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The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

by Helene Lee, Stephen Davis (Introduction)

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Going far beyond the standard imagery of Rasta—ganja, reggae, and dreadlocks—this cultural history offers an uncensored vision of a movement with complex roots and the exceptional journey of a man who taught an enslaved people how to be proud and impose their culture on the world. In the 1920s Leonard Percival Howell and the First Rastas had a


Going far beyond the standard imagery of Rasta—ganja, reggae, and dreadlocks—this cultural history offers an uncensored vision of a movement with complex roots and the exceptional journey of a man who taught an enslaved people how to be proud and impose their culture on the world. In the 1920s Leonard Percival Howell and the First Rastas had a revelation concerning the divinity of Haile Selassie, king of Ethiopia, that established the vision for the most popular mystical movement of the 20th century, Rastafarianism. Although jailed, ridiculed, and treated as insane, Howell, also known as the Gong, established a Rasta community of 4,500 members, the first agro-industrial enterprise devoted to producing marijuana. In the late 1950s the community was dispersed, disseminating Rasta teachings throughout the ghettos of the island. A young singer named Bob Marley adopted Howell's message, and through Marley's visions, reggae made its explosion in the music world.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Powerful historical and social forces come together in Lee's extraordinarily useful book. The First Rasta moves with a truth seeker's determination through the slums of Trenchtown and Jamaica's back country, revealing a dauntingly complex landscape and history in which oral history is often more reliable than the written record." —Publishers Weekly

"Incredible . . . a spellbinding saga . . . Lee's insightful combination of toughness and sensitivity is amazing." —The Beat

"The loose threads of Rasta history [are] impressively woven into a flag of green, red, and gold . . . a clear-eyed political history." —Kirkus Reviews

Insightful look at one of the most influential mystical movements of the twentieth century.
The Beat
A smashing yarn.
Dirty Linen
Absolutely fascinating . . . a compelling must read for anyone who even pretends to be a reggae or ska fan.
All About Jazz
An ambitious project and an unqualified success.
Exacting and lushly written, the book is worthy of the highest esteem.
Ugly Things
A journalistic detective story.
Global Rhythm
Gets to the roots of what would become Jamaica's two greatest exports: reggae music and Rastafarianism.
Publishers Weekly
Powerful historical and social forces come together in Lib ration journalist Lee's extraordinarily useful book, which appeared in 1999 to acclaim. Jamaican prophet Leonard Howell's revelations in the 1920s about the symbolic portent for the African diaspora of Ras Tafari's crowning as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia led to the birth of one of the 20th century's most enduring and influential religious awakenings. The colonial forces that ruthlessly suppressed Howell and Rastafarianism in his lifetime have also hidden much of his biography, which Lee has reconstructed through impeccable research and dogged sleuthing. Partly a record of its author's journey in search of those who knew and followed Howell, The First Rasta moves with a truth seeker's determination through the slums of Trenchtown and Jamaica's back country, revealing a dauntingly complex landscape and history in which oral history is often more reliable than the written record. Between his part in the intellectual ferment of the Harlem of Langston Hughes and Marcus Garvey, and the destruction of his religious compound in the late '50s, Howell endured lengthy stays in both prisons and mental hospitals, but emerges in these pages as confident and vindicated. Lee's passionate biography, which includes 11 b&w photos, should draw in not only for students of religion, reggae or Jamaican history but has something to offer to anyone interested in the people and ideas that continue to shape the postcolonial world. (July 15) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
International music journalist Lee weaves the story of Leonard Percival Howell, the forgotten prophet, leader, and founder of the Rastafarian movement, with a history of Jamaica over the last 100 years. First published in French in 1999 and now translated, corrected, and updated, this book is partially based on the oral history Lee sought out from Rastafarian elders in rural and urban Jamaica. Howell saw the return of the King of Kings in the Ethiopian King Ras Tafari and began preaching his beliefs. Although Howell, also known as Gong, was ridiculed and jailed (where he discovered ganja and Hinduism), he was able to establish a Rasta community of more than 4500 members, whose marijuana crops assisted the impoverished. During the 1950s, the crops were seized, and the community dispersed, but Rasta teachings spread through the island's ghettos. Many musicians, including Oswald William (Count Ossie) and Bob Marley, embraced Rasta teachings, and the author provides the basics for understanding the roots of the music and its meaning to the Rasta movement. While there is no comparable biography of Howell, Chanting Down Babylon: The Rasta Reader offers a good overview of the movement, while Kebra Nagast, the holy book of Rastafarians and Ethiopian Christians, provides information on the Rastafarian faith. This engaging account is recommended for popular religious collections.-L. Kriz, West Des Moines P.L., IA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The loose threads of Rasta history, impressively woven into a flag of green, red, and gold by French music journalist Lee. This is a "real-time adventure in ethnology and religious history," writes Stephen Davis in the introduction, and he might have added that it's a clear-eyed political history, for Lee is a student of Jamaican history as well as a bit of a spiritual seeker. Rastafarianism is with Bob Marley and reggae, though Lee shows that it's a multifaceted and abiding presence in Jamaica and beyond. It can be said to have started with Leonard Howell, a Jamaican who made the work of Marcus Garvey and Athlyi Rogers fit the Jamaican situation, borrowing elements of Millenarist and Ethiopianist religions, aspects of the Hindu cycle of karma and rebirth, and wedding them to the national struggle for power. As much as a spiritual vision, Rastafarianism was a class fight, a force at odds with the colonial authorities as it espoused the social redemption of the black race: this being treason, for the king revered was not George V but Ras Tafari: Halie Selassi I of Ethiopia, lord of the land of return. Then there is ganja, which Howell may have begun deploying in his "tea room" on 136th Street in New York-"we can hardly imagine him serving Lipton tea"-but which was used also for overcoming fear, as of the colonial authority. Ganja, like music, became entwined in a nexus of profit and spirituality yet played a pivotal role in the ascension of various political parties. And the music-Kumina on to Burru, Count Ossie, and Marley-could be what "defines the country," though that seems a step back in terms of Rasta's kaleidoscopic past. Lee is an old-school journalist, building the story from theground up. No politicos or academics for her: Rasta is a movement of everyman.

