Duggie Mack was one of three young Jamaicans who traveled with a delegation to Ethiopia in 1961 searching for a way to move all of his people “back to the Promised Land.” The Rastafari, like many Pan-African movements before them, preached a ‘repatriation’ dream, and Mack hoped to make that dream come true. Would he succeed? Listen in to find out.

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Transcript of: Duggie Mack, the Jamaican Delegation to Ethiopia, and the Rastafarian Movement

Researched and written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded and produced by Averill Earls, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

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Averill: On Friday, April 21, 1961, a delegation of Jamaicans were shown into the lavishly decorated throne room of Haile Selassie’s Imperial Palace. Located in the capital city of Addis Abeba, the massive compound includes several residences, halls, chapels, and working buildings. Just recently, in 2018, the Ethiopian government opened the Imperial Palace to tourists, who can now walk through the halls once occupied by Ethiopia’s emperors. According to Douglas Mack, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God, greeted the delegation warmly. Mack, known in his community as Brother Duggie, was one of three Rastafarians on the trip. Though his personal account of the narrative lacks much emotional description, one can only imagine the whirlwind of feeling that swept through these three men. In the Rastafarian religion, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, is the Messiah. And these three young men, devout believers in the socio-religious philosophies and mythologies of the Rasta faith, were meeting, in person, their Messiah.

Sarah: Mack’s writing is devoid of emotion at least in part because he wrote and published his account as a corrective on what other members of the delegation presented as the “official” narrative of the journey. Mack asserts that in their meeting with Selassie, the Emperor told the delegation that “he knew the black people of the west, particularly Jamaica, were blood brothers to the Ethiopians. He also knew that slaves were sent to Jamaica from Ethiopia… The Emperor said that Ethiopia was large enough to accommodate all the people of African descent living in the Caribbean with the desire to return. He told us that Ethiopia would always be open to those who wanted to return home.”[1]

Averill: Mack describes how the other delegates moved on in the tour of the palace after this exchange, but that the three Rasta Brothers stayed behind because they had gifts to present Haile Selassie. They presented him with crafts handmade by Jamaican Rasta Brothers, items that signified the ties between the descendants of enslaved Africans and the Kingdom of Ethiopia: a hand carved wood map of Africa with a portrait of Haile Selassie; photos of the Rastafari brethren, and a woven scarf in red, fold and green, the colors of the Ethiopian flag. Writing in this passage for the future generations of young Rastafari men who might read his account, Mack likens this visit to the “three wise men (the Magi) paying homage and bearing gifts to the King of Kings.”[2] For Mack and many Rastafari who heard his story or read his book, this was a significant moment in their religious history. But two years later, when Mack returned to Ethiopia, Jamaica was under new leadership, the Rastafari communities were under attack, and none of the promises that seemed ripe in that moment of 1961 had come to fruition. But to truly grasp the significance of the 1961 and 1963 journeys, and the tumultuous Jamaican history in between, we’ve got to dig a little deeper. So today we’re talking about the Caribbean, Ethiopia, and a radical religious movement that sought to build a bridge between them.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Averill: This episode is part of our “radical religions” series. There are lots of religions that, at their founding, were meant to shake up the establishment, which is what we mean by “radical” religion. So we could probably do about 30 more of these series and never run out of stories to tell. I wanted to write this episode because I started to dig into Rastafari history in spring 2019, when I was teaching a course on ‘decolonization.’ I built the course planning to talk about Bob Marley and the Rastafari roots of his music, because I, like many, I imagine, knew little about the Rastafari besides their Jamaican origins, the mellow beats and provocative lyrics of Rasta reggae, and that dreadlocks and marijuana were important to the community, though I’d never bothered to learn why. As I was designing the syllabus for this course, I stuck “Trenchtown and Bob Marley” as a topic for a day in April, and made sure to assign Marissa’s excellent episode on the history of slave rebellions in the Caribbean at the start of the semester. When I had to start preparing for the actual day we’d be discussing Marley and the Rastafari, however, I encountered a history of what could only be called a radical, revolution-starting religious community. I wanted to expand my investigation of the Rastafari, so here we are.

Sarah: A couple of words on sources. There are quite a few good studies of the Rastafari, and the community has been studied from very early. Several of the scholars Ave used to write this episode refer to a 1960 socio anthropology study conducted by the University of the West Indies on the community, which then made formal recommendations to the Jamaican government for how to address the concerns of the Rastafari community. Much of the cultural studies since have built on that work, including Sheila Kitzinger’s follow-up study of the community just six years later. There is also a quite robust bibliography of peer-reviewed academic work and non-academic work on the Rastafari included in Peter Clarke’s short and accessible history, though it was published in 1994, so it ends there, and Averill included a few more recent monographs and articles in her research, which are listed in the show Bibliography.

Averill: Most of those studies are from people outside the community, though many Black and Africana Studies professors who write on the Rastafari are members of the community. There is also a pretty expansive tradition of Rastafari writing histories, particularly those considered leaders in the community. Douglas Mack, known in his community as Brother Duggie, wrote a short history of the Rastafari, which he published in 1999, and which is as much a personal history as an ‘official’ history from within the community. He was on the two delegations from Jamaica to Africa in the 1960s, representing the Rastafari, and I’ve used his writing on that here both as a secondary source (which I cross-referenced with a range of other secondary sources) and as a primary source. He is considered a griot, a role in many West African communities responsible for the preservation of history and traditions. Griot, like Western European bards, mix poetry, music, and storytelling to teach communities about their past, and to advise leaders. His commitment of these stories, many of which he was part, is an extension of the Rastafari adoption of the griot role in their religious community. But anyway, I wanted to rely largely on texts written by Rastafari, but there are also some just fascinating studies by scholars like Neil Savishinsky, Sheila Kitzinger, Velma Pollard, and Michael Gomez that I’ve woven throughout as well. This is a well-studied topic, so I hope at the very least, this episode inspires some of yall to go out and dig a little deeper on your own!

