Born in Babylon

The spread of Rastafari carried pan-African ideals from rural Jamaica to the world. From its origins in 1930s Kingston, it has espoused a striking message: Africa yes, England no. 

Rastafari await the  arrival of Haile Selassie I at Palisadoes Airport, Kingston, Jamaica,  21 April 1966. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Rastafari await the  arrival of Haile Selassie I at Palisadoes Airport, Kingston, Jamaica,  21 April 1966. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Speaking at Carnegie Hall in New York in August 1920 the Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey urged his audience to ‘Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is near’. A decade later Garvey’s prophecy appeared to come true. Haile Selassie (born Tafari Makonnen) was crowned, with Empress Menen, in Ethiopia on 2 November 1930, acquiring the title ‘By the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Elect of God’. In Jamaica, Haile Selassie’s ascension yielded a new religious movement. Combining theology with an understanding of history from the perspective of the Black underclass, Rastafari (the name taken from Haile Selassie’s pre-regnal title) sought to promote pan-Africanism and Black Power. Today it has spawned a billion dollar industry, ranging from roots reggae music to African heritage tourism, fashion and beauty products, spreading from rural Jamaica across the world. 


The first Rastas

Among those who found revelation in Garvey’s words were Rastafari’s founding fathers: Robert Hinds, Joseph and Archibald Hibbert and Leonard Howell. They were each a product of various migration movements across the Caribbean and had personal histories which sharpened their revolutionary appetite. Born in Jamaica in 1898, Leonard Howell is sometimes known as the First Rasta. While living in New York he became a member of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Upon returning to Jamaica in 1932, Howell began preaching the coming of Christ through Haile Selassie. One of the sources that Howell used to spread the word was an image from National Geographic depicting Haile Selassie’s coronation, which he would hand out in Kingston.

In 1934 Howell was placed on trial and found guilty of sedition and expressing hatred towards the Jamaican government and the king, George V, both in the public speeches he delivered and in a pamphlet he had published, The Promised Key. Sentenced to two years in prison, by 1937 Howell had been certified mentally insane and was confined in Bellevue Asylum outside Kingston. Despite this, in 1940 he founded the Ethiopian Salvation Society and created the first Rasta settlement, known as Pinnacle for its elevated location in the hills of the parish of St Catherine. Situated on the site of the first village to house freed slaves in Jamaica, the community at Pinnacle established many of the attributes that would define the early Rastafari movement: self-sufficiency through agriculture, separatism from the state and a devotion to Ethiopia. Accused of various seditious activities, including communism, Pinnacle was subjected to several police raids during the 1950s and was destroyed in 1958. 

Marcus Garvey riding in a parade. Undated photograph.
Marcus Garvey riding in a parade. Undated photograph. George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images.

Following the Italian invasion in 1935, Ethiopia became something of an international cause célèbre. While Haile Selassie took refuge in Fairfield House in Bath, Sylvia Pankhurst founded a newspaper, New Times and Ethiopia News, to rally support for Ethiopia. Although she did not know it at the time, Pankhurst’s paper found an audience among the Rastafari in Jamaica, where it was banned by the British colonial government in 1955. One notable elder, Ras Bongo Watto, later revealed that New Times and Ethiopia News inspired him to establish the radical Rastafari movement House of Youth Black Faith. ‘In 1947’, he explained, 

I just tek up my Bible as a youngster and start to preach the word. I meet much suffering, many police brutality. When Sylvia Pankhurst come to Jamaica with her pamphlets and papers about the emperor’s secret force, Black International, it gave me great upliftment to know that I have the inspiration to establish the House of Youth Black Faith.

The House of Youth Black Faith revolutionised the Rastafari movement. Critical of the Masonic and revivalist tendencies of early Rasta leaders, it advocated a disciplined Rastafari order which promoted the wearing of dreadlocks, use of marijuana, a new dialect (Iyaric) and chanting down Babylon. 


A place in the sun

The House of Youth Black Faith also differed from earlier Rastafari organisations in its link to a global anti-colonial movement. The wearing of dreadlocks, for example, was influenced by the Mau Mau warriors in Kenya, who were waging war against Britain’s imperialist forces. It was commonly believed that Mau Mau were angels sent by Haile Selassie to deliver Black people from captivity in Babylon, a state of unresolved exile and forced enslavement.

