52 years after Coral Gardens public defender investigates one of Jamaica’s bloodiest conflicts

Monday, December 14, 2015

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This led to the death of civilians and police, innumerable personal injuries and destruction of property.

Following this there were allegations of violation and deprivation of fundamental rights guaranteed by Chapter 3 of the Jamaica Constitution 1962.

This report concerns an investigation undertaken by the public defender into the events at Coral Gardens in 1963. It represents a response to complaints made by individual Rastafarians and the Rastafarian community. However, the constitutional and legal implications far surpass the 1963 Coral Gardens event.

…The launch of the public defender’s investigation in April 2011 revived spirited public discussion on what the Rastafarian community describes as "the atrocities" inflicted on them at Coral Gardens. In those public discussions it has been asserted that Rastafarians were not the only people who suffered during the Coral Gardens events.

Amid the controversy in the public domain divergent views emerged: One is that the incident was an unlawful ‘uprising’ by some ‘Rastas’ which was properly quashed by the State; the police personnel who participated in the quelling, and who died or were injured have been maligned in history. While the Rastafarian community has been lauded and accorded much sympathy for ‘tribulations’ suffered at the hand of the State.

This investigative report represents a modest effort at arriving at a balance.

Cop permanently disabled

The public defender is not empowered to investigate complaints by citizens against citizens, but complaints by citizens against the State and agents of the State. Therefore, the public defender is not authorised to investigate or make recommendations in respect of complaints made by the police or other citizens against Rastafari individuals or the Rastafarian community, or complaints made by individual Rastafari or the Rastafarian community against other citizens.

The public defender is well aware of people, including police officers, who allege that their constitutional rights were infringed by members of the Rastafarian community. Indeed, the records show that police officers were killed and some permanently injured in the clash between Rastafarians and agents of the State during the events at Coral Gardens.

Thus, for example, one particular police officer, Constable Errol Campbell, then a 23-year-old, was rendered permanently disabled because of severe injuries to his head and wheel- chaired bound from that time.

The remit of the investigation and of this report is therefore to make recommendations in respect of complaints and claims by Rastafarian individuals as well as the Rastafarian community against the State for alleged injustices and infringements of their human rights, including their constitutional rights then protected by Chapter III of the Jamaica Constitution of 1962.

The report also makes recommendations regarding policies to ensure that the rights of all individuals, including Rastafarians and the Rastafarian community, are safeguarded against a repeat of the events surrounding the Coral Gardens incident.

… Finally, the public defender is also empowered to find appropriate remedy of redress where appropriate.

… The report is primarily based on the several complaints of witnesses who gave hand written statements to the public defender since the commencement of the investigation into the relevant events surrounding the Coral Gardens incident.

The report is also based on interviews, previously conducted with complainants and witnesses, which were collected by several other people prior to and during the investigation of this matter by the public defender. These include interviews recorded by Ras Junior Manning, the Rastafari Coral Gardens Committee, Ras Miguel Lorne, Professor Deborah Thomas, Marcus Goffe and the Rastafari Archiving Cultural Expressions (RACE) Committee of the Rastafari Millennium Council.

All complainants and witnesses, whether they gave written or audio-visual statements, provided same separately and independently, as to what they suffered or witnessed during the events and its aftermath, and how those events severely affected them, their families, friends and associates.

Witness statements were also provided by a few former members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) who were involved in the Coral Gardens events of 1963. Those were also considered, as well as treatises, newspaper reports and other available documentary records of the day that could shed some light on what transpired.

...Written statements were recorded by the public defender as and when people visited our offices. Written statements were also recorded at the Pitfour Nyahbinghi Centre, which is located in the parish of St James.

The public defender is much obliged to the Rastafari Coral Gardens Committee for its assistance with co-ordination and logistics that enabled those external visits to occur, as it is appreciated that many of the victims of the Coral Gardens incident are elderly and reside in rural areas and would not have been able to conveniently attend at the public defender’s office to give their testimonies.

…The investigation and this report (also) draw upon written statements as well as audiovisual recordings that were submitted. Some of the individuals who were recorded on camera by others have since died but their testimonies, nevertheless, have been invaluable in compiling this report and informing the recommendations made at the end of this report.

Numerous victims of alleged atrocities have died since the events of 1963. Though efforts were made to contact some next of kin, that task proved formidable and in the main futile...For these reasons, it is to be appreciated that the relatively few statements collected, in comparison with the Tivoli Gardens investigation, for example, may not reflect the extent of the breadth and depth of the trauma reportedly suffered by members of the Rastafarian community.

The report also relies substantially on contemporaneous reports, stories and articles printed in the
Daily Gleaner, select books,
Hansard Reports and the few records received from relevant public authorities.

Letters were written and telephone calls made to all of the courts, police stations and prisons that were mentioned in statements collected, in an attempt to obtain any available records that would assist the investigation, but often to no avail.

The Montego Bay Resident Magistrate’s Court does not have any records preceding 1967, due to flooding and fire that destroyed part of the records room. Records were found at the Trelawny Resident Magistrate’s Court for two men, Prince Albert Williams and Enos Aldeen (the effect of these will be discussed later in this report).

...E-mail correspondence was received from Mr Keeble McFarlane, former journalist with the
Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) who had covered the breaking story in Coral Gardens. He recalls arriving in Montego Bay and seeing several police Land Rovers with bodies therein. He recalls the subsequent rounding up of Rastafarians or anyone the authorities thought to be one, and the subjecting of them to varying degrees of harassment. However, he does not recall much more and did not retain any of his related work while at the JBC.