Sarah: The origins of the Rastafari are both very recent, and, per their mythologies, ancient. As a cohesive philosophy and set of doctrines, the founders of the Rastafari were early 20th-century Jamaicans. Philosophically-speaking, it is anti-colonial, Pan-African, and patriarchal with a general Abrahamic worldview. You’re probably familiar with symbols that are associated with the Rastafari–dreadlocks and beards, marijuana use, the Rastafari language or “Dread talk” that includes a lexicon of anticolonial words like “Babylon” to refer to colonial and neocolonial society and the police, “brethren” and “sistren” which means brothers and sisters, “downpressed” meaning oppressed, “InI” meaning us or we, Inison which means unison, Ivinity which means divinity, and the cadances of the Rastafari language–and musical traditions, particularly reggae. But these are the tip of the iceberg. The true depth and root of the movement and religion is beneath the glare of the water.

Averill: The core texts of the Rastafari philosophy are the Kebra Nagast, which is a 14th-century document that traces the lineage of Ethiopian kings from Solomon of Jerusalem; the Christian bible, with heavy focus on the Old Testament, and the writings of 20th-century black separatists and theorists, including Marcus Garvey, Leonard Percival Howell, and Fitz Balintine Pettersburg. It’s hard to get a sense of the Rastafari philosophy without some basic understanding of these texts, so we’ll just briefly sketch those out for you.

Sarah: According to both Rastafarian and more broadly Ethiopian mythology, the king of Ethiopia is descended from the son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and Empress Baulkis Makeda, (aka, the Queen of Sheba). This encounter is recorded in the Old Testament Book of Kings, and expanded upon in the Kebra Nagast. According to these texts, Solomon called all princes and neighboring rulers to witness his greatness. Empress Makeda attended, and put Solomon’s wisdom to the test. She gifted him two bouquets of identical flowers, one real and one artificial, and asked him to discern which is real without touching them. He called for bees from his hive, and they alighted on the real flowers. She was impressed with his smartness. That night, at a banquet, they made a pact to never take anything from the other without mutual consent. Solomon served her spicy food at the banquet, and then told his servants not to put any water in her side of the bedchamber that they were to share – sleeping on opposite sides of the room, divided only by a curtain – and to put a full jar of water next to his bed. When she got up in the night searching for water, he “caught” her “taking” a drink from his jar, and decreed the pact broken. In his account of the story, Douglas Mack says “and the rest is history.” Presumably he’s leaving out that this meant Solomon feels no obligation not to (possibly forcibly) have sex with Makeda, because when she left Jerusalem, she was pregnant.

Averill: Their son, Menelik I, would rule Ethiopia. According to legend, Menelik was raised by his father in Jerusalem, but as soon as he returned to Ethiopia as a man, his mother stepped aside to let him take the throne. According to the Kebra Nagast, he returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant. His descendants established the Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic Church, converting the Ethiopians from the worship of the Sun, Moon and Stars to the one god of Israel, and their emperors resisted the conquering attempts of white Europeans over the centuries. In Rastafari ideology, Ethiopia is the pinnacle of Black civilization, because they were the one country on the African continent that resisted “Caucasian conquerors,” all the way up through Italy’s attempted invasions in the 1880s and again in the 1930s.

Sarah: Both of these stories hint at the rigid patriarchal hierarchy of the Rasta ideology. While women were important to the Rastafari communities for many reasons–in mid-20th century Jamaica, they were the primary breadwinners, educated the children, and did all the domestic work–they were most certainly also secondary to the men. When Douglas Mack, a Rasta man, describes the history of the Rastafari community, he talks primarily about the “brethren,” or the men of the community, and their struggles. The longest discussion of the women, or “sistren” of the community are relegated to a three-page subsection of the book. Which is not to say that Rasta men don’t celebrate and appreciate the women in their lives and communities. Women whom Rasta men take to bed outside of marriage are called “queens,” presumably in reference to this relationship between Solomon and Makeda. According to Mack, “Rastafarians believe that women should exude their femininity at all times,” which meant never wearing pants, make up, or straightening their hair. Mack also argues that the “constant images of the Rasta sistren reinforced the beauty of black women in Jamaican society,” and presumably, where ever Rasta ideology permeated in the United States, Britain, and settlements in Ethiopia and beyond.

Averill: But there was also a system which enforces gendered subjugation. Mack tells a story in which Leonard Howell, considered the ‘first Rasta,’ was arrested and jailed for a time, and when he returned to the Rasta community outside of St. Catherine, Jamaica, one of his “queens” was pregnant with one of the other brother’s babies. She was tried for adultery and “stoned” out of the community, never to be seen again. Mack makes no comment on the unbalanced power structure that made it fine for Howell to have multiple female sexual partners, while a woman who “strays” from her “common law husband” would be subject to exile having sex with another man while her “husband” is in jail.

