Behind that Coral Gardens incident

Richard Blackford

Monday, April 17, 2017

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It’s been 54 years since the infamous Coral Gardens incident in the parish of St James. Many Jamaicans who have been aware of this event would rather not be reminded of it, and most are unaware of the trail of the events that led to the cataclysm or the source of the attitudes that followed.

Thanks to social media, though, this past week photographs of the event have been circulating of policemen violently engaging Rastafarians in Montego Bay, which not only served to jog memories, but also to add to the developing conversation on the issue.

Interestingly enough, this also comes on the heels of current prime minister, Andrew Holness’s apology issued to the Rastafarian community a little over a week before. The apology was accompanied by a promise to establish a $10-million fund for the Rastafarian community, which has been in an aggrieved state since the incident more than a half a century ago.

What exactly was the driver of the infamous Coral Gardens incident? What was the primary trigger which spurned the wrath of the Jamaican police?

To understand the environment one had to go back to the immediate post-World War II years, where Jamaicans, still under colonial rule, had begun to express open resentment to the Government, which was unresponsive to the needs of a growing population. For starters, the capital city Kingston had been buckling under the weight of problems of inadequate housing and job availability — problems made even more burdensome by the urban drift, as rural folk, pushed off Crown lands, headed for the city in the hope of finding a better life.

At the time, Rastafarians with their ‘eccentric’ lifestyle, replete with dreadlocks hairstyle and ganja smoking rituals, were seen as feeding the emerging "rude boy" culture and became increasingly targeted by the authorities. Their cries for equal rights and justice, as well as their clamour for inclusion in the local political process, were not met with enthusiasm, and by late 1950s this group had begun to attract attention from overseas with the visit of members of the USA-based First Africa Corps who joined the Claudius Henry-led militants at a camp in Red Hills.

In April 1960 the police executed a pre-emptive raid on the camp, arresting Henry himself and reportedly seizing a number of weapons. Henry and a handful of the group’s membership were charged with treason.

That pre-emptive raid did nothing to stop what had been an apparent rebellion, and by June there were a series of disturbances in areas where Rastafarian camps were located, resulting in the deaths of two British soldiers and the critical wounding of three other members of the security forces. A joint West India Regiment and Jamaican police operation in June 1960 led to the rounding up of more than 150 Rastafarians across the island. In crushing the attempted rebellion, the Government took notice of the involvement of the North American revolutionary black power militants and its targeted antagonism of Jamaican ‘whites’, who were seen as the symbols of Jamaican oppression.

This then comprised the socio-political state of mind of the Jamaican Government which received the keys of the country from its political masters on Independence Day in 1962. Interestingly, it was in the same year that Rudolph Franklin, a Cornwall College graduate who had embraced the Rastafarian faith, became embroiled in a land dispute with the Kerr-Jarrett family in western Jamaica.

According to reports, Franklin was reportedly farming illegally on lands in the Tryall area. From the reports, the landowners had engaged the services of the police to remove the illegal squatting/farming on their land and, during an altercation with one of the police officers, Franklin was shot five times and left for dead in a churchyard. His body was later discovered by schoolchildren and removed to a local hospital where he was treated, but on his release he was charged with possession of ganja. Franklin was sentenced to six months in prison and, according to those who knew him, he was an embittered person when he was released in early 1963. It did not help that at the time the Rastafarian Movement was seen by some members of the Jamaican public as a threat to public order. The new Alexander Bustamante Government merely continued the repression against the group, which in turn stoked the early sentiments that fed the badness-honour culture spawned in the early 1960s.

The level of police harassment reportedly pushed Rudolph over the edge and sparked the Coral Gardens attack. Rudolph Franklin (the the militant leader of the Rasta group that set the Ken Douglas Shell service station on fire), Lloyd Waldron and Noel Bowen (all Rastafarians), two policemen, Corporal Clifford Melbourne and Inspector Bertie Scott and three other civilians died in the Coral Gardens event.

It is reported that Prime Minister Sir Alexander Bustamante visited the parish along with the commissioner of police and head of the Jamaica Defence Force. Bustamante is reported to have declared, "Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive..." The Government then dispatched a strong detachment of police from neighbouring parishes to Coral Gardens and the surrounding areas where more than 150 ‘bearded men’, assumed to be Rastafarians, were rounded up and arrested.

Reports state that many of those arrested had no part in the Coral Gardens incident but were detained nonetheless, driven partially by public prejudice against the Rastafarian community, and in an effort to show force while providing a deterrent to any thought of reprisals. The men were beaten and tortured and had their locks trimmed — all of which were a violation of their human and constitutional rights; deprived of same by the State’s apparatus as punishment for the actions of a few misguided individuals.

In the end, two of Franklin’s accomplices, Carlton Bowen and Clinton Larmond, were charged with murder and went on trial in July 1964. They were found guilty and sentenced to hang following a month-long trial presided over by Justice Ronald Small, father of current Queen’s Counsel Hugh Small. Bowen and Larmond were hanged on December 2, 1964.

Richard Hugh Blackford is a self-taught artist, writer and social commentator. He shares his time between Coral Springs, Florida, and Kingston, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or





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