of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie.  His exercise of Groundings, his clear identification with the most oppressed sections of the Caribbean people, were part of his awareness that the region should be liberated from foreign domination to be really independent.  The Rastafari was one component of the people's right to their own history.  He believed, as Cabral did, that the return to history could only be achieved when there was full development of the national productive forces.  Cabral noted that:

"The foundation of national liberation rests on the inalienable right of every people to have their own history; whatever formulations must be adopted at the level of international law.  The objective of national liberation is therefore to reclaim the right, usurped by imperialist domination, namely: the liberation of the process of development of national productive forces.  Therefore, national liberation takes place when and only when national productive forces are completely free of all kinds of foreign domination.  The liberation of productive forces and consequently the ability to determine the mode of production most appropriate to the evolution of the liberated people, necessarily opens up new prospects for the cultural development of the society in question, by returning to that society all its capacity to create progress."5

    Walter Rodney, the Pan-African, Pan-Caribbean Marxist, saw within the racial expressions of the Rastafari a possibility of assisting the region to free itself from foreign domination.  He was fully aware of the negative influences of the movement, but he was sure that if the positive attributes could be harnessed, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of the positive contributions of other cultures, the Rastafari movement could be part of the dynamic regeneration of the working people in their search for complete freedom from imperialist domination.  Rodney used the tools of historical materialism to analyse the emergence of the Rasta, patiently pointing out to them that there was an Africa of the villages, and that only a small minority lived in Kingdoms.
    The negative results of the question of race had put a brake on the unity of the working people of the Caribbean, with the Trinidadian and Guyanese working people burdened with racial insecurity.  Rodney had grown up in a society where the politicisation of race and the manipulation of African and Indian workers had diverted the energies of the people.  The spread of the Rastafari movement to the Eastern Caribbean was to be a major test of whether a movement which called for black dignity could manifest racial tolerance.
    Conscious elements in the Eastern Caribbean identified the divisive racial alignments at the political level as a negative factor, and were working for a nonracial society, but those whose interest lay in exploiting the people would not want the Rastafari to prosper, hence they were seen to be subversive.  The coercive legislation against the Dreads in Dominica, the discussion of the Rasta in Trinidad after Stalin's tribute to the Caribbean Man, and the subsequent role of the Rastafari in the Grenadian revolution in 1979 were clear signs that the Rastafari movement was destined to be part of a new Caribbean.  Walter Rodney recognised this fact, and in his work with the Working People's Alliance of Guyana called for the recognition of the nature of the Caribbean working class which would necessitate the mobilisation of elements who were not at the point of production.  Underdevelopment had rendered more than 40% of the population unemployed, and cosmetic measures such as 'Special Works' or 'Crash Programmes' could not deal with this fundamental problem of failure to fully mobilise the productive capacity of the working people.
    The urgency of the task of harnessing the full potential of the working people, especially the Rastafari, became clear in the United Kingdom as the music of reggae took hold of the children of the immigrants.  The explosion of this movement in the seventies confounded the social workers, leaving them to wring their hands while the police used all the power of the State against the youths who called themselves Rastafari.  An elaborate system of social control over these youths, which began in the 'disruptive units' of the schools and ended for some in the Victorian prisons, was justified by State intellectuals who branded the Rasta with the stamp of criminality.
    Building upon the foundations of the distortions which had been embedded in the first Report of the Rastafari Movement in Kingston, the Home Office and the media moulded a popular conception that the Rastafari formed a 'criminalised dreadlock culture'.  British racism stared the Rastas in the face as a doctoral dissertation was woven to link Rastas to murder.  The ensuing book, Rastaman by Ernest Cashmore, compared the Howell commune at Pinnacle to the murderous Charles Manson cult of California.  Such distortions of the purpose of the Rasta call for more research and writing on the Rasta from a perspective which examines the social conditions of society which produces Rasta.  More and more it is important that there is a need to study the institutions which oppress the Rasta and other black working people, instead of retracing the old ground broken by the first report in 1960.
    It is inevitable that the Rastafari movement in Britain would be affected by the level of ideological development in the capitalist metropoles.  The virulent white racism of the society and the befuddling of the working people with national chauvinism led to the impoverishment of ideas in this crisis-ridden capitalist centre.  Caught in the society of militarists and racists, some of the negative ideas of the Rastafari came to the fore, and these were to manifest themselves in inter-personal relationships, with the Rasta women being burdened with the view that "women could only see fari through their men".  Some elements sought biblical justification for their actions, as they manifested practices which were not particularly progressive.
    Twice removed from their homeland in Africa and from their adopted home in the Caribbean, the Rastafari, as a part of the black population of Europe, yearned for a land which they could call their home.  The sentiments towards repatriation, which were issued in the cry of the fifties - Ethiopia Yes, England No - re-emerged as the black immigrants sought to escape the growing racist attacks on the streets of Britain.   Some young Rasta translated this yearning into a passionate appeal for repatriation.
    Herein lay another contradiction, for the Rasta youths were calling for repatriation at precisely the time when the racists in the State apparatus were articulating the Nationality Bill and speaking about repatriating black people.   Those who did not know African history were not to know that in another epoch there had been a convergence of a racist/humanist project in the Sierra Leone settlement.   The chapter on Repatriation and the Ethiopian Revolution attempts to show the results of three former schemes of repatriation: the Sierra Leone forced deportations of 1786, the colonisation scheme of Liberia, and the Shashamane settlement.
    The Liberian Scheme has shown concretely that those who sought black dignity had to return to Africa with more than the search for respect, or they would carry with them the capitalist values of exploitation, as shown in the experience of the relationship between those who returned and the indigenous population.  The settlement in Shashamane, Ethiopia, remained small, but similar problems of individualism and competition had dogged the settlement, especially when it was tied to the royal household.
    It remains the right of any black person, whether or not they are Rasta, to repatriate to Africa, but such a move cannot be carried out under any illusions as to the nature of contemporary African society.  That the continent of Africa is in ferment and that not even Rastas can remain aloof from this ferment was demonstrated in Shashamane when the Ethiopian people expropriated the land of the settlers in 1975.   This act of expropriation was the way in which the peasants of Ethiopia, in the process of the Ethiopian revolution, were saying to the Rastafari that the Haile Selassie that they deified was not the same Haile Selassie who helped to mobilise the people against Italian fascism.
    Would the Rastas listen to the people of Ethiopia and have the humility to understand that their embrace of Haile Selassie was an affront to the struggles of the African people?  This question remains a burning issue, especially for those who have consciously built up rituals and hierarchy to create the Rastafari religion.  Those who have not been carried away with the rituals are responding to the struggles of the people of Southern Africa, with the Grenadian Rastas showing that wherever there is clarity of purpose, the Rastas can be mobilised to struggle where they live.
    The struggle in Southern Africa calls for Rastas to transcend the forms of cultural resistance to embark on a programme of cultural liberation which would release the creativity of black peoples everywhere.

Horace Campbell, September 1981, London


  1. Statement by George Lamming on the Rastafari, Daily News, Jamaica, Sept. 28, 1990.
  2. I. Jabulari Tafari, "Rastafari and the Coming of Black Power", Daily News, Jamaica, Sept. 14, 1980.
  3. Amilcar Cabral, Return To The Source, Monthly Review Press, 1972.
  4. See the work of Robert Hill on Leonard Howell.  Howell, one of the founders of the Rastafari movement, died in 1981.
  5. Cabral, op. cit.



Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney, by Horace Campbell (African World Press 1987), pp. 1-9.

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