Sarah: The incorporation of the Kebra Nagast and the other texts of the Ethiopian Coptic Church, like the Christian bible, speaks to the Ethiopianism that is central to Rastafari theology. According to Saheed Adejumobi, “Ethiopianism is an Afro-Atlantic literary-religious tradition that emerged out of the shared political and religious experiences of Africans from British colonies during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Ethiopianism linked Africa historically to the ancient classical era, challenging the then prevailing idea that the continent had no history before the arrival of European colonizers in the mid-19th century. Proponents of Ethiopianism argued that the African nation was one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world and claim that some of the first examples of organized religious festivals, solemn assemblies and other forms of worship evolved in Ethiopia. By the 19th century when Ethiopia was one of the few nation-states under African control, many people of African ancestry embraced it as evidence of the black capacity for self-rule.” Marcus Garvey and many of his predecessors saw Ethiopia as a black bulwark in an aggressively white world. The Rastafari took that ideology a step further, incorporating the king of Ethiopia into the heart of their theology. Rastafari believe that Haile Selassie I is the Messiah, and that his ascension to the throne of Ethiopia represented the crowning of the King of Kings. They derive their name from one of Haile Selassie’s titles – Ras Tafari. Ras is Amharic, and means “head,” usually a title given to a prince or chief. Tafari means one who is respected or feared. Garvey, a charismatic, brilliant leader, was never himself Rastafarian, though the first Rastafari communities were founded in his lifetime. Nevertheless, the first Rastafari identified Garvey–who had many followers who ascribed to “Garveyism”–as a prophet of their religion. And so selected Garvey texts are considered gospel.

Haile Sellassie in regalia
Haile Sellassie I | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887. His is a story that is probably somewhat familiar to people who’ve studied early 20th century American history, because he lived in New York city for a while and was a prominent labor organizer. But before he started rattling cages in the United States, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Assocation in 1912. His goal was to unite the African diaspora to “establish a country and absolute government of their own.” He passionately wrote that “Our union must know no clime, boundary, or nationality,” a strong statement in favor of an international black nationalist movement. He, and his contemporaries, believed that Africa needed the hearts, minds, and hands of the African diaspora, and he was a major proponent of the Back to Africa movement. His writings on Pan-Africanism inspired many, from the Nation of Islam to, of course, the Rastafari movement.

Sarah: Garvey founded a newspaper, Negro World, in 1918; a shipping company, Black Star Line, in 1919; the Negros Factories Association, also in 1919; and grew the membership of the United Negro Improvement Association exponentially. By 1920, UNIA claimed 4 million members world wide, and held an international convention in New York City. According to Mack, Garvey arranged with the Liberian government the granting of a half million acres of land for Africa-American “repatriation”. Garvey brought a crew of immigrants across the Atlantic in his Black Star fleet, but was reportedly beaten to the coast of Liberia by the American Secretary of State. When the Black Star Line made it to the West African coast, the Liberians refused to allow the immigrants to disembark, and ultimately they turned around, demoralized, and went back to the US.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey, 1924 | Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Many of his contemporaries disapproved of Garvey’s strongly black separatist rhetoric. He advocated that the African diaspora return to Africa, and until such a huge migration was possible, that the diaspora seek to establish stronger trade, production, and cooperation efforts, but limit their markets to other Africans. That was the purpose of the newspaper, shipping company, and NFA–to build up commerce and interaction between the diaspora and Africa. WEB DuBois, an officer of the NAACP who sought integration and amplification of people of color within the existing social, political and economic structures, called Garvey “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” His ideas synced up quite nicely, actually, with the white supremacists like the KKK, who saw the United States as a white nation, and approved of Garvey’s plans to move all people of African descent “back” to Africa.

Sarah: The newly established Federal Bureau of Investigation also considered Garvey a dangerous individual. According to historian Theodore Kornweibel, the UNIA was infiltrated by a series of black informants inserted into the organization by the FBI. The UNIA was never financially solid, particularly as Garvey poured too much money into the Black Star Line–which the FBI was also actively sabotaging. Kornweibel posits that the Bureau’s primary motivation in harassing and attacking Garvey’s businesses and organizations was to “silence Garvey’s assertions of racial pride and black self-determination. [In the 1920s United States] neither could be comfortably tolerated by men like Herbert Hoover.”[3] Perhaps Garvey’s association with the KKK, and virulent antisemitism were also factors in the FBI’s displeasure with him. Shortly after the failed Liberia immigration endeavor, Garvey was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment for mail fraud (a trumped-up charge that came from the FBI), and he served four of those years in a prison in Georgia, before being released and deported.

Averill: Garvey’s ideas, speeches, and organizations were undoubtedly threatening to white supremacy, which was true in the United States, but also back in his home of Jamaica. Back in Kingston, he served briefly in politics, then moved to London in 1935, and died there in 1940. But while he was wrapped up in his own UNIA activities, his brief foray into local politics, and continuous lobbying of the colonial government to establish a “repatriation” program for Afro-Caribbeans, the Rastafari movement was growing in and around the impoverished regions of Jamaica.