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Read an Excerpt

The First Rasta

Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism

By Hélène Lee, Stephen Davis, Lily Davis

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1999 Flammarion,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55652-466-0


The Footsteps of a Spirit

A rusty placard at a bend in the road reads, "De la Vega Heights — Lots for Sale." It points toward a faded trail leading up into the hills. "This is the entrance to Pinnacle," the taxi driver says. I give him twenty dollars and walk toward the entrance. Behind me the Lada taxi lingers while the passengers' eyes follow me in silence. Not long before, as we were passing a house in the valley, the driver had knowingly commented, "Two pickney [children] from Pinnacle bury in this corner. And now dem build a house 'pon the grave." The lady squeezed in next to me scowls, "It full of duppy [spirits], this gully."

The road I'm walking on looks abandoned. The tar is gray and eaten up by plants at the edges, but it seems like it was built to last. Who built it? And where does it lead? There is nothing in sight for miles. ... I tread on. The road winds into a maze of hills, right, left, right again, and after a while I lose my sense of direction. Under the tropic sun everything is silent; dried creepers hang limp from the trees. Is this really Pinnacle, the "promised land" of the Rastafarians?

Pinnacle. Every book about the Rasta movement mentions Pinnacle, but no one seems to know where it is, or what happened there. Was the most fascinating twentieth-century religion born here, in this brilliant chaos of green jungle and rugged limestone? Did the planetwide phenomenon of red, green, and gold culture — reggae, dreadlocks, and an international champion of human rights — spring from this very spot?

As I turn around I notice a woman standing in the middle of the road looking at me. From this distance I can't see her face, but she is wearing the long dress and head wrap of a Rasta woman. After a few seconds she turns away and disappears to the left into the bush. I walk back to the spot. A footpath leading uphill is barely visible. Looking closer, I see that it must have been an old stone road, the kind that slaves built up to the old plantation "great houses," wide enough for wagon traffic. Now I see only a vague flatness under the growth of wild bush.