Haile Selassie in full ceremonial regalia following his coronation, 2 November 1930.
Haile Selassie in full ceremonial regalia following his coronation, 2 November 1930. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Much of Rastafari’s growth during the 1940s and 1950s was due to the spread of the Ethiopian World Federation (EWF). The organisation was established in New York by Melaku Bayen, a cousin of Haile Selassie. By January 1937 Bayen had founded a newspaper, The Voice of Ethiopia, to report on the latest developments in the country and create a platform to bring pro-Ethiopian sentiments together. During his time in the United States, Bayen realised the need for an organisational body that could harness and politicise such sentiments. In August 1937, with the approval of Haile Selassie, he founded the first Local of the Ethiopian World Federation. Its constitution was published in the first issue of The Voice of Ethiopia:

To promote the love and good will among Ethiopians at home or abroad in order to maintain the integrity and the sovereignty of Ethiopia, to disseminate the ancient Ethiopian culture among our members, to correct wrongs, to end oppression and to cut out for ourselves and our posterity a destiny worthy of our ideal of perfect humanity and the aim for which God created us; not only to save ourselves from annihilation but find our place in the sun; in this effort we are determined to seek peace and to pursue it, for this is God’s will for man.

The EWF not only functioned as an unapologetically pan-African platform, its organisational structure was ecumenical, with offices throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. It offered Rastafari an international framework that early leaders such as Howell had not had access to. 

In September 1955 Maymie Richardson, an African American singer and international officer for the EWF, arrived in Jamaica with the intention of stirring up support for the Federation. During a speech in Kingston, Richardson explained that she had brought a message from the emperor’s lips, having met him during his American visit in 1954. As well as encouraging people to learn about the ancient land of Ethiopia and to establish an Ethiopian church, she came with information that land was available in Ethiopia for ‘Black people of the West’ and encouraged them to return home.


A Rastafari woman shows a traditional Ethiopian cloth in her shop, Shashamane, Ethiopia, 2017.
A Rastafari woman shows a traditional Ethiopian cloth in her shop, Shashamane, Ethiopia, 2017. Carl Court/Getty Images.

The impact of Richardson’s call on the growth of Rastafari in Jamaica was huge. The suggestion that British subjects should eschew the opportunity to migrate to Britain and instead move to Ethiopia was bold. But in 1948 – a year in which large numbers of West Indians ventured to Britain in an effort to help rebuild their mother country – Haile Selassie introduced an act known as The Land Grants, which set aside 500 acres of land in Shashamane, a town in central Ethiopia, for all Africans in the diaspora who supported Ethiopia.


Repatriation is a must

It was through the EWF that Rastafari were able to reassert themselves as Africans and connect their spiritual and cultural visions to a broader anti-colonial project. The period following Richardson’s visit saw more aggressive demands to return to Africa. In March 1958, Prince Emmanuel, leader of the Bobo Rastafari camp, and members of The House of Youth Black Faith in the Back-O-Wall settlement launched the first Rastafari Universal Convention in Kingston. The convention, which lasted 21 days, brought together Rastafari camps from across Jamaica, as well as groups associated with Ethiopianism. Inspired by Ghana’s recent independence, the prevailing sentiment of the convention was summarised in the slogan ‘Africa yes, England no’. Following the convention, a letter was sent to Queen Elizabeth II which began: ‘We the descendants of the Rastafari community, call upon you for our Repatriation.’ 

The convention marked a significant shift in how Rastafari organised in relation to the Jamaican state. It brought Reverend Claudius Henry to Jamaica, who, by the end of the year, had set up an Ethiopian Reform Church and begun a Garvey-esque repatriation movement to Africa. Following the convention, Henry pronounced himself as ‘repairer of the breach’ and prophesised the return of Africans in Jamaica to their motherland. On 5 October 1959 thousands of people gathered on Rosalie Avenue in Kingston ready to sail to Africa. Although no ships ever arrived, the publicity surrounding the gathering forced members of the public to take Rastafari seriously. The following year the police found evidence supporting rumours that Henry was seeking to overthrow the government and he was imprisoned for six years. Shortly after, in April 1960, Henry’s son, Ronald, was found guilty of attempting a military coup in Red Hills and was executed for sedition.