Sarah: The first Rastafarian, Leonard Percival Howell, began preaching the theology of the movement in 1933. He drew on the writings of Garvey, who is alleged to have predicted the crowning of an African king who would be the King of Kings. Three years before Howell began preaching, Haile Selassie had been crowned Emperor in Ethiopia. One of Howell’s first moves was to declare the divinity of Haile Selassie, calling him the “Messiah returned to earth.” According to anthropologist Sheila Kitzinger, Howell sold 5000 postcards of the emperor Haile Selassie at a shilling each, and told people they were passports to Ethiopia.[4] A charismatic leader, Howell quickly assembled a large following in St. Catherine’s parish, Jamaica, and spread the gospel of the Ras Tafari. Haile Selassie’s apparently successful rebuffing of the attempted Italian takeover in 1935 seemed a confirmation of Rastafari theology.

Averill: While Douglas Mack’s account of Haile Selassie is quite reverent — he describes the Emperor as a man of slight stature who was warm and good — his observations obviously came from a place of seeing this guy as his Messiah. In the US we probably have a pretty glowing picture of Selassie as well, because he’s also been memorialized in Bob Marley’s music. Yohannes Woldemariam, an Ethiopian scholar, implores that the romantic depictions of Selassie stop. While Selassie granted Rastafarians (with the means to immigrate) 500 acres of land in the Rift Valley – a settlement known as Shashemane, which we’ll discuss a bit later in the episode – the peak Rasta population there was never higher than 1,000 residents, and they never assimilated into the “Promised Land” of Ethiopia. Selassie reportedly spent $35 million for his 80th birthday celebration while the people of his country starved in the Wollo famine. He traveled the world, and was much like the Shah of Iran or Mobutu of Zaire: an autocrat who helped the West maintain a balance of power in a world at ideological odds with the founding of the Soviet Union. .

Sarah: And like any other religious group that relies on the writings of predecessors, the Rasta leaders were selective in what doctrines and sayings to pay attention to. Though Garvey is credited with predicting Selassie’s assumption, he never actually named the king of Ethiopia as the messiah. In fact, in 1937, Garvey criticized the Ethiopian emperor, who maintained slavery in his country until 1942. Garvey said, “It is preferable for the Abyssinian [Ethiopian] Negroes and the Negroes of the world to work for the restoration and freedom of the country without the assistance of Selassie, because at best he is but a slave master. The Negroes of the Western World whose forefathers suffered for three hundred years under the terrors of slavery ought to be able to appreciate what freedom means. Surely they cannot feel justified in supporting any system that would hold their brothers in slavery in another country whilst they are enjoying the benefits of freedom elsewhere. The Africans who are free can also appreciate the position of slaves in Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. What right has the Emperor to keep slaves when all the democratic sections of the world were free, when men had the right to live, to develop, to expand, to enjoy all the benefits of human liberty?” Still, Ethiopianism and the kingship of Haile Selassie provided a foundation on which a leader like Howell could build a movement. Garvey too tapped into pre-Selassie Ethiopia, which resisted European imperialism when no other African state seemed able.

Averill: But anyway, back to Leonard Howell, who was certain of Selassie’s divinity. From very early on, Howell was deemed a threat by the colonial government in Jamaica. In December 1934, really just a few months after he proclaimed the divinity of Selassie, he was arrested for sedition. Howell’s theology, which he preached from the early days to willing listeners, and then collected into his 1935 pamphlet The Promised Key, asserted the divinity of Selassie, that Black people were the chosen people, the right of the descendants of enslaved Africans to ‘return’ to their homeland (Ethiopia), and the rejection of western aesthetics and authority, among other key tenets of the Rastafari faith. Rastafari reject “Babylon,” a biblically-inspired denomination for the colonial world and its agents, including the police. In the Old Testament story of Babylon, the king of Babylon enslaved the Hebrews, holding them in captivity for half a century, and took away their language. This analogy has clear ties to the experiences of enslaved men and women of the African continent, who were captured, taken to a foreign land, and they and their offspring were held in captivity for hundreds of years. Particularly in Jamaica, which was primarily a sugar plantation throughout English colonization until the mid 19th-century, the Babylonian story would have resonated most strongly: sugar slavery was so harsh that life expectancy was very low for the enslaved people forced to work the plantations. Rather than improve quality of life, plantation owners in the Caribbean and Brazil tended to just buy new slaves when the old ones died after only 9-15 years of enslavement.

Sarah: In 1940, Howell founded a commune in Sligoville in the St. Catherine parish, which he named “Pinnacle” for its geographical position at the highest point in the town. This was the first Rastafari community in Jamaica, and it was self-sustaining, rejecting the authority of the colonial world. The members/residents grew yams, bananas, sweet potato, tampi, cocoa, corn, and plantains, raised livestock, made slippers out of old tires, and grew marijuana, which they used for religious rites and sold to tourists. Over the course of the 1940s and 50s, Pinnacle and the other Rastafari communities founded in its wake were raided by the colonial police and members arrested. The charges were almost always “growing marijuana” and “inciting violence.” In 1941 the police arrested 70 of Howell’s followers at Pinnacle, including Howell himself. Pinnacle was permanently shut down in 1954.

