Early Growth of the Movement
The status of Bob Marley as a pop superstar has brought to light
for the first time to many people in England the religion of Rastafari.
Previously the existence of black youths in tricoloured tea cosy
hats and strange dress had been either overlooked or regarded
as a sign of the ‘stupidity’ of the youth, especially black youth,
which was easily identified as unemployed and dangerous.
The Rastafari way of life grew up among the most oppressed and
the poorest members of Jamaican society in the 1930’s and it was
a religion of outcasts, members of the worst slum areas of West
Kingston, the Dungle (a patois word for dunghill) and Trenchtown.
There was no individual founder, but several people about this
time began to take seriously the words of the pan-African champion,
Marcus Garvey, that the blacks should ‘Look to Africa when a black
king is crowned, for the day of deliverance is near’. They witnessed
the accession of Rastafari to the throne of Ethiopia, after which
he became the Emperor Haile Selassie, and through a diligent study
of the Bible, especially Genesis, the Psalms, and the Revelation
of St John, they found further confirmation that they were the
true Israel, departed from their ancient home, and that the time
was near for repatriation. Jamaica came to be identified with
the Babylon of Revelation and hence they were slaves who owed
no allegiance to the government and who must do nothing to support
the government as this would be denial of their true King and
home. It also helped to explain why they were at the bottom of
Jamaican society, often unemployed and apparently of no concern
to the government. These early preachers gathered followers among
the poor and, following another of Garvey’s tenets, emphasised
the need for self-reliance and preparedness for the return to
Africa. This served to isolate the Rastas from the rest of Jamaican
society even more because they would not accept any government
help as this was a trick of Babylon to trap black men, and the
imminence of their return meant that planning for a long term
stay in Jamaica was foolish. The whole basis of Rastafari thought
went against the wishes of the government which was trying to
unite people under the slogan ‘out of many one nation’ and inspire
a nationalist pride in the Jamaican population
In the late 50’s and early 60’s this came to a head and culminated
in a fierce shoot-out after a group who Jamaican society identified
as Rastafarians had attacked a petrol station a few miles from
the luxury resort of Montego Bay. The attendant was killed and
the building set ablaze. The group then went to a nearby hotel
and killed a guest before fleeing into the hills and attacking
an overseer’s house. When the police arrived a gun battle broke
out between the so-called Rastas and the police and some passers-by
who chose to become involved, which in itself is a fair indication
of the violent nature of Jamaican society. The battle ended in
the death of eight people and three Rasta brethren were held on
murder charges. However, the police backlash resulted in the arrest
of 150 more brethren within the next 24 hours. These were charged
with various offences from vagrancy to being in possession of
dangerous drugs or weapons.
At the trial of the three brethren accused of murder much was
made of the use of ganja (marjuana) by the Rastafarians. The defence
argued that at the time of the attack all three were high after
consuming vast amounts of ganja and therefore could not be held
responsible for their actions. (Most Rastas credit ganja with
deep religious significance and point to verses in Genesis 8,
Psalm 18, and Revelation 22 to justify that belief. The amount
of ganja that is smoked is often startling to Europeans — Bob
Marley is said to consume a pound a week.) The prosecution, in
its desire to get a conviction, brought forward medical evidence
that ganja did not diminish the user’s responsibility and would
not contribute to the occurrence of violence. The prosecution’s
evidence was counter to the established view held by Jamaican
society and the police.
After this trial many Rastas were worried about the view that
Jamaican society had of them as wild and violent revolutionaries
and they asked a group from the University College of the West
Indies to produce a report on their life-style and beliefs. The
report concluded that it was impossible to give a full account
of Rastafarian beliefs because of the many different sects within
the movement which emphasise different aspects of the doctrine.
In addition, the Rastas maintain that it is essential for each
man to discover the meaning of life for himself through the correct
study of the Bible. Nevertheless, the writers of the report showed
that there were four main points of doctrine common to all groups:
1. Ethiopia is the balck man's home;
2. Rastafari is the Living God;
3. Repatriation is the way of redemption for black men. It has
been foretold and will occur shortly;
4. The ways of the white men are evil, especially for the blacks.
Although these beliefs are common to all groups they are often
expressed in different ways and most Rastas also respect the Biblical
injunctions which became popular with the hippy movement: ‘Peace
Belief and the Bible
The Rastafarians have always relied on Biblical validation of
their beliefs, but they maintain that only those who have been
empowered by God can understand the Biblical message which has
been perverted by the white slavemasters. When they read of the
destruction of Babylon in Revelation they transfer these poetic
allusions to Western Europe. In the fullness of time the black
God is going to come down and destroy the whites who oppress his
people. Hence the ways of the white races are thought to be evil
and need to be evaded by the blacks. This belief increased the
Rastas’ desire to cut themselves off from Western society and
has helped them to identify their true homeland as Ethiopia.