A loud shriek from a bird makes me jump and look around. Perched on a hill, right at my back, an empty-eyed ruin stares at me. Farther up, an elegant arch of red brick rises between two rocks; it seems to support the sky. All around grow gigantic aloe spikes as large as spears. I walk past them and suddenly an incredible view opens beneath me, with every shade and tone of blue shimmering in the distance as far as the eye can see. Far below, Spanish Town, the old capital of Jamaica, sprawls out like an industrial wasteland. Farther to the left are Kingston and its upland suburbs against the misty line of the Blue Mountains. Southward lie the indigo blue expanse of sugar estates, the Hellshire Hills, and the sea. The view is dizzying, and I keep walking up the old road. There is not much left of the great house that used to stand on the top of the hill; all that remains is a stone platform and a red brick cistern with green weeds rotting in an inch of black water.

As I prepare to turn back, the woman with the long green dress materializes from behind the cistern, carrying something in her hand. She is much older than I had originally thought. I'd been misled by her slender body and swift movements.

"You lookin' somethin'?"

"History ... I'm trying to learn about Leonard Howell."

"Counselor Howell!"

"Do you know anything about Counselor Howell?"

"Well ... not too much."

The woman squeezes her eyes shut in a silent laugh, then bends toward my ear. "He was a powerful man!" In her hand is an old red brick smoothed by age. She mutters, "He loved to walk barefoot. His feet have touched this stone." Opening up her old patched-up bag, she ceremoniously puts the brick inside, adding, "They say he is dead, but he is alive." She is still muttering, squinting in a smile. Then she looks straight into my eyes. "You believe he is alive?"

I am on the verge of answering a noncommittal "I understand," when I remember that Rastas do not like the word under-stand. They do not like to stand under anything, preferring to "over-stand," so I say instead, "I know he is alive. He brought me up here! Who else could have brought me to this place?"

She laughs and comes down the flight of steps. "So you want to learn about Counselor Howell. What do you want to know?"


"If you want to know, you have to come with me."

"Come where?" I think. "And who is she?" I follow her down the path, but suddenly, at a grove of flamboyants, she cuts left toward sheer cliffs that fall toward the Rio Cobre, far below. I try to keep up, but stumble and then lose sight of her. I want to call to her but don't know her name. A rock fall blocks my path. The sun is going down and her footprints vanish. I feel like I'm chasing a phantom or a spirit.

* * *

When Pinnacle, the first Rastafarian community, was burned to the ground in 1958, an estimated two thousand of its residents took refuge in Kingston. Ironically the Jamaican police had succeeded only in spreading the "Rasta Menace" they were trying to suppress. From then on, the preachers and disciples of this strange cult based their headquarters in the downtown ghettos of the capital, where they were feared and despised by the Jamaican establishment. The Rastas' poverty, their boldness of speech, and their wild looks were a contemptuous challenge to the colonial order. Jamaican educators and preachers realized that the Rastafarians could become a real threat to established religion in Jamaica. The rich and especially the middle class saw them as a rebel army crawling nearer to their uptown lawns. After eighteen years of peaceful relations within the boundaries of the Pinnacle community, thousands of Rastas had been thrown into western Kingston's hopeless maze of decrepit shanties. The terrible conditions in Trench Town and the other slums left them in a desperate struggle to survive.

And strangely enough, they were not the ones to start the war. On May 7, 1959, a dispute between a policeman and a city worker in Kingston's Coronation Market turned into a riotous brawl. The city worker had been sporting a beard, which was the distinctive sign of the Rasta in the days when dreadlocks were still scarce. The police blamed the Rastas for the violence and retaliated by descending on the ghettos, burning Rasta dwellings, beating them, and cutting their hair. Fifty-seven of them were thrown in jail.

Something had to be done. An articulate leader of the Rasta community, Mortimer Planno, managed to contact the head of the University of the West Indies in Kingston. Planno suggested to W. A. Lewis that he send a team of academic experts to the ghettos to investigate the Rasta problem. This commission's published conclusions, the famous 1960 "Report on the Rastafari Movement in Kingston," included a list of recommendations to the government.