The road leading  to Tivoli Gardens with roadblocks erected by JLP supporters, following the PNP’s election victory that day, 1989. Marc French/Panos Pictures.
The road leading  to Tivoli Gardens with roadblocks erected by JLP supporters, following the PNP’s election victory that day, 1989. Marc French/Panos Pictures.

Whether or not Claudius Henry saw himself as Rastafari remains unclear. What is true, however, is that his rise and fall attracted a significant amount of negative press for the movement and intensified the fraught relationship between the community and the police. It was common for Rastafari to be imprisoned, beaten and have their possessions demolished. Violence often targeted Rastafari communities, for example the Coral Gardens massacre in April 1963, during which as many as 150 Rastafari were tortured and killed by police and the army. Before this, in April 1960 a group of Rastafari elders had approached university professors at the University of the West Indies to ask them to conduct research exploring the movement and its demands. The findings were published in July in A Report of the Rastafari Movement in Jamaica. In addition to providing the context, history and aims of the movement, the report outlined recommendations to remedy the situation between Rastafari and the state. As recommended by the report, the government sent a mission of selected Rastafari elders and pan-African associations to Africa in 1961 to explore the possibilities of repatriation. However, by Jamaica’s independence in August 1962 these plans had been shelved. 



Independence forced Jamaica to confront questions about its future: who would speak for the country? How could it forge a national identity that did not see Britain as its starting point? And what values should be at the forefront of what it meant to be a Jamaican citizen? In the midst of a collapsing colonial heritage, the state crafted the motto, ‘Out of Many, One People’. 

Before long, however, the slogan’s shortcomings were embraced ironically by the Black urban poor, using it to highlight their frustrations. The romantic notion of a multiracial society suggested that power would be evenly distributed. For Rastafari, however, the motto failed to reflect the true relationship between poverty and colourism that continued to define Jamaican society. 

The arrival of foreign enterprises in parishes such as St James, Westmoreland and Hanover sought to establish Jamaica as a tourist destination. Many Black Jamaicans were removed from their homes and forced to live in garrisons, as new all-inclusive resorts owned by the white elite were built.

Jamaica’s garrisons were the product of a political conflict between the country’s two rival parties, the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the People’s National Party (PNP). The socialist PNP was founded by Norman Manley in 1938 in the aftermath of the British West Indies labour strikes, with the aim of representing the oppressed. In 1943, unhappy with the party’s direction, Manley’s cousin Alexander Bustamante founded the conservative JLP, which embraced capitalism and represented the landed gentry. Violence between the two parties would prove a persistent feature in Jamaican history.

Michael Manley  at a campaign event, Jamaica, 1976.
Michael Manley at a campaign event, Jamaica, 1976. Alex Webb/Magnum Photos.

Built as housing developments for residents who would support a local politician, garrisons became breeding grounds for political warfare. In 1963 the Back-O-Wall settlement in West Kingston, home of many Rastafari and one of the most notorious slums in the Caribbean, was demolished and replaced with Tivoli Gardens. Rastafari were dispersed across Jamaica’s garrisons, spreading their ideas among the country’s urban poor. Rastafari’s political ambivalence was encapsulated in the commonly used slur ‘politricks’. 



The movement of Caribbean migrants to the US and Britain shared Rastafari ideas with the world. The development of the movement in Britain is the clearest demonstration of this. The Commonwealth population in Britain increased from 2,000 in 1948 to 140,000 in 1962. In that year the Commonwealth Immigrants Act introduced stringent new entry requirements, only allowing those who had a ‘relevant connection’ to Britain to emigrate to the country. The British Rastafari movement developed as a reaction to the racism experienced by Jamaicans in Britain. Despite misleading caricatures of the movement, which have portrayed it as a corrosive cult, Rastafari has carried the cultural, spiritual and political ideals of Black Power from Jamaica to London’s Ladbroke Grove and beyond.


Aleema Gray is Community History Curator at the Museum of London and a PhD candidate at Warwick University.