Averill: The movement grew, particularly attracting illiterate slum dwellers whose experience of “Babylon” was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men flocked to the Rastafri brethren because they had few opportunities, and resented the colonial state for its oppression (or, in the Rastafari parlance, the “downpression”) of Black people. Once they joined, and embraced the look and words of the Rastafari, their employment opportunities were reduced even more. According to Mack, Rastafari who grew out dreadlocks or spoke in workplaces about the divinity of Selassie were promptly fired. It fell, then, to women, to provide income for households. Even in the mostly self-sustaining communes like Pinnacle, some level of income was necessary for households. And the communes, in turn, were targeted by the “agents of Babylon”–the colonial police–for this, that, and the other thing. Real infractions or invented, the perception of “downpression” flourished in the Rastafari communities. Police harassment fed into the Rasta claim that the Jamaican government was “Sodom and Gomorrah,” and supported their aim, which was, as one Rasta told Sheila Kitzinger, was to “go back to Africa, our ancient land, where we know we will live in happiness and plenty.”[5]

Sarah: Though slavery was abolished in Jamaica in the 1830s, the resulting economic system left the huge Black population under and unemployed. Though there were some notable exceptions–like Marcus Garvey himself–opportunities for the Black men of Jamaica were few. The self-sustaining Rastafari communities promised food, shelter, and positive representations of black manhood. In Ave’s episode on fatherhood a few weeks ago, she talked about the ways that enslaved men were barred from jobs and gender roles that were typically masculine. In many post-emancipation communities, the long-term effects of those conditions manifested in various ways. Though not necessarily the norm, many postcolonial and post-emancipation nationalist or organized movements like the Rastafari produced patriarchal systems that, like the Rastafari communities, encouraged rigid gender relations and expectations. As one of Kitzinger’s interviewees suggested, “A woman can just leave the Rasta. They are not Rasta in heart. The man is the head of the church. Women have to obey the principles of the Elders of the movement.”[6] In some communes, there were no women at all; men took their sons to be raised separately from women in male-only communes, perhaps echoing Solomon’s raising of Menelik away from his mother.

Averill: Another manifestation of the rigid patriarchy of the Rastafari, which continues to reverberate in Jamaica in strict social policing, is the violent rejection of same-sex desire. Same-sex sex between men is still explicitly outlawed, and has been since the British introduced an anti-sodomy law in 1864. Legality, however, is not the only concern that a same-sex desiring man might encounter in Jamaica. Though 2018 saw protests against the anti-homosexuality laws, the taboo is still pervasive throughout Jamaican society, at least in part because of the influence of the Rasta rejection of same-sex desire.

Sarah: From early in Jamaica’s colonized history, the enslaved Black population had a track record of resistance and revolt. We won’t spend much time on it here, but you can listen to Marissa’s episode on Resistance in the Caribbean for a refresher, which Ave assigned to her Decolonization students last semester.

Averill: And which they LOVED.

Sarah: Marissa talk sin that episode about some significant figures, like the Ashanti queen Nanny, and the founding of the “Maroon” communities of escaped slaves that carved out space through armed resistance in Jamaica. Before and after the abolition of slavery in the British empire, the Black Jamaicans resisted colonialism. Those traditions certainly influenced the self-perceptions and identities of the Rastafari. Significantly, Douglas Mack includes this longer history of Black resistance to British imperialism, but focuses pretty heavily on the role of Black men. He mentions Nanny, but only in passing, and only after he listed some of the men who fought for her in the Maroon Wars. Douglas Mack is considered by his community members to be a griot, or historian, of the Rasta movement. It’s interesting to see the ways his account of that history is shaped by his role as an insider, compared with something like Kitzinger’s outsider anthropological perspective. 

Averill: From the founding of the Rasta religion in the 1930s through Douglas Mack’s second journey to Ethiopia in 1963, Jamaica changed dramatically. By the 1930s, the major industries of the island–sugar production, banana production, and steel work–were controlled by big corporations.Pre-existing socioeconomic structures, which privileged lighter-skinned individuals and created a “mulatto” middle class and left the black Jamaicans largely landless peasant laborers, created stark divisions between the haves and have-nots. As Akeia Benard notes, “with no jobs and no land, most of the landless peasant class were forced to squat on government-owned city property called ‘yards’ and rummage through refuse for sustenance. In some of the Kingston yards in the late 1930s and early 1940s ‘camps’ emerged where individuals would buy, sell and smoke marijuana.”[7] In these same camps, men would gather to discuss politics and religion. Benard argues that this is the root of the centrality of marijuana, or ganja, in the Rasta religious rite.

Sarah: In 1944, Jamaica instituted universal suffrage. Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante, two ‘mixed race’ middle class politicians, led the two major political parties on Jamaica’s push for autonomy. The People’s National Party, which Manley founded in 1938, advocated tirelessly for universal suffrage. Bustamante, Manley’s cousin, initially belonged to the PNP, but Bustamante aligned his interests most strongly with the workers of Jamaica, who were mostly of African and mixed-race descent. He was highly active in anti-colonial activism, and was imprisoned on charges of subversive activities in 1940. When he was released in 1943, he founded the Jamaica Labour Party, and his close relationship with the workers of the island catapulted his party to power with the granting of suffrage in 1944. He was the unofficial leader of Jamaica until the position of Chief Minister was created in 1953. Manley, who pushed for suffrage from the constitutional level while Bustamante demonstrated in the streets, and whose party was a democratic socialist organization, wouldn’t earn enough votes in the universal suffrage climate until 1954.

