Howell: Rastafari prophet and philosopher

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This article looks at the emergence of early Rastafari and the central
role of Leonard P Howell and the genesis of the doctrine. It provides a
brief review of sources on the topic that clarify the history of the
movement, the nature of its related philosophy and anti-colonial
politics in St Thomas and Jamaica. It argues also that it is time for
the history of 1938 to be revised with a view to locating Howell and
early Rastafari in the anti-colonial resistance of that period. It
demystifies the misconception that Garvey was the prophet of the
movement. Some studies neglect Howell as a character in the story of
Rastafari; and there are those that give mixed results by declaring
Garvey prophet and Howell “first preacher”. The following researchers:
Hill – 1981, Bogues – 2003 and Lee – 2000, locate Howell as the central
character in the story of early Rastafari as prophet and philosopher.
Lee, 2000, even went further: 

she declared Howell an anti-colonial
champion against the background of Howell’s anti-colonial and
anti-imperialist political influence in St Thomas. What began as a
rural-based movement embraced by the lowliest of the classes has emerged
into the leading black consciousness movement in the world. Is there
any room in the “national house of honour” for this anti-colonial

Some writers have made good sense of the pioneering role Howell played
in the rise of early Rastafari. According to one source, “first glimpse
of the doctrine” appeared at his 1934 sedition trial. It is argued that
Howell’s preaching “clearly formed a corpus of ideas from which others
drew and elaborated upon”, and that the newly created Rastafarian
theology “is radically different from Christianity”. 

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It is, indeed, a
critique of the very foundation of Christian civilisation, capitalism
and imperialism. It promoted a new anti-imperialist trend to Jamaica and
the world. 

It inspired in the minds of men a new awareness and
political awakening grounded in “moral justice”. These studies explore
the political influence of Rastafari in the 1960s featuring Ras Sam
Brown and Michael Manley and the glorious political decade of the 1970s.

One thinker argues that the idea of Rastafari is “a coherent system of
belief” that reflects the qualities of Hegelian idealism and its
associated ideas of spirituality, morality and the idea of the
“fatherland” (of Ethiopia). There are those researchers who characterise
this idea within the framework of moral philosophy. Its emergence is
described in terms of “moral earthquakes which destroy the order of
things” by its creation of an “abyss between master classes and subject
classes”, and that this “politics of moral order”, rooted in a stream
of black radical thinking which centred on Africa, set off the conflict
between Europe and Africa: between black labourers and white planter
class and the colonial authorities. It is against this background that
some writers link Howell’s political influence in St Thomas to
anti-colonial resistance of 1938.
There is a view that due to the lack of organisational qualities of the
early Rastafari, and that the movement is an outlet for “frustration” as
opposed to having revolutionary characteristics, the ideas and events
had no association with uprisings of 1938. These Marxist and
behavioralist critiques have been demystified by studies informed by
empirical data reflecting the extent of Howell’s political influence in
St Thomas. Carnegie (1973) illustrates the nature of Howell’s political
influence in St Thomas and associated conditions that suggest that the
early Rastafari in St Thomas may have been associated with the massive
strike in the parish “in the centre of the Rastafari activity”. It
involved a confrontation with an “army” of police from Kingston early
January 1938. Hill (1981) illustrates the nature of Howell’s
anti-colonial political activities in St Thomas. 

In responding to the
events of Serge Island of January 1938, he notes the extent of the
“Rasta scare” in Trinityville, a community to the immediate west of
Serge Island, and points to the very real likelihood that Rastafarian
ideology functioned as an active catalyst in the development of the
popular consciousness that led to the labour uprisings of 1938″. 

supporting this line of thinking, Lee (2003) argues that the events of
early January 1938 at Serge Island subsequently contributed to the
transformation of the colonial system in Jamaica. Howell’s mission and
related activities in St Thomas from 1933 to 1938 is an important slice
of the history of anti-colonial resistance and the emergence of new
forms of cultural and intellectual formations in Jamaica.

Indeed, Howell is one of the finest organic scholars in the history of
Jamaica and the most influential advocate of black consciousness among
the lower classes: the cane cutters, the cane loaders, the unemployed
and the marginalised.

Today, what began as a rural-based
political-religious movement has proliferated “fragments” of a new
philosophy all over the world. In looking at an independent Jamaica
against the background of the colonial situation, Gordon K Lewis (1968)
in The Growth of the Modern West Indies, and Rex Nettleford (1989) in
Jamaica in Independence declare the thinking of Rastafari as the only
idea that emerged for the independent nation. Is there any room in the
“national house of honour” for this anti-colonial champion?

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