Radio Jamaican Limited, formerly named Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion (RJR) and the National Library were contacted requesting any audio-visual footage related to the incident that may have been recorded, but to no avail.

…This report, therefore, represents the culmination of an imperfect, but nevertheless very important process, as the public defender is confident that it will contribute in some way by shedding light on what occurred at Coral Gardens on April 11 and 12, 1963 and also help to repair the damage allegedly experienced by the Rastafarian community as a result of the occurrence, known by the Rastafarian community as the "Coral Gardens Massacre", "Coral Gardens Atrocities", or simply, "Bad Friday".

It must be appreciated that in an investigation of this nature, the impact that the passage of time can have, not only on the memory of those who volunteered assistance in the investigation but equally, on the prospect of any potential claim.

The issue of the passage of time offers an important reason for this report, in that, the collective consciousness of the nation has not faced this seminal event in its history. However, the public defender believes that the country must confront not just the State’s treatment of a specific community, but also how the majority of the community treated with a minority of its members who did not share the beliefs of the majority. A maturing democracy demands this process of discovery on this issue, as a small measure to ensure that there are no repeats or attempts to effect same in the future.

The emergence of Rastafari: pioneers and repression

Rastafari emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s out of the social, political, economic and religious conditions of colonial Jamaica and the world, which led some to reject the colonial, racial, Eurocentric overlordship of Britain and to positively identify with the Ethiopian monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie I as the King of Kings, the Returned Messiah. Rastafarian pioneers emerged following the coronation of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I as Emperor of Ethiopia on November 2, 1930.

Pioneers included Leonard Percival Howell, who is today recognised as the first Rastafarian. He suffered severe and targeted abuse and persecution by the colonial authorities in Jamaica during the 1930s and 40s. His organisational activities, including public speeches, which combined anti-colonial critique with Rastafarian evangelism, were closely monitored by the Jamaican and British governments.

Other Rastafarian pioneers who spread Rastafari beliefs in the streets of Jamaica in the 1930s were Joseph Hibbert, Archibald Dunkley and Robert Hinds.

Rastafarian efforts at self-determination were repeatedly thwarted by the State. Leonard Howell’s Rastafari commune at Pinnacle at St Jago Hills close to Sligoville in St Catherine was repeatedly raided by police. Howell, on more than one occasion, was prosecuted for treason and sedition, and imprisoned or institutionalised at the Bellevue Mental Hospital as a result. In 1954 Pinnacle was burnt to the ground.

The persecution of the early Rastafarian preachers/leaders by the State is manifested in most of the literature including the governmental communications about them. There were attempts to suppress the individual and collective expressions of Rastafari, including their combination of anti-colonial critique and Ethio-African-inspired spiritual evangelism.

Other interdependent Rastafari communities and camps were established during the 1940s. These included communities in St Catherine, Clarendon, St James, St Thomas, Kingston and St Andrew.

During the 1940s Rastafari camps were established across Kingston and St Andrew at Warieka Hills, Windward Road, Mountain View, Maxfield Avenue, Waterhouse, Jones Town, Back-o-Wall, Foreshore Road, Greenwich Farm, Ackee Walk and Tower Street. In St James, camps were established at Montego Bay, Glendevon and Granville. Other Rastafari camps were established all over the island, nine even after the final invasion and dispersion of Rastafari at Pinnacle by the police in 1954.

The late Professor Barry Chevannes, in Rastafari:
Roots and Ideology opined that there is no doubt that historically there has been extremely strong prejudice and discrimination against Rastafari in Jamaica, by the State and by many within the Jamaican society.

From as early as 1933 when Leonard Howell started preaching in St Thomas his activities were reported in the
Daily Gleaner and under scrutiny of the colonial Government of Jamaica. Indeed, it has been said that "[the] political threat posed by Rastafari agitation was fully recognised by the colonial regime as early as 1933-34. This was confirmed by its attempt to repress the movement’s leadership by arresting Leonard Howell and his lieutenant, Robert Hinds."

For preaching against the British monarchy and pledging open allegiance to the Ethiopian Emperor, Howell and Hinds were arrested and charged in January 1934 in St Thomas for sedition. The trial of those early Rastafari preachers was heavily reported in the
Daily Gleaner and followed by the general populace, as Jamaicans became exposed to public anti-Rastafari sentiment. The Rastafari doctrine and community were on trial and under scrunity.

It was reported that there was "a great deal of amusement afforded by the fanatical utterances" of Howell and Hinds in court. For expressing his spiritual beliefs and revering HIM Emperor Haile Selassie as the Messiah, Howell and Hinds were convicted and sentenced in March 1934 to two years and one year imprisonment, respectively. The conviction and sentence seem not to have been adequate punishment. The police under the leadership of Inspector Walters attended at Howell’s camp in St Thomas and smashed it. Between 1934 and 1935 other early Rastafari leaders were also targeted and prosecuted, including Archibald Dunkley in 1934 and 1935 and Joseph Hibbert in 1935.

Daily Gleaner subsequently reported in 1935 that the activities of the Rastafari had been successfully suppressed in St Thomas and that the Rastafari had been prohibited from holding public meetings.1 Not only was that not true, but the movement had spread to other areas.

Tomorrow: Rastafari growth angers middle, upper classes.

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