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 | public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Bustamante and Manley became political rivals throughout the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond. By the 1960s, each party was unofficially affiliated with a gang of agitators who were not afraid to use violence to advance their political positions. The Rastafari existed largely outside of the violence and political machinations of the two parties, and even though individuals like Bob Marley were more sympathetic to one side or another–usually the PNP, whose socialist aims were quite aligned with the practices already implemented in the Rasta communes–they officially took no side. In 1976, a gunman unofficially connected to the JLP shot Bob Marley, angry that Marley seemed to sympathize more with the PNP. He survived the assassination attempt, but the gunmen murdered Marley’s wife, who was shot in the head in her car. Days later, the recovering Marley played a show, and brought the leaders of the two political parties, and made them hold hands in front of thousands of fans.

Sarah: In 1960 Norman Manley was Chief Minister. That year, sociologists at the University of the West Indies conducted a study of the Rastafarian brethren, and in the report they presented to Manley, stated that there were real problems facing the Rastafari that required government attention. Rastafari men were discriminated against in the workplace, that the police harassed them constantly for gathering in the camps, and, most importantly to our story, that the Jamaican government should contact African governments to address the Rastafari brethren’s desire to ‘repatriate’ to Africa.[8] Technically Manley had no real political power to arrange diplomatic missions with foreign countries, but nevertheless, he did reach out to a number of African governments, inquiring about ‘repatriation’ possibilities. He heard back from five, who said that they would welcome a delegation from Jamaica, including Rastafarians. Manley brought together Rastafarians and other “back to Africa” groups to plan the 1961 journey.

Averill: Neither Manley nor Bustamante were particularly excited about the repatriation goals of Rastafari. They were, after all, working to improve conditions for all Jamaicans, to cast off British imperialism and make life better in Jamaica. Still, Manley agreed to help. The Jamaican government funded the delegation of Jamaicans, which included three Rastafarians: Brother Philmore Alvaranga, Brother Mortimo Planno, and Brother Douglas Mack. In addition to the three Rasta brothers, there were members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (which still existed after Marcus Garvey’s death in 1940), the Afro-Caribbean Council the Afro-West Indian Welfare League, and the Ethiopian World Federation Inc, and a journalist. They left Kingston on April 4, 1961, traveled through New York City, then London, before arriving in Khartoum, Sudan on April 14th.

Sarah: Sudan borders Ethiopia, and so Ethiopia was the first stop in the delegation tour. In addition to the momentous meeting of the Rasta men and their Messiah, all the delegates met with the Archbishop and Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Mack and the other Rasta brethren discussed the key biblical verses in Rastafari theology, and discussed the divinity of Selassie. They “reminded the Archbishops of Revelation, Chapter 17, verse 14, ‘These shall make war with the lamb, and the lamb shall overcome them: for his is Lord of Lords and King of Kings.’” Though the Archbishop recalled Ethiopia’s victory in the Italian invasion of 1935, when Selassie told the League of Nations “You have struck the match in Ethiopia but it shall burn Europe,” Mack didn’t overstate the Archbishop’s interpretation of the Revelation’s verse, who only said that “the Bible could be interpreted that way,” as evidence of Selassie’s Messiahness, but clearly the Archbishop wasn’t really convinced.

Averill: In Ethiopia, the delegation also visited Shashemane, the community of mostly Rastafarian immigrants who’d taken Haile Selassie up in his offer of repatriation to Ethiopia. According to Guilia Bonacci, Selassie established the land grant in 1948 for the members of the Ethiopian World Federation who had defended Ethiopia during the Italian War (1935-41). The land grant included an invitation to the “black people of the world” to come settle in Ethiopia and contribute to the country’s development. Bonacci notes that a few Caribbean and African American settlers arrived in the 1950s and 60s, but it was ultimately peopled mostly by Jamaican Rastafarians. As of 2011, there were about 600 men, women and children of 15 nationalities.[9]

Sarah: Mack and the other delegates spoke with James and Helen Piper, a couple from Monserrat in the Caribbean who’d migrated first to New York, then joined the Ethiopian World Federation, then moved to Ethiopia in 1948. They, and others with them, built homes, planted crops like sunflower, corn, and bananas, and raised livestock. The Shashemane community surely resembled, to Mack and the other Rasta brethren, the communes in Jamaica like Pinnacle. And according to Saheed Adejumobi, the Shashemane residents lived quite separately from the Ethiopians, not trying to integrate or ‘assimilate’ into their Ethiopian “homeland.”

Averill: Still, Mack saw in the community at Shashemane a possible future for him and his people. And his report on the remainder of the delegation journey, to Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, was similarly optimistic. He reported that the representative of the Nigerian government, who was also inspired by the writings of Marcus Garvey, hoped that talks on resettlement of Afro-Caribbeans would follow closely. Mack reports that the representative “compared the ‘Back to Africa Movement’ with the Jewish restoration of Israel.”[10] I’m…. not sure how to really interpret this statement. On the one hand, Mack obviously found this reassuring because Rastafari see their king as descended from the Hebrew king Solomon. But considering the tensions in the Israel/Palestine region already in 1961, I wonder if he didn’t think that comparison a little troubling? We’ll never know!

Sarah: After Nigeria, the delegation went on to Ghana, where they met Kwame Nkrumah! Nkrumah was a leader of the Pan-African movement in Africa, and Ghana was the first country to get independence from England, which they achieved in 1957. This was surely an exciting moment for the Jamaicans, who were in the middle of negotiations with the British to grant their own island nation independence. Mack refers to Nkrumah as a “wise president” who arranged for the delegation to meet with a committee to discuss how many Jamaicans might move to Ghana and what skills they would bring. No promises were made, and Nkrumah pointed out that the Africans of the Caribbean and those of the Gold Coast had been developing on different paths for many years, and that it would take more years to find common ground again.