These conclusions have been reached by a method of seeking meaning
in Scripture which involves the Rastas in a complete system which
encompasses all their experience. The black race was seen to be
the true Israel and Haile Selassie is thought of as the descendant
of Solomon and Sheba who has come to bring salvation to the blacks
with the promises of Revelation and the Bible came to be regarded
as a book of symbols with contemporary significance to which the
brethren have the key. Consequently if the black race are the
true Israel then the only true government can be a theocracy of
The Rasta holds no allegiance to the Jamaican government and
Western ideas and practices have to be avoided as they imply acceptance
of a power other than that of Haile Selassie. Further Biblical
injunctions could be found for this because the Rasta believes
that the Western world is one of pride and vanity which Scripture
says must be avoided. So the Rastafarians reject marriage in a
church preferring to live with his Queen who he is to respect.
Alcohol and gambling are forbidden and regarded as sinful, and
obeah (Magic) and witchcraft are not to be practised. Further
Biblical sanctions are found for the growing of the distinctive
Rasta hairstyle — locks or dreadlocks — and beards following the
Nazarite vows of Leviticus. Ganja is also sanctioned by the Bible
and the Rastas can point to many instances where God is said to
have given the herb to men.
Rastafarians in England
The spread of the Rastafarian faith to England was first noticed
in 1973 when the wearing of locks, tightly plaited hair, and the
acceptance of Rasta dress was reported in London, and by 1975
the cult had spread to other inner city areas with a high colored
population. Prior to this it had been claimed that Rastafari was
a purely Jamaican phenomenon which could not exist elsewhere because
of the backgroud and history of the Jamaican blacks. Suddenly
boys, and even girls, who are not usually associated with the
cult, were seen on the street and in the schools wearing gold,
green, red and black Rasta tams and braid which identified them
with the movement. Even children of eleven knew the significance
of the braid and what the colours were supposed to represent:
gold for the promised future, green for Africa, red for the blood
of slaves, and black for the black races. It would seem that black
youth of England was trying to affirm an identity which had experienced
a double shift of culture, first the enforced move from Africa
to the islands, and then on to England which had not turned out
to be the promised land, the Mother Country, their parents had
been led to believe.
In the schools they felt further threatened by the imposition
of English standards of dress and the content of the lessons which
rarely mentioned their homeland, or if it did so it included disparaging
or supercilious remarks about African civilisation. Also, being
educated alongside white children, the black youth realised there
was no marked difference in intelligence, but on leaving school,
if not before, they often found themselves thrust into a world
of discrimination where the white school leaver was offered a
job before the black. These youths came from the most socially
deprived areas of the inner cities and from schools that were
still considered second rate because of their former secondary-modern
status, and they came to view themselves much as the poor blacks
had in Jamaica, twenty years previously. They felt rejected by
a society which had nothing to offer them anyway and they began
to look again at their African heritage which was being re-asserted
by black consciousness groups in Jamaica and the United States.
Believing themselves to be living in an alien culture it became
necessary to create a new identity, or, as they believed, to recreate
the black man’s true African identity. Thus the Rastafarian cult
offered them something to identify with and it has become a central
part of the search by many young blacks for their true identity,
although as in Jamaica there is still great diversity within the
In England, as in Jamaica, the Rastafarians have been associated
by the police and society with violence. These charges are refuted
by the Rastas themselves who say that the trouble is caused by
young people who adopt the Rastafarian way of dress without discovering
the truth of the religion. As one young Rasta has said to me,
the believer must aim at a life of virtue not violence.
Many Rastafarians in England belong to no recognised religious
community, and although some have joined the Ethiopian Orthodox
Church, membership of a church is thought to be of limited importance
as the believer is expected to discover the meaning of the belief
for himself. A Rasta will tell you that if you want to understand
the faith all you have to do is read the Bible. Often groups of
believers will gather to discuss the meaning of Scripture and
there are differences of belief which indicate a living faith
capable of theological debate. An example of this can be witnessed
in the debate over race which Rastas in England are engaged in
at the present moment. For although white Rastas are now accepted
in Jamaica, this is still an issue among the believers here with
some still maintaining that religion is for black men while others
now accept that it can be for anybody who discovers Rastafari
in his heart.