Among other things, the report advised the police to "leave innocent Ras Tafari brethren alone, stop cutting off their hair, stop moving them on, stop arresting them on minor pretexts, stop beating them up." The purpose of the report was not so much to research the origins of the cult as it was to end the confrontation and violence. It didn't begin to penetrate the history of the movement. It describes Leonard P. Howell, Pinnacle's founder, as "genuinely regarded as being the first to preach the divinity of Ras Tafari in Kingston," and "the most successful early preacher." But the few lines devoted to Howell prove only that no contact was made with him personally. The report states that he served in the British army that fought the Ashanti King Prempeh in West Africa in 1896, which would leadone to think that Howell was born before 1876. In 1960 he would have been at least eighty-four, a very old man indeed. If this was true, it was astonishing that the newspapers never mentioned the founding Rasta, and that the younger Rastas ignored him.

This assumption was misleading. In the 1960s, Leonard Howell was still alive and well. But he had become the victim of a conspiracy of silence and was in danger of being forgotten by history. When my fascination with this character began, I would try desperately to imagine how he looked. And when I met his son Blade many years later, my disappointment made him smile. Had I known his father, Blade hinted, I probably wouldn't have been so passionate in my research. But certain things do not happen by chance, and I felt compelled to learn more.

* * *

According to his birth certificate (No.1695 HK, Clarendon Register), Leonard Percival Howell was born June 16, 1898, eighteen months before the turn of the century. Coming of age at a crossroads in world history, between the old world and the new, between black and white, Marx and the Bible, Howell lit a spiritual spark whose explosion sent shock waves even to the remotest villages on the planet. To millions of youth across the earth, Jamaica is the land of Bob Marley and the Rastafarians.

But the reality of the island is far removed from the cliché. In Jamaica, Rastafarians still suffer for religious beliefs that society deems delusional. Police harassment continues to this day, since the Rasta sacrament of ganja, or marijuana, remains illegal. Female bank clerks are fired for growing locks. Rasta parents still have to go to court to demand that their children be enrolled into decent schools. Even history seems to conspire against them. No one has done any serious research on Leonard Howell, the first Rasta. In vain I looked up his name in the catalogs of university libraries; almost every single study refers to the University Report and accepts its vague approximations. After jailing Howell, wrecking his properties, stealing his money, arresting his disciples, and violating his rights in every possible manner, the establishment now strives to erase him from memory. His rich library was seized by the army and dispersed. His legal archives were burned. Only three pictures of him have been rescued; no recording of his voice, no film footage remain.

So who was the first Rasta?

Besides my burning curiosity, my only guide during my quest to learn more about this shadowy figure was an article published in the Jamaica Journal of February 1983 entitled "Leonard Howell and Millenarian Visions in Early Rastafari" by Professor Robert Hill of the University of California. I always carried a battered copy of this article at the bottom of my bag. Hill, a leading authority on Marcus Garvey, does not share the Jamaican disdain for the first Rasta. His article is a bubbling account of the ideas crisscrossing the politically and culturally tumultuous Caribbean of the 1930s. For me, it was a map to a fascinating treasure hunt.

But where to start? Look to a country place called Red Lands, Crooked River, Hill writes, for this is where Howell was born.


The Bird Hunter

Four graves rest in the tall grass. Each is a cement box, like a small coffin, sitting side by side. The two in the middle bear the names of Charles Howell (died 1935) and his wife Clementina Howell, born Bennett (died 1919) — Leonard's parents. The hexagonal grave on the right is his sister Morrios — "Died October 31, age 24." The inscription on the last grave reads "... my wife Diana ..." but the date is blurred. Diana Walters was the second of Charles Howell's three wives; she raised Clementina's children and died circa 1932. A year later the old man took a third wife, named Loretta Henrietta Persey. Where is her grave, I wonder. Nearby, under a breadfruit tree, a strange building sits, a concrete airplane covered with graffiti. "This must be Loretta's grave," her nephew says.

