A Prime Minister apologises for persecution of Rastafarians—the start of a new conversation?

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By Dr David Hinds

IN Guyana, we have become so wrapped up in our local politics that we seem to forget that we are part of a larger world that has a tremendous impact on our internal political and economic motions.
We are part of a Caribbean family which shares a lot of our agony and frustrations and from whom we can learn a lot. But, even in this age of instant information- sharing, most Guyanese are oblivious to what happens just next door to us. There must be something wrong and counter-productive about such an existence.
The Prime Minister of Jamaica recently issued an apology to the Rastafarian community for the action of the Jamaican State against Rastafarians in 1963. This is a significant development for Rastafarians throughout the Caribbean and for many older Jamaicans. But it should also be important for all Caribbean citizens regardless of nationality or cultural-religious persuasion, for it has to do with the praxis of the State in the Caribbean, particularly as it relates to the use of violence against citizens.
The incident for which the Prime Minister of Jamaica apologised occurred in 1963 as part of a larger systematic persecution of the Rastafarian community of that time. Founded in the early 1930s, the early Rastafarians were inspired by the prophecy of Marcus Garvey, who predicted the rise of a Black King.
So, when Ethiopian emperor Ras Tafari (Emperor Haile Selassie) was coronated in 1930, many Jamaicans, led by Leonard Howell, saw that event as a fulfilment of Garvey’s prophecy and organised themselves as a cultural movement aimed at reclaiming their African identity as part of their lived reality.

This founding of the Rastafarian movement excited the anger of the colonial rulers, as was the case with any act of Black resistance in colonial Jamaica and the Caribbean. Leonard Howell was arrested, charged and eventually sentenced for the crime of “insanity.” He and his followers were deemed to be mad men and women for daring to proclaim their Africaness. What followed was the constant harassment and criminalisation of Rastafarians.
After a vicious assault on Rastas in the wake of the arrest and conviction of another Rasta leader, Claudius Henry, in the late 1950s, some members wrote the Vice-Chancellor of the University of West Indies seeking help. This led to the appointment of a team of UWI scholars, led by Professor Rex Nettleford, to study the Rastas. Their report concluded that the Rastafarians were not a violent sect of mad people as was being projected by the Jamaican authorities and believed by many Jamaicans. The report also inspired a delegation of Rastas to travel to Africa where they met with several African leaders, including Emperor Haile Selassie.

While the UWI report helped to calm things a bit, the persecution of the Rastas continued. In April 1963, a dispute over a plot of land led to the burning of a gas station, allegedly by a group of “bearded men.” This incident, which has come to be known as the Coral Gardens Affair, was blamed on Rastas and the government launched a reign of terror on adherents of the movement. The “Bring Rastas in dead or Alive” police action resulted in eight Rastas being killed and hundreds more arrested and physically violated by State forces. It was perhaps the most brutal operation carried out by the post-colonial Jamaican State and has remained etched in the memories of many Rastafarians.
Now, more than five decades later, a Jamaican PM has apologised and has recommended reparations to affected families and to the Rastafarian community. The PM’s action followed the recommendations of a public defender, who was appointed to investigate the incident. The PM proposes to do the following:
1.The public defender will be asked to continue the work her office started in finding survivors and gathering important information on them and their families. She will be collaborating with the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society and the member of parliament for the area to make that possible.
2. A trust fund of no less than J$10 million is to be made available to them and their families.
3. Six lots at Pinnacle will become designated protected heritage sites, which will also include a Rastafari Village.
The Jamaican Prime Minister’s apology is significant, because it is the first time that a head of government has publicly admitted that the use of State violence was unjustified and has sought to offer reparations to the victims. And this occurs in a Region where the State has been especially brutal—from the assault on native populations and the period of slavery to colonialism and the post-colonial era, governments have used State violence in the most extreme manner. Here in Guyana, we know that story very well.
The Prime Minister must be lauded for taking this bold action and for listening to the representations made by the Rastafarian community. The significance lies in the fact that it is hypocritical for Jamaica to celebrate Rastafarianism as a significant Jamaican gift to the world, while ignoring State persecution of Rastas which continued into the 1970s. Further, it is equally hypocritical to press for reparations for European State violence, while ignoring the use of State violence by indigenous governments.
Today many Caribbean people, especially the youth, adhere to the teachings of Rastafarianism and have adopted the dreadlocks and other Rastafarian symbols. Caribbean popular music, particularly reggae, is inseparable from Rastafarianism. Yet many of us are unaware of the rocky road travelled by Rastas, of the persecution they endured so that we could be free to express our cultural selves.

The Jamaican PM’s apology may have opened a new conversation in our Caribbean—should governments apologise for brutal State actions on our populations? In Guyana, we have had calls from one side of the political and ethnic divide for apologies for State violence. Understandably, such calls have encountered stout resistance from the other side. The truth of the matter is that both of our post-colonial governments have been guilty of State violence. Hence, any apology should be jointly issued. Has Jamaican PM Andrew Holness set a standard that other Caribbean leaders will follow? I have my doubts, but we shall see.
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to dhinds6106@aol.com