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Columns

That man in England is not your king

Lance NEITA

Sunday, February 09, 2014    

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I am not taking on any bets as to what will happen with the Rastafarian claim of ownership of the lands at Pinnacle. With the announced plans for occupation by members of the faith, it is going to depend on reason, compromise, justice, and government intervention (if all four can work together) to prevail and provide a mutually satisfactory agreement.

And agreement it has got to be, because both sides — the St Jago Hills Development Limited, and the descendants of Leonard Howell and their supporters — will have to be nudged, and not budged, from their contrasting positions.

The developing story has all the ingredients for a blockbuster movie and best seller: The original hilltop settlement, the repeated forced evacuations, an imprisoned hero, the defiant return of the settlers, a sacred burial site that remains hidden, and an alleged present owner who is defending his rights in the Court of Appeal.

Already the story is all over the Internet and, of course, the foreign press is salivating over what could be a news-of-the-week special, if not prolonged into a story for all seasons.

The BBC has already picked up that Donisha Prendergast, a grandchild of the icon Bob Marley, is in the mix. She is said to be occupying a tabernacle close to the village and "we are not going anywhere; one by one we are filing in, we are going to camp out", she is reported to have said last week.

The lyrics are building up.

In his heyday Howell was never short of controversy. He was a Marcus Garvey man who became a senior member of Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association in the USA in the 1930s.

Rastafarianism, fed by Garvey's teachings of black pride, freedom of the black man, and a hope for a return to Africa the motherland, had already started to take hold in Jamaica in the 1920s and 30s. Garvey's 1927 exhortation "Look to Africa, for there a king will be crowned", and the spectacular and elaborate coronation ceremony for Haile Selassie as Ethiopian Emperor in 1930, was taken as proof that the Day of Deliverance was at hand.

On returning to Jamaica in 1932, Howell immediately took to the streets of Kingston with his message that Selassie was the Great Black Messiah, attracting a huge following of devoted believers all over Jamaica and marking the start of a unified Rastafarian movement.

And don't ask if he wasn't outspoken. "That man in England (King George V) is not your king. Keep the land, pay no taxes, because our king, the king of all kings, has now been crowned in Ethiopia and all tribute is due to him."

The family relates that he bought 400 acres at Sligoville and established a Rastafarian community in 1940 that became a natural target for the conservative colonial powers.

A Rastafarian diet was strictly maintained. Combing or cutting of hair was outlawed, as according to Leviticus 21:5: "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard."

Growing ganja was the order of the day; the leaders instituted it as a religious order from the belief that it was found growing on Solomon's grave, quoting from Psalm 104:14: "He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and the herb for the service of man."

Such in-your-face behaviour was too much for the authorities who had Howell arrested for sedition several times, raided the village, and finally levelled it in 1954.

But stick a pin and try to understand the tremendous influence that Selassie's coronation had on black people, and indeed the world, in those times.

As a descendant of the 3,000-year-old dynasty through the union of Solomon and Sheba, Ras Tafari Makonnen had confounded and vanquished his many enemies in Ethiopia as he made his way through the ranks to become ruler in 1930.

A grand investiture ceremony was ordered to cement his position as well as to send a message to the rest of the world that Ethiopia, untouched by colonisation, should take its rightful place among the nations as an independent country.

His coronation in the Cathedral of St George in Addis Ababa was the most splendid affair that Africa had ever known. Lion skins were shipped to London to be fashioned into the coronation robes by the best of English tailors, and one million dollars worth of gold and jewels made up the imperial crown.

The stagecoach of German Kaiser Wilhelm II was used to transport the emperor and his empress, along with a team of snow-white Hapsburg stallions and an Austrian coachman.

New roads were built and lavish buildings constructed to commemorate the occasion, while the railway was refurbished to afford the 750-mile trek across the mountains. Guests included government heads, royals and dignitaries including Prince Henry, son of George V.

The German president sent 500 bottles of fine wine and the French Government made a private aeroplane available. The United States envoy took the cake with a fabulous array of gifts ranging from encyclopaedias to copies of Hollywood films.

On Sunday, November 2, 1930, with hundreds of chanting priests dressed in white robes, the two thrones arrayed in red and gold and guarded by lions, and feudal chieftains seated beside foreign dignitaries, Tafari was crowned Haile Selassie I, Power of the Holy Trinity, 225th Emperor of the Solomonic dynasty, Elect of God, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

So when the newsreels finally reached Jamaica, Howell's message had much credence with his fledgling Rastafarian stronghold, as a black man had now been proclaimed to be the Elect of God, He Whose name Should Not Be Spoken.

Legend has it that he tried to supplant Selassie by proclaiming himself as the real Deity and even asked the brethren to refer to him as Gangunguru Maragh (teacher of wisdom and King of Kings).

Gangunguru held his corner until Pinnacle was invaded by the militia in 1954. But the settlers returned and continued to raise up little colonies on the land, giving them the basis on which they now stake their claim.

In spite of the decline in his fortunes, Howell captured the imagination and devotion of a critical mass of people seeking a destiny they claimed had been ordered in Africa and not in England. Prince Emmanuel of Back-o-Wall fame and the outburst of Rev Claudius Henry's African Reformed Church in 1959 spurred the movement into further growth and some degree of martyrdom.

I met my first Rastafarian in 1960 while at school and I remember he was a fearful figure surrounded by wild stories and much bravado. The Rasta philosophy started to creep uptown in the late 1960s when it became fashionable for the cocktail party crowd to personally know a 'breddrin' and to embellish the conversation with tales of their own pet Rasta.

So occupy Pinnacle if you will, or not. Occupation by Rastafarians is not new. At the end of the 1950s, occupation was threatened first of all at Victoria Park (Parade) in downtown Kingston, following which an attempt was made to capture the Old King's House at Spanish Town in the name of Selassie.

So the present dispute is a long-running affair which has its ancestral hold in the original Pinnacle legacy left by Howell, who is regarded as the first Rastafarian by some. We'll watch this one carefully as the drama unfolds in the Court of Appeal, and on a dusty hilltop named Pinnacle.

Lance Neita is a public relations and communications specialist. Comments to the Observer or to lanceneita@hotmail.com

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