Although it is dangerous to predict what will happen with a cult,
it seems likely that the faith will follow the pattern set in
Jamaica. Often people find the Rastas unwilling to speak about
their religion, but this is usually because they expect white
people to be disparaging and when they discover a sympathetic
interest they are frequently willing to discuss their beliefs.
Rastafari: An Identity Affirmed
The death of Bob Marley in 1981 might have taken the Rastafarian
religion out of the international limelight but it has not taken
away any of its spiritual quality for a significant number of
black people. It still helps them to understand their position
in society and the special gnosis it provides enables them to
withstand the vicissitudes and disappointments of life. The accolades
poured on Marley by the Jamaican government after his death and
the mausoleum built for his remains in the village of his birth
have not removed the poverty and oppression that many blacks encounter
in Jamaica and elsewhere. Rastafari remains a potent ideology
for interpreting this position, offering hope both now and in
As an increasing number of middle class blacks, and some white
people, acknowledge the importance and even accept the tenets
of Rastafari, the religion is moving into anther stage of development.
Although it is still despised in many areas of the Caribbean it
is beginning to become less of a sub-culture of the oppressed
and is taking on a more universal role. Even people who cannot
accept it as a true religious movement are prepared to respect
its move towards self-sufficiency and the reinterpretation of
the black experience. This exposition of black history and the
position of black people has had a particular appeal to people
who feel set apart through their personal knowledge of the Divine
Will. Whether this severance be the result of individual or class
alienation, the establishment of an elite brethren or the remnant
of a chosen people is of no consequence to Rasta reasoning. Any
one or all of these factors may have a bearing on an individual’s
choice of Rastafari but for that person, all the causes of separation
from the established traditions of society will be irrelevant
compared to the knowledge of the indwelling of Jah recognised
through the acceptance of Rastafari.
Peace and Love - JAH
- Barrett, Leonard E. Soul Force: African Heritage
in Afro American Religion. New York 1974. The Sun and The Drum.
Heinemann 1976. The Rastafarians. Heinemann 1977.
- Cashmore, Ernest. Rastaman. George Allen
& Unwin 1979. Still the most comprehensive study of the movement
in England. The Rastafarians M.R.G. 1984.
- Clarke, Sebastian. Jah Music. Heinemann 1980.
- Davis, Stephen and Simon, Peter. Reggae Bloodline.
Anchor Books 1977.
- Fitz-Henley, Trevor. Boy in a Landscape.
Arbasa-Judah Press, Jamaica 1980. Although there are many excellent
novels and poems dealing with black experience as the introduction
says ‘Fitz-Healey allows Rastafari to flow out of a discussion
of “The Jamaican Idea” and ‘the question of identity is perhaps
(his) main theme’.
- Makeda Lee, Barbara. Rastafari: The New Creation.
Jamaica Media Productions 1981 Kingston. Rastafari is frequently
thought to regard women as second class; this book is a middle
class woman’s account of why she accepted the faith. There was
an English publication around 1983.
- Nettleford, Rex. Mirror, Mirror. William
Collins and Sangster (Jamaica) Ltd. 1970.
- Nicholas, Tracy and Sparrow
Bill. Rastafari. Anchor Books 1979. A good account of Rastafari
lifestyle and some excellent photographs.
- Owens, J. Dread. Sangster Books (Jamaica)
1976. Still probably the most sensitive account of Rastafari.
Plummer, John. Movement of Jah People. Press Gang 1978.
- The Rastafarian movement in Birmingham in the 1970s. This
includes a though-provoking chapter on ‘Locks and the Law’.
- Smith, M. G., Augier, R., Nettleford, R.
The Rastafarian Movement in Kingston, Jamaica. Kings- ton, 1960.
- Thomas, Michael and Boot, Adrian. Jah Revenge.
Eel Pie Publishing 1982.
- White, Timothy. Catch a Fire. Elm Tree Books
1983. A colourful account of the life of Bob Marley that sets
him in his Jamaica background.
- Williams, K. M. The Rastafarians. Ward Lock
1981. A short introduction to Rastafarianism in Jamaica and