How a Backpacking Traveler Became the 1st Jamaican Rasta

Roots Rasta Jamaica 76
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As Backpackers, we are all familiar with the personal growth that travel brings, and travel had quite the same effect on the very 1st Jamaican Rasta, Leonard Percival “Gong” Howell.

Born to Anglican (Episcopal) parents in the hills of Clarendon in 1898, Leonard P. Howell left Jamaica at age 14 to live with relatives in New York, but by age 18 he was already leaving Panama to join the British Regiment during WW1.

Two years later, at age 20, he returns to New York – this time working as a cook on an American warship – only to immediately turn around and travel the world some more on 5 different ships for the next 6 years!

On November 17, 1932 when Howell returned Jamaica – now as a man in his mid-thirtiesafter 20 years of traveling the world, he was horrified to see the standard of living endured by the previously enslaved Jamaican-Africans now suddenly released from plantation life.

Devastating poverty, hunger, sickness and suffering – a result of centuries of abuse from British and Spanish slavery – now ignored by colonial government and still “mentally enslaved” by shackles of racial inferiority and unworthiness.

Pride and knowledge of Africa and historic legacies of royal black bloodlines and lineages had been systematically erased by hundreds of years of enslaved genocide.

The 1st work of Rastafari theology is credited to Leonard Howell’s paper titled “The Promise Key”, written using his pen name Gangun-Guru.

In “The Promise Key”, Howell boldly proclaims the then ruler of Jamaica, King George V of England, must be an imposter, as on his travels he had seen Haile Selassie, the true Head of Creation, coronated Emperor, on November 2nd, 1930 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

During the coronation, Howell witnessed for himself dignitaries from around the world – including the son of King George V – presenting gifts to new “King of KingsSelassie, and bowing down in recognition of the Emperor’s majesty. 

As far as Leonard was concerned, George V could no longer be king, as he had sent his son to bow down before new King
Haile Selassie!

Naturally, Howell’s document and many other works were burnt by the colonial government and Leonard now became the 1st Rasta to be charged and persecuted for sedition!

The British government was not amused by the idea of Jamaicans loyal to Haile Selassie and refusing loyalty to George V, King of Great Britain and Ireland.

However, since Howell had attended the Coronation of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, he understood the significance of black royalty to morally desolated African people.

In 1939, when Howell was released from prison, he formed a Rasta settlement in St. Catherine called Pinnacle, on 500 acres (2.0 km2) of land, that grew to almost 4,000 people. Pinnacle was purchased by Howell and his wife Teneth using all their savings from Howell’s bakery business, and all their jewelry.

Life was good at the self-sufficient and self-reliant Pinnacle community, Howell and his street preaching were very popular, he owned a bakery and used his Naturopathic healing skills to maintain his own and his followers health.

They grew and produced a variety of fruits, vegetables, ground provisions, coconuts and many other products. Ganja was also grown as a medicine and aid to spiritual meditation and worship. 

Pinnacle became the refuge for thousands of ex-slaves, who were more accustomed to living communally and working in unity.

Under Howell’s guidance, Pinnacle was transformed into one of the largest self-reliant, economically empowered communities in Jamaica – living under the motto, “One God, One Aim and One Destiny“.

Howell brought hope to the spirits of the former slaves and their children, and among the poor Jamaicans who were now know as Rastafarians, Haile Selassie was viewed with great reverence, gaining a following as both God and King.

He spoke out against the wrongs of the colonial government and was a voice for the men, women and children of Africa stolen, sold and enslaved in Jamaica for hundreds of years.

Rastafari spread among poor black Jamaicans of African descent who felt oppressed and ignored by society.

Rastas saw what they believed was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy – Ethiopia was the only African country free from colonialism, and Haile Selassie was the only black leader accepted among the kings and queens of Europe.

Early Rastas believed that their personal loyalty lay with Africa’s only black monarch, Selassie, and the Conquering Lion of Judah, symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy which appears on the Imperial Ethiopian Flag is an important symbol for Rastas.

Rastafarian saw themselves as free citizens of Ethiopia, loyal to its Emperor

and devoted to the flag as used during Selassie’s reign to represent his Solomonic royal dynasty.

The Rastafarian colors of green, gold and red often seen on flags, badges and signs, are the colors of the Ethiopian flag and demonstrate the loyalty Rasta pledge towards the Ethiopian state in the reign of King Selassie.

The colonial government soon claimed hearing reports that Rastas were trying to convince residents of the communities around them not to pay taxes. Police raided Pinnacle and Howell and his people were all sent to prison.

The ultimate aim of colonial and early post-independence Jamaican governments was the fragmentation and destruction of the Rastafari Movement. Howell himself was imprisoned and sent to mental hospital over 50 times.

The Rastas would try resurrecting Pinnacle each time after they were released, but police kept continually raiding it – attacking, beating and robbing residents for days at a time – taking away cash saved by the community under charges that it was money earned from selling Ganja.

During the last raid on Pinnacle ordered by British Secret Service, local Jamaican police burned the Rasta community down to the ground – houses, furniture, clothes and personal items.

Having no place to live and with their leader in jail, many homeless Rasta were now forced into the slums of Kingston city…

Dedicated to the work of Bob Chapman & the Human Son I will leave behind on this strange planet.

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