The Historical origins of the Rastafari movement can be understood in the words of Marcus Garvey below:
“Look to Africa, when a Black King shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand” (Marcus Garvey: 1920)
When Marcus Garvey’s words were followed by the Crowning of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930, they were seen as the fulfilment of a Prophecy, giving birth to what was to become known as the Rastafarian Religion and Movement.
The Historical Origins Of The Rastafari Movement
The Rastafari Movement’s Historical origins can be traced to the 1900s Marcus Garvey preached Black self-determination and rose to prominence in America with the Back To Africa Movement which sought the repatriation of former Slaves to Africa.
During his time in America, Jamaican-born Leonard P Howell was amongst Garvey’s staunchest supporters, and when Garvey was deported to Jamaica following the collapse of the Back To Africa Movement after its infiltration by the FBI under J Edgar Hoover, Howell soon followed, arriving in Jamaica in 1935. Howell’s arrival in Jamaica would be the critical event in the birth of the Rastafari Movement.
On his arrival in Jamaica, Howell was immediately confronted by the dominance of Euro-centric Christianity which in his view reinforced White Supremacy and impoverished the Spirit and confidence of Jamaican Blacks.
Howell’s response was the creation of a new Philosophy of Rastafari for Black Spiritual upliftment that sought to eradicate the White Supremacy inherent in Jamaican Colonial Christianity.
In order to achieve this, Howell replaced White Christian symbolism with Black Christian Symbolism to create a new Religion that would form the basis of the Rastafari Movement.
The Rastafari Movement & The Philosophy Of Leonard P Howell
Fundamentally, with the Rastafari Movement, Howell fashioned the Messianic message of Christianity in a Black mould.
Howell’s Rastafari taught that the crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie was the fulfilment of Marcus Garvey’s 1920 Prophecy which could also be traced to the Bible’s promise of a Messiah in the Book Of Isaiah.
More specifically, he presented Haile Selassie as the Rastafari Messiah sent for the deliverance of all Black people from White oppression.
In his book on the Rastafari Movement, The Promised Key, Howell set out the following principles of Rastafari:
(1) Hatred for the White race;
(2) The complete superiority of the Black race;
(3) Revenge on Whites for their wickedness;
(4) The negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and legal bodies of Jamaica;
(5) Preparation to go back to Africa and;
(6) Acknowledging Emperor Haile Selassie as the Supreme Being and only ruler of Black people.
Howell named his new doctrine Rastafari using Emperor Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian name, Prince Ras Tafari.
Contemporary Rastafarianism has since adapted Howell’s initial principles, and today Rastafarians believe in the following, amongst other things:
- The humanity of God and the divinity of man;
- God is found within every man;
- God It is very important to see all historical facts in the context of God’s judgement and workings;
- Salvation on earth;
- The supremacy of life;
- Respect for nature.
The Response To The Rastafari Movement
Howell’s new Rastafari doctrine was not initially well received by the Jamaican authorities.
He was labelled a Treasonous Heretic on account of his new Rastafari Religion, and sent to prison for sedition as well as spending some time in a mental Asylum.
Upon his release in 1940, he established Jamaica’s first Rastafari community of self-sufficient believers.
Howell and the first Rastas were ostracised and lived isolated lives.
Nevertheless, due to the prevailing negative Socio-Economic conditions in Jamaica, Howell’s message continued to resonate, gaining new followers who would spur the Rastafari movement forward.
The Rise & Acceptance of Rastafarianism In Popular Culture
Mortimer Planno would adopt Howell’s Rastafari’s teachings and rise to become one of Rastafari’s most recognised figures agitating for change in Jamaica.
In order to address the growing class conflict in Jamaican society due to the rise of Rastafarianism owing to the activity of Planno and others, the Jamaican government invited Rasta leaders to a cultural program and fact finding mission to Africa.
Rastafari Movement Elders like Planno visited several African countries including Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia, and it was during this trip that Mortimer Planno met Emperor Haile Selassie in person.
Upon his return to Jamaica, Planno went on to establish a school of Rasta Theology in the Trenchtown housing district, and it would be at Planno’s Trenchtown teaching sessions that Bob Marley would be first introduced to the Rastafari Movement.
Marley became one of Planno’s most dedicated students, with the Wailers being managed by Planno in the early stages of their Reggae career.
It was people like Bob Marley who were students of the early Rasta Luminaries that would eventually play a role in the spread of the Rastafari Movement’s Consciousness across the globe.
Although Dreadlocks have since become a Pop Culture staple, according to Rasta Elders, they actually mirror the Bush hairstyle kept by Kenya’s Mau Mau Guerillas who fought against British Colonial Rule, representing the struggle against oppression.
At its core, based on its historical origins, the Rastafari movement can be understood as a Black response to White Supremacy manifesting itself Politically, Economically and Socially in the form of a Eurocentric Christian doctrine in Jamaica.
Historically, Rastafari has appropriated and inverted Christian symbolism to address the negative effects of institutionalised Racism on Black people at the Psychological, Spiritual and Material level.
The Rastafari Movement is a philosophy aimed at restoring Black self-esteem by recasting religious ideas into an Afrocentric Political ideology.
Rastafari as a response to White Supremacy can be understood particularly during the time of its inception by Howell, and it would seem that in challenging White Supremacy it initially developed its own counter-narrative of Black Supremacy.
With the passage of time, it also seems that the Rastafari movement has shifted towards emphasising universal principles like peace and love rather than Black Supremacy as the Rastafari continues to develop from its Historical origins.