Howell: man of heroic proportions
In a recent discussion with Monty Howell, elder son of Leonard P Howell, I told him that in any other country, his father, the philosopher and founder of the Rastafari Movement, would have been a hero. Indeed, Howell is a man of heroic proportions. His ideas and activities spawned a national and worldwide movement. Enveloped in the idea of Ethiopianism, the Rastafarian ideas and movement have played a critical role in the building of a national society in Jamaica. It has had profound influence in the area of music, literature and thought construction and industrial mission experiment at Pinnacle. The idea of Rastafari played a most powerful role in politics in Jamaica, from Ras Sam Brown's role in elected politics to Michael Manley's 1972 campaign with that "rod of correction".
Movements related to Ethiopianism and the black spiritual movements play an important role in the debriefing process of the ex-slaves. It is argued by one writer that Ethiopianism began in Jamaica with George Lisle and the early black Baptist movement. Major works on this idea locate the origin of the idea and movement in Africa. Those writers in many ways described the leaders and movement in terms of proto-nationalist movement. These movements are described as "breakaways" from mainstream religion, and have established new religious movements based on biblical texts that are directly related to black people. The Ethiopianist movements have not left any outcome such as political parties, their role in creating new awareness, debriefing the ex-slave or the colonised, giving them a new meaning and purpose of the world and of their own lives. The leaders of these movements, like Howell, have defied the Marxist's idea of religion as "opiate of the people" and the idea that this basis is thinking associated with false consciousness.
Howell and others in the Ethiopianist movement may have been influenced by African Americans. This was the case in the late 19th century when black South African linked with Black Americans of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The movement in South Africa spawned an uprising in the very early 20th century. The residue of that movement laid the foundations of the African National Congress, the movement that led the struggles for the liberation of South Africa. In South Nyasaland (today's Malawi), the John Chilembwe Ethiopianist rising took place in 1915. Chilembwe was influenced by the National Baptist Convention of the USA. Shortly after the 1915 "rising" by that Ethiopianist group, the nationalist movement led by Hastings Banda emerged and worked for the independence of Malawi.
In the case of Howell, he did not settle with just separating for the white-led church movement. He developed a bold new idea of black Messiah and God. The idea is not new in the sense that the black Israelite movement in the USA during the 1920s and 1930s were advocating a new king that will emerge from Africa to save the black people. Those movements were very deep in the Davidic dynasty and tradition and Howell may have learned a lot from them. Howell, who lived in the USA during the 1920s up to the very early 1930s, may have learnt also from Charles Taze Russell of the Watchtower movement and the coming of a "new King" to rule the world, that the European-led world would be ended.
Howell belongs to the tradition of developing black nationalism in Jamaica. This black nationalism was critical to the "fixing of the heads" of the people, contributing to the emergence of the national society in Jamaica. These black-led groups in Jamaica, especially the Rastafarian movement, created new thinking among educated and uneducated ex-slaves. Many educated blacks were not sympathetic to the Rastafarian movement and other black nationalist movements. Some groups such as the Jamaica National Movement and the Jamaica Progressive League emerged in the mid-1930s and declared Jamaican nationalism.
Howell returned to Jamaica in 1932 and by April 1933 he began preaching - on record are his famous street meetings in Trinity Ville, St Thomas, where he unleashed on Jamaica a new thinking that irritated the planters, the church and the colonial authorities. He began to preach that Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and Light of the World, returned to earth as the messiah. By the end of 1933 he was the most sought-after political dissenter in Jamaica by the colonial authorities. He was arrested for a speech that was presented in Seaforth, St Thomas, in December 1933, and was tried in March 1934 by a chief justice who was the presiding judge in the John Chilembwe trials in Southern Nyasaland. In the famous 1934 trial, Robert Hinds told the judge that Howell was the first to preach the divinity of Haile Selassie in Jamaica. The idea and movement played a role in transforming Jamaica and gave to the world a new religious idea. It is time for Howell to get the recognition and respect that he deserves.