Averill: In Liberia, a nation founded by a contingent of 88 Back-to-Africa African-Americans in 1822, the hope was palpable. In 1955 the Republic of Liberia made a provision to issue free land to immigrants, and immigration laws were favorable to peoples of African descent. The President invited the Brothers to tell him of the Rastafari movement, which they did, and Mack reports that he said “Jamaica was overpopulated while Liberia was under populated and needed people.”[11] Though the President also noted that only immigrants with clean police records would be welcome, this visit too was remembered favorably by Douglas Mack.

Sarah: Their final official stop, Sierra Leone, which was only very recently – two months ago – independent, was the least productive per Mack’s goals on the trip. The representatives they met with there suggested that Sierra Leone needed to get its own affairs in order before opening borders to immigrants, but that future conversations should be expected. In his account of the trip, this reasonable demurring was surely meant to be eclipsed by the apparent enthusiasm from every other African leader they met with — every one lauded Marcus Garvey, the Rasta prophet, and either had provisions ready for incoming immigrants or made promises to the same effect.

Averill: Little of these hopeful and enthusiastic encounters, however, made it into the official report delivered to Norman Manley when the delegation returned the Jamaica. The leader of the delegation was far more reserved, and the three Rastafari brothers were outnumbered in the dictation of what accounts were included in the final report, and what wasn’t.

Sarah: But then, in 1962, Jamaica gained its independence from Britain, and Manley had little time to worry about the Rastafari repatriation goals, because his power was unseated by Bustamante’s JLP. After all his work trying to improve social conditions for all Jamaicans, including the Rastafari communities, it was Bustamante, not Manely, who was the first Prime Minister of the independent Jamaican state.

Averill: When Mack and another Brother approached Bustamante about sending a second delegation in 1963, Bustamante was unreceptive. He was dealing with an exploitative economy, and democracy still in its infancy, and the legitimate critiques of the Opposition Government of Manley’s PNP. He was certainly not going to fund an expedition to Africa for Jamaican citizens to seek immigration opportunities in Ethiopia. Like most Jamaican politicians, he had more worldly, here-and-now issues to deal with. But Mack, determined, raised funds to launch the second journey on his own. He and his Rasta brother spent two full years in Africa, traveling from nation to nation seeking places to repatriate their brethren. Kenya reportedly promised land for 10,000 Jamaicans, and still there was Shashamne ready and waiting for them in Ethiopia.

Sarah: Starting in 1968, a few hundred Jamaican Rastafarians did, indeed, immigrate to Ethiopia. None of the other promised lands came to fruition; in many cases, African nations explicitly expressed rejection of Rastafari immigrants. Many struggled to maintain democracies in the face of bold corruption, military insurgency, militant religious organizations, and other challenges. They had little time or effort to devote to ‘repatriating’ dark-skinned men and women with whom they shared little – culturally, historically, linguistically, religiously, politically, or otherwise. Shared ancestors, it seemed, was not near enough to build a bridge on.

Averill: But even when Jamaican Rastafari settlers were not welcome, the philosophies of the Rastafari made it into the “homeland.” According to Neil Savishinsky, Rastafari traveled on the highly visible and popular music attributed to the socioreligious group — namely, reggae — throughout the 1970s and 80s. The underemployed Maori of New Zealand, Havasupai indians living on a reservation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, West Indians in Bixton and Ghanians in Africa all had large groups seized by the radical sentiments of the Rastafari. Rastafari ideologies appealed greatly to these historically (and on-goingly) oppressed groups. According to Savishinsky, “Like the Pan-Africanists who preceded them and from whom they borrowed so much, Rastas have been instrumental in helping Black youth become more aware of their long and venerable history and in teaching them not to be ashamed of their race and cultural heritage.”[12] This is something that Douglas Mack says explicitly — that he wrote his history of the movement and the 1961/63 delegations to educate future young Rastas who needed to know their own history in order to resist it.

Sarah: Over the course of the 1970s and 80s, the Rastafarian movement spread among urban-based West African youths. It was carried to them through the reggae music made an international sensation by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Savishinsky notes that this is nowhere clearer than in Ghana, where in the capital city of Accra you can find cassettes by African, Jamaican, and Anglo-Jamaican reggae artists like Evi-Edna Ogholi, Majek Fashek and Alpha Blondy, who are all West African singer/songwriters, and of course the Jamaican superstars Marley, Peter Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff.[13] But music, marijuana use, and fashions are all merely the visible markers of the presence of Rastafari in West Africa. The messages and belief system, based in that Abrahamic tradition, was easily received in West Africa, already dominated by Protestant and Catholic converts and Muslim influences. Rasta’s critique of “White” versions of Christianity was particularly appealing. 90% of Rastas in Ghana were from Christian backgrounds, who embraced the Rasta challenge to those Euro-centric teachings.