* * *

I catch a country bus early in the morning at the Coronation Market bus stop. We pass Salt Lane, the old Rasta headquarters, nowadays a slum so dangerous that it turns into a ghost town after sunset. Three hours of traveling takes us to Crooked River in the Clarendon mountains. It is raining. I ask an old lady taking shelter under a porch if she knows any of the members of Howell's family. She takes me to a grocery store, saying the owner was born a Howell. Yes, the woman in the grocery knows the Red Land cousins and explains how to get there. "Me show you the way to Pumpkins," the old lady announces, stuffing her shopping bag and her cane into the crammed taxi.

"Pumpkins" is a river crossing with an old iron bridge. The narrow road winds up the red earth hill to the edge of a plateau. Patches of fog settle slowly down the steep gully banks covered with dark vegetation. Bamboos and cottonwood trees have replaced old citrus groves. Houses perch on the ridges. Past Red Lands, we reach Red Hills, where Howell's house stood on the plateau's rim with a splendid view. Nothing is left of the family house but a cement foundation surrounded by a stand of sickly yellow banana trees.

* * *

The history of the Howell family takes us back into colonial Jamaica. Seized at gunpoint from the Spaniards in 1665, Jamaica became a British colony and was quickly turned into an enormous sugar plantation. Exploiting the labor of thousands of African slaves, English cane planters built immense fortunes as refined sugar energized early modern Europe. But these landowners didn't bother settling on this "heathen" island with its deadly yellow fever and other tropical diseases. Instead they appointed overseers — mostly Scots — to run their plantations. Most of these overseers had little or no education; their manners were rough and their morality weak. Their mixed-race children got some education and became part of the ruling class of Jamaica, but the minimum quota of ten percent whites that the colonial administration tried to enforce was never reached, and the British lived in constant fear of slave insurrections.

Leonard Howell's grandfather was born around the time of Emancipation in 1834. Legally he was a free man, but he had no land, no education, and no rights. Under the "apprentice" system that replaced slavery, workers were entitled only to a small stipend. Some of them sought the aid of the churches, especially the Baptist churches that fought for emancipation and helped manumitted slaves to buy plots of land to farm.

As far as we know, Leonard's grandfather was a churchgoing Christian, owned a farm, married four times, and had many children. His granddaughter Daphney Howell remembers some of them: "Tartar," who went to Portland to raise cattle; the two aunties who used to sing in church "with voices like bells"; the one who could cook wonderful pea soup and corn pudding. The interesting thing was that this grandfather was not a Baptist but an Anglican — the planters' religion. A loyal subject of the Crown, he encouraged his sons to join the British colonial army. This was how some slaves had earned their freedom, leading to a military tradition in the Howell family — several of his sons, nephews, and grandchildren joined the ranks. Did Charles Howell, Leonard's father, fight for the British in the Ashanti War of 1896? It is possible, and could explain how his son Leonard knew of King Prempeh of the Gold Coast. Later Leonard would tell his followers the stories that he had heard from his father, some of which entered Leonard's own legend.

Charles Howell had a talent for making clothes. His nickname was "Tailor Howell," and his son inherited his taste for fine garments. But if in the off-season Charles indulged in tailoring, the rest of the year he and his family worked hard in the fields. Farming was the basis for his prosperity, especially during the banana boom of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

* * *

Bananas were introduced to Jamaica as early as the late 1500s, but the Jamaican banana industry only began late in the nineteenth century. Even then, the fruit ripened too fast to be shipped any farther than Florida until refrigerated cargo ships were invented. In 1901 the United Fruit Company of New Jersey began shipping Jamaican bananas to metropolitan markets. United Fruit steamers became the most common transportation for thousands of immigrants to the United States and England.

But in Jamaica the United Fruit Company met with some unusual resistance. Some smaller Jamaican planters refused to sell their crops at the standard prices fixed by United Fruit. Charles Howell's generation acted as their predecessors had when they first bought land — they got together and formed a cooperative, and by 1929 the members of the Banana Planters Association of Jamaica managed to carve out a decent share of the banana market for themselves.


Excerpted from The First Rasta by Hélène Lee, Stephen Davis, Lily Davis. Copyright © 1999 Flammarion,. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Hélène Lee is a journalist for Libération, specializing in the music of Africa and the Caribbean. Stephen Davis is the author of Bob Marley, Hammer of the Gods, and Walk This Way. He lives in Milton, Massachusetts.

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