Rasta flag
Rasta Flag, a variation of the Ethiopian flag | public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Averill: Beyond that, the people who carried the messages of Rasta – the Jamaican apostles and missionaries, and the reggae musicians – who made the socioreligious into a movement rather than just a fad. Jamaican Rastas who traveled the continent extensively, men like Douglas Mack, preached and inspired where ever they went. Though only hundreds of Jamaicans ever resettled in the Promised Land, and not the thousands that Mack and his compatriots hoped for, those who did and moved out of Ethiopia and into places like Ghana and Nigeria founded Rasta communities, and found ready young disciples. Just like the young men living in shanty towns and slums of Jamaica, West African nations, struggling to adjust in a postcolonial or neocolonial world, were very receptive to the Rasta message. Just as importantly, the local West African reggae musicians believed what they preached in their music — they spoke out against national and local government corruption, founded action groups, and helped launch the movement.[14]

Sarah: For most Jamaican Rastas, the Promised Land dream never came to fruition. As the dream of total repatriation got further and further from possibility, the Jamaican Rastafari shifted their theological thinking to better survive the reality of staying in Jamaica. This included accepting God not as a literal king but as an order of nature to be obeyed.[15] By 1975, the year Haile Selassie died, this was a necessary shift, though many Rastas believe he disappeared or is in hiding, like the Hidden Imam of Shi’a Islam. Because children were so important to the movement, it also meant really strict sexual politics. In the Rastafari religion, a woman’s only true purpose is to have children. Birth control and abortion were taboo–one of Kitzinger’s respondents called birth control “white man’s plan to kill off the black race.”[16] Sex wasn’t supposed to be for pleasure or recreation, but only to beget children. One interviewee told Kitzinger that when having sex a man was supposed to say, as he inserted himself, “I like you bring forth a child for me.” Couples were supposed to strive to have children no matter the economic strain it would put on the family – no matter their poverty, they were to believe that “the Lord will provide.”

Averill: Kitzinger wrote her study of the Jamaican Rastas in 1966–so soon after Douglas Mack returned from his second delegation visit, the hope was dying. Several hundred did immigrate starting in 1968, and at its peak Shashemane had 1,000 people. But the majority did not leave. Kitzinger argued that already in 1966, the Rastas were embracing qualities that were similar to other protest religions, particularly those that accepted extreme poverty as a mystical experience.[17] The religion lives on, of course, all over the Americas, in West Africa, and elsewhere, continuing to battle the downpression of Babylon, finding ways to build self-sustaining communities, and looking for the return of the Messiah once again.

[1] Douglas Mack, From Babylon to Rastafari: Origin and History of the Rastafarian Movement (Chicago: Frontline Distribution International Inc, 1999) 100.

[2] Mack, 101.

[3] Theodore Kornweibel, Jr, Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998) 130.

[4] Sheila Kitzinger, “The Rastafarian Brethren of Jamaica,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9:1 (Oct 1966) 33.

[5] Kitzinger, 33.

[6] Kitzinger, 35.

[7] Akeia A. Benard, “The Material Roots of Rastafarian Marijuana Symbolism,” History and Anthropology 18:1 (March 2007) 91.

[8] Mack, 93.

[9] Giulia Bonacci, “An Interview in Zion: The Life-History of a Jamaican Rastafarian in Shashemene, Ethiopia,” Callaloo, 34:3 (Summer 2011) 744.

[10] Mack, 102.

[11] Mack, 110.

[12] Neil Savishinsky, “Rastafari in the Promised Land: The Spread of a Jamaican Socioreligious Movement Among the Youth of West Africa,” African Studies Review 37:3 (Dec 1994) 20.

[13] Savishinsky, 24.

[14] Kitzinger, 21-35.

[15] Kitzinger, 37.

[16] Kitzinger, 37.

[17] Kitzinger, 36.

Bibliography

Marcus Garvey,” Biography.com (2019)

Saheed Adejumobi, “Ethiopianism,” Black Past (2007) 

Akeia A. Benard, “The Material Roots of Rastafarian Marijuana Symbolism,” History and Anthropology 18:1 (March 2007) 88-99.

Giulia Bonacci, “An Interview in Zion: The Life-History of a Jamaican Rastafarian in Shashemene, Ethiopia,” Callaloo, 34:3 (Summer 2011) 744-758

DL Chandler, “Jamaican ‘Back-To-Afrika’ Delegates Arrive In Ethiopia On This Day In 1961,” Face2Face Africa, 16 Apr 2014, 

Peter Clarke, Black Paradise: The Rastafarian Movement (San Bernadino, CA: Tte Borgo Press, 1994)

Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, or Africa for the Africans, edited by Amy Jacques-Garvey, The Journal of Pan African Studies (2009)

Michael A. Gomez, Diasporic Africa: A Reader (New York: NYU Press, 2006).

Sheila Kitzinger, “The Rastafarian Brethren of Jamaica,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 9:1 (Oct 1966) 33-39

Theodore Kornweibel, Jr, Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998). 

Douglas Mack, From Babylon to Rastafari: Origin and History of the Rastafarian Movement (Chicago: Frontline Distribution International Inc, 1999). 

Velma Pollard, “Dread Talk: The Speech of the Rastafarian in Jamaica,” Caribbean Quarterly 26:4 (Dec 1980) 32-41. 

Velma Pollard, Dread Talk: The Language of the Rastafari, (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).

Neil Savishinsky, “Rastafari in the Promised Land: The Spread of a Jamaican Socioreligious Movement Among the Youth of West Africa,” African Studies Review 37:3 (Dec 1994) 19-50

Yohannes Woldemarian, “The romantic rewriting of Haile Selassie’s legacy must stop,” Africa at London School of Economics blog (4 Feb 2019)


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